Christopher Mayo


Universal Food Machine

2017 | 10'  

Text by Mina Loy

Commissioned by Lucy Goddard and Siwan Rhys
for mezzo soprano, speaker operator and electronics

Universal Food Machine sets a posthumously published essay by Mina Loy. It was commissioned by Lucy Goddard and Siwan Rhys for their American Songbook project and first performed October 6th, 2017 at the Brunel Museum Tunnel Shaft, Rotherhithe, London, UK. 

Under Dark Water 

2014 | 20'  

Text by Toby Litt

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,

Death on Three-Mile Creek

2011 | 20'  

Text by Jonathan Williams

Commissioned by Carnegie Hall
for two sopranos, mezzo-soprano and ensemble

flute (=picc.), bass clarinet, tuba, percussion, harp, piano, guitar, banjo, violin and double bass


Death on Three-Mile Creek was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the New Vocal Works Professional Training Workshop. It was first performed April 17, 2011 at Zankel Hall by Ilana Zarankin, Nian Wang and Clarissa Lyons conducted by Alan Pierson.

'Uncle' Jake Carpenter was born in Yancey County, North Carolina in 1833. Throughout his long life, he kept a red-backed account ledger which he called his "Jot-em-down Book" and in which he would note the deaths of local people in his own idiosyncratic version of the English language. "Franky Carpenter ag 56 did oc 25 1862 harde working womin in farm made corn oats", reads one of his notes. Another reads: "Abern Johnson ag 100.7 dide oc 15 1881 hey was farmer and ran forge to make iron and Drank lichr hs days never wars dronk in his days." Carpenter's "Jot-em-down Book" was later transcribed verbatim under the title Uncle Jake Carpenter's Anthology of Death on Three-Mile Creek and is now considered one of the most important records of nineteenth-century rural North Carolina.

The poet, essayist, photographer and publisher Jonathan Williams was born close to Three-Mile Creek in Asheville, North Carolina in 1929. He too had an interest—though he insisted it was not a morbid one—in noting the passing of friends, colleagues, enemies and strangers in his poems, essays and obituaries. His poems were his own "Jot-em-down Book" and in them he shows great insight into the lives and works of his subjects.

This work sets five of these poems, the subjects of which are as many and varied as Williams' own wide ranging tastes and interests. These subjects are, respectively, the photographer and preservationist of Chicago architecture Richard Nickel (1928-1972), the English author Denton Welch (1915-1948), the New Orleans jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson (ca. 1879 or 1889-1949), the English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) and the poet’s own father Ben Williams (1898-1974).

With his love of the vernacular language of rural North Carolina and his propensity for cherry-picking the best of it for use in found poetry, it is unsurprising that Jonathan Williams turned to Uncle Jake’s Anthology as the source for one of his own poems, From Uncle Jake Carpenter’s Anthology of Death on Three-Mile Creek.

Loney Ollis
age 84
dide jun 10 1871
grates dere honter
wreked bee trees for hony
cild ratell snak by 100
cild dere by thousen
i nod him well

Jonathan Williams died from pneumonia in March 2008 at his home in Highlands, North Carolina.

In “Death on Three-Mile Creek,” Christopher Mayo resourcefully evoked Appalachian folk styles, New Orleans funeral marches and the shifting pulses of drum ‘n’ bass electronica in setting aphoristic eulogies by Jonathan Williams. One song had Ilana Zarankin, a soprano, vaulting to vertiginous heights over a black groan of scraped strings and pedal tones; in another Ms. Zarankin sang in intentionally ragged concord with a second soprano, Clarissa Lyons, and a mezzo-soprano, Wang Nian.
— Steve Smith, The New York Times

The Fitful Alternations of the Rain 

2008 | 4'  

Text by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Commissioned by NMC Recordings for the NMC Songbook
for tenor and harp


The Fitful Alternations of the Rain sets a brief poem of the same name by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was commissioned by NMC Recordings as part of the NMC Songbook project and recorded by Andrew Kennedy and Lucy Wakeford. It has subsequently been performed in a version for soprano and harp by Sarah Dacey and Fontane Liang.