Strings theory with Ottawa’s Adam Cicchillitti

Adam Cicchillitti's album Focus with duo partner Steve Cowan made a best of 2019 list.

Ottawa-based guitarist, PhD candidate at McGill University and teacher Adam Cicchillitti‘s duo album with his pal Steve Cowan has made the top 20 list for 2019 as put out by the CBC’s Robert Rowat. ARTSFILE wanted to find out more about the record and about Cicchillitti so we sent him some questions. 

Q. Please tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I’m originally from Montreal but I currently live and teach in Ottawa. I began a doctorate in music performance at McGill in 2017, so I commute to Montreal every week for courses and to teach students at the school. I have an active career as a soloist, but my true passion as an artist involves collaboration with other musicians. My research at McGill focuses on collaboration with voice. I tour and record actively with friend and ensemble partner Steve Cowan, I am a member of the guitar orchestra Forestare and I recently began working with flutist Lara Deutsch. As guitarists, we spend an incredible amount of time developing our musical voice alone, so it’s very exciting to be at a point in my career where I can engage in artistic endeavours with like-minded people on a regular basis.

Q. Why music? Why guitar?

A. Music has always had a large presence in my life. There was always music playing in our house or in the car while I was growing up. I still have early memories of sitting in front of a CD-player and playing the entire soundtrack to Rent, singing along with the booklet open. I could still sing most of the male lead parts from memory to this day. My earliest musical exposure revolved around rock, pop and Broadway music because of my mom. She would sing while accompanying herself on the guitar and that obviously had a lasting impression on me.

She taught me how to play my first chords at the instrument, but I quickly surpassed her technical ability and begged for lessons. Though I originally intended to learn electric guitar, my mother played a nylon-string instrument and that is what I brought to my first lesson. Luckily, my teacher was trained as a classical pianist and through him I uncovered the world of the classical guitar. I was drawn to the mainstream appeal of the electric guitar but ultimately it was the classical guitar that brought me to classical music.

Q. Do you focus on a particular style or are you eclectic?

A. My repertoire changes frequently depending on the projects or contracts that I am working on. The last several months are a great example of that. In August I premiered nine works for two guitars and electronics with Steve Cowan. We commissioned those pieces from American composer-collective ICEBERG with the help of Canadian guitarist-composer Amy Brandon and the 21st-Century Guitar Conference. In September and October I toured with Forestare, performing an entire set of Baroque masterpieces, from a Bach Brandenburg Concerto to the Vivaldi Folia VariationsIn September I recorded an album (Focus) of brand new Canadian works that I commissioned with Steve Cowan through the Analekta label. I am currently building a program of world music with Lara Deutsch and preparing for several classical solo concerto competitions. There is definitely no particular focus to my artistic endeavours other than the fact that I use the guitar as a means of expression. 

Q. Whose your favourite rock guitar god — if you have one? And whose you favourite classical guitar god?

A. It will sound cliché, but I really loved Jimi Hendrix growing up. He had such a unique sound and incredible sense of rhythm. I think my favourite classical guitarists are Matteo Mela and Rovshan Mamedkuliev. Matteo is basically just what a perfect guitarist sounds like and he’s beautiful to watch, while Rovshan offers a more visceral side to the guitar and is probably the most powerful player in the world.   

Q. Let’s focus on the album Focus made with Steve Cowan. Tell me about the genesis of this project?

A. Steve and I had been playing together for years, but it was our tour with Debut Atlantic in 2018 that enabled us to build a concert program together. We were less interested in what already existed in the classical guitar duo repertoire, so we decided to seek out our own pieces and build our program from there. Eventually, we amassed enough commissions to release an album of exclusively Canadian music.

Q. Please tell me what’s on it?  

A. In 2017, we commissioned the great Québecois guitarist-composer Patrick Roux for our first piece as a duo. The resulting work Ombres et lumières appears on Focus and we’ve been opening our concerts with that piece all year. In 2015 Steve and I had approached composer Harry Stafylakis to write a piece for our duo, but it wasn’t until the beginning of 2019 that the work was completed.

It is the title track of our album – Focus – and is very representative of what we wanted to accomplish with this project in that it successfully fuses two of our favourite genres, namely classical and metal.

José Evangelista’s work Retazos was sitting on a shelf at the Canadian Music Centre archives before Steve discovered it. It was originally written for solo guitar, but is literally unplayable on one guitar. I arranged it with my teacher Jérôme Ducharme in 2017/2018 and premiered it with Steve at my first doctoral recital, which was co-presented by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec. They had dedicated their hommage series to Evangelista that year. Jason Noble is a great friend that arranged his work River and Cave for us a few years back. It was originally written for two harps and is by far the most avant-garde piece on our album (also the most difficult thing I’ve ever played). Finally, Albertan composer Andrew Staniland wrote his Choro for guitarists Fabio Zanon and Grisha Goryachev in 2015, and we just had to play it. 

Q. Was it interesting, complicated or smooth as silk working with Steve?

A. It was the easiest process ever. Steve and I are great friends and he is a pleasure to work with.

Q. How does it feel to get on a best of 2019 list?

A. We were extremely honoured to be included on the CBC list this year, especially considering the roster of incredible artists that also made the list. I was very humbled to receive the news. Focus can be purchased on your preferred digital platform (iTunes, Google Music, Amazon, etc). For people that still buy CDs, the album can be bought at Archambault or directly from us, just send us a message through Facebook or our websites.

Q. You have a solo disc called Canciones on your site now. Tell me about it and how people can get a copy?

A. Canciones was my first album, released with Analekta in 2018. It is a more traditional album of Spanish music, focusing specifically on composers that helped break class associations with the guitar and bring the instrument into the great concert halls of the world. It includes works by Albéniz, Torroba, Turina, Falla, Federico Garcia Lorca and Rodrigo. You can purchase the album the same way as I mentioned above.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. 2020 will be my busiest year yet. I’ll be touring the Prairies and the Yukon with Prairie Debut, travelling to British Columbia with Steve Cowan and returning to Europe for the first time in more than a decade. Several more albums are in the works, some focused on more traditional classical repertoire while others will be quite avant-garde. I’m preparing for a bunch of competitions this year in addition to beginning the final steps of my doctoral degree. There are also lots of secret projects in the works.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.