by Daphne Backman | Photos courtesy of Hugo Chouinard
Pierre-Hugues “Hugo” Chouinard is the man behind the musical arrangements of many of the world’s top competitors. He also prepares music for Skate Canada’s national and international events, as well as the Thank You Canada Tour, Stars on Ice and All that Skate. Chouinard sat down with IDC to share an in-depth look at his career on and off the ice. In addition to the article below, he shared with us a Youtube playlist of some of his ice dance projects.
Tell us about your journey from a competitive skater to music maestro.
My first contact with the ice was at age 5, and quickly my path was oriented towards ice dance. My partner Elizabeth [Hollett Shackett] and I climbed the ladder until the 1993 World Junior Championships in Seoul, Korea where we finished 4th. It was a particularly effervescent era for Canadian ice dance, training every day with inspiring athletes like Shae-Lynn [Bourne], Victor [Kraatz], Marie-France [Dubreuil], Patrice [Lauzon] and so many more. I retired from the competition at the end of the 1995 season when my partner and I had reached our goal of being members of the senior national team, and it was time to move on to new adventures.
How long have you been creating music?
As a child, I always had an interest in music and mixing consoles, so early on I started making my own skating mixes. My coaches at the time were Josée Picard, Eric Gillies and Julie Marcotte. One morning after training, they said they were impressed with my creations and they wanted me to do the mixes for their athletes.
Who was the first person that you created/developed the music arrangement for?
I started with a multitrack tape recorder and Bruno Marcotte was my first client. I still remember that he wanted to skate to the Havana movie soundtrack. Remember that neither emails nor the internet were part of our lives in 1993, so everything was done by phone or the skaters came to my parents’ house because I was still a teenager. There was no social media. Word of mouth was the only way to let people discover my young project, but quickly the demand exceeded my resources. A year later I acquired one of the first computer multi-channel studio recording, editing and mastering systems. I was ready to face new challenges.
When you retired from skating, did you immediately move forward with creating music arrangements full-time?
At that time, the studio was growing, but it was still a sideline. For four years, I completed a university degree in industrial design where I learned a lot about entrepreneurship, art, marketing and creation. It was one of my teachers who opened my eyes saying that the day I could gather all my passions to make it a job, that I would never work again. I understood that skating, music and creation would be my dream job.
For almost 10 years, I worked with customers in the Montreal area. I did editing experiments and sound tests in the arenas to refine the texture. I spent my weekends at music stores to discover new artists, because I had given myself the mission of expanding the musical landscape in the skating world by helping athletes and coaches to find inspiring gems.
Tell us about one cooperation that particularly impacted your journey.
In 2003, I started collaborating with David Wilson, who thought me a lot about his vision of the movement in relation to music and his way of telling a story on the ice. He trusted me to create programs for Jeffrey Buttle, Joannie Rochette, Marie-France and Patrice, Yuna Kim. He opened the door to me on the international scene and I was ready and motivated to bring a wind of change. This was the turning point and the beginning of many exciting collaborations with passionate people from around the world.
How does your experience as an ice dancer help you when creating/developing music for today’s competitors?
My 16 years on the ice allowed me to easily understand the needs of my clients, because to tell the truth, when I hear music, I invent choreographies in my head. Each project is a new challenge and my goal is to understand the concepts that athletes or choreographers want to create and bring them to life. Again, this season I collaborate with new people from whom I learn about their perception of music, because it’s a very personal feeling.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Any music that makes me imagine someone skating! It’s very clear in my mind if a piece of music has the potential to support a skating performance. Frequently, I hear a piece and I see who would be good performing to it. Not long ago, it was frustrating to be in a restaurant and hear a beautiful song, because apart from asking the server to check what is the title in his playlist, the chances of finding it was limited. Now with Shazam, anywhere becomes a continuous source of inspiration, especially when traveling while your mind is wide open. Watching other artistic sports is a great way to put things in perspective to bring new influences to the world of figure skating. Shows, movies, radio, the shopping mall, I always keep my ears ready to discover a new masterpiece, even in an elevator – you never know!
How important do you think the music choice and arrangement is when it comes to a team’s overall performance/package?
The choice of concept and music is crucial for both the athlete and the spectator. You cannot convey the emotion of music that you do not feel deeply from the inside. You could not imagine going to a musical where the performer would be cold and emotionless. Skating is an extremely technical sport, but it is also a show that must reach an audience. You have to tell and perform your story.
Describe the process of designing/creating music for an ice dance team?
The dancers are very involved in the whole creative process and each team has its own way of working. Some do all their musical research and preliminary editing, others ask me for help to find music and advice to develop their concept and structure. Very often we collaborate with my partner, Karl Hugo, to compose additions or complete program sections.
Once the choice of concept is made, the structure of the assembly is decisive. The order of the musical parts, the sections you keep and the more complex, the transitions, will make the whole music product be memorable or not. The musical montage is the backdrop of the whole season, the reflection of the personality of the athlete. We put a lot of emphasis on the costumes, but even with the best coat, if the emotion is not at the rendezvous, the whole season will be tasteless.
Ice dancing pays particular attention to the preparation of musical montages. The history of the program is the thread and no second is neglected. The order and duration of the elements, the tempo, the intensity and the orchestration, everything is carefully thought out.
In ice dance, the season usually starts very early and sometimes World Championships competitors have prepared their music for the next season even before they leave for Worlds.
How did your partnership with composer Karl Hugo come to fruition?
It’s funny because Karl started composing from computer systems in the early 1990’s and that’s when we met because I made him compose my free dance. Karl is a multi-instrumentalist who can write and play scores for an impressive variety of instruments and styles. He began playing on the piano as a child, creating his first concerto when he was barely a teenager.
He already loved figure skating at the time and has developed an expertise to create arrangements that inspire movement on the ice. Like me, Karl has boundless patience to adjust details until athletes, choreographers and coaches are fully satisfied. It’s like costume adjustments, our job is to make the music comfortable, aesthetic and structured according to the needs of the skaters to maximize the score. Through the years, we’ve developed and refined our own recipe to create unique and personalized programs. I’m always amazed by his work, professionalism and how he pushes the limits year after year.
On average, how many times is music revised over the season?
For athletes on the international scene, especially in dance, it is very common for music to be adjusted between each Grand Prix and until the end of the season. If you pay attention, you will be able to notice the nuances on certain montages from one competition to another. So far, the record version on a free dance is the 54th, but I will not tell you for whom LOL!
Tell us about your work with synchronized skating.
I am obviously very attached to the world of the dance, but synchro skating is also a discipline for which I have a particular love because I coached junior and senior teams for four years. It’s a completely different way to create but in the end, I try to cross all my experiences, even from artistic swimming, so I can bring new trends and make benefit all the 5 disciplines.
While our readers may know you more for your work with the skaters on their program music, tell us about your work outside the competitive arena.
Although it still involves the ice, I design the background music playlist for national events and ISU competitions when they come to Canada. I also DJ the playlists during the events. It’s a thoughtful process and I make my selections according to each disciplines and live crowd energy. I will be in Montreal, which will be my third Worlds.
I also travel just to go cheer for my clients and to listen to the final result, so I can hear what can be improved. I was in Shanghai and Saitama.
What advice would you give to athletes who are trying to develop their own style with their music choices?
Even though a new wave has started and I find it really exciting, I still feel resistance to daring concepts that would be outside the box. My best advice is to listen to your feelings and express yourself. Skate to music that fills your soul. If you have an original idea, push it without fear because skating is also entertainment and it can only benefit the popularity of our adored sport. Your musical montage is the backdrop of your performances, it is the reflection of who you are. Dare and be proud!
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?
When I look back, I feel very lucky of the journey accomplished. People do not realize the scale, even I can’t imagine all the collaborations, but I have more than 46,000 programs created since the beginning of this adventure. Teamwork and passion is my source of creative energy. Loyalty and trust motivate me to always surpass myself for the athletes. I’ve been on the ice; I know how it feels when the music is lifting you. Cheers to my clients from around the world, because we are designing this wonderful skating soundscape together. Thanks for always inspiring me.
To learn even more about Hugo Chouinard, visit his website at www.sk8mix.pro.