Plague Victims Catapulted over Walls into Besieged City (2011)

for Soprano, Flute, and Piano

Texts by Thomas Lux from "The Street of Clocks" (2001)

Performed by Raquel Gonzalez (soprano), Daniel James (flute), and Ariel Jacobs (piano)

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Duration: 5 min.

Premiere: Performed and Recorded by Raquel Gonzalez (soprano), Daniel James (flute), and Ariel Jacobs (piano) on September 17, 2011 at the Juilliard School.
Performed by Kathleen O’Rourke (soprano), Ray Furuta (flute), and Alexandra Le (piano) on October 26, 2011 at the Stony Brook University Composers’ Concert.

I stumbled upon this text a few years ago while rummaging around the internet, looking for poems to make into songs. My background is in musical theatre writing, so setting poems has always been an interesting challenge for me: with no extra-musical materials, no known characters, no external plot or story, how does that change your job as a composer? When Daniel James asked me to write him a piece and suggested it be for flute, soprano, and piano, I thought of this text immediately, hoping its peculiar tone would lend itself well to that ensemble’s versatile blend of power and flexibility.

The poem has a quality I love, of simple (almost childlike) language spun into descriptions of unsettling, gruesome events. The situation is historical: in the 14th century, Tartars catapulted bodies infected with bubonic plague into a besieged city in modern-day Ukraine, an act of both psychological- and bio-warfare. I tried to musically capture this scenario, in the mixture of wonder and detachment that Thomas Lux lends it in his poem. The idea of “soaring vs. splatting” (to put it crudely) also influenced my stylistic choices, as I interwove singer and piano into a flute song that would comment and reminisce, float and fall.