Open road
(2013 soprano, baritone, choir SATB, string orchestra; 15 min.)

Open Road marks my fifth collaboration with the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). I respond keenly to Whitman’s very personal vision, a fusion of the spiritual and the physical, and his strongly rhythmic language, echoing the cadences of the King James Bible. In Open Road, Whitman creates his own Adam, before the fall: life-embracing, open-hearted, on an epic journey, rejoicing in the earthly paradise he finds around him.

Whitman’s long lines and purple passages are a challenge to set and to sing. The soloists deliver the more personal, incantatory lines, with the choir responding, shading, interfering, echoing. The essential relationships in the poem—those between man and woman, between the individual and the collective, and between our dual masculine and feminine natures—are embodied by the male and female soloists, in combination with the ensemble. These forces, with their rich compositional possibilities, connect back to the oratorio tradition, one beloved in English Canada since Whitman’s days.

Open Road was commissioned by Soundstreams Canada (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director).

Song of the Open Road  by Walt Whitman, edited by James Rolfe

AFOOT and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune–I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.

You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges!
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!
You rows of houses! you window-pierc’d façades! you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!

The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me;
I think whoever I see must be happy.

From this hour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

I inhale great draughts of space;
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought;
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me;
I can repeat over to men and women, You have done such good to me, I would do the same to you.

Whoever denies me, it shall not trouble me;
Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, and shall bless me.
Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear, it would not amaze me;
Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d, it would not astonish me.

Allons! after the GREAT COMPANIONS! and to belong to them!
Committers of crimes, committers of many beautiful virtues,
Enjoyers of calms of seas, and storms of seas,
Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land,
Trusters of men and women, observers of cities, solitary toilers,
Pausers and contemplators of tufts, blossoms, shells of the shore,
Dancers at wedding-dances, kissers of brides, tender helpers of children, bearers of children,
Journeyers with their bearded and well-grain’d manhood,
Journeyers with their womanhood, ample, unsurpass’d, content,
Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.

Allons! the road is before us!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d
(2006; words by W. Whitman; choir SSAATTBB; 13 min.)

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (2006) is based on the elegy written by Walt Whitman upon the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865. In an earlier life, it was a piano piece, Lilacs, which imagined the poem’s rhythms and cadences as a purely musical narrative. This version puts the words back in. The 88 keys and crunching dissonances of the piano are compressed into a dense eight-part choral texture.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d was commissioned through The Laidlaw Foundation by Soundstreams (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director) for the occasion of University Voices 2006.

Two Hopeful Songs for Children’s Choir
(2010; words: Dennis Lee; choir SSAA; 4 min. 30 sec.)


Program Note: Two Hopeful Songs (2010) music by James Rolfe; words by Dennis Lee

Two Hopeful Songs (2010) were commissioned by Toronto’s Viva Youth Singers (Carol Ratzlaff, Artistic Director), and written to poems by Dennis Lee.


Song lyrics

The Moon (from Garbage Delight, 1977)


I see the moon

And the moon sees me

And nobody sees

As secretly


Unless there’s a kid

In Kalamazoo,

Or Mexico,

Or Timbuktu,


Who looks in the sky

At the end of the day,
And she thinks of me

In a friendly way —


‘Cause we both lie still

And we watch the moon;

And we haven’t met yet,

But we might do, soon.



Dopey (from Yesno, 2007)


Squeaks from the sisyphus chorus.

Hums from the crunch.

Dopey & grumpy & doc, just

truckin’ along —

here come chorale;

mind to the

grindstone, ear to the plough.



hoein along with a song:

What home but here? Whose grubby hands but ours?

(2010; words by Amanda Jernigan; choir SSAA, marimba; 4 min.)

Lullaby was commissioned and premiered in 2011 by Lady Cove Women’s Choir of St. John’s, Newfoundland (Kellie Walsh, Artistic Director), with the kind assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.

(2011; words from the Song of Songs; choir SSAATTBB; 6 min.)

If I had to choose desert island words, The Song of Solomon would make the list: it is evergreen, sexy, and tasty to sing. Garden takes the form of a brief dialogue between the genders. Men and women weave in and out, saucy and vivid, first wooing each other, then singing together. Garden was commissioned by Tafelmusik Choir (Ivars Taurins, artistic director) in celebration of its 30th anniversary in 2012. I dedicate this new work to a wonderful choir whose singing I have known and loved for many years.

Lyrics (compiled by the composer from various translations)


My king lay down beside me
and my fragrance woke the night.

He lay all night between my breasts, my love a cluster of myrrh,
a cluster of henna blossoms
in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.

And you, my love, how beautiful you are!

Your eyes are doves.

You are beautiful, my king, and gentle. Wherever we lie our bed is lush.

The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.


Awake, O north wind! O south wind, come,

breathe upon my garden,
that its spices may flow out.
Let my love come into his garden and taste its delicious fruit.


Come, my beloved,
let us go forth into the fields

and lie all night among the flowering henna.

Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vine flourish,
if the blossoms have opened and the pomegranate bud forth. There will I give you my love.

(2006; words by Dennis Lee; choir SSAATTBB; 8 min.)

Program note

Blind sets seven poems from Dennis Lee’s Un (2003).  This collection of short, terse poems presents a relentlessly dark and apocalyptic vision of our world, while still finding flickers of humanity and hope.  Armageddon is coupled with redemption, despair with exhiliration, pollution with purity.  Boiled-down texts burst with unorthodox phrases and neologisms.  Lee situates his words in the present, yet they also apply to the terrible war years in which the poet grew up (he was born August 31, 1939, on the very eve of World War 2).  They reflect the physical and emotional extremes of the time, something which is hard to imagine at our comfortable distance.  It’s in this way that I see this work commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Holland from Nazi occupation, an event in which Canadian troops played a decisive role.  The ever-present word “blind” evokes both the unthinking madness of war and the physical damage to its victims.  It also suggests the phrase “God blind me”, which was supposed to have gained currency among World War I troops sickened by the sight of mass slaughter.  It’s intriguing to realize that the apocalypse always seems to be with us, past, present and future.  Is this reason for despair, or is it in fact reassuring?

Blind was commissioned with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts by Soundstreams (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director) for the Netherlands Chamber Choir.



Texts to Blind 


1 inlingo


In scraggy lingo lost,

high mean-

times petering, thickets of

lex & scrawn:

split for abysmal, hopalong

underword, head for no exit,

grapshrapnel yore spelunking.

fractal untongue.


2 if


If it walks like apocalypse.  If it

squawks like armageddon.

If it stalks the earth like anaphylactic parturition.

If the halo jams like septicemic laurels, if

species recuse recuse if mutti clearcut, if

earth remembers how & then for good forgets;

if it glows like neural plagues if it grins, if it

walks like apocalypse—


3 blind



light, blind

night, blind blinkers.

Blind of the lakelorn / of

lumpen /the scree.

In terminal ought and deny, indelible isprints.

Palping the scandalscript. Sniffing the

petrified fiat.


4 beloved


In silicon gridlock, in

quagmeat extremis – basta, on wings of success,

Still we snog through

sputum waste to

caramelize the Beloved,

riffle thru alley slop for a gob of awe


5 hope  


Hope, you illicit

imperative:  what

sump what gunge what

glimmer of sotto renewal?

What short shot

shimmer of green reprise?


6 noth


And are creatures of


I noth you noth we

long have we nothed we

shall noth, staunch in true

nothing we

noth in extremis, noth until

habitat heartstead green galore & species

relinquish the terrene ghosthold;

crumble to alphadud; stutter to rumours of ing.

Four Anthems for Four Seasons
(2003; words from the Bible; choir SSSSAATTBB; 11 min.)

Program note: Four Anthems for Four Seasons. Music by James Rolfe, to texts from The Bible. Durations: Spring 3’30”; Summer 1’30”; Fall 2’15”; Winter 2’45.

Four Anthems for Four Seasons was commissioned by the Elora Festival, Noel Edison, artistic director, with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation. It was premiered on 3 August 2003, at St. Mary’s Church, Elora, Ontario.





SUMMER:  Proverbs 6:6-11


6 Go to the ant, you sluggard!

Consider her ways and be wise,

7 Which, having no captain,

Overseer or ruler,

8 Stores her provisions in the summer,

And gathers her food at harvest.

9 How long will you slumber, O sluggard?

When will you rise from your sleep?

10 Yet a little sleep, a little slumber,

A little folding of the hands to sleep–

11 So shall poverty come on you like a bandit,

And your need like an armed man.


FALL:  Deut 24:19-22


When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf, you shall not go back

to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

22 And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.


SPRING:  Song of Solomon, 2:10-13


10    My beloved spoke, and said to me:

“Rise up, my love, my fair one,

And come away.

11    Behold, the winter is past,

The rain is over and gone.

12    Flowers appear on earth;

The time of singing has come,

And the voice of the dove

Is heard in our land.

13    The fig tree puts forth her green figs,

And the vines with the tender grapes

Give forth their fragrance.

Rise up, my love, my fair one,

And come away!


WINTER:  Job 38:22, 29, 30


Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?

Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of the heaven, who hath

gendered it?

The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.


And Psalm 147:16,17


16 He giveth snow like wool:  he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes.

17 He casteth forth his ice like morsels: who can stand before his cold?

Under the Sun
(2002; words from Ecclesiastes; eight choirs, each SATB; 8 min.)

There is perhaps no part of the Bible which is more pessimistic and less “religious” than Ecclesiastes, a chapter whose very inclusion in the Bible was hotly debated. Yet its pessimism rings true, and its lyrical strains about the endless rounds of existence can be as comforting as they are bitter. The assertion that “there is nothing new under the sun” is also comfortingly ironic for a 21st-century composer who was schooled as a proper 20th- century avant-gardist.

This setting explores some of the text’s dimensions within the large acoustic space formed by so many voices. Harmonies are generally consonant and rooted (in part for clarity amidst many closely-woven parts), though often coloured by simultaneous major and minor thirds (“false relations” favoured by English composers of the Renaissance). The text comes from Chapter 1 of Eccesiastes, edited from several different translations.

Text: Under the Sun

One generation passes away And another generation comes But the earth remains forever.

The sun also rises
And the sun goes down
And hurries back to where it rose.

The wind blows to the south And turns around to the north Round and round it goes
And returns again to its course. All the rivers run into the sea Yet the sea is not full.

All things are weary with toil
And all words are feeble.
The eye is never satisfied with seeing Nor the ear filled with hearing.

That which has been
Is that which shall be
And that which was done Is that which shall be done

And there is nothing new under the sun.

O that you would kiss me
(2001; words: Song of Solomon; double choir, each SSAATTBB; 16 min.)

The Song of Solomon is like a deep well of yearning; it brims with the excitement and anxiety which love brings, expressing them in beautifully physical language. In this setting, the voices caress each other with shared motifs, at close intervals, weaving in and out at close quarters, touching or overlapping in an embodiment of the text’s physicality. Harmonies are often consonant and rooted, in part to maintain clarity for sixteen closely- woven parts.


O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine.

My beloved is to me a bundle of myrrh, that lies all night between my breasts.

My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of Enge’di.

Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely. Our couch is green;
the beams of our house are of cedar, and our rafters of pine.

O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine.

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shade,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins,
refresh me with apples;

for I am sick with love.
O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!

You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with one look of your eye, with one chain of your neck.

How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! how much better is your love than wine,
and the scent of your perfumes than any spice! Your lips, O my spouse, drip as the honeycomb; honey and milk are under your tongue;

the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.

Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south!
Blow upon my garden,
that its spices may flow out.
Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its precious fruits.

O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine.

I slept, but my heart was awake. It is the voice of my beloved! He knocks, saying,
“Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one;

for my head is wet with dew,
my locks with the drops of the night.” I had put off my garment,
how could I put it on?
I had bathed my feet,
how could I soil them?
My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me. I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh,
upon the handles of the bolt.
I opened to my beloved,
but my beloved had turned and gone. My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.

O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine.

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death.

Come lovely and soothing death
(2000; words by Walt Whitman; choir SSAATTBB; 5 min.)

This setting is a kind of sketch for my piano piece Lilacs, which is based on parts of When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, an elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln. As a wound dresser in the American Civil War, Whitman became intimate with death in its most agonizing and futile guise. For me, his sensual and wholly accepting ode is a heartfelt and wonderfully gracious response.

In keeping with Whitman’s intimate tone, the voices are low in tessitura, close or overlapping in range, and moving by little steps. Harmonies are usually very consonant and rooted–dictated in part by the need for clarity when writing for so many voices in the low register. There are echoes of Renaissance vocal writing, say of Byrd or Josquin, as well as passages of more contemporary vintage.


Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate around the world, serenely arriving, arriving, In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious, And for love, sweet love—but praise! Praise! Praise! For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Over the treetops I float thee a song,
Over the rising ans sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide, Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.

O you whom I often
(2000; words by Walt Whitman; choir SSAA; 2 min.)
Three Songs
(1998; words by E. Pauline Johnson; four women’s voices SSAA; 8 min.)

Pauline Johnson (1862-1913) was a Canadian poet of English and Mohawk ancestry. Beneath its Victorian and sentimental surface, her verse is restless and conflicted, mingling erotic yearning with melancholy. I have tried to mirror this division with a “conventional” language of triadic harmony, slightly askew with inversions and added sixths and sevenths, and gently eroticized by keeping the voices very close and low in tessitura. At times, the world of Schubert seems close at hand, or of a late Victorian salon; yet the narrow choice of materials, simplicity of gesture, and asymmetrical repetitions look forwards to modern times.

Texts for Three Songs, by James Rolfe

from poems by E. Pauline Johnson

1. Shadow River

A stream of tender gladness,
Of filmy sun, and opal tinted skies;
Of warm midsummer air that lightly lies In mystic rings,
Where softly swings
The music of a thousand wings
That almost tones to sadness.

Mine is the undertone;
The beauty, strength, and power of the land Will never stir or bend at my command; But all the shade
Is marred or made,
If I but dip my paddle blade;
And it is mine alone,

O! pathless world of seeming!
O! pathless life of mine whose deep ideal Is more my own than ever was the real. For others fame
And Love’s red flame,
And yellow gold; I only claim
The shadows and the dreaming.

2. Overlooked

Sleep, with her tender balm, her touch so kind, Has passed me by;

O! Sleep, my tired eyes had need of thee! Is thy sweet kiss not meant for me tonight?

Peace, with her heated touches, passion-stirred,

Has passed me by.
O! Love, my tired heart had need of thee! Is thy sweet kiss withheld alone from me?

O! Love, thou wanderer from Paradise, Dost thou not know

How oft my lonely heart has cried to thee?
But Thou, and Sleep, and Peace, come not to me.

3. At Sunset

To-night the west o’erbrims with warmest dyes; Its chalice overflows
With pools of purple colouring the skies, Aflood with gold and rose;

And twilight comes with grey and restful eyes, As ashes follow flame.
But O! I heard a voice from those rich skies Call tenderly my name;

I know not why, but all my being longed
And leapt at that sweet call;
My heart outreached its arms, all passion thronged And beat against Fate’s wall,
Crying in utter homesickness to be
Near to a heart that loves and leans to me.