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?


(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.

(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.