Christopher Mayo


Strangely Elated

2018 | 17'  

Commissioned by Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble
for orchestra and electronics

2(I=picc II=afl).2(II=ca).2(II=bcl).2(II=cbsn) - - perc - hp - strings


Strangely Elated is based on the life and work of Canadian experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett (1936-1986). Lipsett was a director of short, avant-garde films who used montage and found-footage to create immaculately edited works of incisive, satire: hyperreal portraits of society juxtaposed to reveal the beauty, comedy and depravity of contemporary life. Lipsett led a tragic, too-short life; at the age of ten he witnessed his own mother’s suicide and, suffering from psychological problems of increasing severity, he took his own life at the age of 49.

Lipsett’s films have an agile, almost improvisatory nature to their structure, but were often precisely planned with detailed outlines and sketches. These outlines are in and of themselves works of art and they show the intense level of thematic and structural preplanning which went into Lipsett’s work. Strangely Elated is based on Lipsett's intricate outline for his 1977 film N-Zone. This particular outline references Lipsett’s friend and colleague, the Canadian photographer John Max (1936-2011). Strangely Elated incorporates audio recordings of Max speaking which are drawn from Michel Lamothe’s excellent 2010 documentary film, John Max, A Portrait.

First Screening

2016 | 12'  

Commissioned by Victoria Symphony
for film and orchestra

2(II=picc).2(II=ca).2.2 - - timp - perc (3) - hp - strings


bpNichol’s First Screening is a 1984 suite of “computer poems” programmed in Apple BASIC on an Apple IIe computer and originally distributed on 5.25” floppy discs. These computer-programmed poems were a natural extension of Nichol’s concrete poetry in which the typography and shapes created by the arrangement of text on the page were of equal importance to the words themselves. In First Screening, the technology allowed for the addition of movement and duration to the palette of tools available, and the words flicker, dance, shuffle and bounce around the computer screen.

This piece is, in a sense, a setting of the text of these poems not greatly unlike any other orchestral song cycle except in one aspect. This is not a song without words—words are in abundance—but rather a song without voices.

The version of the poem projected in this piece was captured from the original code by the filmmaker Justin Stephenson. Stephenson’s film, The Complete Works, is an insightful exploration of Nichol’s work which is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in Nichol or poetry in general. More information about The Complete Works can be found at

bpNichol’s work appears courtesy of the Estate of bpNichol and is Copyrighted by Eleanor Nichol.

Under Dark Water

2014 | 20'  

Commissioned by Esprit Orchestra
for soprano, two mezzo-sopranos, alto and orchestra

0.0.2(I&II=bcl).2(II=cbsn) - - perc(3) - harp - pno - strings


Under Dark Water sets the text of a short excerpt from Toby Litt’s 2001 novel deadkidsongs. The novel tells the story of four young boys in Cold War-era England as their disillusionment and anger towards adults escalates into the perpetration of horrific acts of violence. The novel begins with each of the four boys having a near-death experience: falling from a tree, being buried alive, being burned in a fire and drowning. The excerpt used in this piece details one of those near-death experiences. 

The title deadkidsongs is a literal translation of Kindertotenlieder, Gustav Mahler’s song cycle for voice and orchestra. In Kindertotenlieder, Mahler sets five poems on the death of children by Friedrich Rückert. Litt prefaces each chapter of deadkidsongs with short excerpts of the original German text from Rückert’s poems alongside increasingly distorted English translations. The chapter from which the text for this piece is drawn begins:

Du must nicht die Nacht in dir Verschänken,
mußt sie ins ew’ge Licht versenken!

Within thyself fold not the Night,
Instead bedrown it in Everlight!

Mahler’s settings of these two lines occupies thirteen bars of the first of the Kindertotenlieder, ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n!’ (Now will the sun as brightly shine). The material of Under Dark Water is drawn almost entirely from those thirteen bars, exploding and extending them over the length of the work. 

The title Under Dark Water is also a reference to the song ‘Over Dark Water’ from the 2012 album Clear Moon by the Anacortes, Washington-based lo-fi band Mount Eerie. In addition to Litt’s text and Mahler’s music, months of obsessive listening to this album have had a clear influence on the piece. 

The clear stand-out of the night was Christopher Mayo’s Under Dark Water. According to the programme notes, the piece “sets the text of a short excerpt from Toby Litt’s 2001 novel deadkidsongs.” Mayo’s piece was economic in its orchestration and evocative of the Kindertotenlieder-themed texts. It began with an abrupt percussive gesture, and proceeded with three snare drums playing rhythmic figures with brush mallets, and a deep ‘thunk’ of a lone bass drum. The text was performed by four soloists from the Elmer Singers: soprano Gisele Kulak, mezzo-sopranos Amy Dodington and Andrea Ludwig, and alto Laura McAlpine. Both in style and delivery, it reminded me of a cross between Robert Ashley’s spoken word carriage, and David Lang’s fragmented yet lyrical vocal pieces. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Mayo in the future.
— Michael Vincent, Musical Toronto
I had a more favourable view of Christopher Mayo’s Under Dark Water, which utilized material from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Indeed Mayo seems to have drawn his inspiration from Mahler in more ways than one. The piece had a brilliant, earthy, quality to it that I’ve always associated with Mahler, and the four singers performed beautifully...
— Paolo Griffin, New Music Toronto
A distinctive contrast was presented with Christopher Mayo’s Under Dark Water for female vocal quartet and orchestra. The text consists of a paragraph (it comes across as a tone poem) from Toby Litt’s 2001 novel deadkidsongs - the title a literal translation of Kindertotenlieder. Mayo’s composition takes material from the opening bars of the first of Gustav Mahler’s five songs in his cycle, but “exploding and extending them over the 20-minute length of the work” (program notes). The paragraph describes a boy’s near-death experience while swimming in the ocean. The result is a hypnotically beautiful work. The light-textured orchestration and the almost subliminal vocal parts provide a magical correlation with the text. The soloists (soprano Gisele Kulak, mezzo-sopranos Amy Dodington and Andrea Ludwig, and alto Laura McAlpine) voice the words in a rather laconic, detached manner; the result is much like a religious litany.
— Michael Johnson, ConcertoNet


2013 | 11'

Commissioned by Manchester Camerata
for orchestra - - timp - strings


Dockwood is titled after a 2012 book of the same name by Bristol-based illustrator and printmaker Jon McNaught. McNaught's book is subtitled '2 Autumn Stories' and follows two inhabitants of a small town as they go about their business on a quiet autumn day. A kitchen porter at a nursing home distractedly prepares lunch for the residents. A teenage paperboy goes on his evening paper round before returning home to play video games. The book is an expert presentation of the gentle beauty in the autumnal process of decay and the subtle ironies of the places we look for distraction and solace in the face of unrelenting change. 

Dockwood was written for the Manchester Camerata as part of the Sound and Music 'Embedded' Composer in Residence programme.

Panufnik Variations: Variation 4

2013 | 2' (24')

Commissioned by London Symphony Orchestra
for orchestra

with Colin Matthews, Max De Wardener, Evis Sammoutis, Toby Young, Elizabeth Winters, Larry Goves, Raymond Yiu, Anjula Semmens and Edmund Finnis

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Panufnik Variations was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and consists of a series of ten variations written by ten different composers on a theme from Sir Andrzej Panufnik's Universal PrayerPanufnik Variations was first performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by François-Xavier Roth at Barbican Hall, London, UK, April 13th, 2013.

One sensed the guiding hand of Colin Matthews behind the neat way each variation dovetailed into the next, and the shrewd way the first three variations (by Matthews himself, Max de Wardener and Evis Sammoutis) prolonged the energy of that massive opening, while making their own expressive point. The accumulated momentum set us up nicely for the more ruminative, disparate variations that followed. From the haze of beautifully crafted, endlessly varied sounds certain things linger in my memory: Raymond Yiu’s Broadway-tinged sauciness, Christopher Mayo’s melancholy bassoon trio, the fascinating accumulation of dark, hazy colours in Larry Goves’s variation. The ninth variation from Anjula Semmens was the most striking, burgeoning out from its pastoral-oboe beginnings in a surprising and thought-provoking way.
— Ivan Hewitt, The Telegraph


2010 | 4'

Commissioned by London Symphony Orchestra
for orchestra

3.3(III=ca).3(III=bcl).3(III=cbsn) - - timp - perc(2) - harp - pno - strings


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Therma is an orchestral re-imagining of an early unperformed work of mine, List 1; the since and againList 1; the since and again was a fourteen-minute work for eleven solo strings written for a composition competition which took place in Rome and Thessaloniki in 2005. Compressing this much longer work into a 4-minute orchestral piece became a process of distillation. I removed all non-essential material until all that remained was a stark, skeletal outline which barely resembled the original work. But Therma is a re-imagining rather than an orchestration of my earlier work. It also incorporates my somewhat hazy memories of travelling to Rome and especially Thessaloniki where we stayed in a thoroughly bizarre hotel on a mountain overlooking the city. Giant chandeliers, a cocktail pianist in a bar with no patrons, and an empty swimming pool all contributed to it seeming like a cross between The Shining and the hastily abandoned set of 70s-era James Bond film. Therma (Θέρμα) was the original name of Thessaloniki when it was founded in 7th century BC . Built on a mosquito-infested swamp it was named for the Greek word for malarial fever. 

The strings slowly try to emerge from the basses in the opening of Christopher Mayo’s Therma. The brass helps to pull the music along, which becomes more rhythmic as it gains momentum. The low notes remain as the upper orchestra moves along towards the conclusion of this skilfully written work that provides so much from such little material.
— The Classical Reviewer
There are plenty of imaginative sounds in The Panufnik Legacies, a CD from the LSO showcasing works by young Christopher Mayo’s Therma, earthy rumblings erupt.
— Richard Whitehouse, International Record Review
Christopher Mayo created his piece (its title the original name for Thessaloniki) from an earlier chamber work, resulting in often ominous music that feels evocative of time and place.
— Rebecca Franks, BBC Music Magazine
Christopher Mayo took an earlier competition piece of some fourteen minutes and distilled it into this short four minute work. This evokes the visit to the competition in Thessaloniki in Greece with his memories of staying in “a thoroughly bizarre hotel ... a cross between The Shining and the hastily abandoned set of a 70s-era James Bond film”. It appears that Therma was the town’s original name which, having been built on a mosquito-infested swamp is the Greek work for malarial fever!

All the ten composers represented here deserve not only the highest praise but successful careers. The music was all uniformly excellent and I would be pleased indeed to hear longer works from each of them.
— Steve Arloff, MusicWeb International


2010 | 4'

Commissioned by Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
for orchestra

3(III=picc).3.3(III=bcl).3(III=cbsn) - - perc(2) - harp - strings


Brothers was commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra as part of their Olympic Commissioning Project.

On the 16th of February 1928, an unseasonable warm spell in St. Moritz, Switzerland forced the postponement of the skeleton race at the second Olympic Winter Games. It was rescheduled for eight o'clock the following morning in hopes of avoiding the melting of too much of the ice on the fabled course known as the Cresta Run. Earlier in the week, David Ludovic George Hopetoun Carnegie, 11th Earl of Northesk had broken the track record and he entered proceedings that morning as the solid favourite for the gold medal. His main rival in the event should have been John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara, a pioneer of English aviation and later the British Minister of Transport and Aircraft Production during World War II. However, Moore-Brabazon had crashed his sled on a practice run breaking several ribs and severely lacerating his face and was unable to participate, leaving the Earl of Northesk as the clear frontrunner. Unfortunately for the Earl, on his first of four runs he made a crucial mistake and snapped one of his brakes, a mistake from which he was unable to recover. With the race favourite severely hampered by his damaged sled, two wealthy American brothers from New Haven, Connecticut, Jennison and Jack Heaton, seized the opportunity and placed first and second with the Earl finishing a distant third.

Jennison and Jack Heaton were not the only brothers to finish one-two in the olympics. It's happened on five other occasions, including alpine skiers Phil and Steve Mahre at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. Nor are they the only Heaton Brothers to make a name for themselves. There were John and William Heaton of Birmingham, England, pioneers of the steam automobile and inventors, in 1833, of the 'Heaton Brothers' Steam-Drag'. Or 'Crazy' Dan and James Heaton who in 1835 built the Cuyahoga Steam Furnace and launched the Cleveland Iron boom. Or the Heaton Brothers of Victoria, Texas, who in the afternoon edition of The Daily Advocate, September 27, 1904, guaranteed their spectacles for both usefulness and quality. But it is Jennison and Jack Heaton who inspired this work with the image of two brothers hurtling head-first down a track of ice, each trying to best the other in a display of sibling rivalry on an olympic scale.

Aerial Courser

2009 | 6'

Commissioned by BBC Symphony Orchestra
for orchestra

3(III=picc).3.3(III=bcl).3(III=cbsn) - - perc(3) - harp - strings


From 1896 to 1897, starting in California and gradually spreading out across America, there were a wave of sightings of “Mystery Airships”. Though occurring long before ideas of extraterrestrials and flying saucers had entered the public consciousness, these reports of dirigible-like flying machines seem to be a cultural antecedent of the wave of UFO and alien abduction stories which erupted in the 1950s. The crews of these airships—universally reported to be human—were variously described as descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, a nude couple who had travelled from Mars, and a man holding many women hostage at gunpoint. The airships were attested to have a variety of fantastical capabilities; one report in the Albion Weekly News suggested that the pilot was able to shrink the airship and fit it in his pocket for storage. The following headline was printed in the San Francisco Call, 18 November 1896:

aerial_courser (1).jpg

Aerial Courser was written for a Sound and Music workshop with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jurjen Hempel.

Aerial Courser by Christopher Mayo, a Canadian transplanted to the UK, is just as brash. Suggested by late nineteenth-century sightings of what one California newspaper called “Mystery Airships,” the 2009 work...reads as a steampunk collection of gnarly machine-like noises, flashy timbres, and explosive rhythms.
— David Gordon Duke, Classical Voice North America


2008 | 8'

Commissioned by Esprit Orchestra
for orchestra – – perc(2) – pno – strings min.


A knot is a means of fastening or securing linear material by tying or interweaving. In this case the ‘linear material’ is a collection of melodic fragments left over from my orchestral work, The Llano Curve. The ‘interweaving’ occurs on two levels; a fast, persistent ostinato becomes progressively more and more entwined as it spins itself out in two tempi simultaneously, while a slow melody is entangled and enveloped by a web of frantic tremolos and glissandi.

The Llano Curve

2007 | 10'

Commissioned by Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra
for orchestra

3(I=afl.II=bfl.III=picc).3(III=ca). 3(II=bcl.III=bcl).3 – – perc(3) - timp – hp – cel – strings min.


The Llano Curve was commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra and first conducted by Susanna Mälkki.

The Pearblossom Highway is a stretch of California State Route 138, made famous by a series of photo collages by the artist David Hockney. It stretches 29 miles through the towns of Vincent, Palmdale, Littlerock, Pearblossom and Llano, where it takes a slow gradual turn known as the “Llano Curve”. This work's connection to this small corner of the Mojave desert comes not from the Hockney collages, but rather a series of photographs by the San Francisco based photographer Troy Paiva. Paiva specializes in night photography, using extremely long exposures - up to eight minutes - to capture the available light of the moon, stars or passing traffic and bathe his subjects in an otherworldly glow. His subject matter is almost always the modern ghost towns of California: abandoned houses, cars, shops, service stations and factories left to be swallowed up by the shifting sands of the desert with the faint glow of Los Angeles still visible on the horizon.

While the subject matter of these photographs was the main source of inspiration for The Llano Curve, the techniques and characteristics of night photography also provided a jumping off point for many of the techniques used in the work. One of the most interesting aspects of long exposure night photography is the behaviour of stars in a clear sky. If the exposures are long enough, the position of the stars will have changed while the shutter was open, drawing an arc of light through the photo. This expression of passing time in a static image was a key source of inspiration for this work, and the piece opens with an exploration of these ideas.

Christopher Mayo’s The Llano Curve relates to a road in California, which inspired Mayo to emulate its natural contours in long, trailing musical phrases. Mayo’s attention to instrumental detail was notable, producing a glittering edge of harps, celeste and percussion.
— Rian Evans, The Guardian

Your Future, Ore Smelter;
Better Future, Wharf Spike

2007 | 9'

Commissioned by St Paul's Sinfonia
for orchestra

2.2(I=ca.II=ca).2.2 – – strings


Your Future, Ore Smelter; Better Future, Wharf Spike is a piece about creating narrative meaning from arbitrary structures. In the work, two systematic iterations of the same three-part canon are shaped and moulded into a tale of seafaring, prophecy, mining, time-travel and ancient metallurgy. Your Future, Ore Smelter; Better Future, Wharf Spike was first performed by St Paul's Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Morley at St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, UK on March 16, 2007.