Music

Olympic champion Eric Radford's tips for selecting the perfect piece of music to skate to

The Battle of the Blades competitor discusses his love of music and his own work as a composer.

The Battle of the Blades competitor discusses his love of music and his own work as a composer

Hockey player Jennifer Botterill and figure skater Eric Radford, both Olympic medallists, are competing in the latest season of CBC's Battle of the Blades. (CBC)

Figure skating isn't just about the jumps and spins. In addition to perfecting the technical skills, a skater should also have a good sense of musicality. Selecting a great piece of music to skate to is integral to a skater's success. 

Former world and Olympic champion Eric Radford knows this better than anyone else. The Canadian pairs skater, who spent a decade competing alongside Meagan Duhamel, began skating and playing piano at the age of eight. As his figure-skating career started taking off, he continued to practise piano and maintain a close connection to his musical side by embracing the pieces to which he would skate. In 2013, he even got the chance to compose a piece to skate to, titled Tribute, written for his late coach, Paul Wirtz. 

Now retired from competition, Radford is bringing his arsenal of tricks to a new arena: CBC's Battle of the Blades. Returning for his second season, Radford is teaming up with hockey player and four-time Olympic medallist Jennifer Botterill to fight for $100,000, which will be donated to the charity of the winning team's choice. (Radford and Botterill are competing on behalf of the Canadian Cancer Society.)

Recently, Radford took time out of his busy schedule — "I think the actual amount of time that my feet are in skates is like, way more than it used to be when I was with Meagan," he explains — to talk to CBC Music about his love of music, how to choose the perfect piece to skate to, and why Adele's "Glory" will always hold a special place in his heart. 

Battle of the Blades airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. (9 AT, 9:30 NT) on CBC and CBC Gem.


Where does your love of music come from?

I don't really know! Even my parents are like, "Where did this musical talent come from?" The only person that ever played an instrument in my family was my grandma. She played the organ. But beyond that, I don't know anybody else in my family that plays an instrument. I have one theory: I share the same birthday as Mozart so maybe I somehow got some of my talent from him… I don't even know how to explain it! 

What goes into the music selection process for Battle of the Blades?

It's kind of a joint effort between me, Jennifer and our choreographer, Renée Roca. It starts off with the theme of the week so that's the starting point. And then we all kind of just pool ideas between the three of us. I think the first thing is that it needs to resonate with Jennifer, and then it needs to resonate with us as a team. And if it does that, then we know we're going to be able to create that emotional connection that is hopefully going to reach the audience.

Is that process similar to what you did with Meagan Duhamel when you were competing professionally?

It was pretty similar. We never had to choose a theme so we were free to choose whatever we wanted. But the most important thing was whether it resonated with both Meagan and I. It was always about trying to find a balance because, for instance our Muse program, when we sat down and listened to that for the first time, it was this rock 'n' roll song and I was like, "I cannot skate to this. This is not me at all." And then it turned out to be one of our best programs and we won our first world title with it, so I think it's important that we're all open. 

What are some things skaters should consider when looking for the perfect piece of music to skate to?

Definitely something that builds, something that has ebbs and flows. Usually, you want to have that big crescendo moment where you're going to do your big trick. So whether it's going to be a lift or a death spiral or a throw, you want to have those ups and downs, those crests and valleys to create tension and release. I think that's probably the most important because there's a lot of great songs on the radio, but if you pay attention, sometimes they stay kind of in the middle and they don't really get that big emotional crescendo. And when you're doing a performance, that's one of the most important aspects of the music.

That's why classical pieces often work so well for figure skating, right?

Yes, of course. First of all, there's just so much content in a piece. Like some pieces are 20 to 30 minutes long and I think classical composers understand that you have to bring the audience on a journey. They have the time to really write the piece and do that intricately, so classical music definitely lends itself to any sort of performance art.

Is there anything that a skater should avoid in a piece of music?

Too much repetition. If the music doesn't go anywhere for a long period of time, then you're going to lose interest yourself and definitely the audience will probably lose interest, too.

 

Not many skaters get to do this, but you composed your own piece of music to skate to in 2013. What was that experience like?

That had been a dream that I had for a long time, to skate to my own music one day. And it all just sort of happened organically. I had the idea in my head and I reached out to a composer in Montreal, and he helped me build the piece and get it recorded. Stepping out on the ice and being able to skate to something that's a part of me and be able to express myself was a very, very special experience and opportunity. And then getting to do that at my first Olympics was really a dream come true. It's something that I'll never forget and it's one of the highlights in my life.

It must've been quite the advantage to tailor a piece of music to your routine for once as opposed to the opposite. 

That was the funnest part. I composed a crescendo to go with a throw and then the big climax of the piece was going to happen during the footwork. I wanted to have a kind of reminiscing type of ending so I decided not to end it on a really big, bombastic part of the piece. I wanted to really bring it in and create a special, quiet, intimate moment between Meagan and I toward the end. I mean, how many skaters get to choose their music and shape it to that degree? I don't think it's happened very many times so that whole process was amazing. And it wasn't just me and my producer; I also worked with my choreographer, Julie Marcotte. So it was a team effort.

Your latest single, "Golden Hour," is a departure from classical music and more an exploration of dance and electronic sounds. Why did you choose to go in that direction?

One of my favourite composers right now is an artist named Ólafur Arnalds. He's an Icelandic artist and he writes mostly neoclassical music. But he also has a side project with a group called Kiasmos that's electronic music, but with his vibe. And I was just so attracted to that idea. During quarantine, when I had absolutely nothing to do, I just started to dabble in electronic music and "Golden Hour" was the first complete song that I wrote. There are certain aspects of both classical and electronic music that lend themselves so well to one another, and it was really fun to explore that. And I'm not done: I'm in the midst of working on a classical album and I have plans to do an electronic album as well. 

Why do you think classical and electronic music lend themselves to each other so well? 

I find that neoclassical music has a more simple structure than classical music and I find that neoclassical music kind of has more of a pop structure. And with repeating chord progressions, that's the base of electronic music. You know, you have your steady beat, you have your steady chord progressions, and everything is kind of moving and weaving all the other little details in and out of that skeleton that you've set. So I find that that structure works in neoclassical and it works in electronic, but they're totally different sounds. For me, what I find is the biggest connection is the overall emotion of my music that I can create really well in neoclassical fits really well into the electronic side as well. 

Finally, what have been some of your favourite pieces of music to skate to over the years?

I mean, of course "Glory" by Adele. I will always have a special place in my heart for that song because that was the soundtrack to our second world title and those two Olympic medals in Pyeongchang. Also "Un peu plus haut," which was our short program music when we won our first world title. [Canadian artist Ginette Reno's] voice is just so powerful. It really resonated like, in my chest, so that's a very special piece. And we actually got to perform live to Ginette singing it once — that was another highlight of my skating career. 

And the last one that I would have to mention would be La bohème. We skated to that when we won our first world medal, which was bronze in 2013, in London. We had an amazing skate to that when we were in London, and just the joie-de-vivre energy at the end of that program always brought it home for us, so there were some really incredible moments to that program as well. 

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