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) - 0.0.3.1 - 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.
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.
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.
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.