orchestral music

fire break

2 2 2 2 / 2 2 / timp / str [13′] 2020.

X fire break

2 2 2 2 / 2 2 / timp / str [13′] 2020.

Commissioner: The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra

Funder: The Genesis Project

Premiere: The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley, FirstOntario Concert Hall, Hamilton, Canada, May 14, 2022.

Program note:

fire break is my song for the forests burned by the climate crisis — fires amplified by a heating planet, and by over a hundred years of colonial suppression of Indigenous cultural burning. fire break was inspired by a creative residency at LTER or Long Term Ecological Residency in Andrews Forest, a two hundred year-long program for scientists and artists.

In the barren landscape of a gigantic reservoir in Oregon, silvery stumps of a dead cedar forest dot the red earth slopes. While I hold a contact microphone to the wood, my friend Darion draws a dusty stick back and forth like a bow across a spindly root. Through my headphones the voice of this long dead tree starts to sing: raucous moans and shudders, like an unhinged saxophone solo.

Over the following weeks, other trees speak to me: booming thuds as I “woodpecker” a fallen old- growth Douglas fir; cascading dry twigs snap and tumble; marimba notes ring as I strike the limbs of an ancient cedar in a lava field; my fingernails scrape hollow whispers from the charred trunk of a burnt lodgepole pine. Since the summer, I keep thinking about those trees — their rich and complicated lives; their deaths from flooding, old age and fire; and the howl of those spruce roots.

Creating sonic threads between the orchestra’s intricately crafted instruments and the unpredictable sounds of trees, wood and strings pulse in sounds that break apart, teetering vulnerably on the edge of audibility, unsure which way to unfold.


I am grateful to Carla Bengtson who invited me to the Andrews Forest and LTER, and to Darion Smith for dancing the sounds in the landscape with me. Thanks to the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra for commissioning this work and to the Genesis Project for funding it.

Learn more about traditional burning:

Traditional fire techniques increase biodiversity and reduce wildfire risk, strengthening the land for all species. Models such as the Indigenous-led Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) in California build trust and a shared vision for restoring fire resilience on the land. In northern Australia, cultural burning on Aboriginal lands have halved destructive wildfires and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions from wildfires by 40 per cent.


The art of fire: reviving the Indigenous craft of cultural burning

Video stills: Jessie Rose Vala


picc, cl/bass cl, ob, hn, tpt, trb, vib, acc, pno, vn, vla, vcl, db [10′] 2019.

X Cutwork

picc, cl/bass cl, ob, hn, tpt, trb, vib, acc, pno, vn, vla, vcl, db [10′] 2019.

Commissioner: Auckland Chamber Orchestra
Funder: Creative New Zealand
Premiere: Auckland Chamber Orchestra with conductor Peter Scholes, Raye Freedman Arts Centre, New Zealand, October 20, 2019.

Program note:

Cutwork takes its inspiration from textile decoration: material is cut away and the edges of the hole are repaired to prevent fraying and unraveling. Further stitching embellishes the fabric, reworking and refilling around the material that has been removed. The technique suggests musical analogies as well as a vision for ecological recovery. Responding to either wilful or accidental damage takes creativity and care.

I’m drawn to the image of cutwork as a way to find novel approaches to form, ornamentation and silence. What is the material that exists before we begin to cut? What do we see or hear through the gap? Drawing with scissors, we make a pattern: stitching mends the rupture and celebrates what’s missing.

Cutwork was commissioned by Peter Scholes and the Auckland Chamber Orchestra and generously funded by Creative New Zealand.

Download score

Oil & Water

3 3 3 3 / 4 3 3 1 / timp / 3 perc / hp / str + tape [16′ 30″] 2019.

X Oil & Water

3 3 3 3 / 4 3 3 1 / timp / 3 perc / hp / str + tape [16′ 30″] 2019.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Funder: Elaine Lebenbom Award for Female Composers
Premiere: Detroit Symphony Orchestra with conductor Leonard Slatkin, Symphony Hall, Detroit, June 7-9, 2019.

Program note:

Water flows between the Great Lakes cities of Detroit and Toronto, where I live. Looking at the map, I am reminded of the powerful work of the late Ojibway Elder Josephine Mandamin, who walked around each of the Great Lakes to honour and pray for the water. Her dedication made me wonder how a piece of orchestral music could weave together places and stories relating to the struggle for clean water. Oil & Water journeys through field recordings chronicling the ecological and the political watershed: the voices of protestors at Standing Rock, holding steadfast against police water cannons; mechanical hums and thrums of Toronto’s water pumping station; the shouts of Detroit’s citizens blocking the water shutoff trucks; the exuberant rhythms of Crazy Woman Creek in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains; the chants of citizens defending the Salish Sea from increased oil tanker traffic; and the rhythmic counterpoint of spring peepers in Ottawa’s Mer Bleue wetland. Traditional teachings remind us that water never gives up, overcoming all obstacles in its way. May we do water justice.

In transcribing field recordings, I rely on computer software and my intuition to help map sounds onto the orchestra. This translation process often leads to unexpected leaps and digressions. At times the original sounds resurface then disappear, leaving ghostly traces: the dissonant chords of the pumping station, the rhythmic impulses of cascades and swirling eddies.

I am grateful to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Elaine Lebenbom for the opportunity to compose Oil & Water, and to the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming for the artistic residency which allowed me to begin work on this piece — and plunge into the October chill of Crazy Woman Creek.

Audio credits:

Wong, Julia Carrie. “Dakota Access Pipeline: 300 Protestors Injured After Police Use Water Cannons”, The Guardian. November 21, 2016.

Detroit Water Brigade. “Detroiters Blockade Water Shutoff Trucks”, YouTube. July 10, 2014.
Thanks to Monica Lewis-Patrick and We The People of Detroit for permission to include this clip.

Alstead, Robert. “Burnaby Mountain Arrests”, YouTube. November 21, 2014.
Thanks to Robert Alstead for permission to use this clip from his documentary “Running on Climate”.


2 actors/spoken word artists + 4 4 4 4 / 4 3 3 1 / timp 2 perc 2 hp / str [12′] 2017.

X Invicta

2 actors/spoken word artists + 4 4 4 4 / 4 3 3 1 / timp 2 perc 2 hp / str [12′] 2017.
Lyrics by Zaccheus Jackson
Commissioned by NYO Canada
Premiere: NYO Canada, conductor Jonathan Darlington with Zoey “Pricelys” Roy & Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, July 22, 2017

Zaccheus Jackson’s words are fierce and fiery, veering from humour to tragedy in one sentence. His performances are musical — rhythms and rhymes which flow and hurtle, their political sophistication revealing Zaccheus’ grasp of the big picture. He was a poet who saw injustice in the world around him and called it out with energy and brilliance. Zaccheus’ uncompromising vision was a huge inspiration for me — everyone needs to hear this lesson in Canadian history.

Zaccheus raced through this poem at lightning speed, clocking in at around two minutes. In stretching out the journey to twelve minutes, we get the chance to linger with the genius of his words, allowing them more time to sink in and do their transformational work. I hope hearing this piece will open your ears and your heart to Zaccheus’ words and to the voice of his generation.

Thank you to the NYOC for inviting me to be part of the Unsilent Project and for supporting the creation of this new work. And many thanks to Falen, Zoey and Lindsay for their generosity and fearlessness stepping into a new world.

Solid Gold

soprano + 1 1 1 1 / 1 1 1 / pf perc / str [15′] 2013.

X Solid Gold

soprano + 1 1 1 1 / 1 1 1 / pf perc / str [15′] 2013.

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?


2 2 2 2 / 2 2 1 / timp 2 perc hp / str [12′] 2004.

X Swerve

2 2 2 2 / 2 2 1 / timp 2 perc hp / str [12′] 2004.

Commissioner: Windsor New Music Festival

Funder: Ontario Arts Council

Premiere: The Windsor Symphony with conductor John Morris Russell, Capitol Theatre, Windsor, January 16, 2004.

Recording: The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with conductor Kenneth Young, Recorded by Radio New Zealand Concert FM, September 8, 2011.

Program note:

Writing Swerve began as an exercise in reading. A poem caught my ear and lulled me with its rhythm: lilting and stalling, flowing and overflowing the bounds of the line. Just as there are an infinite number of readers, so are there infinite ways of reading a poem. I wanted to capture these subtle variations of interpretation. The words which constitute poetry can be simple and familiar, but new meanings jump out unexpectedly from one reading to the next. I imagined a piece of music which travelled with the reader: pressing forward, pausing, repeating, circling back…a process of rereading in which certain images start to resound, gaining clarity with each recurrence. Poetry doesn’t reveal itself on the first reading. It is not until we reach the end of the music that we begin to understand what captivates us.

The Ontario Arts Council celebrated its 40th anniversary with a series of TVO shorts featuring Ontario artists. In this clip Swerve is rehearsed by the Windsor Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor John Morris Russell.


3 3 2 2 / 4 3 2 1 / timp 2 perc hp / str [12’] 2003.

X Buzzard

3 3 2 2 / 4 3 2 1 / timp 2 perc hp / str [12’] 2003.

Commissioner: l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal
Funder: l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal
Premiere: l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, October 9-20, 2003, Montréal.
Program note:

Two birds inspired this piece: Tchaikovsky’s Swan and Stravinsky’s Firebird. Buzzard is dedicated to my father, a high-speed pilot who loved Stravinsky’s music as passionately as that of Gil Gilberto and Dave Brubeck. A real buzzard…

“And as to you Life, I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths;”

—Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass (1900)

Stitching in the Ditch

3 3 3 3 / 4 3 2 1/ timp 2 perc hp / str [12’] 2001.

X Stitching in the Ditch

3 3 3 3 / 4 3 2 1/ timp 2 perc hp / str [12’] 2001.

Commissioner: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Funder: Creative New Zealand
Premiere: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Auckland Town Hall, New Zealand, July 19, 2001.
Program note:

1. When I walked into St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig last October, the space was filled with the sound and smell of sawing wood. Beneath the sawing came the rumble of a single giant organ pipe. A sign demanded complete silence: the organ was being tuned. Shhhhh! My mind jumped to other wood being sawn, other trees being felled — for canoes, sailing ships, houses, concert halls, violins…

2. It’s so far from Christchurch to Auckland…what we need is to cast off the South Island from its moorings, sail it north-east, nudge the two islands together and stitch them up nice and snug. An ambitious project, and very very noisy.

Secret Arnold

3 3 3 3 / 4 3 3 1 / timp 3 perc / str [5’54″] 1999.

X Secret Arnold

3 3 3 3 / 4 3 3 1 / timp 3 perc / str [5’54″] 1999.

Commissioner: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Funder: Creative New Zealand
Premiere: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with conductor Samuel Wong, Auckland Town Hall, New Zealand, May 5, 1999.
Program note:

In his Second String Quartet op.10, Schoenberg stepped outside the four corners of the quartet and created a sublime part for soprano. In the last movement she sings ‘I feel air from other planets’. Just as Schoenberg opened a door for classical music with his Second String Quartet, Jamaican dub started the sampling and scratching scene which grooved all the way to 90’s Bristol. Clive Randy Chin’s “Easy Come Dub” is a stripped down remix of The Wailers’ “It Won’t Come Easy”. In “Only You” from 1997, the Bristol-based band Portishead create an ambient space in which even the “Inspector Clouseau” theme finds a new identity. Compressing time and space, Secret Arnold finds room for all three — Schoenberg, Randy and Portishead.