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,

(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.

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.

(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.

(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.