for solo vocalist, choir, audio tracks, multiple video projections, 3 televisions, and turntable [45′]
Commission: Western Front with funds from the Canada Council for the Arts Premiere: Laura Swankey with DB Boyko and the VOICE OVER mind Choir, February 8, 2018 at the Grand Luxe Hall, Western Front, Vancouver
Inside Us invites listeners into the acoustic poetry of the body’s interior. Vocal soundscape combines with diagnostic ultrasound recordings, giving voice to the rhythms of the circulatory and respiratory systems. Attentive listening dissolves notions of scale and place: from the constrained intensity of vessels leading to the brain to the cavernous resonance of blood as it washes from the liver back into the heart. Percolating through the immersive sounds of the installation, members of the VOICE OVER mind choir share moments of awareness of heartbeat or breath. Many of these recollections come from “the edges of life”.
Inside Us evolved during an artistic residency at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Research Institute. Through conversations with scientists and clinicians, I’ve begun to grasp the complexities and power of biomedical imaging. Riding my bicycle to and from the hospital, I started to see how physics and mathematics manifest in the everyday world around me. The video is a visual diary of parallel processes scavenged from my inner and outer journeys: fluid dynamics, breathing of trees, fluttering of moths, bubbles, drops and flows.
A custom-cut disc on the turntable features ultrasound Doppler recordings of arterial blood flow on Side A and venous flow on Side B and is the springboard for vocal improvisations by the soloist.
Ultrasound Doppler technology allows real-time imaging of blood flow at precise locations in the body. The audio output is not the sound of the heart beating, but rather the frequency shift as sound from a a transducer is directed towards the body, bounces off moving blood cells and then returns to the transducer. The resulting doppler shift conveys speed, pressure and direction. The development of this imaging method has gone hand in hand with advances in computing technology, allowing for higher resolution and greater precision. Meanwhile, bats, dolphins, porpoises and whales use bio-sonar to locate and catch their prey — their own bodies the site of technology humans still struggle to fully comprehend.
Artistic residency at Sunnybrook Research Institute funded by the Ontario Arts Council.
Ultrasound diagnostic recordings made with the assistance of: Paul Sheeran, Peter Burns and Caroline Maloney at Sunnybrook Research Institute.
for soprano, choir, picc, alto fl, ob, 2 bass cl, 3 perc [23′]
Commissioned by Continuum with funds from the Ontario Arts Council, 2017
Premiere: June 3, 2017 at Evergreen Brick Works, as part of FOUR LANDS, co-produced by Continuum Contemporary Music & Jumblies Theatre
“Everything stays the same,
Everything is yet to be discovered.”
Quarry excavates layers of memory and place through song and sound. The lyrics intertwine words from community members across Canada into a dreamscape that hovers between the present, the past and the future. What do we discover if we dig deep — beneath the ground where we stand, back into the bedrock of time, below the tangle of our everyday thoughts?
Tenor with piano trio [ 15′] 2016
Composed for Simon O’Neill and NZTrio with funds from CreativeNZ
The American Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is regarded as one of the foremost poets of all time. Although her modern sensibility meant that little of her work was published during her lifetime, her poetry is now arguably the most frequently set by contemporary composers. Vital, vivid and pithy, Dickinson’s work is both immediately appealing and rewarding upon repeated listening.
Running through Dickinson’s work is a concern with the workings of the body itself. Her poems offer a compelling inner perspective on the breath, the circulation of the blood, varieties of pain, and the last moments of life itself. While human-scaled and engaged with the viscerality of the everyday, her work simultaneously conjures the epic and the immense — cosmic rhythms and the ineffability of consciousness.
This new work brings together six of Dickinson’s poems in sequence: from an acknowledgement of the insights of science, through contemplation of pain, disorientation, a return to consciousness, acceptance of the fragility of existence, to a final song of death.
In composing Vermillion Songs, I draw upon research at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre by medical biophysicist Dr. Peter Burns. The soundscapes of the inner body, captured by ultrasound, are both precise and evocative: from the constrained intensity of vessels leading to the brain, to the cavernous resonance as blood washes back into the heart from the liver. In bringing together the operatic voice, Dickinson’s evocative lyrics, the sonic possibilities of piano trio and the high-tech soundscapes documented by bioacoustics, I hope to offer listeners a fresh glimpse into the poetry of the human body.
Commissioner: Victoria College, University of Toronto Premiere: The choirs of Victoria and Emmanuel Colleges, Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto, October 14, 2015. Text: Margaret Avison (excerpted from Stone’s Secret, Sunblue, Lancelot Press, 1978)
Commissioner: Soundstreams Canada Premiere: Krisztina Szabo & Stephanie Chua, The Gardiner Museum, Toronto, September 18, 2015. Text: Federico Garcia Lorca
How to set a portion of the Ghazal for a Dead Child by Garcia Lorca without hearing echoes of George Crumb’s version? I purposefully didn’t refresh my memory of this vocal classic, focussing instead on the first stanza of the poem, interpreting it as a quietly obsessive rumination on loss. The singer and pianist are both called upon to step outside their comfort zone through body percussion and vocalization. In response to the lyrical devastation of the poem, I chose to work with numerical patterns based on syllabic and visual structures of the text. The result is an emotionally restrained, simple, stripped down setting.
Commissioner: Orchestra Wellington Funder: Creative New Zealand Premiere: soprano Madeleine Pierard with Orchestra Wellington and conductor Marc Taddei, The Opera House, Wellington, September 8, 2013. Program note:
Solid Gold riffs on mainstream culture’s obsession with the Number One Hit. Challenging the straitjacket of copyright law, I take as my starting point the titles of over 30 years of number one pop songs. Cracking open this shared archive of pop memory, I hope to unearth the heart of the love song. Collaging selected titles into new and original lyrics, my creative quest echoes the sentiment of British-American band Foreigner’s 1984 hit “I want to to know what love is”. In this maelstrom of romantic yearning, what does love mean? And who exactly is the singer? Is (s)he “Venus, Jezebel, Lady Madonna — Lola, Nikita, Sylvia’s Mother”? Or is gender itself in question? Fernando? Pinnochio? Nelson Mandela?
Commissioner: Viva Youth Singers Funder: Viva Youth Singers Premiere: Viva Youth Singers, Trinity-St.Pauls, Toronto, May 16, 2010. Text: Dennis Lee
These two songs for children’s chorus draw on the beloved Canadian poet Dennis Lee’s works for children — Garbage Delight — and adults — Yesno, creating a world which acknowledges distance and pessimism, but also hope and possibility.
three singers playing theremin, hand-held percussion, shamisen and clarinet [35′] 2007
Premiere: Christine Duncan, Aki Takahashi and Juliet Palmer, Voice++ Festival, Victoria, May 12, 2007. Credits: music Juliet Palmer in collaboration with the performers (Christine Duncan and Aki Takahashi), text Anna Chatterton with additional lyrics in German (Wilhelm Müller) and Japanese (traditional).
The Province of Impossible bridges the two worlds of Japanese folksong and Schubert’s Die Winterreise.
The first piano arrived in Japan in 1823, four years before Schubert composed his famous song cycle Die Winterreise (The Winter’s Journey). Western classical music took firm root following the forcible end to Japan’s isolation during the Meiji Restoration. Now Yamaha pianos glut the market and Kent Nagano directs the Montréal Symphony Orchestra. Alongside this Western music invasion, Japanese folk music has stubbornly held fast. This new song cycle finds fresh ground in two powerful yet disparate traditions.
Commissioner: Open Ears Festival Funder: The Laidlaw Foundation Premiere: Patricia O’Callaghan and the Canadian Chamber Ensemble with conductor Dan Warren, Open Ears Festival, Kitchener, April 29, 2005. Text: Leonard Cohen
Program note: Both So Long, Marianne and I were born in 1967. Leonard Cohen’s song lodged itself in my brain at an undetermined point somewhere between that first release and the present. The moment that stuck in my mind most clearly was when the back-up singers wiggled their way upwards in the chorus on “Marianne” (a moment which fails to reappear in my own version of the song). Now Marianne’s name has gone, and I hope I have found a way to make the song new. I don’t remember ever hearing the words to the verse I’ve set, but I can imagine Trisha on a window ledge, miles above the traffic, stuttering a song of goodbye. So long.
chamber opera for 2 baritones, bcl, perc, acc + vc [14′] 2003
Commissioner: Tapestry New Opera Funder: Ontario Arts Council Premiere: Tapestry New Opera with baritones Gregory Dahl & Ian Funk, Tapestry Gala Opening, The Distillery, Toronto, May 24, 2003. Text: Julie Salverson
Ordinary people who carry extraordinary events: Maurice (an office cleaner) and Thomas (an office intern). A normal day. The past is past.
Commissioner: Bill James and Art in Open Spaces Funder: The Laidlaw Foundation Premiere: Vilma Vitols, Juliet Palmer & Martin Arnold, Water Sources 2, Art in Open Spaces, Toronto, July 23, 1999. Note: music choreographed by Bill James for Shannon Cooney, Dancemakers, Toronto, Canada, November 16-20, 1999. Program note:
When I dropped by in the springtime, there was a futon in the sphere. Someone had moved in and made it their bedroom. Vilma’s song is inspired by the Beach Boys’ classic tune, ‘In My Room’, along with a little snippet of Schubert’s ‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’ (from Die Winterreise).
Commissioner: Dogs of Desire, Albany Symphony Orchestra Funder: Albany Symphony Orchestra Premiere (revised version): Marty Elliott & Susan Lewis sopranos, Michael Lowenstern clarinet, Charles Lazerus trumpet, Danny Tunick drumset, Elizabeth di Felice keyboard, Andrea Schultz violin Maureen Llort double bass, Steve Mackey conductor, Taplin Auditorium, Princeton, October 20, 1999. Program note:
Living in New York, looking wistfully back to my 1970s New Zealand childhood, my curiosity was sparked as to the origins of Maori action songs — a hybrid form combining traditional movements, borrowed Western melodies and Maori lyrics. Introduced into schools by an enthusiastic physical education specialist in the late 1940’s along with Maori children’s games, it was noted that they were ‘exceedingly good for the body of the pakeha’ (non-Maori). In the 1980s, language nests or kohanga reo further boosted the revival of Maori.
W is foris my response to those early years spent dancing and singing in Maori. The text is an excerpt from a Maori-English dictionary. It begins at waka (canoe) and passes through wakainga (true home, far distant home) and warawara (yearning), arriving finally at wareware — forget, forgotten, forgetful. In a nod to my second language as a new Canadian, the final line comes from Jacques Brel’s ballad ‘On n’oublie rien’ — you forget nothing.