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16 May 2012

Creating Programs
by Vladislav Luchianov

Chouinard talks music

Canadian specialist believes figure skating is great musical school.
The name Hugo Chouinard is well known among skaters, coaches and choreographers. The focus of his work is an integral and important part of figure skating: the music. Musical design is not just a job for Chouinard; it is a real passion, one through which he has completely devoted himself to the sport of figure skating.A former ice dancing competitor for Canada, he founded the company Studio Unisons (aka Sk8Mix) in 1994. Chouinard began his business in a small room in his house and with simple musical equipment. Thanks to his dedication and perseverance, his company is now one of the leaders in its field, using all the latest musical design technologies.

This passion, combined with knowledge and constant self-development, have brought big results. His client list includes such well-known skaters as Yu-Na KimTessa Virtue and Scott MoirDaisuke TakahashiJeremy Abbott and many more.

No less impressive is the list of choreographers and coaches working with Hugo.

“From the search through the editing process, Hugo is a gifted professional, and his flair for artistry shines as an invaluable part of the creative process for my work,” choreographer David Wilson said.

“Hugo is brilliant! I’m most impressed with his passion for music and his creative mind,” coach and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne said. “He takes on every project with enthusiasm and turns the music he touches into a masterpiece.” talked with Chouinard about his work, his thoughts on this past season and his vision for the future of music in skating. You always try to come up with original and unique concepts to push the limits of figure skating. Were you able to do that during this past season?

Chouinard: Every skater builds his season and strategy on the originality of the concept, so it’s essential to make the right decision. The research process is always collaboration and brainstorming sessions between the choreographers, coaches, skaters and me. Each project is different and unique, but the most important factor is to find a concept to maximize the skater’s potential. There were many original creations last season…here are a few:

  • Kaitlin Weaver and Andrew Poje‘s free dance to “Je Suis Malade,” where, with my partner Karl-Hugo, we composed half of the structure.
  • Takahashi’s short program, with a very introspective ambiance created by overlapping selections from several Middle Eastern percussions cuts with mysterious world fusion melody.
  • Tessa and Scott’s Funny Face free dance, with the challenge of putting a movie story on ice.
  • Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran‘s free skate using the very unknown classical masterpiece “Concerto de Québec,” composed in 1943 by André Mathieu, who was known as the “little Quebecer Mozart” and whom Rachmaninoff called “a genius, more so than I am.” Which performances of your musical works were the most successful this season and why?

Chouinard: I follow with pleasure and attention all the performances during the season, and I love to see what competitors have created on my musical design. This is truly my greatest reward. I can’t comment on specific performances, as they all compete against each other and I respect everyone’s hard work. I also apply a firm policy of professional secrecy, which is fundamental, especially during the creation process.I can highlight a recent program that I have created for the Canadian Olympic synchro [swimming] team. In this very unique project, we first created a frame for drafting the choreography and then, after producing over 30 versions, adding and adjusting hundreds of sound effects to match every move of the structure and highlights. Our correspondent, Sarah S. Brannen, recently talked with several skaters about musical theme. Most of them said that they constantly listen to music and think about using their most-liked pieces in their future programs. How do you combine preferences of skaters with the coach’s point of view and the choreographer’s vision, if they are different?

Chouinard: It must always be based on a fun and respectful relationship, where each idea is welcome, thus reaching the ultimate decision. In general, there is a discussion between the skater, the coach and the choreographer about the direction to take. The most important factor in building great performances is the close involvement of the skater in the selection process. When you perform, you must feel the music in your soul. It’s impossible for the skaters to let the music come out if it doesn’t come in.If they haven’t found the right music tracks to fit their concept, they contact me for suggestions, and sometimes the first idea totally changes along the search process. If there are divergent points of view between the skater and coaching team about the selection or structure, I start some editing experimentation to really demonstrate how it will sound, so everyone can hear and make the right decision. Even if some ideas could seem strange or totally impossible, once mixed, we generally have great surprises. At the international level, experimentation is crucial to come up with unique concepts. I love to be involved in the brainstorming process, as I constantly learn from others’ visions. There is no one truth, as the possibilities are infinite. You can only relate on your feelings. The ISU made the decision to allow hip-hop music in junior ice dancing. Some experts think that music must educate and not just entertain. This is especially true of young athletes, whose world view is just beginning to emerge. What is your opinion on this issue? Is it possible to be liberal and conservative at the same time?

Chouinard: Figure skating is a great musical school for the athletes. They listen and learn about a wide variety of musical styles they would never hear on the radio. I think the coach has an important responsibility in the skater development by creating opportunities to experiment body expression with different styles, especially when they are younger.I particularly like instrumental music as it gives a universal dimension to a performance which creates a symbiosis of sound and movement. I support the ISU in its trial to experiment with new ideas to promote our sport and to encourage skaters to exploit more audacious styles. Hip hop is much more than the cliché of urban music containing explicit lyrics, and I’m sure skaters will make judicious choices to select suitable tracks for skating. Some hip-hop artists are true poets, and this genre has developed exponentially since the 1970s. As the ISU offers the choice to use it or not, I’m very much looking forward to see how popular it will be this season and how it will be transposed into movement on the ice. You use a very unique approach with each skater, even if the work on the music takes additional time. Because of that, can you work just as well with classical and instrumental music as you can with pop or rock pieces?

Chouinard: I have listened to all kinds of music since I was young…blame my parents for that! I adapt my working method and select the tools to fit the music style. When I remix pop or techno music, I use the most recent electro effects and processors to enhance the transitions. For classical, it’s much more subtle, and every additional effect must come from real orchestra samples. My work is well done if you can’t hear it! It seems like if I came to Studio Unisons, there will be a kilometer-long queue, as you have many clients among skaters. With such a huge amount of creative work, how do you manage your time without losing its quality?

Chouinard: Quality in every detail is my leitmotif, and it’s not just with the music. Service, website, CD design — each aspect is important. I don’t allow myself to work with low-quality files, and I find it very sad that people are using music downloaded directly from YouTube. I will say it one more time: Music from YouTube doesn’t have an acceptable resolution for skating use.I could not and would never deliver a program I’m not proud of. It’s against my nature. I’d rather take one extra day to make it perfect…

Sometimes people ask me, “Why don’t you hire someone else to edit music with you?” My reply is, “Would a choreographer hire someone else to make his creations?” It’s much more than just cutting a song to a specific duration; it’s about designing a canvas from where the story will take place in a way the musical transitions will not interfere with the overall flow. Last year you were at Yu-Na Kim’s “All That Skate” ice show in Seoul, Korea. Have you continued to work with Yu-Na?

Chouinard: Absolutely. In collaboration with David Wilson and “All That Skate,” we elaborate the concepts and prepare the show soundtracks. “ATS Spring 2012” just ended, and once again was a major success. It’s always very stimulating to work for them, as the energy put in the production refinement is huge, and you must see how Korean graphic artists literally choreograph their visual animation to match the soundtrack. In your opinion, which direction do you see the music in figure skating likely going and what will its role be?

Chouinard: The IJS has totally changed the way I work. The use of music phrases and subtleties has become a crucial factor in choreography evaluation by the judges. The interpretation of nuances and sensibility is now well rewarded, and this has forced skaters to maximize their relation with the music. Each second of a program is used and planned with the goal of winning in mind, and obviously the musical structure must be adapted to fit the movements perfectly. Skating is really becoming a full five-dimensional experience, with the IJS’s emphasis on 3-D spatial movement, which is increased by the use of multiple body levels, in conjunction with the music variations, speed and glide.

Now, with the infinite online resources, everyone has the possibility to browse and discover new music streams, and this is already reflected on the ice. Athletes are experimenting with new styles and daring to push the limits above the traditional boundaries, especially in the men’s and pairs events. The door is wide open in dance, and they use it very well. The ladies are still a little shy, but with concepts like Yu-Na’s “Bond” girl or Alena Leonova‘s Pirates of the Caribbean, this might push the skaters to take risks with surprising and less conservative programs. I truly love classical music, and it will always be a fantastic vehicle for choreography, but we also need to push the limits over and over.

I love our sport, as it’s a source of unlimited creation which will forever entertain the fans with amazing surprises.