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‘Everything in my life is music’

Willi Zwozdesky wins the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award

THE COURAGE TO CONDUCT: 'I had some colleagues in town who thought I was committing professional suicide by taking this on,' says Willi Zwozdesky. Credit: Jonathan Lee

The sheet music sits open on Willi Zwozdesky’s piano, its notes pencilled in over faded patches of staff paper worn away from repeated erasing.

Zwozdesky has written and rewritten many tunes on this piano. He has modified them, played with them and harmonized them to create breathtaking arrangements for the Vancouver Men’s Chorus (VMC). The creativity that demands this constant act of determination burns as brightly today as it did 25 years ago when he arranged his first song for the VMC.

“Music is part of being human,” Zwozdesky says. “There’s no escaping that. It’s a powerful force and it can be very moving.”

Music lives within him and is reflected in the piles of sheet music that cover every surface of his West End apartment.

The only part of his home that is not covered with music is his mantle decorated with Easter eggs and photos of his younger self dressed in traditional Ukrainian embroidery. The photos capture a man at various ages with bright eyes, black hair and an exuberant smile. The years have been kind to him.

Now 50 years old, Zwozdesky’s bright eyes are tinged with wisdom and experience. His smile is as warm as ever and his voice has a musical timbre.

In receiving this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Zwozdesky is being recognized for his quarter century of service as the conductor of the VMC, the first gay men’s chorus in Canada.

When the original conductor inexplicably failed to show up for rehearsals, Zwozdesky stepped up to lead the group to their first concert in December 1981, and has been conducting and arranging music for the VMC ever since.

“The climate back then was quite a bit more conservative,” he recalls. “I had some colleagues in town who thought I was committing professional suicide by taking this on. I remember people pounding on the doors of the West End Community Centre yelling ‘faggot’ during rehearsals.”

It was a lot for Zwozdesky to deal with. He was only 25 years old at the time and had just earned his masters degree in music theory from the University of Washington.

Still, he managed to persevere through the repressive atmosphere of the early 1980s that kept so many people silent.

“To me it didn’t seem like an impossible thing,” he says. “In fact I actually thought that gay men’s choruses were kind of inevitable because of the general artistic inclination of gay men.”

Gay men’s choruses were popping up in the United States but at the time there were no such organizations in Canada. “Absolutely everything we did was a first. Because we were the first Canadian gay men’s chorus, it didn’t matter what we did. It was the first step.”

Their first concert was a Christmas concert and filled the house at the West End Community Centre. “We didn’t know if Christmas was going to fly because it’s not the happiest time of year for a lot of gay people,” says Zwozdesky. “But the majority of the guys seemed to be okay with it.”

A choral holiday concert may seem like standard fare today but back in the ’80s it was a daring move to take a conventionally Christian message and apply it to an emerging queer voice.

“There’s always some social action. There has to be, I mean that’s what we’re all about. Even if those messages are filed in some vaguely cloaked Christmas-ish thing.”

The concert was a success and attracted more members to the new group. The VMC became a place where gay men felt free to express themselves through their passion for music. Members found a comforting atmosphere where the act of singing tapped them into a spiritual rush that they couldn’t come down from.

Before AIDS had a name it was ravaging the bodies of many of the members; Zwozdesky believes the group helped add years to their lives. “They were there picking up the vibe and being supported by the atmosphere in the room. It’s a powerful force and it’s amplified by the number of people around you.”

Even today the VMC rehearsals are full of enthusiastic men of all ages who are giddy from their contribution to the collective voice. Between sets, the room echoes with the roar of animated discussions and laughter as they commune like a family around the dinner table.

When Zwozdesky takes the podium to conduct, he addresses the group like a father would. He cheers them when the songs sound good and, when the songs need more work, he pinpoints the weak spots and together they work it out.

The repertoire is mostly comprised of pop songs; from Gershwin to Dream Girls, Leonard Cohen to the Black Eyed Peas. As the artistic director, Zwozdesky has been instrumental in selecting songs for the chorus that uphold the VMC’s mission to promote community spirit and portray a positive image of the gay community.

“One of my personal filters is to make sure that what we sing is credible coming from a gay men’s chorus,” he says. “We look at the repertoire, the artists and what the messages are.”

The VMC’s songbook is filled with campy musical numbers and sentimental ballads; it also boasts a strong Canadian presence, with singers such as Sarah McLachlin and Alanis Morissette. “The gay choral scene was dominated by Americans and still is,” Zwozdesky notes. “As a Canadian men’s choir, we had to find a Canadian voice.”

Zwozdesky tailors each song to the VMC then publishes his arrangements through his own company, Rhythmic Trident Music Publishing, thereby potentially feeding the repertoire of other men’s choruses and expanding the queer voice.

Zwozdesky capped last year’s silver VMC anniversary with a demanding stint as artistic director for the Unison festival, which hosted 18 Canadian gay and lesbian choruses from Halifax to Nanaimo.

“I was the head of some of the artistic complexion of the thing, which included what we did together as a 500 people mass,” he explains. “We worked on the guiding decisions about the opening and closing concerts and a lot of repertoire stuff. It was really cool that I knew all of the people.”

His legacy has made him a staple in the Canadian choral scene. In addition to his duties with the VMC, Zwozdesky is also the executive director of the BC Choral Federation which promotes all choral activity throughout British Columbia.

From the uncertain beginnings of a 70-man chorus, Zwozdesky has watched the landscape of gay-positive music grow into a national phenomenon–and he shows no signs of slowing down. “The 25th anniversary season of the VMC has just passed and now we’re developing a program around intellectual freedom for the coming season,” he says. “It’s around the 25th anniversary of Little Sister’s and I think it’s a program that’s going to have implications for years to come.”

At the heart of his drive and accomplishments is the one thing that has stayed with him all his life–a world of melody and rhythm that comes from deep inside. “I’m a career musician and that will never change,” he says. “I will always be as I was before the VMC. Everything in my life is music and that’s what I do.”