2tsax(I,II=ssax, sop.recorder, Jew's harp).trbn(=atrbn, sop.recorder, melodica, Jew's harp)-perc-pft(=harmonica)-elec.gtr
This work requires additional technological components and/or amplification.
O Death was written for Ensemble Klang and premiered in New York City in March 2007. The idea for O Death started when I heard the folk-song of the same name. In the song, a young person pleads with the character of death not to “take them so soon”. I was immediately struck with the parallels between this and parts of the requiem Mass and so I started to think about grafting popular-music elements (particularly the blues) onto a kind of Requiem Mass structure (a structure which is typically rather fluid to begin with.) As the Requiem Mass normally involves sung text, and O Death does not, I like to think of O Death a Requiem Masque.
O Death is scored for two saxophones, trombone, percussion, piano, electric guitar and electronics. Apart from playing their regular instruments, each of the players are required to play recorders, jew’s harps, harmonicas, as well as banjo and melodica.
O Death is around 65 minutes long and is in seven movements:
I) Chorus I: The two chorus movements are the only movements not to feature the whole ensemble. Chorus I is scored for two tenor saxophones, trombone, slide-guitar and taped samples.
II) Bone Chapel is a momento mori. The title comes from the Bone Chapel in Evora, Portugal an 18th century chapel literally constructed from human bones. Above the door is an inscription that reads:
“We bones that are here, for you bones we wait”
Bone Chapel is based on the idea of a one-note guitar solo, a common feature of many blues solos.
III) Take Leave of Carnal Vain Delight: A banjo-led scherzo-macabre. The title comes from a 11th century English broadside, in which the character of death speaks to a young woman:
“Throw those costly robes aside,
No longer may you glory in your pride:
Take leave of carnal vain delight.
I’m come to summon you away this night.”
IV) O Death is loosely based on the American folk-song of the same name. If the third movement was an invitation from the figure of death, then this movement is the young person’s pleading response, a few centuries later and several thousand miles away:
How you’re treating me!
You’re closin’ my eyes so I can’t see.
Well, you’re hurtin’ my body,
You make me cold,
You run my life
Right out of my soul.
O Death! O Death!
Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?”
V) Chorus II is scored for two tenor saxophones, slide-guitar and flower-pots.
VI) I Believe I’m Sinking Down deals with memory. Alternating furious and serene sections coalesce with the use of a Dictaphone playing back the previous section’s material during moments of repose. Gradually both types of material are filtered out with the introduction of a kind of half-remembered clockwork. The title comes from Robert Johnson’s Crossroad Blues:
“You can run, tell my friend, poor Willie Brown,
Lord, that I’m standing at the crossroad babe,
I believe I’m sinking down.”
VII) Lights in Ashes begins with jew’s harps. This section gives way to a different type of clockwork: a slow-moving resonant unison. The movement owes its title to Sir Thomas Browne:
“Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lay down in darknesse, and have our lights in ashes.”
— Oscar Bettison
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.