Christopher Mayo

Small Chamber (3-8)

Walk the Darkness Down

2019 | 18'

for solo electric guitar and five performers playing ten open-string guitars


Townes Van Zandt was one of country music’s most legendary songwriters, a recipient of near-universal acclaim throughout his 30 year career. Steve Earle once called Van Zandt “the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Despite his critical success, his career was marred by substance abuse and poor business decisions and for much of the 1970s he lived outside of Nashville in a tin-roofed, bare-boards shack with no heat, plumbing or telephone. He suffered from alcohol and heroin addiction, his friends observing that when he ran out of heroin, he would inject cocaine, vodka, or rum and Coke intravenously.

His descent into poverty and destitution seems all the more extreme when viewed in contrast to his comfortable, wealthy upbringing. Van Zandt was born into an eminent Texan family of oil executives, lawyers, and politicians. In 1963, while Townes was studying at the University of Colorado at Boulder, his family became increasingly concerned by his erratic behaviour and they had him committed to a mental hospital where he was subjected to insulin shock treatment.

“When Van Zandt was discharged from a Galveston,Texas hospital after three months of the treatment, huge holes in his memory had blossomed. Prior to the treatments, the promising college student had been groomed by his wealthy parents to become a lawyer or perhaps even a politician. For the rest of his life, he wound up wandering the country, living in shacks, abusing drugs and booze—and penning some of the greatest folk and country songs of all time.”

Jason Heller, “How Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” veers from Platonic epistemology to magic realism”, avclub

Walk the Darkness Down is a sort of vague, hazy tribute to Townes Van Zandt. Each of the open-string guitars is tuned to the spectral average of one of the ten songs from Van Zandt’s self-titled 1969 album; the spectral average determines the most prominent frequencies averaged over the whole length of the song. The result is a microtonal cloud of pitches which is redolent of Van Zandt’s music without ever referencing it directly. Walk the Darkness Down was written with the support of the City of Toronto through Toronto Arts Council. 

To Discard All Images

2019 | 32'

Commissioned by Arraymusic
for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, violoncello and 5-channel playback


I. Prologue (Silence, errance)
II. A Thin Layer of a Hard Shadow
III. That Particular Gaze
IV. Stide Stroll Roam Patrol
V. Sounds Difficult to Repeat
VI. Un mauvais présage, une mauvaise augure
VII. Purgatory
VIII. Parallel to the Picture Plane
IX. Epilogue (Come Back, Stay Longer)

John Max (1936-2011) was a Canadian photographer from Montreal best known for his 1972 exhibition Open Passport.

His work, celebrated at the time, has been somewhat forgotten, perhaps as a result of Max’s reluctance in later life to develop his film or to show new work. Some of his close friends estimated that at the time of his death he had upwards of 2000 rolls of undeveloped film, others suggested that for several years he had been taking photographs without any film in his camera.

To Discard All Images presents new recordings of forty-six Canadian photographers each describing one image from Open Passport. Many of these recordings are of close personal friends of Max, but just as many are of photographers who were not previously aware of his work.

The title is taken from a poem by Max which he wrote as an epigraph for Open Passport:

To discard all images
Leaving their impressions behind
Of burning hearts
And tortured souls
And soft silent tears

Smouldering . . .

Without name
Without country
Without passport . . . . . .

To Discard All Images features the voices of Raymonde April, Benoit Aquin, Robert Bean, Sylvia Grace Borda, Dianne Bos, Jim Breukelman, Annie Briard, Chris Buck, Robert Burley, Michel Campeau, Bertrand Carrière, Serge Clément, Burt Covit, Marlene Creates, Donigan Cumming, Sally Davies, William Eakin & Lulu Akhanamoya, David Evans, Evergon, Fausta Facciponte, Michael Flomen, Will Gill, Elisa Julia Gilmour, Rafael Goldchain, Terence Gower, Angela Grauerholz, Naomi Harris, Joseph Hartman, April Hickox, Clive Holden, Joshua Jensen-Nagle, Ruth Kaplan, Shelagh Keeley, Rita Leistner, Laura Letinsky, John Lucas, Shelley Niro, Deanna Pizzitelli, Normand Rajotte, Guillaume Simoneau, Edward Singer, Shin Sugino, Althea Thauberger, Christopher Wahl, Robert Walker and Carl Zimmerman.

Oh Come Now! There is a Beautiful Place!

2018 | 9'

Commissioned by Standing Wave
for alto flute, bass clarinet, percussion, piano (doubling melodica), violin and violoncello


Premiered in March 1912, Reinhold Glière’s Symphony 3 in B minor is a work of mammoth proportions. Depicting the epic tale of Kievan Rus’ folk hero Ilya Muromets, the symphony lasts upwards of eighty minutes and is scored for a large orchestra including quadruple winds and eight horns. 

Oh Come Now! There is a Beautiful Place! is an arrangement of Glière’s symphony on a relatively miniature scale. The title is drawn from a painted poem by Kenneth Patchen which reads in its entirety “Oh Come Now! There is a Beautiful Place! What do you think we’re all looking out of”.

Oh Come Now! There is a Beautiful Place! was commissioned by Standing Wave as part of their 20c Remix project.


2015 | 12'  

Commissioned by NMC Recordings for Aurora Orchestra
for violoncello, double bass and four keyboards


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In the Flight Gallery at the Science Museum, dwarfed by the scale of the many full-sized planes hanging from the ceiling above and the vast wall of airplane engines, a life-sized statue of a lone figure stares out of a display case. The statue, made from over 400,000 pieces of Welsh slate, carefully stacked, depicts the British aeronautical engineer R. J. Mitchell. Mitchell, a prolific designer, worked for Supermarine Aviation Works for whom he designed the Sea Eagle, the Sea King, the Walrus, the Stranraer and a series of racing aircraft including the Supermarine S.6B, winner of the Schneider Trophy in 1931 and one-time holder of the world air speed record (The Supermarine S.6B is also on display in the Science Museum’s Flight Gallery).

Mitchell was most famous, however, for designing the Supermarine Spitfire, the innovative and revolutionary fighter aircraft which played such a prominent role in the Battle of Britain. Mitchell did not live to see the Spitfire play its key war-time role; Mitchell died of cancer in 1937, aged 42.

The Spitfire achieved legendary status during the war, and in 1942 The First of the Few was released, a biographical film starring Leslie Howard as R. J. Mitchell. The film told the story of the Spitfire’s development and Mitchell’s illness and death and served to further mythologize both the plane and its designer in the eyes of the public.

Leslie Howard was killed less than a year after the film’s release when BOAC Flight 777 from Lisbon to Bristol was shot down by eight German Junkers Ju 88 fighters. The attack on Flight 777 prompted numerous conspiracy theories surrounding Howard, most suggesting that he was a spy on a secret mission to liaise with Francisco Franco on behalf of Churchill. However, it was also suggested that, due to the film, German agents had mistaken Howard for R. J. Mitchell himself and had ordered the plan shot down to eliminate him.

Supermarine is written for cello, double bass and four keyboards controlling software samplers. The samples used were created from audio recordings of airplane engines. The work is a response to the meticulous and intricate construction of the Welsh-slate statue, the mythologizing aspects of the Leslie Howard film and the conspiracy theories surrounding the attack on BOAC Flight 777.

Christopher Mayo’s Supermarine...makes for much-needed variety and is a fantastic piece of music. Mayo states that his samples come from a documentary about legendary aviation engineer R. J. Mitchell. We have to trust Mayo because the sample is so destroyed in the sampling process that it could be from anything. The other pieces featured standard elements of rhythm, harmony, and timbre. Mayo’s music emphasizes drone. Due to the nature of his destroyed sample and the stereophonic effects of his electronic part, he creates a coarse and even painful soundscape. But, the cello and bass provide a grounded melodic and acoustic contrast to the largely toneless electronics. Not that there is no pitch to the electronics, Mayo does create interesting harmonizations. As well Mayo also provides some compelling melodic content toward the end of the piece, again, giving much needed and appreciated contrasts.
— Joshua Denenberg, Musical Toronto
Christopher Mayo, inspired by a slate statue of Spitfire designer RJ Mitchell creates Supermarine a grinding threnody, plunging us into mechanistic depths with cello, bass and four samplers.
— Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine
The oldest composer represented is in her 80s, and the youngest in his mid-30s, so the stylistic range was vast.Thea Musgrave’s rather French, rather neoclassical Power Play, conducted by Nicholas Collon among the engines and turbines of the museum’s Energy Hall, was worlds away from Christopher Mayo’s Supermarine, inspired by the slate statue of the engineer R J Mitchell in the flight gallery, with cello and double bass punctuating its aero-engine samples.
— Andrew Clements, The Guardian
Mayo’s piece Supermarine, is inspired by the ‘Flight’ gallery on the third floor and, in particular, by a statue, made from more than 400,000 pieces of Welsh slate, of the British aeronautical engineer RJ Mitchell. Mitchell is most famous for having designed the Supermarine Spitfie; his Supermarine Seaplace is currently on display in this awe-inspiring space, alongside a jump jet suspended in the air and numerous other full-sized aeroplanes.

It would make sense for a piece connected with aeroplanes to be loud – and Mayo’s certainly is. Supermarine is scored for cello, double bass and four electronic keyboards which control sampler; the twist is that, since the commission was for other instruments too – clarinet, horn, trombone and violin – it’s the players of these particular instruments in Aurora who play the keyboards. ‘They’re controlling 20 different samples of aeroplane engines,’ Mayo explains to me at the session. ‘The sounds are difficult to identify to begin with - they’re more like dense, harmonic chords – but gradually, as the piece goes on, they star to sound more like engines.’ During the recording, in order to hear the cello and double bass, the levels are at a minimum but, for the concert, the speakers will be cranked up and Mayo hopes that the live instruments will be amplified. ‘The players will be located close to Mitchell’s statue, and the audience will be in front of them, surrounded by all these amazing planes,’ Mayo says. ‘The idea is to fill the space with sound. We’ve been talking about how many subwoofers we can get on the night! You’ll be able to feel the sound physucally.’

Like Molitor, Mayo believs his piece can have life away from the Science Museum. ‘So much of what I do is linked to an extra-musical idea anyway,’ he says. ‘But the nice part about this project is that you get a real connection to the object by perfroming it in the space. To present the two things alongside each other give listeners a whole new perspective.’

Mayo likes to think that hearing his piece as part of the promenade concert will refocus the attention of visitors on to the statue of RJ Mitchell, ‘who isn’t on a pedestal or anything and therefore isn’t usually given much attention’.
— Sarah Kirkup, Gramophone

Twentieth Century Ikon

2015 | 12'  

Commissioned by The Women's Musical Club of Toronto for Ensemble Made in Canada
for piano quartet  


In a 2011 interview, Christopher Mayo said, “there’s a lot of intuition in my approach to composing, but it’s always instigated by some sort of interaction with a systematic conceit. It’s always a game – a way of coaxing yourself towards materials and structures that you couldn’t possibly imagine through conventional means.” The instigation for the work on today’s programme is British artist Bob Law’s “Twentieth Century Ikon” series. As the composer tells us, this “consists of nine pencil drawings all completed on August 8th 1967. The drawings each take a similar austere form—a large, roughly drawn rectangle subdivided by a “T” into 3 smaller rectangles. Over the course of these nine drawings, the proportion and orientation of these elements change, giving the impression of being snapshots of a gradually evolving process. By changing a variable as simple as where this “T” is placed within the larger rectangle, Law creates a sense of movement, progression and duration from the most minimal of materials. On the surface, my piano quartet, Twentieth Century Ikon seems aesthetically quite far removed from the resolute, hard-line minimalism of Law’s pencil drawings. However, the key similarities are there—a narrow gamut of materials manipulated in proportion and orientation to create an implied narrative, dramatic arc.
–John Mayo

His music is process oriented, with a large, overarching trajectory that is planned out meticulously; each parameter (dynamics, pitch, harmonies, etc) is treated somewhat independently but all work towards the same long-range goal. The new work for piano quartet was inspired by a group of nine minimalist pencil sketches by the British artist Bob Law. Though not minimalist in musical idiom, “Twentieth Century Ikon” did thoroughly mine the expressive possibilities of a few recurring musical gestures that gave the work a coherent shape. The sound palette was very imaginative and sophisticated, ranging from sharp, stabbing vertical sonorities to whispered tremolo figures.
— Robin Elliott, Musical Toronto

Very little perhaps nothing

2009 | 9'  

Commissioned by le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne for Domaine Forget
for flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello


Very little perhaps nothing was written for le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne for the new music course at Domaine Forget. The tile comes from the poem Known knowns by Michael Robbins.

Known knowns

Very little perhaps nothing
is known about boats.

I was never bitten
by a radioactive pony.

I believe we lack
a public health system
per se.

The world’s tallest freestanding smokestack
is in Sudbury, Ontario.

Lights at the top make it
scrutable to aircraft.

We’re waiting to de-fern.

— Michael Robbins

Passed the Last River

2006 | 12'  

Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society for Michael Collins and the Dante Quartet
for clarinet quintet

Passed the Last River was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society for Michael Collins and the Dante Quartet and was first performed as part of the Cheltenham Festival, July 12, 2006. The commission was awarded as part of the 2005 RPS Young Composers Award.

Passed the Last River was inspired by the Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie and his crossing of the North American continent in 1792-93.

Christopher Mayo’s Passed the Last River (2006) – inspired by the 1793 crossing of North America. Deftly telescoping a wide range of textures and sonorities into a compressed and always eventful exploration for clarinet quintet, it suggests that this Canadian-born composer, now in his mid-twenties, is a figure likely to make his mark before long.
— Richard Whitehouse, Classical Source

List 2; never been so easy

2006 | 6'  

Commissioned by the Diesel Lounge Boys
for mandolin, banjo, guitar and double bass

List 2; never been so easy was written for the contemporary music bluegrass quartet, The Diesel Lounge Boys. It is a work about lists, goals, and self-defeatism. It is a work that is in constant denial of its own structure and which is trying to elevate itself beyond its central systematic restrictions.

String Quartet

2005 | 12'  

Commissioned by the Elysian Quartet
for string quartet

This String Quartet was written for the Elysian Quartet and first performed as part of the Dartington International Summer School on August 26th, 2005 at The Great Hall, Dartington, UK.

The Evening-Being Device

2005 | 10'  

Commissioned by Arraymusic
for bass clarinet, vibraphone, piano and double bass

The Evening-Being Device was commissioned and premiered by Arraymusic as part of their Young Composers Workshop in 2005. It is a work that is concerned with beginnings. It is also a work about starting over. The opening phrase is repeated five times and each repetition is more insistent than the previous. But there is little sense of progression; each iteration of the material feels less like development and more like going over old ground, searching for something buried deep in the music. In this way, it is a hopeful piece. It answers failure by trying again, and trying harder, but never deviates from its original plan.

In Those Apple Trees 

2005 | 7'  

Commissioned by the Bang on a Can Summer Music Institute
for three electric guitars and amplified dutar (or four electric guitars)

In Those Apple Trees was written for the 2005 Bang on a Can Summer Music Institute. It was first performed by Mark Stewart, Ross Lafleur, and James Moore (guitars), and Shavkat Matyakubov (dutar), on July 28, 2005 at MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, USA.