(2022; words: Gwendolyn MacEwen; baritone or other voice, piano; 3 min.)


by Gwendolyn MacEwen

When you think of it, water is everything. Or rather,
Water ventures into everything and becomes everything.
It has
All tastes and moods imaginable; water is history
And the end of the world is water also.
I have tasted water
From London to Miranshah. In France it tasted
Of Crusaders’ breastplates, swords, and tunnels of rings
On ladies’ fingers.
In the springs of Lebanon water had
No color, and was therefore all colors,
outside of Damascus
It disguised itself as snow and let itself be chopped
And spooned onto the stunned red grapes of summer.

For years I have defended water, even though I am told
there are other drinks.
Water will never lie to you, even when it insinuates itself
Into someone else’s territory. Water has style.

Water has no conscience and no shame; water
thrives on water, is self-quenching.
It often tastes of brine and ammonia, and always
Knows its way back home.

When you want to travel very far, do as the Bedouins do—
Drink to overflowing when you can,
and then
Go sparingly between wells.

The Way Spring Jabs
(2022; words: Ayesha Chatterjee; baritone or other voice, piano; 2'30”)

The way spring jabs

by Ayesha Chatterjee

The way spring jabs at winter,
each small leaf a soldier, death
unthinkable. When the sickly honeysuckle
thrusts its brown vine into the air
no-one notices. Camouflaged,
it curls like clay, but stays.

Death is everywhere, napkined in snow.
So soft against the ear it must be a mistake.
Still, we carry on, imagination
shrinking with the rain, the coming warmth
a myth to be believed.

In a sort of synchronicity, people open doors
and close them, letting no-one in except themselves,
lifting alter-egos out of boxes tinged

with disappointment. It is just enough to hold on
to what is left as the first spiders skitter over tiles
and set their endless traps, sparkling every now and then with dross.

The Desert
(2022; words: Gwendolyn MacEwen; baritone or other voice, piano; 3'30”)

The Desert

by Gwendolyn MacEwen

Only God lives there in the seductive Nothing
That implodes into pure light. English makes Him
an ugly monosyllable, but Allah breathes
A fiery music from his tongue, ignites the sands,
invents a terrible love that is
The very name of pain.

The desert preserves Him
as the prophets found Him, massive and alone.
They went there, into that awful Zero
to interpret Him.,
for Himself to know, for He said: Help me,
I am the one who is alone, not you. Tell me who I am.

Camels lean into the desert, lost in some thought
so profound it can only be guessed. When
Will God invent man? When
will the great dream end?
My skin crawls with a horrible beauty in this
Nothingness, this Everything—

I fall to my knees in the deep white sand, and my head
implodes into pure light.

Spirit Tree
(2022; words: Anna Yin; baritone or other voice, piano; 3 min.)

Spirit Tree

after Priscila Uppal

by Anna Yin

In Prospect Cemetery,
among poplar, cedar, maple,
I hope you found your tree–
a healing from heaven.

Here, in another city,
I see from my window
a full-grown willow–
ten years ago, it was a tiny twig
dropped in the valley.

Two years ago,
the year you passed, lightning
hit the willow and split her in two.
A year later,
from the open wound,
she grew new branches.

Have I found my spirit tree?
A breeze blows—new green leaves
touch me like a soft hand.

When winter comes,
I collect the fallen leaves,
slim, the shape of lips.
I slip them into books
of your poems.
They cling to one another,
a whispering forest of stories.

Songs of Joy
(2022; words from Psalm 126; mezzo (or alto) and baritone, piano; 2'30”)

Songs of Joy

words from Psalm 126

When the Lord turned our gaze upon Zion, we thought we were dreaming.
Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with shouts of joy.
Fill us with grace, O Lord, like rivers in a dry land.
They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.
Though they went out weeping, carrying the seed-bag, they shall return with songs of joy, carrying
their sheaves.

[There’s a back story to this. There was a composer named James Simon, which by chance are my first two names; he was German-Jewish from Berlin, like my mother. In 1944, at age 64, he was deported to Theresienstadt. There he wrote his last work, a setting of these words, Psalm 126. He was last seen sitting on his suitcase, jotting down music in his notebook, awaiting deportation to Auschwitz.]

(2022; words: A. F. Moritz; baritone or other voice, piano; 4'30”)


by A. F. Moritz

The shining of gold, dark
and blinding bright by turns,
the sun falling from blue clouds
into the ocean and noon and dawn,
all unfolded and held up,
carried, offered on motionless
petals, fingers, rays, unchanged
through all the day’s seasons
and the night under spectral
low-watted garden bulbs.

Unchanged, marigold, except you always
are born, flower, last, and decay,
and mummified, brown and stiff, stand
in the snowy mud, shedding seeds.

Mary’s gold, your flower primal
gold above and red gold underneath,
streaked with rust and blood,
earth ochre, stain of red clay,
knife wound, spike and spear thrust,
wrists tightly bound, thorns,
menses, a dripping scalpel line:
the seven sorrows, seven darts
that sum up all cuts
lopping the human parts away
perpetually: the darts that are your seeds,
that grow in, pierce, harrow,
fall from, and are, your heart.

For Aviva, Because I Love Her
(2022; words: Irving Layton; baritone or other voice, piano; 2'30”)

For Aviva, Because I Love Her

by Irving Layton

I saw a spider eating a huge bee
First he ate my limbs
And then he removed my head
Feasting on the quivering jellies of my eyes
And on what passes among bees for ears

And, though dead,
I could feel with each morsel he had
That he enjoyed his repast
And I was glad

Afterwards, he sliced me down the middle
Exposing my insides to the burning midday heat

And slowly, the voluptuous spider feasted
On my jeweled organs,
Abolishing them one by one
Till I was all gone,
All swallowed up,
All except for my love of you

My radiant wings,
These, ah these he did not touch,
But left glinting in the sun.

Burning In This Midnight Dream
(2022; words: Louise Bernice Halfe / Sky Dancer; baritone or other voice, piano; 3'15”)

Burning in this Midnight Dream

by Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer

I dream I wore a skin of X’s across my chest
and down my torso. Granny prints of the midnight world.
Thick lenses moved inside my skull
magnifying but still I could not see.
The X awkwardly signed by my great-grandmother
another burned ink onto my skin for Treaty Six.
X for the five-dollar-a-year allotment,
X stitched for medicine, eye glasses, teeth,
and for school.
X for every sin, X for moments of grace.
The X’s of a long paper chain wrapped this body.

The tattoos beckoned me not to surrender
to wear a grizzly cape
to dance until the sun’s flames and moon beams
created passion inside my womb.
I was earth, burning in this midnight dream.

(2022; words: George Elliott Clarke; baritone or other voice, piano; 2'30”)


by George Elliott Clarke

The problem is, I’m bombastic—
drastically bombastic,
due to the minstrelsy, buffoonery,
of being a yellowed, cartoon black,
a secondhand black,
a kind of discard, discounted black,
being really only tan or brown,
a souvenir of Miscegenation.

A signally colossal pygmy! A hunchbacked, Igbo Igor!
Talent worth less than a chigger-plagued pig—
Talent that’s only a figment
of my Pygmalion, gigolo vocab (itself not big)—

Alluding to my obligatory pigment,
my oil-crude, black-ass nib zigzags this white-sheet gig—
my squibs unniggardly, yet niggling—
see my mag-nagging Ego, jag and jig!

Always was I an ignoramus (like Cap’n Queeg)—meagre—
if eager to league as a worthy figure—the “Antigone
of Antigonish,” who ligatures together earthy swigs
of igneous-molten spittle, grammar-beleaguered!

I was less Zelig than Rigoletto: Unambiguous
roared the guffaws, as if lauding Follies Ziegfeld—
dervishes all whirligigs, in trigonal shindigs—
and applause—symphonic Edvard Grieg—contiguous.

What a stigma my Intrigue be! What ig’orant
and brazen Bigotry to vaunt “Negro rigs”
(these foul-spelled, triggering sprigs—
iffy schlock) to spiffy, bewigged, Prufrock-like prigs!

Asleep In Her Arms
(2022; words: Stephen Morrissey; baritone or other voice, piano; 3'30”)

Asleep In Her Arms

by Stephen Morrissey

Isn’t this what I’ve waited for?
To sleep in her arms, return
to the warmth of a woman’s
body, curves and softness
against bone and flesh.
She is the one
I come to life in,
the woman whose
presence returns me to life.
There is no other
like her, the one I love:
the one who is my other half,
the one whose hand I hold,
the one whose company I desire,
the one who makes the moon
white and full.
I think of other men
alone at night; during the day
they search for a woman
to bring them light:
love transforms,
ignites an inner fire,
burns long and bright
in the human heart.
What makes the full moon
white and round
but love;
what makes the trees grow
and the fields green
with life,
only love;
or the river flow,
fish breaking the calm
surface at dusk,
sky red with setting sun
and grass cold
with dew.

Wound Turned to Light
(2021; words: Andrea Thompson; baritone or other voice, piano; 4 min.)

Wound Turned To Light

by Andrea Thompson

The light of witnessing existence
makes everything beautiful again –

brings rebirth to those disowned parts of self
those shattered fragments the world has deemed

unworthy – those darkened days and tired nights
of soul-deep weariness become refreshed

through the act of simply
recording what is

what it is to be ourselves, unabashed and
naked, living on this crushed ball of stardust

what it is to be us – hurtling through the universe
bouncing up against each other like ideological pinballs

at a time when the polarity of this planet has sent us all
off on our own diametrical trajectory away from the core

when the weight of interpersonal animosity has become
staggeringly crippling, when the term “respectfully disagree”

is about to become extinct. In this moment I bow down
and thank God for bestowing us with the gift of creativity

for endowing all of us humans a life-giving method of release
to the pressures of simply existing, a way to translate pain

into beauty, a way to open up the valve on it all
and begin to let off steam –

what a gift it is to be given this
moment, to be invited to express

all the colours of this jagged emotional palette
without judgment, to simply say yes

to the raw red of rage, yes
to the yellow of hope, yes

to the bruised-hearted blues, yes
to the unfathomable purple, yes

yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes
yes and amen to it all.

[The title is inspired by Georges Braque, “Art is a wound turned into light”.]

(2021; words: Amatoritsero Ede; baritone or other voice, piano; 2'45”)


by Amatoritsero Ede

this hung morning
the immobile weser
is sluggish with memories
of dead water
on the niger river delta
in nigeria

after shell shat shocked
oil impurities into it

till choked full of poisoned fish and algae
the creek reeks of dead fish and people

like the ogoni nine

a hung boat nation unable to swim
pollution and politics

and thus was strung short
and hung from killer nooses

the vertical nine were long dead
long before the long drop

by the life-stained hands
of abacha’s henchmen hangmen hitlerites

nine necks cracked
life’s spine popped

nine lives shelled
the niger delta
shell-shocked into haunted silence

stifled wailing along waterways
and among mangrove swamp and fauna

muffled wailing
unlike the silence on the weser

a portentous silence
the quiet of still graves
sunk real deep

To the Poet
(2021; words: George Elliott Clarke; baritone or other voice, piano; 1'45”)

To the Poet

by George Elliott Clarke (from “Red”, 2011)

Poet! Damn you if you crave public love!
People clap raucously, then fickle, stop.
Fools don scholars’ tassels, bray their critiques,
While crowds’ hoorays chill—or scald—your marrow.
Best to stand Caesar-calm, statue-austere:
It’s majesty, yes, to dwell defiant,
Castled in your own soul, free and aloof!
Perfect your flowers, distill their dream liqueurs,
But ignore all praise of your past confections.
Judge for yourself your vineyard’s heady wine:
Your strict taste dictates its vintage sweetness!
Do you want joy? Let the pack bay and howl:
Let them snarl and spit on your altar’s flames
And breathe your temple’s triumphant perfumes!

Set Me as a Seal
(2021; words: Song of Songs; mezzo (or alto) and baritone, piano; 2 min.)

Set me as a seal

from Song of Songs 8:6-7

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

Many waters cannot quench love,
nor can the rivers drown it.
If you gave all your wealth for love,
love would turn you down.

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

Phoenix IV
(2021; words: Bänoo Zan; baritone or other voice, piano; 2'45”)

Phoenix (IV)

by Bänoo Zan

With locks of fire
and eyes of ice,

uttering eloquent silence,

disrobing me
of my habit,

put a dagger
in my hands.

With lips labouring in love
and heart beating hate,

wrinkles young as yesterday
beauty old as news
and charisma alluring as pain–

stopping me–
out of the three–
with euphoric wisdom,

put hemlock
in my hands.

With a face of stone
and hands of water,

her womb blossoming
and her breasts flowing,

her body aroused
and her spirit asleep,

put Death
in my hands.

With a dagger in his heart
and hemlock on his lips,

philosophy in his groin
and passion in his brain,

silencing eloquent speech
with celestial song,

put Life
in my hands.

For E. J. P.
(2021; words: Leonard Cohen; baritone or other voice, piano; 4'30”)

For E. J. P.

by Leonard Cohen

I once believed a single line
in a Chinese poem could change
forever how blossoms fell
and that the moon itself climbed on
the grief of concise weeping men
to journey over cups of wine
I thought invasions were begun for crows
to pick at a skeleton
dynasties sown and spent
to serve the language of a fine lament
I thought governors ended their lives
as sweetly drunken monks
telling time by rain and candles
instructed by an insect’s pilgrimage
across the page—all this
so one might send an exile’s perfect letter
to an ancient hometown friend

I chose a lonely country
broke from love
scorned the fraternity of war
I polished my tongue against the pumice moon
floated my soul in cherry wine
a perfumed barge for the lords of memory
to languish on to drink to whisper out
their store of strength
as if beyond the mist along the shore
their girls their power still obeyed
like clocks wound for a thousand years
I waited until my tongue was sore

Brown petals wind like fire around my poems
I aimed them at the stars but
like rainbows they were bent
before they sawed the world in half
Who can trace the canyoned paths
cattle have carved out of time
wandering from meadowlands to feasts
Layer after layer of autumn leaves
are swept away
Something forgets us perfectly

and then a second dream
(2021; words: Luciano Iacobelli; baritone or other voice, piano; 3'30”)

And then a second dream

by Luciano Iacobelli

beached on my lawn where at night I cool my feet
(the small patch of grass miraculously stretched into a playing field)
was a decomposing whale
a stranded sublimity
an exiled size
a deleted portion of the sea’s magnitude
a proportion decommissioned by the universe
an evacuation of all the blessings ever bestowed on the animal
exited the blowhole
a swarm of fireflies

had I know the water would creep this far inland
I would have moved to higher ground
avoided the putrefaction
the meat and blubber decaying into cracked icons and baptismal font
broken pews and organ pipes

and one of the eyes was an altar strewn with ashes and playing chips
scattered decks with disintegrating suits
evidence of a game terminated long ago
a smell of loss in the air weighing down the atmosphere
a failed and final gamble

After the Love at Victoria Street
(2021; words: Boyd Warren Chubbs; baritone or other voice, piano; 3 min.)

After the Love at Victoria Street

by Boyd Warren Chubbs

There’s a warm hand upon my head
This land and sea have given a hand to spread upon my head tonight
and I go down to the water to rock and sing of plentiful and certain things:
the rapid malt of spring and brooks;
trees that shook themselves furious;
curious phantoms upon the rain path;
lain passages of bone and earth;
birth of sundogs and lavender;
fogs more delicate than breath;
sweat from laughter and the spark and fire;
a beautiful liar tender among thieves;
sleeves of light climbing the berry hills;
sills handsome with paint and lace;
a trace of raw sienna in the swimming tickle;
a brace of storms, sermons upon the walking, talking trees, and all around, the fossil barrens, cairns above home; the purple-grey stone staring; foam with its clothes, rolling the near shore
and a door thinning where, in a mesh of voice and strings, love goes.

(2021; words: Astrid Brunner; baritone or other voice, piano; 3 min.)


by Astrid Brunner

she sees the roses wither
and fall petal by petal
into the ashes of her heart.

let us be friends
says mary magdalene.

she hears the stars whisper
and fall arrow by arrow
into the ashes of her heart.

let us be friends
says mary magdalene.

she feels the blood chant
and fall tear by tear
into the ashes of her heart.

let us be friends
says mary magdalene.

she knows the phoenix sleep
and fall red by gold by blue
into the ashes of her heart.

let us be friends
says mary magdalene.

she unfolds her hair
and waits patience by patience by patience
over the ashes of her heart.

let us be friends
says mary magdalene.

Minuet 1
(2021; words: Astrid Brunner; baritone or other voice, piano; 2 min.)

Minuet I

by Astrid Brunner

and although i want to go out into the snowstorm
to stand there naked
and to shout my love for you
into the white howling wind

i too can write a letter
with this and that
in it.

and although i want to go out into the snowstorm
to stand there naked
and to fly into your arms
through the white howling wind

i too can write a letter
with this and that
in it.

and although i want to ride into the snowstorm
to shake my mane there naked
and to ride into your body
laughing on horseback
at the white howling wind

i too can write a letter
with this and that
in it.

and although i want to ride into the snowstorm
to melt my body naked into yours
from the ice
i have turned into
mighty water
with the heat of my love

should the ice return to the snowstorm
to your eyes
to my naked body

i too can write a letter
with this and that
and a saint or two
in it.

Last Paddle
(2020; words: Richard Sanger; baritone or other voice, piano; 6 min.)

Last Paddle

by Richard Sanger

Supper done and the August sun
about to go, the two of you
subtract yourselves from kitchen,
from dishes and grandchildren,
to take the blue canoe
out for one last paddle
round our summer sites,
these swimming rocks and heron swamps
north of Pointe-au-Baril.
There’s a lurch and a curse
as you embark, old antagonists
always ready to go
another round, to skirmish
as the canoe wobbles,
to spar over ancient foibles
or a loon that’s just popped up,
then laugh it off like drops
off a duck’s back, splish-splash,
resuming your old truce
with gentle, rhythmic strokes
and the laughter I hear echo
over the glowing water
as I stand and watch you go–
the two of you in silhouette
in the blue canoe, now black,
just an outline that merges into
the dark islands, their ragged skyline
of wind-tormented pines,
and re-emerges, as the sun
consumes itself behind,
yellow and orange and blazing red,
and the two of you paddle on,
paddle out towards the open,
the great big Georgian Bay—there,
there’s no troublesome strip
of earth to get in the way,
no horizon left to hold you back,
no more pain, or sorrow,
no ego, it’s all washed away
in mist, in this grey-white glow
the lake climbs right into the sky,
as I stand and watch you go,
your canoe just a speck
in the silver distance,
the whirls from your paddles
undoing, unspooling like thoughts,
or sentences trailing off
on the lake’s metallic surface
little galaxies that spin
and expend themselves
and vanish into the dark,
in which, having stood and watched
you subtract yourselves from us,
I see nothing but you gone–
you are the darkness you’ve left
and the evening’s first faint star.

(2020; words: Choucri Paul Zemokhol; baritone or other voice, piano; 3'15”)


by Choucri Paul Zemokhol

Moon, moon,
your soft steps in the velvet of night
circle my house,
you smile at me as I look out my window.

Moon, moon,
who knew me when I was young,
masquerading for me each night,
your veil slipping off so that I could see your honest face.

Moon, moon,
I am a crumb in the palm of your hand.
I feel your icy breath,
give me one last kiss.

Moon, moon,
I am coming to my last turns around your satin gown,
one tug upon your hem
and my bones dissolve.

Moon, moon,
I offer you my hand,
let us move through these nights like two old friends,
not knowing who conjured who.

(2020; words: Giovanna Riccio; baritone or other voice, piano; 5 min.)


words by Giovanna Riccio

I can still see the oak floor
the teacher unrolling my r’s
clipping my name—Joan.

Joan? I don’t know if that blunt
one-syllable turned my head,
but everywhere English flattened Italian,
and when my father snipped
my impractical long hair, I looked away,
pretended those orphaned ringlets
belonged to someone else.

Blonde, blue-eyed goddesses
who never ate garlic filled the temples
of the Golden Book Encyclopedia,
the face of Ancient Rome
belonged to our teacher now,
but blinded statues in pictures, old sun
threaded in the cracks of fallen ruins
were calling me.

Later, my fingers clutched
the boarding pass, I remember the airplane
lifting me to a warm unknowing sleep,
sudden morning opening onto old stone,
July heat rusting on palm trees, wind cupped
in the umbrella pines and everywhere taxis.

I rode
back into my dusty body, into Rome’s
dusky fall echoing in the stone,

From the Italian stone
my numbed blood flowed naturally,
I heard my name calling from
the balcony, Giovanna
our old house-bound language, free
in the rowdy streets, songs we hummed
sottovoce singing at the top of their voices.

I rested, leaning
on the smoky marble’s mineral veins.

Impossible stone flowed
everywhere that summer,
familiar figures I had never seen before
gestured to me from the rooftops
and because I could accept the gesture
the blunt sounds softened,
my tongue, my bones, grew more porous
and the child I had locked away
flowed out of the hardness into my voice
and gave me my name.

(2023; piano; 20 min. 3 movements: 1. Roam; 2. Barcarolle; 3. Burble)

NB: Passage, Movement 1 (Roam) begins at 00:04:23; Movement 2 (Barcarolle) at 00:15:40; Movement 3 (Burble) at 00:19:08

Program Note: Passage (2023), for solo piano, by James Rolfe

Passage was originally written for Halifax pianist Barbara Pritchard. The premiere was delayed first by the pandemic, and then by an injury which prevented Barbara from playing the piece. Halifax pianist Joseph Dowell premiered it in Dartmouth in November 2023.

The piece is in three movements: Roam, Barcarolle, and Burble. These are loosely programmatic names; a barcarolle is a boating song sung by a gondolier in a gently rocking 6/8 metre. The title, Passage, refers to the passing of time, both in musical terms, and over a longer span, in this case as the thirty-year lapse between my first solo piano work (also originally written for for Barbara) and this one. Beyond this, I think of a piece of music as navigating a journey, be it brief or epic; a passage is also a kind of birth or rebirth, travelling through waters smooth or rough, from the known into the unknown, or from youth to old age to whatever lies beyond.

Passage was created with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.

Four Alibis
(2022; piano; 20 min. 4 movements.)

NB: Movement 1 at 00:00:01; Movement 2 at 00:07:31; Movement 3 at 00:12:08; Movement 4 at 00:14:38

Program Note: Four Alibis

Four Alibis (2020) is the story of five notes, the lower half of a D major scale—sunny, innocent, and open. Over four movements, this snippet falls and rises across the piano’s seven octaves, in long notes and short, fast and slow, loud and soft, moving contrapuntally at different speeds or keys, like currents in a swirling river. Shadowy flattened minor-key versions lurk up from the depths and assume control; figures flit lightly past and dissolve into thin air. In some ways, this piece is a tribute to Beethoven and Schubert, to their ability at the keyboard to conjure up something out of nothing, weaving shaggy dog stories and eccentric loping dances out of the most unassuming yarn. It’s also a portrait of and tribute to my friend and colleague, Simon Docking, to whom it is dedicated. Four Alibis was written with the support of The Canada Council for the Arts.

O Greenest Branch
(2019; words by Hildegard von Bingen, Ephraim of Bonn, and Chaim Nachman Bialik; soprano, chorus SSAA, perc., organ; 17 min.)

Program note for O Greenest Branch by James Rolfe

The song cycle O Greenest Branch was requested by Halifax’s Vocalypse as a companion piece to their production of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum (ca. 1151). The beauty and devotion of Hildegard’s music are still fresh today; yet at the very time and place of its creation, mobs were murdering Jews in the name of Christianity. I have tried to grasp this jarring dissonance by setting Ephraim of Bonn’s mediaeval Hebrew lament mourning his fellow Jews—victims of Crusader massacres which occurred during Hildegard’s lifetime—and a 20th-century lament by Chaim Nachman Bialik alongside two texts of Hildegard.

This piece opened a door for me to deal creatively with my family’s history. I am descended from Rhineland Jews who lived through periodic exile and violence from the First Crusade in 1096 through to the Holocaust. I hope that what is personal for me will also connect to listeners of our time and place. We all live in the shadow of genocide, whether it took place far away and long ago, or in the here and now, in Canada.

O Greenest Branch was finished in 2019, with the assistance of a grant from The Canada Council for the Arts; this marks its pandemic-postponed premiere. My thanks to Janice Jackson for asking for the work and presenting it; to Jennifer Bain for talking Hildegard; to the wonderful performers for giving of their hearts, souls, and skills; and to you, the audience, for listening—I have missed you all!

Lyrics for O Greenest Branch (translations by James Rolfe)

Hildegard von Bingen (Germany, 1098 – 1179): Viridissima virga (O greenest branch) (1)

O greenest branch
Whose buds burst forth from the breath of holy prayers
Now the time has come for all your branches to blossom
The sun’s warmth draws forth from you the fragrance of balsam
The heavens drop their dew upon the grass, and all the earth rejoices
Her womb brings forth wheat, and the birds of heaven nest in her.

Ephraim of Bonn (Germany, 1132 – 1200): Lament for the Massacre at Blois

Woe is me if I speak and betray my creator.
Woe is me if I do not speak, if I do not pour out my anxious heart.
Woe is me, all my good days are behind me,
all my friends and dear ones are far, far away.
To whom can you compare me, who has suffered like me,
is there a people, of all the peoples, that has been broken for its sins like me?
Your wrath has swept over my soul, I writhe in pain.

I am stoned, I am struck down and crucified.
I am burnt, my neck is snapped in shame.
I am beheaded and trampled for my guilt.
I am strangled and choked by my enemy.
I am beaten, my body is scourged.
I am killed, I am at the mercy of a lion.
I am crushed as if in an oil press, my blood is squeezed out.
I am hanged, despised, exiled in pain.
I am stamped on, ruined, left to despair.
My blood is shed, my skin turned inside out, my house burnt down.
I am pursued, knocked down by my opponent.
I am raped, I am damned by my enemy.
I am driven into hiding and led into captivity.

Hildegard von Bingen: O rubor sanguinis (O redness of blood) (1)

O redness of blood
flowing from on high
touched by divinity,
you are a flower
that the serpent’s icy breath
never harmed.

Chaim Nachman Bialik (Russia / Palestine, 1873 – 1934): On the Slaughter

O Heaven, beg mercy for me!
If there’s a God in you, and a path to that God–
which I’ve not found–
then pray for me!
My heart’s dead, no prayer on my lips;
My strength long gone, my hopes faded.
How much more, how much longer, how much more?

You, hangman! Here’s my neck—get up, slaughter me!
Behead me like a dog! Yours is the mighty arm and axe,
and all the world my scaffold—and we, we are so small!
My blood is fair game—hack my skull,
and the blood of murder, of babies and old men,
will soak your clothes
and stain them forever and ever.

And if there be justice, let it come now!
But if justice comes after I have been
wiped out from beneath heaven–
May its throne be cast down forever!
May heaven rot in eternal evil!
And you, murderers, wallow in your bloodbath,
May you be cleansed by it.

And cursed be the man who cries: revenge!
Such a revenge—revenge for the blood of a small child–
Satan has not yet dreamed up.
Let their blood pierce the abyss!
Let their blood seep down
to the depths of darkness, and wash away
the rotten foundations of the earth.

Hildegard von Bingen: O rubor sanguinis (O redness of blood) (2)

O redness of blood
flowing from on high
touched by divinity,
you are a flower
that the serpent’s icy breath
never harmed.

Hildegard von Bingen: Viridissima virga (O greenest branch) (2)

O greenest branch
Whose buds burst forth from the breath of holy prayers
Now the time has come for all your branches to blossom
The sun’s warmth draws forth from you the fragrance of balsam
The heavens drop their dew upon the grass, and all the earth rejoices
Her womb brings forth wheat, and the birds of heaven nest in her.

Combined with Jewish prayer:

Sh’ma yisraeil, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad [Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, God is one.]

I Think We Are Angels
2018; song cycle, words by Else Lasker-Schüler; translated into English by composer; soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone, accordion; 40 min.)

Excerpts from archival premiere recording: #13 (“Inward, into the light”) and #16 (“Friday Night”)

Program Note: I Think We Are Angels, a song cycle of 16 songs

words by Else Lasker-Schüler (Germany – Israel, 1869 – 1945); music by James Rolfe

Else Lasker-Schüler was a Jewish-German poet active in the early decades of the 20th century. She was associated with the Blue Rider group of expressionist artists (a group for which she coined the name), including such painters as Kandinsky, Klee, Franz Marc, and Lyonel Feininger. Lasker-Schüler created a body of poetry which dealt with romantic and sensual love, as well as with spirituality and Judaism. Only weeks after being awarded Germany’s highest literary prize in 1933, she was accosted by Nazi thugs in the streets of Berlin. She immediately fled, at first to Switzerland, and finally to Jerusalem, where she died in 1945. Her life was difficult. She had little sense of how to handle money, and often lived in dire poverty. Her beloved son became estranged from her, and then died before he was 30. Her two marriages ended in divorce, and she ended her days lonely and impoverished.

The poems in this song cycle are arranged more or less in the chronological order of their writing, beginning with “The end of the world”, about the death of God. Love follows: passionate love (2, 3, 5), clear calm love (4, 6, 7, 10), innocent playful love (8, 9), love tinged with melancholy (11). “Evensong” (12), with its frustrated longing for God, marks a turning point. Now we have broken love (13) and loneliness (“My Blue Piano”, 14). Death approaches (“I Know”, 15), and we end with a timeless Jewish Shabbat (“Friday Night”, 16). The arc of songs describes a journey: from the youthful celebration of physical, sensual love, we travel through loneliness and a yearning for God, arriving finally at an acceptance of suffering and death. The journey mirrors that of the poet’s life, but it also rings true as a life journey for many of us.

I Think We Are Angels was co-commissioned by Michael and Sonja Koerner and Stanley H. Witkin for Soundstreams Canada (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director). The German texts have been translated into English by the composer.


I Think We Are Angels: Selected Poems by Else Lasker-Schüler

1 The End Of The World

There is a weeping in the world
as if the Good Lord had died.
His leaden shadow swoons
and overflows His dismal grave.

Come, let’s hide close together…
Life lies in every heart
as if in a coffin.

O! Let’s kiss deeply–
a longing knocks at the world
of which we must surely die.

2 Shulamite

O, at your sweet mouth I learned
too much of bliss!
Already I feel Gabriel’s lips
burning on my heart.
Oh, how your life beckons me!
And I am undone
with blossoming sorrow,
and drift in space,
in time,
in eternity,
and my soul glows in the evening colours
of Jerusalem.

3 Sensual Passion

Your wicked mouth is my death chamber.
Its sweet narcotic fragrance
sends all my virtues to sleep.
My senses reel, I drink from its well
and sink limply into its depths,
stealing glimpses into hell.

My body glows hot beneath your breath.
It trembles like a young rose
kissed by warm May showers.
–I follow you into a wilderness of sin
and pluck fire lilies by the roadside
–even if I may never find my way home again.

4 Love

Rustling through our sleep,
a fine breeze, silk,
like blossoms trembling
over us.
And I am carried homeward
on your breath
through enchanted fairytales
and buried sagas.

And my crooked smile plays
across the depths of your features
and worlds
nestle with us.

Rustling through our sleep
a fine breeze, silk,
the age-old dream
blesses us both.

5 When You Come

Let’s hide day in the chalice of night,
we who long for the night.
Our bodies are golden stars
that long to kiss and kiss.

Do you smell the roses sleeping
on the dark grass?
So will our night be–
our golden bodies long to kiss.

I keep falling from night to night.
All heaven flowers thick with sparkling love.
Our bodies long to kiss and kiss.

6, 7 I Think We Are Angels

When we gaze at each other,
Our eyes blossom.

And we are amazed
At the miracles we create.
And all is sweetness.

We are circled by stars
And fly out of this world.

I think we are angels.

8 Oh, Your Hands

Oh, your hands
are my children.
All my toys
lay in their hollows.

I always play soldiers
with your fingers, little riders,
till they fall down.

How I do love them,
your boyish hands, the two of them.

9 Giselheer As A Boy

From my eyelash hangs a star
it’s so bright
how shall I sleep–

I’d like to play with you.
–I have no homeland–
Let’s play King and Prince.

10 Night Secret

I have chosen you
among all these stars.

And I wake—a flower listening
among the humming leaves.

Our lips long to make honey,
our shimmering nights flourish.

From the holy spark of your body
my heart sets its heavens alight.

All my dreams hang from your gold.
I have chosen you among all these stars.

11 I Love You

I love you
and find you
even though the day grows dark.

All my life long
until now
I have wandered searching.

I love you!
I love you!
I love you!

Your lips are opening…
the world is deaf,
the world is blind

even the clouds
and the leaves–
Only we—made
of golden dust–

12 Evensong

Onto a young rosebush
falls a soft rain from heaven
and the world grows ever more abundant.

O my God, my only God,
I thirst and cry out for you
among all your blessings.

Angels sing from on high:
“Today is God’s name day,
He who knows all that shall come to pass.”

And I can’t understand them,
I, who beneath their roof
keep waking in sorrow.

13 Inward, Into the Light

I always think of death.
Nobody loved me.

I wish I were a quiet picture
on an altar, and all in me were extinguished.

This dreamy coloured sunset
stains my raw eyes with tears.

And who knows where to turn
when everywhere is you.

You are my secret home,
and I want nothing more.

How I long to blossom
into your heart’s blue skies–

I lay down nothing but soft paths
around your pulsing house.

14 My Blue Piano

At home I have a blue piano
but cannot play a single note.

It stands in the dark of the cellar door,
ever since the world went rotten.

Four hands of the stars play
–the moon’s wife sang in her boat–
Now the rats dance and clatter.

Its keyboard is shattered–
I cry for the dead blue thing.

O dear angel, I eat such bitter bread—
please, for me, while I still live—
though it be forbidden—
please open Heaven’s door.

15 I Know

I know that soon I must die,
Yet all the trees are radiant
After the longed-for kiss of July–

My dreams have faded–
Never before have I drawn such gloomy endings
In my books of rhyme.

You pick a flower to greet me–
I loved it already in the bud.
Yet I know that soon I must die.

My breath hangs over God’s river–
Softly I set my foot
On the path to my eternal home.

16 Friday Night

The candles burn on Friday night,
Their flames rise up to heaven.
God sees even the smallest light.

I fold my hands in the evening hour
And hear the same thing from all Jewish lips
as we kneel on Friday evening before the flame:
Have mercy, dear Father, and soften their hearts.
My body and soul shall fast on.

Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist
(2017; words by Steven Heighton; baritone, picc., bass cl., pno., perc., vln., vlc.; 17 min.)

Program Notes: Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist (2017; words by Steven Heighton, music by James Rolfe)

Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist sets to music three poems from Steven Heighton’s 2016 book The Waking Comes Late: “Coronach, Post-Kandahar”; “Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist”; and “Humanitarian War Fugue”. The poems look through different lenses at Canadian Forces veterans returning from the Afghan war. I was drawn to them for their vivid portrayal of the traumas suffered by returning soldiers and those close to them. The poems address the men’s struggles with overwhelming emotions and stress, and in particular the difficulties that they face in a society that values masculine self-control and strength—a dilemma which becomes unbearably intense when those men must transition from violence to peace. The poems themselves reference musical elements, notably the coronach (a Scottish pipe tune mourning the dead) and the fugue, which are reflected in the music itself.

The connection of this concert to the 150th anniversary of Confederation offers a wonderfully apt context in which to acknowledge the contributions of soldiers to our country, as well as to give voice to the pain they experience at war and at home.

Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist was commissioned by Continuum Contemporary Music with the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council. My thanks to them, to Ryan Scott (Artistic Director, Continuum) and to Steven Heighton.

The poems: (© 2016 by Steven Heighton)


The damaged individual is invited to seek treatment, albeit at some future date
Lance-corporal, here— this comfort song, or (if prayer is the protocol you prefer) this prayer.
When you visit the clinic we’ll cook up a cure for your sadness and panic.
Meanwhile pills, meanwhile prayer.
Even to an atheist God’s the Omega of a shotgun’s business end.
The patient, still on a waiting list, suffers a major coronary, for which he is promptly treated
His ribcage we cracked and his heart we drew clear like a red, writhing newborn pulled from the rubble.
They said that in public his punchlining brilliance disguised desperation.
Take this, if you’re manic— come visit the clinic— we’ve an opening early next March.
Even to an atheist God’s the cold ordnance of a twelve-gauge applied to the heart.
In which an appointment, of kinds, is finally found for our patient
At the wake (closed casket)
the piper was drunk
but managed a coronach.

The Calvados by lamplight is an oily gold, a liquor pressed from bullion. Taste the essence of Norman summers—the fruit-sweetening sun, salt-bearing breezes of the English Channel, flotillas of cloud cooling the coastline. Proustian autumns, mellow and rich; the windless weeks of the apple harvest. Your snifter, brimming with brandy, exhales the scent of ancient orchards.
With your patient you are driving a dog-sled over a frozen sea under a sky trembling with a red aurora, blood pouring down a dark face. Your patient yells and whips the team onward. A bitch is whelping as she runs, dropping raw, mouse-sized pups onto the ice. The other dogs scoop them up and swallow them without breaking pace. You hurtle north toward that sky and, you are certain, open water.
The drink’s mission is to italicize the effect of several dozen tranquillizers while masking their aftertaste. You arrange the Celestanox (7.5 mg) on the edge of your desk, in neat formation, like a cycle of birth control pills. This really ought to do it. You chase them with another full snifter and taste again those schoolboy summers at Grand-papa’s orchard near St-Valentin.
The ones coming back from the war are the worst. You listen and prescribe—rest cure, work cure, drugs. You’d rather not prescribe them but you must. Even dust degrades to finer dust. We find you slumped at your desk in a pool of your own fluids and we revive you, pump your stomach, and your body survives. Bodies are made to, minds not so much. The ones that come back from the war, etcetera. Even dust falls to finer dust.
Your patient grew up in northern Quebec, son of a white trapper and Inuit mother. At twenty, Pete saw the war as a way out. And so it was. Up there everyone knew how to use a shotgun, he said, because of the fucking bears, though he never had to kill one. He did waste a guy in Panjwai with his C7 and it wasn’t like online. Wasn’t even a man—wouldn’t a man over there have a beard?
“Yes, I fear so.” Doctor, feel but don’t overfeel.
Above all, don’t get too involved! You can care but you must not love! Up north, when a big tide went out, they could crawl and then walk under the ice and it was alcohol blue and they could hear the sea in the far off and Sorels treading above. Pete kept coming back to that, curled like a glove in his chair. Many came home like him, but not all kept shotguns ready. When the tide returns, man, you gotta move fast!
Doctor, I order you not to love.

We killed with the best of intentions. The goals that we died for were sound. The notions we killed for were sterling, our motives the sort that one mentions, frankly, with pride.
Quit scrupling, quibbling, lying down and lay this down: Bad guys by the graveful we gunned down so girls, little girls by the classful, could go to school. Girls, too, busing to school, we slew so girls could go to school unharmed, in error we slew them, with better intentions, bad eggs however we harmed to win hearts, warm cockles, gain guts and livers and limbs and minds with decent intentions, good eggs we even armed (only good eggs armed)—the rest we smashed, truncated, atomized until the doves among us buckled, seldom seeing dead men un-dismantled, while heads of this and that kept touting, hawking our cause like crack, our crystal intentions, motives one mentions especially when aim is less than exact and friendlies get fried . . .
With downsized intentions we killed and we strafed and we mortared and missiled and mined, sniped too, droned too, till we wilted to haunts in OSI wards, nightly wading tarns and tar-ponds incarnadine, and they dosed and discharged and forsook us, but on we kept killing with credible reasons in a lush neural loop of gibbering visions from hovering gunships, maniacally hooting, culling the groundlings with motives forgotten to a playlist of metal eternally cycling . . .
Of course, looking back, you would like to reboot and start over, but there is no over— this spraying and shredding forever recursive— this Gatling drum always ample with ammo— and papa and papa our weapons keep bleating— a ceaseless returning and endless rehearsing— you’re killing with the best of with the best of them killing with the best of with the best of them, killing,

Against Nature
(2016, song cycle, words by Alex Poch-Goldin; 2 bass-bar., vln., vlc., pno.; 60 min.)

Against Nature: synopsis

Des Esseintes, a jaded, wealthy aristocrat, disenchanted with his life of urban debauchery, decides to seclude himself in a country estate, far from the society and temptations of Paris. Apart from an elderly couple as servants, he cuts himself off absolutely from society. He recreates nature within his chateau, sparing no expense or artifice to improve upon the original. An aquarium is constructed, complete with mechanical fish and the deck of a ship. He devours not only books but entire literatures—Roman and Greek and French classics—only to reject almost every author except his beloved Baudelaire. A living tortoise is encrusted with jewels, the better to match his sumptuous oriental rugs, only to have the tortoise die, whereupon he has it thrown out. A greenhouse is set up with the rarest, most expensive flowers, but they too fade and die. And so it goes with paintings, with music, with a contortionist-prostitute: all fail to satisfy him before he loses interest.

As he experiments, Des Esseintes experiences flashbacks to his youth: his days at Catholic boarding school, his youthful excesses. Meanwhile, his rich diet, odd hours, lack of society, and staying indoors for months on end cause his health to decline rapidly. His doctor prescribes fresh air, exercise, and a healthy diet, but this advice is ignored. He sets out instead on a journey to England, but doesn’t make it out of France before he retreats to his home. At last he becomes so ill that his doctor tells him he must give up his chateau in favour of Paris or face certain death. At this, he relents, and reluctantly leaves the countryside to return to Paris.

Against Nature is the story of a man who is prepared to sacrifice his health in his quest for the most beautiful, the finest, the most intense aesthetic experiences. He catalogues each sensory pleasure, and rejects anything that falls short of his standards. Setting himself apart and against society, and against the compromises necessary to live this life, he fails in his experiment—fails badly, but heroic ally.

Excerpts from reviews

Rolfe’s score is an accomplishment: spare, ominous and atmospheric. It’s sung with clarity and sustained feeling by Dobson in the lead role (The Master), who finds the necessary electric mania in his eyes. – Martha Schabas, The Globe and Mail, 6 May 2016

Rolfe’s score was both sensitive to the needs of the singer while creating a beautiful sonority in the trio … there were moments where they blended so well with the singers that it was hard to tell which instrument onstage was actually producing the pitch. The effect was mesmerizing. Bravi tutti. – Greg Finney, Scmopera. 13 May 2016

Kadosh / Sanctus / Holy
(2019; choir SSAATTB with violoncello; 6 min.)

Program note: Kadosh / Sanctus /Holy (2019) for choir and violoncello by James Rolfe

When Ivars Taurins suggested I write a piece to fill one of the missing sections of Lotti’s Mass, I was stumped. I felt that the Mass texts had grown heavy and dusty over millennia of indoor use. Beyond that, I am more drawn to spirituality than to formal religion. Looking more closely, though, I was attracted to the Sanctus, which begins “Holy, holy, holy”. Its text is taken from the Kedusha, a central part of the Jewish Shabbat service, beginning “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”–a magical incantation, one often echoed in literature, notably in Allen Ginsberg’s poem Footnote to Howl. To me, spirituality is about seeing and praising the holiness of creation—in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us—as if that creation were new again, arousing feelings of awe, wonder, joy, gratitude, oneness. I have tried to make music which embodies this: the word kadosh is quietly savoured, caressed, and shared by all the singers in intimate close harmonies; the rest of the music flows from this word. The Hebrew text is sung first; then the Latin text is added next to it, and finally the English. Distinct languages and religions are placed next to each other, in harmony, united in praising the divine.

Winter Songs
(2017; words: Archibald Lampman & Walt Whitman; brass band with choir SSAATTBB; 11')

Program Notes: Winter Songs (2017, music by James Rolfe, words by Archibald Lampman (1861 – 1899) and Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)

Winter Songs explores Christmas from the perspective of having grown up in an atheist home in suburban Ottawa in the 1960s. For me, Christmas was winter, new snow, skiing, presents, no school, playing all day indoors and out, eating, and singing. Some of my earliest and fondest musical memories are of Christmas carols, such as Silent Night and Away in a Manger, which can still bring tears to my eyes. Carols celebrate childhood, as well as rebirth, hope, renewal, and especially peace. They express our profound collective yearning to live in peace and harmony with ourselves and our fellow creatures. These themes connect to pre-Christian celebrations of winter solstice and the new year which have since become associated with the Christmas season—themes which I aim to evoke in this work.

This ten-minute work includes a brass band of 20 brass instruments (a mix of trumpets, cornets, horns, euphoniums, trombones, and tubas) and two percussionists, as well as a large mixed choir. The words consist of two poems (see texts below) by Ottawa poet Archibald Lampman (1861-1899) and one by American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). The Lampman poems speak eloquently to the wonder, peace, and beauty of winter in Ottawa, while Whitman invokes the bursting life force that lies latent beneath ice and snow.

Winter Songs was commissioned by the Hannaford Street Silver Band with the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council. My thanks to them and to David Pell (Artistic Director, HSSB).

After Mist (Archibald Lampman)

Last night there was a mist. Pallid and chill
The yellow moon-blue clove the thickening sky,
And all night long a gradual wind crept by,
And froze the fog, and with minutest skill
Fringed it and forked it, adding bead to bead,
In spears, and feathery tufts, and delicate hems
Round windward trunks, and all the topmost stems,
And every bush, and every golden weed;
And now upon the meadows silvered through
And forests frosted to their farthest pines–
A last faint gleam upon the misty blue–
The magic of the morning falls and shines,
A creamy splendour on a dim white world,
Broidered with violet, crystalled and impearled.

Winter Uplands (Archibald Lampman)

The frost that stings like fire upon my cheek,
The loneliness of this forsaken ground,
The long white drift upon whose powdered peak
I sit in the great silence as one bound;
The rippled sheet of snow where the wind blew
Across the open fields for miles ahead;
The far-off city towered and roofed in blue
A tender line upon the western red;
The stars that singly, then in flocks appear,
Like jets of silver from the violet dome,
So wonderful, so many and so near,
And then the golden moon to light me home–
The crunching snowshoes and the stinging air,
And silence, frost, and beauty everywhere.

Unseen Buds (Walt Whitman)

Unseen buds, infinite, hidden well,
Under the snow and ice, under the darkness, in every square or cubic inch,
Germinal, exquisite, in delicate lace, microscopic, unborn,
Like babes in wombs, latent, folded, compact, sleeping;
Billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting,
(On earth and in the sea—the universe—the stars there in the heavens,)
Urging slowly, surely forward, forming endless,
And waiting ever more, forever more behind.

(2016; words by D. H. Lawrence; choir SATB; 8 min.)

Premiered in 2016 by Da Capo Chamber Choir, conducted by Leonard Enns.

The Overcoat
(2018; libretto by Morris Panych; opera for 11 singers and 12 instruments; 110 min.)

Librettist: Morris Panych

Commissioner: Tapestry Opera (Artistic Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori), with Canadian Stage and Vancouver Opera

Premiere: April 2018, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, ON; May 2018, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, BC

Performers: 11 voices (3 sopranos, 2 mezzi, 2 tenors, 3 baritones, 1 bass), 12 players (piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, keyboard, accordion (optional), 2 violins, viola, violoncello, bass)

Duration: 110 minutes (2 acts)


The Overcoat (based on the Gogol story of the same name) traces the rise and fall of the bumbling Akakiy Akakievich. At work, his colleagues mock him cruelly, and at the hovel he calls home, his landlady is lecherous and maternal by turn. Winter is approaching, and his old overcoat is threadbare and tattered, so Akakiy saves every last kopeck to commission a new coat from his neighbour, a drunken mercurial tailor. The coat turns out to be so fabulous that Akakiy makes a sensation at work. His boss admires him, his colleagues toast him, and he’s invited to a glamourous party, where he flirts, dances, gets very drunk, and staggers off. He gets lost in a bad part of town and is robbed of his coat. Back home, he hallucinates; a doctor is summoned, who sees no hope of recovery. Akakiy finishes his days in an insane asylum.

Press excerpt

This is it, everyone. The Overcoat is without question a part of the operatic canon of the 21st century. It has all the moving parts of a show that entertains, and it has that perfect triumvirate – text, music, and production – that will stand up to future generations of critics, the way Mozart’s or Verdi’s work does today … I don’t think I’ve been to an opera in Canada – a world premiere, at that – with a more obviously enthusiastic audience response; the show was punctuated with laughter and spontaneous applause. Indeed, The Overcoat is so beautifully crafted from the inside out, that it seemed no piece of the puzzle – no phrase, no piece of design, no performer onstage – could be removed without the show losing its magic. – Jenna Simeonov, Globe and Mail, March 31, 2018


Pirate Song
(2017; libretto by Anna Chatterton; solo soprano; 11 min.)

Pirate Song tells the true story of two 18th-century female pirates, Mary Read of England and Ann Bonny of Ireland. To go to sea, they disguised themselves as men, and mixed business with pleasure by becoming lovers in 1720 while aboard a pirate ship captained by Calico Jack Rackham. When attacked by the British crown later that year in Jamaica, the two women put up a fierce fight (unlike their male comrades who cowered in the hold), but were captured. Pirate Song begins at their trial: the judge finds pirates Mary Read and Ann Bonny guilty, and asks if they have anything to say in their defence. Mary tells of her brutal pirate mother; Ann tells of abuse and abandonment by her lover Calico Jack Rackham, and how she found solace in Mary. The judge sentences both women to hang. They respond with a desperate duet in which they “plead the belly”, claiming to be pregnant, which under English common law would postpone their hanging. Their request is granted, though their fate is merely suspended, as they are doomed to hang after their babies are born.

Pirate Song was commissioned by Janice Isabel Jackson, who premiered it in Halifax in 2017.

(2015; libretto by Anna Chatterton; opera for 6 voices (2 sopr., mezzo, tenor, bari., bass-bari.), vln., vlc., pno.; 100 min.)

Welcome to this 21st century version of Don Juan. Our protagonist is now a woman, Donna, owner of a sex club, who pursues men and women alike. Accompanied by her faithful and long-suffering assistant Sam, she defends herself against Matt, an aggressive spurned lover (by murdering him), beds the innocent newlyweds Otto and Anna, and romances Matt’s young daughter Lola—all before the first intermission. The second half finds Donna on the run by night, still playing havoc with Otto and Anna, and frustrating Sam’s romantic pursuit of Otto. Matt’s ghost appears and tells Lola that Donna doesn’t love her, how Donna murdered him, and that they must seek vengeance together. Matt (in the form of a taxi driver) takes Donna and Sam to a lakeside beach party, which becomes a place of reckoning for Donna, as her past victims confront her. Defying them, she dives into the lake, whereupon Lola dives in after her and pulls her under. They both drown.

The Canadian Opera Company commissioned us in 2006 to create Swoon, a kind of contemporary version of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Following its success, we were drawn to Don Giovanni, and had the notion to change the hero into a woman. This really changed the story, aligning it more with contemporary and transgressive ideas about gender roles and sexual orientation. We also thought it important that the justice meted out against Donna is not about adultery, but about her cruelty and mockery of the people around her. It helps us to care for these people, in spite of their foibles; they carry the emotional weight of the opera. Crush took five years to write: two for the libretto, three to compose. We worked closely together on the storyline, with thoughtful dramaturgy by Guillaume Bernardi and Brendan Healy.

Crush was commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company, under the late Richard Bradshaw. It received a workshop production in August 2015 the Theatre Department of The Banff Centre, mounted by Against the Grain Theatre and director Joel Ivany in partnership with the COC.

Fanfare for Two Trumpets
(2015; 2 trumpets in C; 45 seconds)

Fanfare for Two Trumpets was commissioned and written in 2015 on the occasion of the installation of William Robins as President of Victoria University of the University of Toronto.

Blast Off
(2015; 2 trumpets in C; 1 minute 20 seconds)

Blast Off (for two trumpets) was commissioned and written in 2015 on the occasion of the installation of William Robins as President of Victoria University of the University of Toronto.

Brand New Music
(2015; picc/fl, cl/bass cl, vibr/perc, piano, vln, vlc; 16 minutes)

Brand New Music looks at the 1972 Stylistics’ song You Make Me Feel Brand New from three separate angles. For each movement, I cut the song into one-bar sections and re-ordered them randomly, creating skeletons which I fleshed out in three styles. The original song was played at school dances when I was young and very shy. I still associate it with unfulfilled yearning and melancholy, although there is a good deal of playfulness mixed into these versions. The work is dedicated to my partners in the Collide collaboration, media artist Jason Baerg and scientist/artist Erin Fortier, as well as to Continuum Contemporary Music, with whom I share a happy collaboration of many years.

(2013; libretto by Steven Heighton; soprano, baritone, 2 violins, gamba, lute, organ; 20 minutes)


Europa was a Phoenician princess who was seduced and borne off to Crete by Zeus. There she bore him three sons, who became the founding fathers of Europe. It’s telling that European civilization, which has been a mixed blessing for the rest of the world, was founded upon what could be seen as a kidnapping and rape. This piece explores the conflicted feelings of Europa—whose enslavement to Zeus brings her exhilaration, violation, and humiliation—and those of her former lover Hiram, who has searched all his life for her, and for whom their reunion brings ecstasy, frustration, and death.

Europa was commissioned by the Toronto Masque Theatre (Larry Beckwith, Artistic Director), with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. My thanks go to the funders, for funding; to Larry, for asking; to all the cast and production team, for being excellent collaborators; and to Steven Heighton, for providing such eloquent and heartfelt words.

Europa was recorded on the 2017 disc, Breathe, featuring Suzie Leblanc and David Fallis.

(2013; words by André Alexis; baritone and piano; 12 minutes)

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The song cycle has a vital place in Western music, but there are surprisingly few contemporary Canadian examples of the form. Moths (2013) continues my collaboration with author André Alexis, with whom I have talked of writing song cycles since we began to work together. He conjured up a cycle of six songs tracing the journey of a sleeper through night and dreams, from darkness to light, from the visceral to the ethereal.

Moths was commissioned by Canadian Art Song Project (Lawrence Wiliford and Steven Philcox, co-artistic directors) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.

As if
(2013 picc, ob, cl, bsn, hn, tpt, tbn, perc, pno, 2 vlns, vla, vlc, CB; 15 min.)

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To say “as if”. To unfold a universe, one parallel to our own, just as alive, or more so. Two little words mapping some unmapped place. A longing for something that could be, or could have been, wishful or wistful or whimsical. As If, a piece dreamed up, an invisible journey, seeking its own level, at times flowing like water, then doubling back, remembering itself, echoing.

As If was commissioned by Aventa Ensemble (Bill Linwood, conductor) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.

Fresh Face
(2013; words by James Rolfe; soprano, harp; 3 min.)

Fresh Face was commissioned by Soundstreams Canada on the occasion of their 30th anniversary. It is dedicated to R. Murray Schafer, who suggested the musical theme (S-C-H-A-F-E-R) on which the words and music are built.

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.

(2011; orchestra (2222 2221 timp 2 perc str) and choir; 8 min.)

Program Note: Hope (2011) Music by James Rolfe, words by Emily Dickinson.

Hope was commissioned by North Toronto Collegiate Institute (Carol Ratzlaff, Head of Music Department) on the occasion of their 100th anniversary.



Poems (by Emily Dickinson)




Hope is a strange invention

A Patent of the heart

In unremitting action

Yet never wearing out


Of whose electric Adjunct

Not anything is known

Though its unique Momentum

Inebriate our own.




Musicians wrestle everywhere

All day, among the crowded air

I hear the silver strife.

And, waking long before the morn,

Such transport breaks up the town

I think it that “New Life”!


It is not bird, it has no nest,

Nor “Band” in brass and scarlet drest,

Nor Tamborin, nor Man;

It is not Hymn from pulpit read,

The “Morning Stars” the Treble led

On Time’s first Afternoon!


Some say, it is “the Spheres” at play!

Some say, that bright Majority

Of vanished Dames and Men!

Some think it service in the place

Where we, with late celestial face,

Please God, shall Ascertain!




Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all,


And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.


I’ve heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

(2012; words by Archibald Lampman; tenor and 8 vlc.; 4 songs; 13 min.)

The Ottawa poet Archibald Lampman (1861-1899) wrote passionate poems about winter. His words are tailored to his late Victorian readers, yet they transcend their time with beautifully effortless rhythm, phrasing, and imagery. The words conjure up the winters of my Ottawa childhood: the cold crisp clear air, the quiet distances and solitudes. I wrote these songs during summer 2012 in Wellington, New Zealand, far away from Canada, which was having perhaps its warmest-ever winter. These poems became an incantation, connecting me to a magical season, distant in time and place—a homage to a season which seems to be destined for extinction.

Winter was commissioned by New Music Concerts (Robert Aitken, Artistic Director) with the assistance of The Ontario Arts Council. Many thanks to Bob for asking, and to tenor Lawrence Wiliford for collaborating on the vocal writing.

Tango: Del Amor Imprevisto
(2011; words by Federico Garcia Lorca; contralto, vln., bandoneon, pno., bass; 4 min.)

As an Anglo-Canadian composer writing a tango, I’m skating on thin ice. How can my stolid northern soul find its way into the very particular poetry, singing, rhythm, and soul of this dance? This tango is an imaginary journey, as I clutch my own peculiar musical baggage, and Federico García Lorca guides me. His incandescent ghazal lends both spark and structure, leading me through the dance.

Tango: Del Amor Imprevisto was commissioned by Soundstreams (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director) for the Argentinian singer Roxana Fontan.

from El Divan del Tamarit by Federico García Lorca

Nadie comprendía el perfume
de la oscura magnolia de tu vientre. Nadie sabía que martirizabas
un colibrí de amor entre los dientes. Mil caballitos persas se dormían
en la plaza con luna de tu frente, mientras que yo enlazaba cuatro noches tu cintura, enemiga de la nieve.
Entre yeso y jazmines, tu mirada
era un pálido ramo de simientes.
Yo busqué, para darte, por mi pecho
las letras de marfil que dicen siempre, siempre, siempre: jardín de mi agonía, tu cuerpo fugitivo para siempre,
la sangre de tus venas en mi boca,
tu boca ya sin luz para mi muerte.

English Translation:

Ghazal of Unforseen Love

No one understood the fragrance
of the dark magnolia of your belly.
No one knew you tortured
a hummingbird of love between those teeth.

A thousand Persian ponies slept
in the moonlit plaza of your forehead, while four nights I bound myself
to your waist, the enemy of snow.

Between plaster and jasmine, your glance Was a pale branch of seeds.
I searched my breast
to give you the ivory letters that spell always,

always, always: garden of my agony,
your body always elusive,
the blood of your veins in my mouth,
your mouth already my tomb, empty of light.

Joyce Songs
(2009; words by James Joyce; sopr., mezzo, ten, bar.: 8 songs: 2 T, 2B, 2 TB, 2 SMTB; all with piano; 15 min.)

Program Note: Joyce Songs (2009) by James Rolfe


words by James Joyce; for soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone, and piano; duration ca. 15 minutes. The songs may be performed individually or in any combination, in any suitable order. Joyce Songs were commissioned by The Aldeburgh Connection (Stephen Ralls, Artistic Director) with the assistance of The Ontario Arts Council.


Song Texts


A Flower Given to My Daughter


Frail the white rose and frail are

Her hands that gave

Whose soul is sere and paler

Than time’s wan wave.


Rosefrail and fair– yet frailest

A wonder wild

In gentle eyes thou veilest,

My blueveined child.




Strings in the earth and air

Make music sweet;

Strings by the river where

The willows meet.


There’s music along the river

For Love wanders there,

Pale flowers on his mantle,

Dark leaves on his hair.


All softly playing,

With head to the music bent,

And fingers straying

Upon an instrument.




Bid adieu, adieu, adieu,

Bid adieu to girlish days,

Happy Love is come to woo

Thee and woo thy girlish ways — –

The zone that doth become thee fair,

The snood upon thy yellow hair,


When thou hast heard his name upon

The bugles of the cherubim

Begin thou softly to unzone

Thy girlish bosom unto him

And softly to undo the snood

That is the sign of maidenhood.




O cool is the valley now

And there, love, will we go

For many a choir is singing now

Where Love did sometime go.

And hear you not the thrushes calling,

Calling us away?

O cool and pleasant is the valley

And there, love, will we stay.




In the dark pine-wood

I would we lay,

In deep cool shadow

At noon of day.


How sweet to lie there,

Sweet to kiss,

Where the great pine-forest

Enaisled is!


Thy kiss descending

Sweeter were

With a soft tumult

Of thy hair.


O unto the pine-wood

At noon of day

Come with me now,

Sweet love, away.




Gentle lady, do not sing

Sad songs about the end of love;

Lay aside sadness and sing

How love that passes is enough.


Sing about the long deep sleep

Of lovers that are dead, and how

In the grave all love shall sleep:

Love is aweary now.




All day I hear the noise of waters

Making moan,

Sad as the sea-bird is when, going

Forth alone,

He hears the winds cry to the water’s



The grey winds, the cold winds are blowing

Where I go.

I hear the noise of many waters

Far below.

All day, all night, I hear them flowing

To and fro.




I hear an army charging upon the land,

And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:

Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,

Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.


They cry unto the night their battle-name:

I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.

They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,

Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.


They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:

They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.

My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?

My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?

Five and a Half Bridges
(2012; words by André Alexis; for voice, choir, oud, setar, perc, gamba; 14 min.)

When I spoke with the writer André Alexis about how to approach the subject of Jerusalem, he suggested we begin with the idea of the bridge—the bridge as metaphor for connection (Jerusalem itself being a place where many cultures meet), the bridge as erotic symbol, as symbol of desire and longing. He wrote verses for five actual bridges: Pont-Neuf in Paris; the Stone Arch in Shaharah, Yemen; Arkadiko in Mycenaea; Si-o-se Pol in Isfahan, Iran; and the Alexandra Bridge (a favourite from our Ottawa childhoods). They form a journey toward the final one in Jerusalem: imaginary, unfinished, a bridge to connect this world to our best imaginings of this world.

Five and a Half Bridges was commissioned by Soundstreams Canada (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.

(2010; words by Hildegard von Bingen, Anna Chatterton, Antonio Scandello; 2 sopr., mezzo, recorder, violin, perc., chamber organ, lute; 19 min.)

Breathe (2010) weaves together the words of German composers Hildegard von Bingen and Antonio Scandello with those of Toronto writer Anna Chatterton. Each part of the piece focuses on one of the four elements—air, fire, water, and earth—which are strongly present in the poetry. Water runs through the lyrical, flowing opening (“love overflows…”); air follows, quick and restless (breathing, sighing, rising, falling); then fire and earth, in warm, close intervals (“Most noble greenness, rooted in the sun, you shine bright and serene…”). These threads weave the piece together, and serve as metaphors for human closeness, desire, love, spirit—invisible threads that sustain us, that connect us to each other and to the divine.

Breathe was commissioned by Soundstreams Canada (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director) for Trio Mediaeval and the Toronto Consort, with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.

Why You
(2013, 4 perc.; 12 min.)

Writing for unpitched percussion means getting by without pitch, harmony, and melody—which only leaves the good stuff: rhythm, colour, and unbounded energy. I began with two tiny ideas, one from “Why This Kolaveri Di”, a viral Bollywood music and dance video from 2012, the other from Queen’s immortal “We Will Rock You”. They dance together, with a little help from the Balinese Gamelan piece “Liar Samas”. I was fortunate to collaborate on this piece with the choreographer Jacob Niedzwiecki, whose input helped to shape it, as did that of TorQ Percussion Quartet, who commissioned it. Why You was written with the assistance of a Toronto Arts Council Grant to Music Creators.

(2008; libretto by Paul Bentley; opera for 5 voices (sopr., mezzo, Fadista, 2 bass baritones), clarinet, violin, bass, piano, guitar; 100 min.)


Librettist: Paul Bentley
Commissioner: Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company (Co-artistic Directors John Hess and Daírine Ní Mheadhra)
Premiere: 25 February – 1 March 2009, Enwave Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 5 voices (soprano, mezzo, fado singer (contralto), baritone, bass baritone), 5 players (clarinet/bass clarinet, guitar, piano, violin, bass/bass guitar)
Duration: 85 minutes (11 scenes, one optional intermission)



Pedro Carmona, a young surgeon and son of a prominent Portuguese general, has escaped military service in Angola in 1968 by fleeing to Toronto with his upper-class wife Constanza. In order to survive, he has taken two jobs while he retrains to qualify as a doctor.

The opera begins as Constanza—sick of poverty, loneliness, and winter—explodes in frustration. She humiliates Pedro by threatening to get a job herself. Pedro storms out, and ends up at a Fado club, where he meets the Fadista Inês. He becomes a regular at the club, and love grows between him and Inês. In Lisbon, Pedro’s anxious parents haven’t heard from him for months. A telegram from the dictator Salazar informs them of Pedro’s desertion, ordering him to be captured and shot.

Pedro can resist Inês no longer: he goes to her apartment, and they consummate their love. Constanza, who has taken a job as a cleaner, discovers Pedro’s photograph in Inês’s dressing room, and confronts him. Inês arrives and tells them that she is carrying Pedro’s child. Constanza is crushed and begs for Pedro to come back, but he refuses, moving in with Inês instead. Summoned by Constanza, Pedro’s parents confront him, accuse him of harming the family’s name, and order him to return to his wife; again he refuses. Alone with his son, General Carmona tries some gentler persuasion, but to no avail. His wife decides that the only honourable solution is for the General to kill Inês; when he hesitates, she takes his gun, goes to the nightclub, and shoots Inês.

Constanza is appalled by the murder. The General hears from Pedro, who discovered Inês’s body while on duty at the morgue, and asks to meet his parents and wife at the cathedral, in order to repent his sins before them and before God. He does so, but then he takes the General’s gun and forces the others to drink Inês’s blood, a vessel of which he has saved from the morgue. He unveils her dead body, and forces the others to sing her praises. He shoots himself, whereupon Inês sings a final farewell.


Press excerpts

Rolfe’s writing for his five-player ensemble is transparent enough that I could distinguish virtually all of the sung English at Sunday’s opening performance. Rolfe also gives the listener plenty to hold onto throughout the piece, through repetitions of material that familiarize the ear with the music and give extra dimension to the drama. Rolfe cleverly uses fuguing to illustrate the desire of each of these singers that Pedro quit fooling around. The whole score was put together at that level of skill and economy. 

– Robert Everett-Green, Toronto Globe and Mail, 24 February 2009


The Story of Inês de Castro

In 14th-century Portugal, the heir to the throne, Prince Pedro, is married to Constanza. He falls in love with one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, Inês de Castro, who is from Galicia, in Spain. She becomes his mistress, and they have three children. The court is scandalized; but above all, the king fears Inês will increase Spanish influence on the Portuguese throne. He orders Inês to be killed—according to legend, in front of her children, while Pedro is away hunting. Pedro is beside himself with grief and rage, and wages war against his father. After a number of years, his father passes on, and Pedro becomes king. His first act is to arrest Inês’s killers, torture them, and bite their hearts (just as they had bitten his own heart). He then has Inês taken from her grave, dressed in royal robes, and—seating her on the queen’s throne—he orders his courtiers to kiss her bony hand. He has an elaborate tomb built for them at Alcobaça, which remains there to this day, inscribed “Death will never part us / Until the end of the world”.

The true story of Inês de Castro is a national epic in Portugal, and the anniversary of the death of the writer who immortalized it, Camões (who died June 10, 1580), is now Portugal’s national holiday.


A note on the opera Inês

The Queen of Puddings first heard Fado in 2001, at a Mariza concert in Toronto. When they approached me about writing an opera involving Fado, I began a fascinating journey into that music, of which I knew almost nothing, in spite of the large Portuguese presence in Toronto. My ears were opened: Fado is very operatic, with its dramatic, heart-grabbing singers and stories. And I was delighted to get acquainted with Inês de Castro, a beautiful and passionate story ready-made for opera, as well as the Portuguese language, which is practically music itself, rolling like the waves of the ocean. These influences flowed into my own music to make an opera which is married to both countries, just as the Portuguese in Canada have created a new world from the roots of an ancient one.

One of opera’s great pleasures is working with great people. Early on, Joe Blackmore, Ricardo Sternberg, and Manuela Marujo (all of The University of Toronto) were very helpful in illuminating Portuguese history, literature, and culture. My librettist Paul Bentley threw himself into the fray with gusto, and bore with me patiently through many drafts and changes while I grappled with the music. The director Jennifer Tarver provided crucial insights in the later stages. And the co-directors of The Queen of Puddings, John Hess and Daírine Ní Mheadhra, offered steadfast faith and encouragement from beginning to end. To all of you, my heartfelt thanks!

Aeneas and Dido
(2007; chamber opera, words by André Alexis; 2 sopr., mezzo, bar.; recorder, oboe, violin, viola, cello, harpsichord, lute; 35 min.)

Commissioner: Toronto Masque Theatre (Artistic Director Larry Beckwith) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts
Premiere: 25 – 28 April 2007, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 5 voices (3 sopranos, mezzo, baritone), 7 early instruments A415 (recorder, oboe, lute/theorbo, harpsichord/organ, violin, viola, cello). May also be performed on early or modern instruments at A440.
Duration: 35 minutes (6 scenes)

Aeneas and Dido is featured on the 2017 disc Breathe.


Program note

Both Purcell’s and Virgil’s versions of Dido and Aeneas feature an Aeneas who is a man of action. He is what he does, in contrast to Dido, who is what she feels. Aeneas and Dido tries to imagine Aeneas’s interior life. What drives Aeneas to choose an uncertain quest for a new homeland over Dido’s offer of love and country? His heart has been turned to ashes by witnessing the violence visited upon his Troy. Dido’s heart still aches from her husband’s death, yet she plucks up the courage to confess her love to Aeneas, making his rejection unbearably painful. Immersed as they are in their own suffering, they cannot grasp each other’s.


Press excerpts

And then there’s the score. Rolfe’s music is so easy to enjoy, it’s like the musical version of being articulate. It’s not at all spare or simplistic. In fact it often seems to skate towards dissonance and discord, but in a way that compels rather than challenges. There’s a visceral intelligence that pulls you along. And you’ll wonder how such insanely modern sounds are being pulled out of period instruments.

Aeneas and Dido is an impressive follow-up to Rolfe’s justly praised mini-opera Swoon, a class-comedy set in Rosedale that debuted at the Canadian Opera Company a few months ago. Another work, raW, recently won the Jules Leger Prize for New Chamber Music. Someone has to commission this guy to do a full-length work.

– Gord McLaughlin, Toronto Eye Weekly, 27 April 2007

(2006; chamber opera, words by Anna Chatterton; 2 sopr., ten., bar.; orch. 1111 1110 2 perc hp 11111; 50 min.)

Librettist: Anna Chatterton
Commissioner: Canadian Opera Company (Richard Bradshaw, Artistic Director) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts
Premiere: 6 – 9 December 2006, Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 4 voices (2 sopranos, tenor, baritone), 13 players (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass)
Duration: 45 minutes



Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…” (Shakespeare)

Leah and Roy, a young couple, arrive at Mona and Ari’s immaculate home, where Leah has been hired as a maid. The jealous Roy tries to get Leah to skip her first day on the job, but Leah, a practical punctual poet, is having none of it. Mona whisks Leah off on a dizzying tour of her duties. Husband Ari is at home, feeling sick and neglected. Leah reminds him of an old flame from years ago, and he is smitten again. While telling her his tale of lost love, he lavishes Leah with coy compliments. Leah is shocked, yet intrigued by his attentions.

But Roy (who has been spying) is in a jealous fury, and when Mona discovers him, he tells her about Ari’s advances. Mona is despondent and coaxes Roy to comfort her, which he does with increasing warmth. An alarmed Leah stumbles upon them, whereupon Mona hatches a plan to use Roy to bring her husband to heel–a plan to which Leah reluctantly agrees. Mona whisks Roy off, and Leah is left on her own to worry and wonder. When Ari approaches, she challenges him to live up to his sweet words. Ari is aroused, but then he hears his wife giggling in the next room. Mona gleefully introduces Roy, who is “here to fix all that’s broken.” She hurries Leah out of the room, leaving the two men alone.

Ari tells his woes, but Roy is disdainful, and struts off to play lover with Mona. Ari and Leah eavesdrop until Leah can take no more and calls a halt. Everyone is betrayed and humiliated, and angry accusations are spit back and forth until it is Roy’s turn to call a halt. He woos Leah with surprising eloquence, and she is won over. Not to be outdone, Ari tries the same with Mona, who rises to the occasion. The day’s wrongs are righted, and love is found again all round.


Press excerpts

Swoon, the new one-act comedy from James Rolfe and Anna Chatterton, tells the story of two disaffected couples from different classes who work out their differences, and their jealousies, through real or contrived flirtations with each other’s partner. Chatterton and Rolfe’s brisk, contemporary comedy has given it freshness and humour. Like a good joke, this story’s pleasures are mostly in the telling, and the two authors tell it very well.

Rolfe’s nimble score enhanced the script’s comic momentum from the opening bars and never let it lag, while giving the story’s more serious moments due time to unfold. His stripped-down settings always suited the text and advanced the drama. Odd as it seems, one common fault of contemporary opera composers is a failure to listen to the words and the imaginative space they reveal. Rolfe has listened with real skill and humility, and the result is an airy yet resonant score that made it easy to understand almost every word sung.

In some ways the collaboration of composer and librettist reached its peak in the opera’s least characteristic section. Leah’s erotically charged address to Ari in one of the later scenes seemed to billow up out of nowhere, and took the opera into a new zone, closer to the Song of Songs than to the wry, jazz-inflected dialogues of the work’s opening. But once it was made, this sudden shift felt right, because of the precision and poetic tone of Chatterton’s language, and the responsive cantabile temper of the music … Rolfe’s very singable vocal lines gave everyone a chance to shine.

– Robert Everett-Green, Toronto Globe and Mail, 9 December 2006


Swoon is worlds away from James Rolfe’s Beatrice Chancy, his 1998 tragic opera that became a critical and popular success.  In Swoon, Rolfe and librettist Anna Chatterton set themselves the ambitious goal of writing a dramma giocosa on the model of Mozart’s Figaro but set in contemporary Toronto.  Even if Swoon falls short of its lofty model, it succeeds so well it is sure to see future productions.

Chatterton’s libretto confronts a poor, young couple, Leah and Roy, with a wealthy, middle-aged couple, Mona and Ari.  When Leah goes to work as a maid for Mona, she becomes the object of Ari’s attentions and Roy’s jealousy.  Realism gives way to the artifice of eavesdropping, plots and counterplots and, unlike Figaro, we never feel any real sense of danger.  Under Michael Albano’s insightful direction, the work ends ambiguously with each couple publicly reaffirming fidelity while privately anticipating future affairs.

Rolfe’s attractive music took three basic forms–quirky syncopation to accompany staccato scenes of plot development, Latin dance when characters reach some accord, and, for passages of reflection, slowly thickening build-ups of orchestral tension supporting beautifully soaring vocal lines.

Sopranos Virginia Hatfield as Leah and Melinda Delorme as Mona and tenor Lawrence Wiliford as Roy all displayed light, agile voices and a gift for comedy while the baritone of Justin Welsh as Ari stood out as impressively rich.  Conductor Derek Bate led a thirteen-piece ensemble in deftly creating Rolfe’s precise degrees of sheen, spice and ecstasy.

– Christopher Hoile, Opera News 2007-3

Elijah’s Kite
(2005; opera for young audiences; words by Camyar Chai; 2 sop., mezzo, ten., bar., chorus of children, perc., elec. bass, keyboard; 35 min.)

Librettist: Camyar Chai
Commissioner: Tapestry New Opera (Artistic Director Wayne Strongman) and the Manhattan School of Music Opera School (Gordon Ostrovsky, director), with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts
Premiere: 6 April 2005, Manhattan School of Music, New York, NY
Other productions: Tapestry: school tour, New York, April 2005; school tour, Toronto, spring 2006; Rideau Hall, Ottawa, April 2006; school tour, Sault Ste. Marie and region, spring 2006. Pacific Opera Victoria: school tour, Victoria and Vancouver Island, 2007.
Performers: 5 voices (2 sopranos, mezzo, tenor, baritone) with an optional part for children’s chorus, and 3 instruments (percussion, electric bass, and keyboard)
Duration: 33 minutes (5 scenes)



At lunchtime, Miriam, the new kid at school, is taken in hand by friendly Keisha. They meet Elijah, a loner who eats sushi for lunch. He clutches his kite, which he dreams will fly one day, and carry him away from school. Keisha scoffs, but Miriam believes him. The school bully, Big Billy Brett, with his sidekick Nikki, mocks Elijah. He abuses Elijah’s kite and steals his lunch. When Billy finds out what sushi is, he is revolted, and delivers an enormous burp. Miriam isn’t impressed and lets Billy know it. They trade insults and Miriam easily trumps him. When an enraged Billy attacks her, she fells him with a neat martial arts move. Billy retreats, issuing threats, and Miriam is suddenly a school hero.

Now Miriam is hanging out with Nikki. They sing about how cool girls love to go shopping. But when Miriam speaks to Keisha and Elijah, Nikki scolds her. Elijah accuses Miriam of selling out her friends, which provokes Miriam to wreck Elijah’s kite. Now Miriam is shunned by all the kids for going too far. But Keisha is able to reassemble the kite, making it better than ever. Elijah approaches Miriam to make peace with her; when he sees his new kite, he is in awe. Suddenly, Big Billy enters, bent on revenge, but he stops short when he sees the new kite. They all work together to launch Elijah and his kite, including Billy, whose enormous burp provides the necessary lift-off power. They celebrate together as the lunch bell rings.

Orpheus and Eurydice
(2004; words by André Alexis; opera for 3 sopr., alto, 2 tenors, baritone, bass, 2 recorders, 2 violins, 2 viola da gambas, cello, harpsichord, theorbo; 36 min.)

Librettist: André Alexis
Commissioner: Toronto Masque Theatre (Artistic Director Larry Beckwith) with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council
Premiere: 13 – 14 May 2004, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
Other productions: May 2011, Enwave Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 8 voices (3 sopranos, alto, 2 tenors, baritone, bass) and 9 early instruments A415 (2 recorders, 2 violins, 2 viola da gambas, harpsichord/chamber organ, theorbo/baroque guitar, cello). May also be performed on early or modern instruments at A440.
Duration: 35 minutes


Seeking his wife Eurydice in the underworld, Orpheus implores Hades to let him bring her back to life. Hades gives in reluctantly, on condition that Orpheus not look back at Eurydice while she is being led back to earth. The reunited couple begin their journey back. Hades praises the peacefulness of the underworld over the turbulence of life on earth, but is upbraided by his wife Proserpine, who sympathizes with the living.

The couple sing a love duet while they journey toward light, past the tortured souls of the underworld. They meet a shepherd and his flock who perished when the shepherd, dreaming of his girlfriend, walked off a cliff, followed by his sheep. The shepherd recognizes and praises Orpheus, then tells him his story, which his sheep mock bitterly. As the couple take their leave of the shepherd, the opera ends with a hopeful chorus.


Press excerpts

[Orpheus and Eurydice] is one of the most beautiful new operas to be written recently, delivering inventive instrumentations and rhythms for recitatives while bowing to gorgeous tonal echoes of centuries past in arias and choruses. Rolfe’s final chorus and the duet between Eurydice and Orpheus deserve to be heard again and again.

– John Terauds, The Toronto Star, 14 May 2004

(2004; words by Camyar Chai; opera for sopr., tenor, cl., vln., vlc., pno., & perc.; 14 min.)

Librettist: Camyar Chai
Commissioner: Tapestry New Opera (Artistic Director Wayne Strongman)
Premiere: 1 – 5 April 2004, The Fermenting Cellar, The Distillery, Toronto, Ontario
Other productions: Tapestry: May 2009, The Fermenting Cellar, The Distillery, Toronto, Ontario; Bicycle Opera, July and September 2013, various venues, Ontario and Quebec
Performers: 2 voices (sopranos, tenor) and 5 instruments (clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, cello). Also arranged for 2 voices and 3 instruments (flute, violin, piano).
Duration: 12 minutes



After a long search, Hector finds his estranged wife Isabelle in a house of ill repute. She has run away to live her days in shame after a traumatic event. Hector pleads with her to come back home with him. She refuses, steadfast in the face of his sorrow, anger, and religion. At last he invokes their daughter, and she melts.


Other notes: Why opera?

We manage to get through most of our days without needing to sing, without needing the accompaniment of an orchestra.  But opera isn’t about most days.  It is drawn to extreme situations where a marriage, a reputation, a fortune, or life itself is at stake.  Our voices rise with distress or excitement; we shout, we yell, we curse.  In opera, we sing.

What made Rosa a natural opera subject?  The characters are fighting to survive.  They must plead, persuade, speak up for themselves, struggle with forces much larger than them, react to cruel and unpredictable turns of fate.  Most of us will lead less eventful lives, and be the happier for it.  Yet we also realize that pure chance can visit death or misfortune upon us, without warning, without rhyme or reason.  Opera can bring alive the excitement of these extremes without their actual danger.

Opera music must have magical powers.  The music snakes through every twist and turn of the plot, swings up and down with the mood, and brings to life each character:  their desires and delusions, their pride, their grief.  All these must be wrestled into an coherent piece of music that lasts two or more hours.  And the audience, while being deluged with music, must still be able to hear enough words to understand what’s happening.

But there is one “must” before all others:  there must be some tasty singing.  People go to the opera to hear singing.  Scenery, orchestration, acting, plot–all these are fine, but it’s singing by which an opera lives or dies.  Our ears can distinguish the tiniest vocal inflections.  We can hear immediately whether a voice rings true for us; for this reason, characters must be vocally true before they can become psychologically true.  A composer enables singers to convince, to seduce the audience.  And since singers are athletes as well as artists, the physical demands placed on them must be carefully chosen.  Opera has a demanding nature.  It demands that singers memorize and sing hours of music, that creators struggle for years to write it, that producers raise lots of money to stage it, and that audiences sit through it all, in the mandatory operatic state of suspended disbelief.  And after all that effort, if the singing isn’t delicious, who would want to sing the opera, and who would bother to listen?

(1999; words by André Alexis; four women’s voices SSAA; 12 min.)

Program Note

The music of Fire (1999) embodies the text’s unnerving union of sensuality and lynch-mob violence by weaving the voices tightly and inexorably together. Four voices move as one, reflecting a claustrophobic small-town setting and the text’s airless imagery of water, fire, and drowning. Rhythm and pitch are simple but obsessive, emphasizing the schism between the cool, soothing surface of the words and the horrifying ritual they portray. Fire was commissioned by the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company (John Hess and Daírine Ní Mheadhra, Co-artistic Directors) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.



Fire, by composer James Rolfe, was the dark centre of the show; it captured the troubling ambiguity of a poem by Andre Alexis about the murder of children and the lynching (or burning?) of the man who supposedly killed them. Rolfe’s deceptively simple, hymn-like setting had an undercurrent of anxiety that built into a climax of unbearable intensity.

– Tamara Bernstein, The National Post (Toronto), 20 June 2000


Once we get to Fire, however, with its text by André Alexis, set by James Rolfe (the composer of Beatrice Chancy), we have arrived not only at the performance’s most potent fusion of music and word, but its emotional core, a memorable journey into darkness.

– Urjo Kareda, Toronto Globe and Mail, 17 June 2000




FIRE by André Alexis

Woman 1:  I am standing in unburning flame, like a moth in amber.  Above me, the sky is blue as cobalt, and the clouds drift like steam from a warm room.  It is morning and I am on the shore of a wide lake.  I look down, and (I am standing in unburning flame . . . )

Woman 2: I don’t get out much since the house burned down.  Not much more than a square of black ground.  We lost everything.  Even the letter I was writing you.  What was it?  I was saying (I am standing in unburning flame . . . )

Woman 3: I wake up every morning thinking of him.  Some days I almost feel him in my arms, my hand on his chest.  And then, to be near him all day long.  I wonder if he knows that (I am standing in unburning flame . . . )

Women: We were by the lake, watching men and women bring kindling.  Each with as much as they could carry.  The night sky was cloudless, black, and filled with stars.  The moon was white; our songs were still as the evening:


song: In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God:  he heard my voice, and my cry came before him, my cry came into his ears.  Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth. There went up a smoke, and fire out of his mouth devoured.

The night was black.  The moon was white.  The water rubbed against the canal.  His arms around me; his breath warm . . . and the names of the dead children in our ears:


Jenny Wilson Helen Vendler

Heather Young     Michael Carson

Miranda Andrews Michael Harris

Thomas Parsons Peter Allen

Peter Allen Thomas Parsons

Michael Harris Miranda Andrews

Michael Carson Heather Young

Helen Vendler Jenny Wilson


The torches moved on the water like fireflies . . .

And then, the hammers on wood, wood on wood, to build a pyre for the childkiller . . .

The lake a mirror from which the scaffold rose, on which the wood was heaped, on which he was left, hands bound, feet tied . . .


Woman: Our torches above us like moths . . .

Child: Like moths?

Woman:     Like moths.

Child: Was there really a killer?

Woman: Yes, darling . . .

Child: How black was the night?

Woman: Black as a bible.

Child:     How white was the moon?

Woman: White as salt.

Child: How many stars were there?

Woman: Three million million million million . . .

Child: And did he cry when you burned him?

Did his hair burn first?

Did his teeth burn?

How black was the night?

How red was the fire?


song: There once was a moth.  White as ash.

And there was a candle flame.  Yellow as lemons.

And what a friendship they had.  Dance, dance, dance . . .


Text © 1994 by André Alexis

Abridged with author’s permission by James Rolfe, 1999


Beatrice Chancy
(1998; libretto by George Elliott Clarke; opera for 6 voices (2 sopr., mezzo, 2 bari., bass), 2 vln., vla., vlc., bass, pno., perc.; 100 min.)

Librettist: George Elliott Clarke

Commissioner: Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company (Co-artistic Directors John Hess and Daírine Ní Mheadhra)
Premiere: June 18 – 22, 1998, The Music Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 6 voices (2 sopr., mezzo, 2 bari., bass), 7 players (2 vln., vla., vlc., bass, pno., perc.)
Duration: 100 minutes (2 acts)
Other productions: Queen of Puddings: June 1999, DuMaurier Dance Theatre, Toronto, Ontario; August 1999, Alderney Landing Theatre, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; February 2001, Winspear Theatre, Edmonton, Alberta


Beatrice Chancy is a historical drama based upon the true story of the Cenci family of Rome, circa 1600. The story is set on a plantation in Nova Scotia during the last days of slavery, circa 1800, with the heroine Beatrice as the half-caste daughter of her master, Francis Chancy. When her father responds to her romance with the slave Lead by beating him and then raping her, Beatrice takes justice into her own hands and murders him. For this, she is hanged, along with her lover Lead and her stepmother Lustra. It is a tale of love, but also of violence, slavery, incest, and revenge. Opera and classic tragedy are fused with the brutal reality of slavery in Nova Scotia, a little-known chapter of Canadian history.


Press excerpts

Make no mistake: Beatrice Chancy is the triumphant event of the operatic season. James Rolfe’s music drama to a text by George Elliott Clarke, now revised and presented in a wholly inspired new production by the tiny Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company, is chamber-sized only in scale. Its imagination and depth of feeling are vast, even overwhelming. With Beatrice Chancy, I felt I was face to face with the future of opera — and its breath was hot.

Rolfe has understood, as few other composers of new opera have, that opera is emotion and melody is character. Clarke, the Nova Scotia-born, black Canadian poet, has provided him with a remarkably charged libretto; it’s loosely based on Shelley’s verse tragedy The Cenci, but its narrative of incestuous desire, rape and revenge has been shifted to the Annapolis Valley in 1801, when slavery was still legal in the British colony.

Beatrice is the daughter of a white landowner and a black slave. She is a cherished, even pampered child until, returning home after a convent education in Halifax, she openly declares her love for a fellow slave. Her father Francis Chancy’s buried lust cracks open both their lives. Clarke makes his bold transformation resound with the impulse toward freedom — from unmediated power, from patriarchal oppression, from colonial enslavement.

The music of Beatrice Chancy is astonishing. Sophisticated in its eclecticism, it hints at, or often quotes, black spirituals, ring shouts, freedom songs, blues, gospel, hymns, insistent percussion,  as well as Nova Scotia fiddling. But this range of source material has been subtly shaped, and is deployed utterly for expressive effects. Each of the six characters has a distinct, complex musical profile. The music takes us intimately inside them, and thus when the big emotional moments come — and there are many — the impact is gigantic.

Measha Bruggergosman’s Beatrice proved unforgettable, her rich passionate soprano on fire, her emotional investment in this woman total. She carried the big burden of this music, but every singer made an impact: Nigel Smith, tender and then raging as Beatrice’s lover-slave; Gregory Dahl, terrifying and yet eerily recognizable as Francis Chancy; Lori Klassen, finding the ambiguity and pathos in Chancy’s wife Lustra; Marcus Nance, movingly self-doubting as the religious slave Moses; and Lisa Lindo as the child slave Deal.

In the finale, as the singers and musicians stood together on stage chanting the hymn O Freedom, a black woman just to my left in the audience fervently added her voice to the singing. She was right: An experience of the magnitude of Beatrice Chancy brought, for all of us, our hearts into our throats. 

– Urjo Kareda, The Toronto Globe and Mail, 22 June 1999


Monumental.  Mesmerizing.  Breathtaking.  These words are barely adequate in describing James Rolfe’s and George Elliott Clarke’s brilliant new opera Beatrice Chancy . . . a seamless, masterful combination of music and drama.

– Ron Foley MacDonald, Halifax Daily News, 14 August 1999


Finally. After sitting through a season’s worth of half-baked new operas, I can sit back, clap and sing the praises of George Elliott Clarke’s and James Rolfe’s brilliant, compelling Beatrice Chancy … James Rolfe’s music is gorgeous and smart—an informed hybrid of baroque, gospel, and East Coast idioms that never sounds cluttered or academic.

– R. M. Vaughan, Toronto Eye magazine, 24 June 1999


Rolfe’s score follows the ideals of earliest opera by giving precedence to the text. His deft intertwining of musical styles—Maritime fiddling, baroque counterpoint, spirituals  even a Broadway love duet—in itself becomes a moving statement of the racial co-existence that remains but a dream at the play’s devastating close.

– Tamara Bernstein, The national Post, 15 June 1999


The Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company has astonished and thrilled the Toronto opera-going public with a production of a new chamber opera, Beatrice Chancy. The economically charged libretto is set with impressive musical sophistication by James Rolfe in a manner which constantly supports and reinforces the text. I can’t recall attending such a gripping premiere in many years of opera-going.

– Peter Dyson, Opera Magazine (UK), November 1999



The Making of Beatrice Chancy:  Notes on a Collaboration

I first read the poems of George Elliott Clarke in 1990, while searching for material suitable for song lyrics. His words seemed to leap off the page, as if possessed: alive, argumentative, by turns violent and blissful, never at rest.  So I wrote to him blindly, sending a cassette of my music, proposing that we collaborate on an opera; his reply was “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Then what? Neither of us knew anything about writing an opera. We cast about for ideas, settling after a few false starts on the story of the Cenci family. It goes like this: in Rome, ca. 1600, Francesco Cenci, the Pope’s treasurer, is rich, powerful, and very bitter. Not wishing his children to inherit his wealth, he has two sons murdered, and rapes two daughters to reduce their dowries. The first daughter escapes and marries; he imprisons the second, Beatrice, to prevent her from doing the same. She hires assassins who kill her father, but the job is bungled. Confessions are extracted under brutal torture; Beatrice, her stepmother Lustra, and another brother are executed on orders of the Pope (who then inherits their fortune, the Cenci family now being defunct).

Murder, incest, torture, execution–we had found our opera. But George then transposed the action to early 19th-century Nova Scotia, giving the classic tragedy new dimensions of racism, slavery, and liberation. Over the next five years, he wrote draft after draft of the story, drafts which I would then edit to suit my musical and dramatic instincts. These edited versions evolved into the libretto of Beatrice Chancy, while the longer drafts grew into a dramatic poem of the same name, recently published by Polestar Press.

During this time, we had two sojourns at The Banff Centre’s Composer-Librettist Workshop, where Music Director John Hess kept an interested eye on our progress. He later founded The Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company in Toronto, with Dáirine Ní Mheadhra; they workshopped the First Act in June 1996, and the first draft of the entire piece in December 1997. These workshops were crucial to the opera’s birth; we could immediately hear what worked, and what didn’t. Most important, it was encouraging to hear at last the fruit of our years of imaginative labour. The Queen of Puddings were also encouraged, and premiered the opera in June 1998 at The Music Gallery in Toronto.


Some thoughts on the music of Beatrice Chancy

In composing this opera, I have tried to use the simplest possible means of expression, to let the characters tell their own stories, and to let George’s eloquent words be heard. Simple, direct vocal lines also keep the singers closer to the viscerality of their art. Body and soul are intimately bound together in opera:  the singers bathe the audience with their sweat and blood, their voices and their souls. Perhaps that’s why people either love or loathe opera, without much middle ground.

My favourite dramatists (I think of Shakespeare and Mozart) give life to complex and utterly alive characters, with all the contradictions, joys, pain, and conflicts that we humans live through. They know that the answers are never revealed to us, that the decisions we struggle to make are as likely to be bad ones as good. What seemed right to Canadians in 1801–slavery, the superiority of Europeans over Africans and native peoples, of men over women–now seems arrogant and oppressive. But 200 years from now, how will we be judged? One of the “mottoes” George chose for the opera seems more true now than in 1991, when it was penned by Hardial Bains:

“The old enslavement was to nature, and the new one is of one individual to another, beginning with chattel slavery and proceeding to the modern kind, where enslavement has assumed the most grotesque form–not only wage-slavery, but also bondage to the financial institutions which, in the present period, hold the entire world in their grasp.”


Music in Nova Scotia, ca. 1801

Playing music and singing were everyday parts of nineteenth-century Nova Scotian life. Hymns were sung in church; at home, there were folk songs, work songs, and lullabies. Young people attended singing schools to sing the religious “pop” music of their day, and also to mingle with the opposite sex.  Dances on Saturday nights were eagerly awaited; the music was usually made by a solo fiddler, often one of African descent. There was a diversity of musical cultures in Nova Scotia that is hard for us to imagine:  English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Acadian, American, German, Miqmaq, and African-Canadian musics existed side by side, often freely mixing with each other.

What did these musics actually sound like? Little is known: of the European music, some fiddle tunes and religious songbooks survive, but accounts of the early music of African-Canadians are scant. I studied field recordings and accounts of African-American music from isolated parts of the deep South–coastal islands, rural areas, and prisons–which may be the best clues we have. Here I encountered the ring shout, one of the most “purely” African forms of self-expression to flourish in the North American diaspora. (Many others, particularly drumming, language, and religion, were feared and suppressed by slaveholders.) The participants form a circle, moving counterclockwise, clapping their hands and stomping their feet, creating a driving, polyrhythmic groove, which accelerates gradually.  A leader sings out short phrases, often improvised, and the others reply with a fixed response (e.g. “Hallelujah!”). Ring shouts often tell Biblical stories about freedom, or about overcoming a powerful oppressor (e.g. “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”).

The spiritual, one of the best-known forms of African-American music, was also popular in Canada. The spirituals familiar to us today became refined and standardized during U. S. Reconstruction and the early days of recorded sound, but there are compelling older styles–very slow, with irregular phrases and much rougher harmonies–which can be heard in such forms as the field holler, early blues, and the “moans” and Dr. Watts hymns still sung in some African-American churches. Spirituals and ring shouts are both used in the opera, sometimes as direct quotations, sometimes as original “reconstructions”.


(2005; solo accordion and orchestra (2222 4231 timp 2 perc str); 27 min.)

For people who can’t stand the heroic mold of the traditional concerto, the accordion is an ideal medium. Contrary to its reputation, the instrument projects only a modest volume of sound, and cannot compete directly with an orchestra without being buried alive. Even if it tried to be heroic, nobody would believe it. It is an outsider, a newcomer to the concert stage, whose sound still calls to mind beer halls, village dances, poverty cheerful or grinding—all in contrast to the orchestra, whose ancestry is aristocratic.

Flourish wears the clothes of a traditional concerto: it is in three movements (more or less, slow/fast-slow-fast), played without breaks, with a cadenza at the end of the first movement. But its body is something else. It shows the accordion as a chameleon of musical tones and colours, by turns tender and ironic, friendly and aloof, expressive and mechanical. It offers sly comments and asides, makes daring entries and narrow escapes. It rings the orchestra’s doorbell and then runs away.

Flourish was commissioned by CBC Radio’s “Two New Hours” (David Jaeger, Executive Producer) for accordionist Joseph Petric and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra.

Songs and Rounds
(2001; recorders (1 part, beginners) and orch. 2222, 2221, 1 perc., str.; 5 min.)

Program Note: Songs and Rounds (2001) by James Rolfe. For orchestra, with a recorder part for beginners. Duration ca. 4’30”.

Songs and Rounds was commissioned by the Canadian Music Centre, Ontario Region, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra through the Millennium Fund of the Canada Council for the Arts. The first movement features two rounds, while the second arranges two Québecois folk songs. The recorder part is intended for an ensemble of beginner players with a range of an octave, from D to D’.

Mechanical Danny
(2000; words by Dennis Lee; for children; narrator with orch. 2222, 2221, timp., 1 perc., strings; also arranged with orch. 1111 1110 timp. perc. str.; 22 min.)

Mechanical Danny is an original story by Dennis Lee, created to be accompanied by orchestra. It stars a mechanical boy, Danny, who volunteers to rescue the city’s children when they are kidnapped on the eve of a great Millennium celebration.

The children’s audience is a tough audience. They love to be challenged, and hate being patronized; yet they also demand clarity and a certain kind of logic, however rubbery. The composer must tiptoe into the narrative world of the story and apply just the right musical strokes, without suffocating or muddying the story. Dennis and I worked together to make the story very concise, and I have tried to do the same with the music. The music visits the worlds of Prokofieff’s Peter and the Wolf and Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat— as well as Haydn, Wagner, Bugs Bunny, and many others. These idioms are used to project the story and its characters, and to introduce children to the many faces of “classical” music.

Mechanical Danny was commissioned by The Toronto Symphony Orchestra through the Millennium Fund of The Canada Council for the Arts.


Mechanical Danny is a toy boy who longs to become a real boy. When The Great Gorgle kidnaps all the city’s children on the eve of the great Millennium celebration, Danny volunteers to rescue them, with the help of the brave dog Iris. Risking their lives, Danny and Iris find the children, outwit the Gorgle, and escape back to the city in time for the Millennium celebration. Danny is rewarded by being turned into a real boy.

Ears, Nose, & Throat
(1994; orchestra: 2222/22/2, pno/66442; 12 min.)

Ears, Nose & Throat is in four movements, each of about three minutes’ duration. Ears, Nose & Throat was written at the request of Alex Pauk, with the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council. It is written with very limited materials, some of which are based on basic animal rhythms of breathing and the heart. The result is a simple, impoverished music. It can also be heard as a critique of the illusory freedom promised by music of abundance—as heard for example in neo-Romanticism— and by the triumph of Capitalism. But it isn’t program music; listen as you please.
(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.

The Mayor’s Fanfare
(2009; 4 trumpets.; 1 min. 15 sec.)

Program Note: The Mayor’s Fanfare (2009) by James Rolfe.  Duration 90 seconds.

The Mayor’s Fanfare, for four trumpets, was commissioned in 2009 by the Toronto Arts Foundation on the occasion of the Mayor’s Arts Luncheon celebrating the 2009 Toronto Arts Awards. It is dedicated to Mayor David Miller and to Toronto Arts Council Director Claire Hopkinson.

Ask You Dance Me
(2008; picc, ob, b. cl, bsn, hn, tpt, tbn, perc, pno, 2 vlns, vla, vlc, CB; 14 min.)


I have a fascination with dance music. Its intention is so innocent: it only wants to make us dance. Yet there’s something sinister about the power of such simple music to carry us away. It must be strong stuff, infernal even: I think of Mozart (Don Giovanni, Act One Finale), of Stravinsky (Histoire du Soldat), of Funkadelic (Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow).

The Asko Ensemble of Amsterdam asked for this piece, so I played with their name: Ask You, Ask Me, Me Ask You Dance, Ask You Dance Me… A few dozen of these playful scribbles make up a frame on which the first movement hangs. The second and third movements are based on popular songs, though they are filtered through other processes and music. The results are hardly danceable, being more a reflection on dance music.

Ask You Dance Me was commissioned by The Asko Ensemble with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.

Oboe Quartet
(2006; oboe, vln., vla., vlc.; 12 min.)

Oboe Quartet was written to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birthday. I began to disassemble Mozart’s Oboe Quartet with the usual bag of composerly tricks, but it resisted. Backwards, upside down, or sideways, it always seemed to end up sounding like Mozart. Rebuffed, I was forced to write something new, trying instead to chase the fleeting spirits that animated Mozart—the deceptively clear and simple structure, the constantly varied repetition, the restless forward drive. The piece is in two movements, the first fast (with traces of an exposition, development, and recapitulation), the last slow.

Oboe Quartet was written at the request of The Gallery Players Association with the assistance of a grant from the Toronto Arts Council.

Freddy’s Dead
(2005; piano, violin, cello; 4 min.)

Freddy’s Dead is based on the theme of J. S. Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer. It shares some of his construction methods: inversion, retrograde, retrograde inversion, etc. These techniques were resurrected by serialists such as Schoenberg, upon whose death the fun- loving Boulez remarked that “Schoenberg is dead”.

Most of this piece is derived from the third movement of the Musical Offering’s Trio Sonata, which has been sped up several times, squeezed into downbeats (bass clef) or offbeats (treble), and generally mutilated, while a very slow version of the theme cycles alongside, with all its intervals rising. This pair of ideas—short notes fast and jumpy, long notes slow and steady—works its dogged way through the instruments, with a few brief respites, until it’s about time for a coda.

Freddy’s Dead was written for Soundstreams, and is dedicated with affection and respect to its Artistic Director, Lawrence Cherney.

(2005; 2 oboes, cl., bass cl., bsn., contrabsn., 2 hns.; 11 min.)

Juggle is a kind of scherzo. At times it bursts with energy and puts on substantial airs, only to backpedal and disappear into itself. There is a steady stream of composer tricks— retrogrades, inversions, quotes—leading to a sense of déjà vu, a feeling that we’ve heard these notes before. The winds are kept on a tight leash, given sardonic and terse lines, and only rarely allowed to wax lyrical.

Juggle was commissioned by the Guelph Spring Festival with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation.

(2003; piccolo, bass clarinet, piano, drum set, violin, cello; 12 min.)

raW was written by filtering J. S. Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto through Bob Marley’s War (Bach’s first movement), Burning Spear’s The Invasion (second movement), and John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever (third movement). The constant running sixteenths of the Bach are by turns syncopated or silenced, leaving fleeting and usually unrecognizable echoes of reggae or march. MIDI files downloaded from the internet coupled with music software (Sibelius) helped to build early drafts of this work. From these I made templates, which I then edited over the course of many drafts, as might an artist who takes a photograph and alters it by hand–drawing, scratching, colouring, erasing.

raW was written during the buildup to the American invasion of Iraq, but it was only afterwards that I noticed the connection to the “filtering” pieces’ titles.

raW was commissioned and premiered by Ergo Concerts (Barbara Croall, Artistic Director) and written with the assistance of a grant from The Toronto Arts Council. It received the 2006 Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music.

(2001; violin and eight violoncelli; 10 min.)

The reaction to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US brought back memories of growing up during the Cold War. I remember the omnipresent atmosphere of fear and anxiety, faced with a faceless enemy who could strike at any second. I remember my father, constantly aggravated by my mother’s constant worrying: “Worry, worry, worry, all you ever do is worry!” Perhaps he was just as anxious, but unwilling to voice it. I remember the music of the time: high modernists like Xenakis, furiously tearing out all traces of the past; and those who embraced the past, like The Beach Boys, wistfully and longingly. I remember growing up in Ottawa, which (like most cities at the time) was obsessed with obliterating its past—in this case, according to the dictates of French urban planner Jacques Gréber (himself a disciple of Le Corbusier, as was Xenakis). As an anxious mind flits restlessly from one thought to the next, making its own unexpected connections, all these thoughts and musics circulate through Worry, which was written from one moment to the next, without thought as to its future. It’s also a kind of nostalgic homage to the modernism I was born into, innocent of its bitter origins. Worry was commissioned by Continuum (Jennifer Waring, Artistic Director) and Numus (Jeremy Bell, Artistic Director) for Mark Fewer, violin, with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation.

And Then Grace
(1999; string trio; 12 min.)

Like its title, an anagram of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poem “The Grand Dance”, And Then Grace freely remixes certain elements of her poem. Musical ephemera whirl past. Some come from an imagined vocal rendering of the poem, others from left field–Barry White, the South Park movie, ersatz Stravinsky, numerous plundered snippets of my own pieces—but like so many ghosts, they never settle down or take root.

And Then Grace was commissioned by The Gallery Players Association with the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council.

(1999; violin and piano; 12 min.)

Drop (1998) is haunted by ghosts of violin sonatas past, ghosts whose desires are sometimes indulged, but more often frustrated. Drop was commissioned with the assistance of The Ontario Arts Council by the Sabat-Clarke Duo, who premiered it in Toronto in January 1999.

(1998; clarinet, violin, cello, piano; 14 min.)

Bouquet is a kind of potpourri, a weaving together of instrumental melodies which are wholly derived from poetic texts–texts used as elements in my recent wedding. This is a practice sometimes disparaged as eclectic, as “mere assemblage”, perhaps because it unites disparate styles of music, both the holy and the unholy. Yet it has enjoyed great favour among composers for centuries, with such diverse results as medieval isorhythmic motets, much opera and film music, and sampled music.

Bouquet was written in 1998 for The Burdocks, at the behest of their Artistic Director, Martin Arnold, who commissioned it with the assistance of The Ontario Arts Council. It is dedicated to my wife, Juliet Palmer.

(1998; 2 vlns., vla., vlc.; 14 min.)

Tunnel was begun without knowing where it would end up. In the real world, this would be a bad way to run a tunneling project, but since the new music community has been overlooked by the Triumph of Capitalism, we can still afford to grope around blindly in the dark, and sniff the dirt and rubble along the way.

With its two thematic groups, a development of sorts, and a sonata-like narrative sensibility, Tunnel is a kind of ersatz sonata movement. It begins with an oblique plundering of the opening Largo of Beethoven’s Third Rasumovsky Quartet (Op. 59, no. 3). Beethoven’s pitches, once relieved of their original voice-leading agendas, are then reordered and used as a foil to the opening descending scale figures—at first set apart, then forced into cohabitation, and finally gaining the last word in a slow chorale.

(1997; alto flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano; 11 min.)

Squeeze is march music. It marches through the J. S. Bach chorale Jesus meine zuversicht, back and forth, in tight and furious formation. The piano is the exception, a spectator at the proceedings, preferring silence or isolated comments. Yet its taciturn asides eventually subdue the march, which becomes soggy, and never quite recovers its step.

Squeeze was written in 1996 for The Nash Ensemble of London, who premiered it at Princeton, New Jersey in 1997.

(1996; flute, English horn, harpsichord; 13 min.)

Scroll contains echoes of Baroque forms: a division into slow-fast-slow-fast sections, with the slow sections referring to triadic, tonal harmony, and the fast ones using dance-like rhythms. But the harmonies are often highly chromatic and atonal, while the rhythms are more Stravinskian and Afro- Cuban than Baroque.

Scroll was written in 1995, and commissioned through The Ontario Arts Council by the Canadian ensemble Terzetto, to whom it is dedicated.

(1996; fl., ob., cl., bsn., horn, tpt., trbn., bass, pno., vlc.; 7 min.)

The contents of Tombeau are primarily extracted from six or seven previous works of mine. The form is thus autobiographical, as if reflecting on a photo album from my last four years. The piece begins patiently and methodically, but gradually becomes annoyed with itself, striving by turn to forget, contradict, and destroy what it set out to do. But don’t believe everything you read.

Tombeau was written in 1995 at the request of Continuum, to whom it is dedicated, in celebration of their tenth anniversary.

Devilled Swan
(1995; perc., pno., vln., cb.; 7 min.)

Devilled Swan was commissioned by John Beckwith, a former professor of mine at the University of Toronto, on the event of his receipt of the Toronto Arts Award for music in 1994 from the Arts Foundation of Greater Toronto. It was premiered by Arraymusic on June 27, 1995.

Devilled Swan is based on the late 18th-century hymn tune China, by Timothy Swan, a highly esteemed American hymnodist who also had a reputation for hard living. China was immensely popular throughout most of the 19th century, especially at funerals, but it virtually disappeared from use thereafter. I use it in recognition of Professor Beckwith’s devotion to hymn scholarship. Swan’s quirky, leaping melody is progressively squashed flatter and flatter, and the inner voices become unrecognizably chromatic, while the rhythmically lively sections of the opening collapse into stasis, in a kind of musical vivisection of the hymn. This is in part a reaction against the text, which tells us not to mourn the dead, but rather to envy their extraterrestrial travels. And in part, it is a cheeky salute to my erstwhile teacher, as I use musical materials (octaves, chromatic scales, monotonously regular durations) which John warned his students about, as they were thin ice.

Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!!
(1995; cl., perc., pno., vlc.; 10 min.)

Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! begins with the thinnest of musical wafers and stretches it thinner and thinner, using slowly evolving, repetitive structures. A tension develops between the constant forward motion implied by rigidly linear changes in pitch and rhythm, and the slow and halting way in which these changes occur.

This piece is a kind of sequel to Devilled Swan, which was commissioned by my former composition teacher John Beckwith as part of his 1994 Toronto Arts Award, and premiered by Arraymusic. Both pieces feature materials he advised us undergrads against using—chromatic scales, octaves, etc.—and breaking these ancient taboos was so exciting that I needed two pieces to do a proper job. (It should be emphasized that Prof. Beckwith doesn’t recall issuing any such prohibitions, and enough time has passed that I could have imagined them. Perhaps I needed to imagine them in order to pluck up the courage to break them. Certainly his teaching made a lasting impression; and despite their teasing façades, both pieces are dedicated to him with respect and affection.)

The title quotes the whisky-maddened and thirsty Captain Haddock after his flask is shattered by a stray bullet during a desert skirmish in The Adventure of the Crab with the Golden Claws, one of Hergé’s Tintin comic books. Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! was premiered by the Composers Ensemble of Princeton in March 1996.

(1994; cl., tpt., trbn., perc., pno., vln., vla., vlc., cb.; 14 min.)

The contents of Dissolution are primarily extracted from six or seven previous works of mine. It is autobiographical, as if reflecting on a photo album from my last four years. The piece begins patiently and methodically, but gradually becomes annoyed with itself, striving by turn to forget, contradict, and destroy what it set out to do.

Dissolution was commissioned by The Ives Ensemble of Amsterdam with funds from The Canada Council for the Arts, premiered in 1994, and lightly revised in 1997. It is dedicated to John Snijders, Richard Rijnvos, and the Ives Ensemble.

Before After
(1992; piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, horn; 7 min.)

Before After begins with a quick, cheerful, leaping motif in rhythmic unison. Then things begin to happen, and the motif ends up crushed and inert. More things happen after that. Before After was commissioned in 1992 by The Fifth Species Woodwind Quintet, with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.

Global Bifurcation & Chaos
(1992; contrabassoon, accordion, piano, violin, cello; 17 min.)
James’ Theorem
(1992; mixed 14-piece improvisatory ensemble; 15 min.)
Departure Lounge
(1991; recorder, clarinet, trumpet, reed organ, synthesizer, piano; 21 min.)
Railway Street
(1991; solo bass clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, cello, bass; 14 min.)

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Railway Street, on Vancouver’s waterfront, is where I first heard the music of King Crimson, its pulse spiraling, disorienting, slippery, beyond fast or slow—an effect I later encountered in Japanese Noh music and certain pieces of Takemitsu.

Railway Street was first performed on 3 November 1991 by the Vancouver New Music Ensemble, conducted by Owen Underhill, with Lori Freedman, bass clarinet. It was commissioned by CBC Stereo’s “Two New Hours”.

(2005; words by Dennis Lee; soprano, mezzo, & piano; 8 min.)

Beloved sets five poems from Dennis Lee’s Un (2003). His book presents a relentlessly dark and apocalyptic vision of our world, yet with flickers of humanity, hope, and humour. Armageddon is coupled with redemption, despair with exhilaration, pollution with purity. The boiled-down words burst with unorthodox phrases and neologisms, and I have tried to marry their unruly force with unexpected musical counterparts. The vocal world is often independent from that of the piano, which argues and articulates more than it accompanies.

Beloved was commissioned by Toca Loca (Gregory Oh, Artistic Director), with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation.

Texts to 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


You who.
You who never, who
neverest, who
ever unart.
You who summon the watch, who
hamstring the seeker, you who piss in the wine: with this jawbone this raga this entrail,
with this pyrrhic skiptrace.
You who egg, who
slag, who un, who


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.


An earth ago, a God ago, gone easy:

a pang a lung a lifeline, gone to lore.

Sin with its
numberless, hell with its long long count:

nightfears in
eden, gone eco gone pico gone home.


And are creatures of nothing.
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.

(2005; composed with John Oswald; sopr. & ensemble 1111 1111 perc pno 11111; 5 min.)

Bird is a collaboration between composers John Oswald and James Rolfe, based on Leonard Cohen’s song Bird on a Wire. The words and music of the original are reworked freely with extended phrases, ornaments, modulations, and interpolations.

Bird was commissioned by Open Ears Festival with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation.

(2005; words by Anna Chatterton; soprano & piano; 6 min.)

Swipe was written by writer Anna Chatterton and composer James Rolfe. It can be performed either as concert music or music theatre. The text is a dramatic monologue, sung by a young woman, describing a scene which may be actual or imagined.

Swipe was commissioned by Toca Loca (Gregory Oh, Artistic Director), with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation.

Text of Swipe

Swipe, wipe that smile off your face, sir. Thinking you know me and my kind, sir. I’ll have you know I’ll have none of it sir. I’m a locked up locket type find sir.

Oh. Guessed that did you?

Well, snivelling snob rob me of my wit sir. From my father’s to your house and quick sir? That path I shall never traverse. Curse? Is that what I hear out of your mouth sir? Surely not or you’ll rot somewhere else sir.

I’m alone a lone lonely woman single and strapped. I’ve been twisted, turned and dumped on my back.

I’ll not travel that distance because, sir, There is no distance to cross sir
No father, no house, no dowry to off- er… Just me, a saucy sauce-sir.

Snap out of it!

Sap, rap on the beat of my heart sir.
Wail and moan, what a treat what a bone I must seem sir. You’ll have me scoffing at your cough, cough, your hem ahem, your gawf-waf-off.

Chuckle chuckle I’m a honeysuckle rose, sir. Love me or leave me
That seems to be the way it goes.
So I won’t be leaving my light on for you, sir.

Wait!!! Where are you going?

I knew it. I blew it. I can’t flirt, just spit, spurt and spout Frought as a kit, scampering about, pulling a pout.
I’ll draw you in and then snap! Reel you out.
Come close and beware! I’m really a miss – take.

I’ll forever be the stray skinny cat looking for scraps.
With all the girls who mince mince and bat bat, why choose me?

Oh… Come back my sweet… I won’t snap… I won’t drive you away. Because really, he was really, quite.. tender …and I, spicy and hot … Was not.
His eyes on me, drawing me in…

And I falling, falling…

(She is swept into a kiss)

Oh! You’re back…
Peg me down sir? Never.
I’m too clever for the likes of you sir.

(2003; words from Wilhelm Müller and Ecclesiastes; soprano and cello; 9 min.)

Dust was written for a concert with the theme of Vienna, a city which conjures up both the Great Germanic tradition (as exemplified by Vienna-based composers such as Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) and a light, frivolous style (as in the waltzes of the Strauss family).

There is Viennese tradition in me too, though of a different nature. A branch of my family lived and prospered in Vienna for many generations, lovers and patrons of the arts, part of that city’s rich cultural fabric. Two years ago I visited Vienna for the first time, and stood outside a grand mansion–Kupelwiesergasse 12, in Hietzing, near Schloss Schönbrunn. The house had been “Aryanized”: that is, stolen by opportunistic Austrians while its elderly inhabitants—my aunts and uncles—were rounded up as Jews and murdered at Theriesenstadt. Now it’s divided into half a dozen flats, and has no doubt made its “owner” wealthy. The Austrian government began to compensate victims of Aryanization in the late 1990s, but in this case all direct descendants are dead, so no compensation can ever be made.

The texts are taken from Wilhelm Müller’s Winterreise (set by Franz Schubert, the only native Viennese from the Great German list above). In their descriptions of a young man, brokenhearted, on a futile, grieving, and suicidal winter journey, they resonate with the fate of Viennese Jews. I have also included some apt texts from Ecclesiastes.

Dust was commissioned by Barbara Hannigan with the assistance of The Ontario Arts Council.

Texts to Dust [with sources in brackets]

A stranger I came, a stranger I go [Winterreise, #1]

The dogs are barking, their chains are rattling, People are sleeping in their beds,

Dreaming of all the things they don’t have Finding escape in things good and bad

By early morning all will be gone.

Yet each have had their share of joy, And hope that what’s still missing They’ll soon find on their pillows.

Drive me away, you watchful dogs, Don’t let me rest in the hour of sleep. I’m now finished with all this dreaming;x

Why should I linger among sleepers? [Winterreise, #17]

A stranger I came, a stranger I go [Winterreise, #1]

There is no remembrance of old things,

Nor shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come By those who come after. [Ecclesiastes 1:11]

Though I only walk on ice and snow It burns ‘neath both my feet

Yet I’ll not take another breath

‘Til I can see the towers no more.

On every stone I stumbled

So quickly did I flee the city;

The crows threw snowballs and hailstones

From every house they rained them down on me.

How differently you welcomed me You unfaithful city! [Winterreise, #8]

A stranger I came, a stranger I go

What is crooked cannot be made straight, What is missing cannot be numbered. [Ecclesiastes 1:15]

Behold the tears of the oppressed

They have no comforter [Ecclesiastes 4:1]

On the side of their oppressors there is power But they have no comforter

Behold the man to whom God gives riches, wealth, and honour So that he lacks nothing that his soul desires

Yet God gives him not the chance to enjoy it

But a stranger enjoys it instead [Ecclesiastes 6:2]

In the days when the windows be darkened, And the doors be shut in the streets,

When the sound of the grinding is low,

And the daughters of music be brought low, And desire shall fail,

And mourners go about the streets,

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: And the spirit shall return unto God. [Ecclesiastes 12:3-7]

Six Illuminations
(2003; words by Arthur Rimbaud; soprano & piano; 10 - 18 min.)

The songs of Illuminations reflect the extremes which so violently animate the poetry of Rimbaud. With beautiful and exquisitely constructed language, Rimbaud navigates poles of despair and exhilaration, love and misanthropy, purity and filth. In this world, romanticism and modernity are placed in a crucible where they react violently to one another, as if in an alchemical experiment, an image which constantly recurs in Rimbaud.

The texts are taken from Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (from about 1873, translated into English by the composer).

Texts to Six Illuminations
10. To a Reason
A tap of your finger on the drum releases all sounds and begins the new harmony. One step of yours, and the new men rise up and march.
Your head turns away: new love! Your head turns back: new love!

“Change our fate, destroy the plagues, beginning with time,” sing the children to you. “Raise up, no matter where, the substance of our fortune and our prayers,” people beg you.

Arriving from forever, you will go everywhere.

11. Bridges

Gray crystal skies. A strange drawing of bridges, here straight, there curved, others descending at oblique angles to the first, and these shapes repeating themselves in the other illuminated crescents of the canal, but all of them so long and light that the banks, crowded with domes, become lower and shrunken. Some of these bridges are still crowded with hovels. Others support masts, signals, frail parapets. Minor chords crisscross and fade, ropes reach up from the banks. You make out a red jacket, perhaps other costumes and musical instruments. Are they popular tunes, snatches of elite music, remnants of public hymns? The water is gray and blue, as wide as an arm of the sea.

–A white ray, falling from the top of the sky, blots out this comedy.

12. Morning of Drunkenness

O my Good! O my Beautiful! Hideous fanfare where I never falter! Enchanted rack! Hurrah for the miraculous work and for the marvelous body, for the first time! It began with the laughter of children, it will end there. This poison will still be in our veins even when the fanfare dies away and we are taken back to the earlier discord. O now let us— so worthy of these tortures!–fervently gather this superhuman promise made to our created bodies and souls. This promise, this dementia! Elegance, science, violence! It was promised us to bury the tree of good and evil in darkness, to deport tyrannical respectabilities so that we might bring forth our most pure love. It began with a certain disgust and it ended—since we could not seize eternity on the spot—it ended with a riot of perfumes.

Laughter of children, discretion of slaves, reserve of virgins, horror of faces and objects from here, be consecrated by the memory of this vigil. It began in all boorishness, behold it ends with angels of flame and ice.

Little drunken vigil, holy! even if only for the mask with which you graced us. We affirm you, method! We don’t forget that yesterday you glorified each of our ages. We have faith in that poison. We know how to give our whole lives every day.

Behold the time of the assassins.

41. Youth (III): Twenty Years Old

Helpful voices exiled . . . Physical candor bitterly calmed . . . Adagio. Ah! the infinite egotism of adolescence, the studied optimism: how full of flowers was the world that summer! Melodies and forms dying . . . A choir, to calm impotence and absence! A choir of glasses of nocturnal tunes . . . Indeed the nerves will soon go hunting.

34. Bottom

Reality being too prickly for my lofty character,–nonetheless I found myself at my lady’s house, a big gray-blue bird soaring up to the moldings of the ceiling and dragging my wings through the shadows of the evening.

I became, at the foot of the bed-head supporting her precious jewels and her physical masterpieces, a fat bear with violet gums and fur grizzled with sorrow, with eyes of crystal and of silver from consoles.

It became dark and burning aquarium.

In the morning—bellicose June dawn—I ran in the fields, a donkey, trumpeting and brandishing my grievance, until the Sabines from the suburbs came to throw themselves on my chest.

18. Tramps

Pitiful brother! The terrible vigils he caused me! “I wasn’t seized with enthusiasm for the adventure. I played upon his weakness. It would be my fault should we return to exile and slavery.” He believed I had a very strange bad luck and innocence, and he added upsetting reasons.

I responded with a jeer to my satanic scholar, and left by the window. I created, beyond the countryside striped with bands of rare music, visions of the nocturnal luxury yet to come.

After that vaguely hygienic distraction, I lay down on a straw mattress. And almost every night, as soon as I was asleep, my poor brother would get up, his mouth rotten, his eyes torn out—just as he dreamed of himself!—and would drag me into the room while howling his dream of idiot sorrow.

I had in fact, in all sincerity, made a pledge to restore him to his primitive state as a child of the sun,–and we wandered, sustained by wine from caverns and by traveler’s crusts, with me impatient to find the place and the formula.

Six Songs
(2001; words by Walt Whitman; soprano and string quartet; also arranged for mezzo soprano, and for mezzo or soprano with piano; 15 min.)

Since his death in 1892, Walt Whitman has become an unwitting collaborator for a steady stream of composers, myself included; four of these texts I have previously set, in 1990.  Despite its high romantic tone, Whitman’s verse remains palatable to our ears: the beauty of his language, his loving attention to its rhythm and sound, and his direct, unpretentious tone make him one of the most approachable of poets.  These songs are mostly from the earlier books of Leaves of Grass, verses which explore facets of desire, be they quiet, turbulent, or defiant.  In my earlier settings, I explored the texts more for sound than for meaning, but this time I have approached them more traditionally, as art songs, trying to hold up a musical mirror to their essences.

Six Songs were commissioned by Soundstreams (Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director) through The Ontario Arts Council.

Six poems by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass


I heard you solemn sweet pipes of the organ

I heard you solemn sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday I pass’d the church,

Winds of Autumn, as I walk’d the woods at dusk I heard your long stretch’d sighs up above so mournful,

I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;

Heart of my love! You too I heard murmuring low through one of the wrists around my head,

Heard the pulse of you when all was still singing little bells last night under my ear.


Not heaving from my ribb’d breast only


Not heaving from my ribb’d breast only,

Not in sighs at night in rage dissatisfied with myself,

Not in those long-drawn, ill-supprest sighs,

Not in many an oath and promise broken,

Not in my wilful and savage soul’s volition,

Not in the subtle nourishment of the air,

Not in this beating and pounding at my temples and wrists,

Not in the curious systole and diastole within me which will one day cease,

Not in many a hungry wish told to the skies only,

Not in cries, laughter, defiances, thrown from me when alone far in the wilds,

Not in husky pantings through clench’d teeth,

Not in sounded and resounded words, chattering words, echoes, dead words,

Not in the murmurs of my dreams while I sleep,

Nor the other murmurs of these incredible dreams of every day,

Nor in the limbs and senses of my body that take you and dismiss you continually—not there,

Not in any or all of them O adhesiveness! O pulse of my life!

Need I that you exist and show yourself any more than in these songs.


O you whom I often and silently come


O you whom I often and silently come where you are that I may be with you,

As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the same room with you,

Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me.


Trickle drops


Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!

O drops of me! trickle, slow drops,

Candid from me falling, drip, bleeding drops,

From wounds made to free you whence you were prison’d,

From my face, from my forehead and lips,

From my breast, from within where I was conceal’d, press forth red drops, confession drops,

Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I say, bloody drops,

Let them know your scarlet heat, let them glisten,

Saturate them with yourself all ashamed and wet,

Glow upon all I have written or shall write, bleeding drops,

Let it all be seen in your light, blushing drops.


One hour to madness and joy


One hour to madness and joy! O furious! O confine me not!

O to drink the mystic deliria deeper than any other man!

O savage and tender achings!

O to be yielded to you whoever you are, and you to be yielded to me in defiance of the world!

O to return to Paradise! O bashful and feminine!

O to draw you to me, to plant on you for the first time the lips of a determin’d woman.

O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!

To have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!

To escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!

To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!

To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!

To rise thither with my inebriate soul!

To be lost if it must be so!

To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!

With one brief hour of madness and joy.


A clear midnight


This is thy hour O soul, a free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,

Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,

Night, sleep, death, and the stars.

Simon & Garfunkel & The Prophets Of Rage
(1993; words by James Rolfe; voice, perc., pno.; 13 min.)

This is a hostile merger between two songs: a sweet, pretty Simon & Garfunkel ballad, and an angry, in-your-face Public Enemy rap number. All players share the strong, choked, bitten-off notes reminiscent of the samples used in rap; their slowing-down structure is transparent. Simultaneously, the piano plays a simple, wistful tune filtered randomly from 159 slightly different nine-note chords derived from the bass line of the ballad.

The piece is an allergic reaction to the drugs peddled by Simon & Garfunkel and other pop balladeers, which were happily swallowed whole by the composer at an impressionable age (29). The anger of Public Enemy helps to illuminate the individual’s fear, loneliness, isolation and powerlessness inherent in our competitive, capitalist society, which the hazy amnesia of sweet, seductive, corporately- produced-and-distributed ballads tries not to cure, but to obscure.

Simon & Garfunkel & The Prophets of Rage was premiered in Toronto on 18 May 1993 by Continuum Contemporary Music, with Barbara Hannigan, soprano, Barbara Pritchard, piano, and Trevor Tureski, percussion.

Fêtes de la Faim & Plainte
(1991; words by Arthur Rimbaud and Sappho; sopr., cl., fl., perc., pno., vln., vlc.; 7 & 5 min.)


Fêtes de la Faim was written for the 1991 Festival des Voix Nouvelles, Abbaye de Royaumont, France, where it was performed by L’Ensemble Contrechamps de Genève. The words are from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s poem of the same name, written ca. 1871.

Fêtes de la Faim

Ma faim, Anne, Anne, Fuis sur ton âne.

Si j’ai du goût, ce n’est guères
Que pour la terre et les pierres.
Dinn! dinn! dinn! dinn! Mangeons l’air, Le roc, les charbons, le fer.

Mes faims, tournez. Paissez, faims,

Le pré des sons!

Attirez le gai venin Des liserons:

Les cailloux qu’un pauvre brise,

Les vieilles pierres d’églises,
Les galets, fils des déluges, Pains couchés aux vallées grises!

Mes faims, c’est les bouts d’air noir;

L’azur sonneur; –C’est l’estomac qui me tire.

C’est le malheur.

Sur terre ont paru les feuilles!

Je vais aux chairs de fruit blettes.

Au sein du sillon je cueille La doucette et la violette.

Ma faim, Anne, Anne! Fuis sur ton âne.

– Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) 


Holidays of Hunger

My hunger, Anne, Anne, Flee on your donkey.

If I have taste, it’s for nothing
But soil and stones.
Dinn! dinn! dinn! dinn! Let us eat air, Rock, coal, iron.

Turn, my hungers. Graze, hungers,

In the field of sounds.

Suck the gay venom Of bindweed.

The pebbles that a beggar breaks,

The old stones of churches, The boulders, sown by floods, Loaves laying in grey valleys!

My hungers are morsels of black air;

The azure bellringer;

–It’s my stomach that pulls me. It’s misery.

Leaves have appeared on earth!

I seek out the flesh of overripe fruit.

At the furrow’s breast I feed On lamb’s lettuce and violets.

My hunger, Anne, Anne! Flee on your donkey.

English translation by James Rolfe

(1991; words by Arthur Rimbaud; soprano, clarinet, piano; 14 min.)


Program Note:  Phrases (1991)  music by James Rolfe, words by Arthur Rimbaud

The text of Phrases is a section of the same name from Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. Echoing the fragmentation and alienation of the poems, there are often two unrelated, simultaneous strands of music, blurring the distinction between background and foreground. This gives way at the end to a very sparse kind of chorale, made from six pitches, which are randomly assigned six durations; the horizontal background/foreground disjunction becomes vertical.

Phrases was written in 1991, and premiered in Toronto by soprano Barbara Hannigan and Continuum Contemporary Music.




Phrases, from Les Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud (written ca. 1873)

Quand le monde sera réduit en un seul bois noir pour nos quatre yeux étonnées,–en une seule plage pour deux enfants fidèles,–en une maison musicale pour notre claire sympathie,–je vous trouverai. Qu’il n’y ait ici-bas qu’un veillard seul,–calme et beau, entouré d’un “luxe inouï”,–et je suis à vos genoux. Que j’aie réalisé tous vos souvenirs, que je sois celle qui sait vous garrotter, je vous étoufferai.

Quand nous sommes très forts,–qui recule?  très gaies, qui tombe de ridicule?  Quand nous sommes très méchants,–que ferait-on de nous?  Parez-vous, dansez, riez.  —  Je ne pourrai jamias envoyer l’Amour par la fenêtre.

Ma camarade, mendiante, enfant monstre!  Comme ça t’est égal, ces malheureuses et ces manouevres, et mes embarras.  Attache-toi à nous avec ta voix impossible, ta voix!  Unique flatteur de ce vil dèsespoir.

Une matinée couverte en juillet.  Un goût de cendres vole dans l’air;–une odeur de bois suant dans l’être, les fleurs rouies,–le saccage des promenades,–la bruine des canaux par les champs,–pourquoi pas déjà les joujoux et l’encens?

J’ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher, des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre, des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile, et je danse.

Le haut étang fume continuellement.  Quelle sorcière va se dresser sur la couchant blanc?  Quelles violettes frondaisons vont descendre!

Pendant que les fonds publics s’écoulent en fêtes de fraternité, il sonne une cloche de feu rose dans les nuages

Avivant un agréable goût d’encre de Chine, une poudre noir pleut doucement sur ma veillée.–Je baisse les feux du lustre, je me jette sur la lit, et, tourné du côté de l’ombre, je vous vois, mes filles, mes reines!


English translation  by James Rolfe

When the world has been reduced to a single black forest for our four astonished eyes–to a beach for two faithful children–to a musical house for our clear sympathy—I’ll find you. Let there be here below only a single old man, calm and beautiful, surrounded by “unheard-of luxury”–and I’ll be at your feet. Let me make all your memories real–let me be she who knows how to bind you–I’ll suffocate you.

When we are very strong–who recoils? very gay–who crumbles with ridicule? When we’re very bad, what would they do with us? Dress up, dance, laugh–I will never be able to throw Love out the window.

My comrade, beggarwoman, monstrous child!  little you care about these unfortunates, these manouevres, my troubles.  Fix yourself to us with your impossible voice, your voice! only hope of this vile despair.

A grey morning, in July.  The taste of ashes floats in the air–the odour of wood sweating in the hearth–drenched flowers–rubble in the streets–mist from canals in the fields–why not indeed toys and incense?

I have hung ropes from belfry to belfry; garlands from window to window; chains of gold from star to star; and I dance.

The high pond steams continuously.  What witch will arise against the pale sunset?  What violet foliage will descend!

While public funds are poured into festivals of brotherhood, a bell of pink fire tolls in the clouds.

Releasing a pleasant flavour of Indian ink, a black powder rains softly on my vigil.–I lower the gas jets, throw myself on the bed, and, turning towards the shadows, I see you, my daughters! my queens!

Four Songs on Poems by Walt Whitman
(1990; bass voice, pno.; 16 min.)

These poems are contradictory in nature. Whitman speaks of intimate and personal feelings by magnifying them with grand turns of phrase, and metaphors embracing the eternal and the universal. The music, rather than mimicking the poet, seeks to distill the original emotions, and to let the words speak for themselves. The voice is reduced to a very restricted range, time is stretched to near-stillness, the accompaniment is full of silences. Complex random-number procedures were used to ensure that pitches and durations remained consistent and distinct; this gives the piano part a very traditional role, that of setting and maintaining the poems’ moods.

1. I heard you solemn sweet pipes of the organ

I heard you solemn sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday I pass’d the church, Winds of Autumn, as I walk’d the woods at dusk I heard your long stretch’d sighs up above so mournful,

I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
Heart of my love! You too I heard murmuring low through one of the wrists around my head,

Heard the pulse of you when all was still singing little bells last night under my ear.

2. Not heaving from my ribb’d breast only

Not heaving from my ribb’d breast only,
Not in sighs at night in rage dissatisfied with myself,
Not in those long-drawn, ill-supprest sighs,
Not in many an oath and promise broken,
Not in my wilful and savage soul’s volition,
Not in the subtle nourishment of the air,
Not in this beating and pounding at my temples and wrists,
Not in the curious systole and diastole within me which will one day cease,
Not in many a hungry wish told to the skies only,
Not in cries, laughter, defiances, thrown from me when alone far in the wilds,
Not in husky pantings through clench’d teeth,
Not in sounded and resounded words, chattering words, echoes, dead words,
Not in the murmurs of my dreams while I sleep,
Nor the other murmurs of these incredible dreams of every day,
Nor in the limbs and senses of my body that take you and dismiss you continually—not there,

Not in any or all of them O adhesiveness! O pulse of my life!
Need I that you exist and show yourself any more than in these songs.

3. O you whom I often and silently come

O you whom I often and silently come where you are that I may be with you, As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the same room with you, Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me.

4. A clear midnight

This is thy hour O soul, a free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best, Night, sleep, death, and the stars.

(2009; solo marimba; 4 min. Pub. Edition Peters)

Composers spend much of their lives struggling, arguing, or fighting with their musical influences. In the spirit of “If you can’t beat them, join them”, I like to take music that I love, saw off a few chunks, and put them back together in my own fashion. In Sticky, the listener will hear snatches of Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, as well as a few outbursts from the other side of the tracks. I turn them around and upside down, throw them at the wall, and see what sticks. The marimbist must juggle these different strands of music, often at the same time, or with sudden gear shifts between them. This is no easy task, and the piece often leads the player into sticky situations. But the overall spirit of the piece is simple, playful, and free of hidden Satanic messages.

Sticky was commissioned by Nancy Zeltsman and was written with the assistance of a Toronto Arts Council grant to the composer. It was premiered by Beverley Johnston at the Zeltsman Music Festival at Appleton, Wisconsin on June 30, 2009.

The Connection
(2001; words by Daniil Kharms; solo marimbist who also recites; 10 min.)

The Connection features a text which is rhythmically recited by the performer, consisting of a two-page letter in twenty segments, entitled “The Connection,” by the Russian surrealist writer Daniil Kharms (1905-1942). This text also generates the music, with its metric patterns being translated to rhythms, and vowel sounds to pitches. In keeping with the shaggy-dog trajectory of the letter, however, these translations are arbitrary and non- linear, and so the music, rather than acting as an accompaniment or a mirror image, becomes an independent entity, a kind of obligato to the text, unfolding with its own loopy logic.

(1999; piano; 12 min.)

Lilacs (1999) is based on “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, an elegy written by Walt Whitman upon the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865. I have faithfully (if arbitrarily) transposed the poetry’s prosody and inflections into rhythmic and melodic counterparts, and its structure into a musical narrative, while trying to project Whitman’s extravagant, high-romantic funeral wailing. The result is a kind of program music from an unknown galaxy somewhere in the 19th century: Mendelssohn or Mussorgsky it isn’t; but if it ever met them, they’d probably get along.

Lilacs was commissioned through The Laidlaw Foundation by Eve Egoyan, to whom it is dedicated.

All the Rage
(1997; piano; 7 min.)

All the Rage was written in 1997 as a kind of plundering of Beethoven’s Rondo Capriccio, Opus 129 (Die Wuth Über den Verlorenen Groschen, or Rage Over A Lost Penny) It’s a piece which I looked up after two infuriating weeks of vainly trying to get my phone line connected. I wondered what would happen if I replaced Beethoven’s material with my own, but left the rest intact–his form, dynamics, tessituras, note densities, etc. So I replaced the first two bars with material that was itself somewhat used (dominant seventh harmonies and syncopations, so beloved by Beethoven, plus figures from Afro- Cuban music and from Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic). From the third bar, no more new material was necessary: in the spirit of the original, the opening motives are repeated, developed, transformed, and generally harassed until the piece ends.

The result is a piece that I would never have written. The incessant, unchanging repetition, the preponderance of four-bar phrases, the Beethovenian rhetoric (noticeable especially in the dynamics) are all foreign to my style. But sometimes it’s not a bad idea to take a vacation from yourself.

After finishing my own (per)version of this early Beethoven work (written sometime between 1795 and 1798), I found out that the original is in turn a posthumous version by an anonymous editor of a work left incomplete by Beethoven. The manuscript was auctioned off after Beethoven’s death, and bought by the publisher Diabelli, who invented the present title (replacing Beethoven’s original Alla ingharese. quasi un capriccio). One writer said of it: “Beethoven would never have resorted to the inane accompaniment figures with which the editor filled in a gap. hey are not only un-Beethovenian; they are musically poor. Note the inept dominant seventh . . .” Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Thin Air
(1996; piano; 1 min.)

Program Note: Thin Air (1994) by James Rolfe. For piano. Duration ca. 90 seconds.

Thin Air was written at the request of pianist Barbara Pritchard. It is based on the theme of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Accordion Motel
(1993; accordion solo; 6 min.)

This work has three sources: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (from whence come the two loud opening chords), the Dutch composer Guus Jansen’s One Bar for harpsichord (whence the extended cross- rhythms), and the dub song Dread River by the reggae group Burning Spear (whence the wobbly groove and predominance of very short notes). These three musics, so distant from each other, brought to mind medieval isorhythmic motets, with their three distinct texts and melodies–but for the accordion, “motel” seemed more apt than “motet”.

There is very little material in this piece. For the most part, there are six possible chords, two dynamics, and two kinds of durations in each hand. These building blocks were assembled using random numbers, which means in this case many rolls of dice.

The work was written at the request of the accordionist, Tiina Kiik, to whom it is dedicated.

Cello Motel
(1993; cello solo; 5 min.)

The family tree of Cello Motel (1993) shows its descent from Accordion Motel (1992), whose forebears include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Guus Jansen’s One Bar for harpsichord, and the dub tune Dread River by the reggae group Burning Spear. The miscegenation of these secular and sacred ancestors brings to mind the medieval isorhythmic motet, albeit with “motel” seeming more apt than “motet”.

There are precious few ingredients in this piece: eight chords, two dynamics, one articulation, and a coda. It was written at the request of Andrew Toovey, Artistic Director of Ixion (London), to whom it is affectionately dedicated.

Discontinuous Probability Fields #1-4
(1993; piano; 13 min.)

Discontinuous Probability Fields 1 – 4 were written in 1993. My intention was to shun expression, narrative or rhetoric, instead presenting and dissecting a sound world in a static, non-directional way.

Hence the title: “fields” are the areas in which arbitrarily-chosen materials (discrete, narrowly-limited

values of pitch, dynamic, and duration) are manipulated, according to a randomly-changing,

discontinuous probability. The resulting surfaces are locally unpredictable and discontinuous, but the net result is a distinct, highly-focused identity for each piece.

Discontinuous Probability Field #5
(1993; piano; 11 min.)

This is one of a series of piano works featuring a predominant use of random procedures (“probability”) in its composition. Parameters (“fields”)–pitch, dynamics, and duration–are chosen arbitrarily and manipulated within very narrow, suddenly-changing (“discontinuous”) bands of possibilities. As a result, the listener is confronted with the nature of the sounds themselves, rather than by the musical structures and relationships which usually swallow them. The material of this piece was taken from the descending notes (C-B-A-G-F) found in the bass line to “America” by Paul Simon, and shared by many other sentimental tunes. The notes were transposed to nine keys, given separate durations, and superimposed to produce 159 slightly different nine-note chords. These were filtered randomly (most notes were deleted), and dynamics and durations were added (again randomly). The closing section comes from the same chords, but filtered differently, and with new dynamics and durations.

Viola Motel
(1993; viola solo; 5 min.)

The family tree of Viola Motel (1993) shows its descent from Accordion Motel (1992), whose forebears include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Guus Jansen’s One Bar for harpsichord, and the dub tune Dread River by the reggae group Burning Spear. The miscegenation of these secular and sacred ancestors brings to mind the medieval isorhythmic motet, albeit with “motel” seeming more apt than “motet”.

There are precious few ingredients in this piece: eight chords, two dynamics, one articulation, and a coda. It was written at the request of Andrew Toovey, Artistic Director of Ixion (London), to whom it is affectionately dedicated.

Violin Motel
(1993; violin solo; 5 min.)

The family tree of Violin Motel (1993) shows its descent from Accordion Motel (1992), whose forebears include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Guus Jansen’s One Bar for harpsichord, and the dub tune Dread River by the reggae group Burning Spear. The miscegenation of these secular and sacred ancestors brings to mind the medieval isorhythmic motet, albeit with “motel” seeming more apt than “motet”.

There are precious few ingredients in this piece: eight chords, two dynamics, one articulation, and a coda. It was written at the request of Andrew Toovey, Artistic Director of Ixion (London), to whom it is affectionately dedicated.

Idiot Sorrow
(1990; piano; 12 min.)

Idiot Sorrow takes its title from a line in Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations: “. . . en hurlant son songe de chagrin idiot” (“. . . yelling his dream of Idiot Sorrow”). The piece reveals itself in fits and starts: pitches are few and static, and durations and dynamics are black and white, although shades of grey gradually creep in. It was composed by trial and error between 1989 and 1991, and premiered on 1 February 1991 in Toronto by pianist Barbara Pritchard.