Interview: Maxim and Gervais Cormier, “Cape Breton Guitar”

Maxim & Gervais Cormier - Cape Breton Guitar

The superb flatpicking skills of Maxim Cormier first came to our attention with his last album, a collection of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach.  Now, he has released a fabulous album of Cape Breton tunes with his father, multi-instrumentalist Gervais Cormier.  With this set of (mostly) fiddle tunes, Maxim’s guitar pick flies in perfect tandem with his father’s playing.

The idea of adapting fiddle tunes for other instruments is certainly not new – other similarly tuned instruments (e.g., mandolin) have been used with great success for playing these traditional pieces.  Here, the Cormiers demonstrate that the guitar is equally suited for the task.  Jigs, reels, and hornpipes are all here and delivered with a grace and panache that make for delightful listening; tunes from well-known Maritime musicians such as John Morris Rankin, Jerry Holland, and Dan Hughie MacEachern are also included.

Whether you are a traditional music fan or a devotee of well-played guitar, this album will delight you either way.  As I fall into both camps, I’ve particularly enjoyed listening to it (and I’m thrilled that now everyone else gets the chance too, as the album is officially released today!).  Highly recommended.

I’m so pleased that Maxim Cormier took time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about the album and about working with his father!

For those who perhaps aren’t as familiar with the different varieties of Maritime folk music, how would you describe Cape Breton’s style of music specifically?

Cape Breton’s musical traditions revolve around music from 18th and 19th century Scotland and have developed into a modern repertoire of tunes inspired by the tradition. Cape Breton is also home to Mi’kmaq and Acadian communities as well as people from various background that choose to live here. These Scottish music traditions have become adopted by the non-Scottish communities on the island. For instance, I’m a Métis/Acadien from Chéticamp and to me, this is the music of my home.

My perception (which may be wrong) is that most people who are familiar with Cape Breton’s musical tradition know it through fiddle music; what (if any) adaptations did you make for guitar in these pieces?

Absolutely, Cape Breton’s musical tradition revolves around fiddle playing. In fact, I do a fair bit of work as an accompanist for some of Cape Breton’s finest fiddlers – for instance, I’ll be part of Ashley MacIsaac’s upcoming Christmas Tour next month.

“Maxim and Gervais Cormier: Cape Breton Guitar” consists entirely of music I’ve always heard played by fiddlers. In cases of public domain tunes, I can’t guarantee that the composers were all fiddlers – some of these traditional tunes may have originally been pipe, harp, accordion, or flute music.

As far as adaptations, the guitar is lower sounding than a fiddle – so I’m playing all these tunes an octave lower than a fiddler would. Otherwise, the rhythmic accuracy in my playing becomes (in my opinion), more important than it would be if I was playing an instrument where I can control the decay rate (such as violin or wind instrument). With plucked strings, most of a note’s energy is in the attack. While still audible, the decay doesn’t have nearly as much energy or volume. I think our subconscious helps fill in the “blanks” so that we still perceive the decay of a note even when it’s being “buried” by the powerful attack of newly plucked notes. With this in mind, the initial attack of each note carries more weight and importance because it’s those attacks that set the tone for our ears and brains to perceive the rest of each note.

One of the things that especially intrigued me about your previous album (a collection of works by Bach) was your use of a flatpick on steel string, which is pretty unusual for classical guitar music.  Since I have the chance to ask you, how did you pick pieces for that project that suited your style of playing?  And why Bach, specifically?

Having grown up playing Cape Breton Fiddle tunes on guitar, playing with a flatpick always felt natural to me. When I started studying classical guitar at Dal, it was sort of expected that a classical guitar student would learn some Bach – I started with Prelude for Lute BWV999 on nylon strings with my fingers – but I quickly felt I was able be more expressive with a flatpick on steel strings. Luckily, my teacher, Scott MacMillan encouraged my interest in flatpicking classical music. I then thought of looking into flute works – it’s impossible to play more than one note at once on a flute, so any flute piece should be “flatpickable” – I worked on flute works by Bach, Debussy, Telemann, Hindemith. Partita in A Minor BWV1013 is JS Bach’s only solo flute work. As for the Ave Maria, I was looking through Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” book for any music that might work on guitar with a flatpick. I started reading the first prelude and realized “This works for guitar!” and “This is basically the piano part for the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria.”

As for “Why Bach?”, this is probably the hardest question I get because the only answer I can really think of is “Why Not?”. Bach lived until the mid 1700s and he’s one of the most recorded composers today! His music was profound enough to become the basis of music theory studies in universities and conservatories all around the world!

This album, of course, is a duo project with your father.  You’ve been playing together for some ten years – what prompted you to record together at this point?

Dad’s been involved in two of my earlier albums that are now out of print. We’ve been talking of making a full duo album of Cape Breton tunes since I returned from a 6 week tour of the UK with FEIS ROIS in 2014 and we’ve been working at making it a reality ever since. Funny thing is, in those three years, we’ve accumulated enough material for Cape Breton Guitar VOL2.

Aside from Cape Breton Guitar, we also have a completely separate repertoire of original Folk/Jazz music. This repertoire is very unique that draws influence from Gypsy Jazz and The Beatles but also from American Folk Music, Jazz and Bluegrass. We’re still in the planning stages of exactly how we want to produce and market this material – but it’s very exciting to us!

Many of the tunes on the album are traditional ones, but you also include tunes by musicians Jerry Holland and John Morris Rankin (who are sadly no longer with us).  How did you choose the tunes on this project – are they pieces that you’ve performed together previously or were some of them new to you?

The tune selection process for Cape Breton Guitar has been pretty organic. For the most part, these are tunes that I’ve heard being played by fiddlers at parties or in concerts. If I’m lucky, when I hear a tune I like, I’ll be able to find someone else in the venue who is able to identify the tune for me. Then I go home and do some research to find out who the composer is/was and more research to find sheet music or recordings so that I can learn the tune. Then I assess my repertoire to see if this new tune fits in with another group of tunes I already play – or in some cases, I’ll seek out a few more new (to me) tunes that would go well with the tune I just learned.

I think you have an album release event forthcoming; do you have additional plans to tour with your dad in support of the new album?

As mentioned above, I’ll be backing up Ashley MacIsaac for his upcoming Christmas Tour. MCP Music is planning a 2018 Cape Breton Guitar Tour, which will be announced very soon!

~ L

Visit Maxim Cormier’s website.

Listen to “Cape Breton Guitar” on Spotify.

Listen to “Cape Breton Guitar” on iTunes.

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