Vermillion Songs
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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.