Is there a better way to express the diversity of America than to have more than 120 musicians perform a song celebrating food? Portland-based composer Sydney Guillaume can’t think of a juicier metaphor for our country than our own cultural smorgasbord.
Which is why Guillaume, 40, in collaboration with lyricist and operatic baritone Lloyd Reshard Jr., has written “A Taste of Freedom,” a 10-minute orchestral and choral piece all about food. “A Taste of Freedom” will be performed in a world premiere this weekend at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox by the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony Chorale and the Eastern Washington University Symphonic Choir.
“I think of food as a metaphor for the melting pot that America is known as,” Guillaume said. “There is a line in the piece describing ‘you and me’ as ‘the flavor’ that reminds us of home … There is hope in sitting down to eat with others.”
“We cultivate our patience long;
The wisdom tilling makes.
Eat borscht or soup joumou joumou
While waiting for our fate.
All knead the dough of Liberty
To boil or bake & rise.
Whatever then we offer up;
America’s our prize.”
The Haitian-born Guillaume said he was sold on the lyrics as soon as he read Reshard’s line referring to the Haitian dish joumou joumou, a soup traditionally eaten to celebrate the country’s independence, won in 1804.
“That mention of joumou joumou was a line I used in the first choral piece I ever wrote, which Reshard sang when we were in school together,” Guillaume said.
Reshard and Guillaume, who graduated from the University of Miami in 2004, were in chorus together in college, where Guillaume was assigned by a professor to write his very first choral composition. After that piece was eventually embraced and sung by choruses all over the world, Guillaume began fielding enough choral commissions that he has made a living at it ever since. His music has been featured at numerous conferences and international festivals like the American Choral Directors Association, the World Choir Games, and Ireland’s Cork International Choral Festival.
Guillaume has written for renowned choirs such as the Grammy-award nominated Seraphic Fire, the Westminster Chorus, the University of Miami Frost Chorale, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, the Illinois Wesleyan University Collegiate Choir, the St. Louis Chamber Singers and the Miami Children’s Chorus. He also writes film music, having composed original film and documentary scores for the Los Angeles-based Loyola Productions.
Although his first love had been writing film scores, Guillaume soon realized that he could use his choral platform to elevate his homeland of Haiti.
For the past two decades, he has become a musical ambassador of sorts for Haitian culture, spreading a positive image of his home country, and exposing audiences to his Haitian creole language, known as kreyòl.
He writes majority of his works in kreyòl, often with lyrics provided by his poet father, Gabriel T. Guillaume. However, for the Spokane Symphony commission, Guillaume wrote “A Taste of Freedom” in English, a language he learned when he moved to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago.
“I’ve spent a lot of my career trying to share the Haitian culture through my music,” Guillaume said. “But this (“Made in America” theme) is a great opportunity to do something about my other home, America.”
Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, director of choral activities at EWU and former Spokane Symphony Chorale director, came up with the idea more than a year ago to commission a piece by the Oregon-based Haitian composer. Her original notion, that Guillaume embraced, was to have Guillaume set to music the text of poet Amanda Gorman’s inaugural speech for President Joe Biden.
“It turned out we couldn’t get the rights to Amanda Gorman’s speech, but (Guillaume) was still willing to come up with a piece to fit the concert’s theme ( “Made in America”),” Ploeger-Hekmatpanah said. “We talked about how a big identifier for people, regardless of culture, is food. We were laughing and talking about what kinds of food means what kinds of things to different people.”
“Our food tastes like freedom;
Our food tastes like peace;
Our food tastes like home;
Sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.”
My food tastes like joy;
My food fills you up.
Let the flavor, that is you and me,
Remind us this is home.
America, our home.
America, our home.”
With “A Taste of Freedom,” Guillaume also took on the task of writing music not just for the chorus, but also for the orchestra as a whole. He has written some pieces in the past for full orchestra, but his planned 2020 premiere in Haiti of a big orchestral piece was postponed due to the pandemic.
One of Guillaume’s priorities was to satisfy musicians craving meaty parts to sink their teeth into. “I know what it is like to be in the choir and singing the baritone line when it is so boring,” he laughed. “So I don’t just think about the audience when I write parts. I want to make sure every musician has something fun to play.”
Ploeger-Hekmatpanha said the rhythmic nature of his work is very appealing.
“When you are looking at collegiate or professional level of choral music, tons of it is just harmonically gooey, which we love, and everybody loves to swim in it,” she said. “But you’ve got to think about the audience and remember that they want to hear some rhythm, something they can tap their toes to.”