Vermilion Songs

Tenor with piano trio [ 15′] 2016.
Composed for Simon O’Neill and NZTrio with funds from CreativeNZ

Vermilion Songs brings together six Emily Dickinson’s poems in a cycle that offers a compelling inner perspective on the human body: from breath, the circulation of the blood, varieties of pain, to 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. The cycle moves 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.

The song cycle is inspired by sound worlds I encountered as an Ontario Arts Council Artist-in-the-Community at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Thanks to medical biophysicist Dr. Peter Burns, I was able to eavesdrop on the soundscapes of the inner body, captured by ultrasound. Simultaneously precise and evocative they range from the constrained intensity of vessels leading to the brain, to the cavernous resonance of blood washing 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.