ECSTASY for contralto and orchestra (2222, 2210, harp, timp. 2 perc. strings). Commissioned by the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. On texts by Sarah Slean. Duration: 30 minutes.

My first creative encounter with Sarah Slean, a formidable songwriting and vocal talent but also, and perhaps less known and appreciated, a formidable thinker and seeker of truth, was in 2011, when CBC Radio producer Jeff Reily put us together with Symphony Nova Scotia for a cross-over project intended to heal the audience divide between pop and classical music. Lamento, the musical result of this collaboration was a dark song cycle on my own texts about loss of a loved one, mental illness and suicide based on the aria “When I am Laid in Earth” from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. The music and the performance did quite a bit to heal this divide. The mixed audience demographic of the original SNS concert received the work enthusiastically as did the online audience on YouTube since then.

In the fall of 2014 an equally successful performance of Lamento took place in Thunder Bay, ON with Sarah and the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. It was after this performance that Arthur Post, the orchestra’s Music Director, Sarah and I decided to follow up with a new song cycle, this time on Sarah’s text and present it the following season with the TBSO. Given the bleakness of the subject of Lamento, Sarah and I were ready to explore more luminous psychic territory. This is how Ecstasy came into being.

Ecstasy is a journey from the heart, to the mind and back to the heart. When Sarah gave me the first poem of the cycle, she actually sang it in melodies and harmonies that emerged at the same time with the text and gave me a recording of her musical version. The first stanza and its evocative ending “Love is looking for you” which returns at the end of every stanza is her melody. As the poetry accelerates its dichotomy, bouncing between darkness and light and revealing a multiplicity of nuances in the process, my musical setting departs from her original melody and seeks to find the musical equivalent of the emotional content of her text. The entire text and music is eventually distilled to the recurring theme “Love is looking for you” sounding on top of quiet humming by the orchestra members.

Logos, the second song, is a constant pendulum swing between two different understandings of and attention to our world. For the longest time they were thought of as reflections of our lateralized brain but to Sarah and me they reflect a far deeper divide at the very heart of consciousness and language that transcends the brain and materiality as a whole. In Greek “Logos” means “reason” but also “word”. When John, the Evangelist, used this term to describe Christ at the beginning of his gospel, he, perhaps unwittingly, associated Christ with the advent of consciousness and language, thus attributing to him an Adamite identity. It was Adam at the moment of his fall who first consciously understood right from wrong and, by naming the elements of his environment, he isolated them and created a cognitive distance between the “I” and the “Other”. Reason (consciousness) was born from this very act of differentiation. So, Christ as “Logos” is Christ as Adam--the Second Adam restoring his original (and humanity’s) fall. Our Logos, the song, bounces constantly between serenity and calculation, wholeness and objectification, deep awareness and mind games. The music follows the text. The aggressive parts are depicted as choreographed power dances, tangos and waltzes, where the physical pleasure of the dance becomes indistinguishably blended with the subtle politics of gender dominance. The mind’s reason wants to own. The heart’s reason can only give.

Bhakti, the third song, was composed almost two years after the first two. It was the most difficult of the three to set. Sarah’s mystical association between Buddha and Christ, her description of angels “in whose clear and shining blood teems the transparent heritage of light” and her concluding affirmation that the “first and only mind” sees out of their “heaven blackened eyes” required a musical language which, through musical allegory, could attempt to capture something of the power of her verbal imagery. It took several attempts before arriving at the present setting. I hope I have done justice to the poetry.

(by Sarah Slean)

1. Love

soaring o’er the rooftops,
and oozing under doors,
dancing in the oak trees,
by long forgotten shores

surging into cities
hospitals and halls
roaring through the subway
and crowded shopping malls

tenderly destroying
all that is untrue
O Love, Love is looking for you.

floating in the lamplight
that falls upon the page
forming in the womb of
a yet undiscovered age

falling down in dewdrops
upon the sleeping farms
in the heart of every killer,
in reluctant mothers' arms

endlessly it follows,
no matter where you’re running to
O Love - Love is looking for you.

calling in the voices
that echo in the yard
shining in the faces
of the beaten and the scarred

teeming in your bloodstream
there behind your eyes
burning in your middle
sweet between your thighs

you heard it in the willows
it felt like something true
O Love - Love is looking for you.

gushing out of children
in joy too great to bear
breathing like a bellows in
the poet’s deep despair

behold the wild horses,
the evening sky aflame,
the beauty and the violence
the wonder and the shame

after every horror
a day begins anew,
O Love, Love is looking for you.


2. Logos

A sequence
leaps from the everyday,
unsuspecting agents deliver the perfect code
and the meters of Grace align.

the present moment bursts from its fog
turning slowly before me,
Like the earth on its axis
Massive, significant, silent
All other tenses
Of all verbs
Flake away,
Dead petals.

There is a magnificent jewel
I cannot see within myself
Unless it is glittering
In another
Whose eyes I have entered
With love
And nothing else.

I need not know you, nor you, me
For the original fire is beyond such things.
Time cannot reach its light.
Then, a kind of laughter 
In recognition that there was never anything but this.

The murmuring clock returns, 
and the Self with its heavy cloak
And the codes click back into illegible density
As the grand chess match continues,
Pieces cross paths,
At precise, deliberate moments
In a formal dance
to decorate this hiddenness.

And then it is good to know,
That the game is still on,
Full of bishops and queens,
and patterns,
And squares to visit.

Only by these edges
Can I perceive forever 
Or that fiery jewel,
Barely containing its bounty.


3. Bhakti

Flower of life

It opens like a fiery lily (in me)

Blossom of fire,
Radiating furious dawn!

O wondrous angels
In whose clear and shining blood teems
the transparent heritage of light!


It opens like a glowing lotus (in me)

Thundering void
Where the immensity of mercy rings

O towering angels!
Out your heaven-blackened eyes,
sees the first and only mind

The one hidden in all


Premiere performance: March 31, 2016. Sarah Slean, alto; Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Post. Thunder Bay, ON.

Reviews and Comments:

I had the opportunity to play . . . Ecstasy by Christos Hatzis, with text composed and performed by Sarah Slean. If these names sound familiar together, it's because Ecstasy is a companion piece to the first collaboration between Hatzis and Slean, Lamento. I actually had the opportunity to play Lamento twice, first with the Niagara Symphony and then with Thunder Bay, and it is a piece with an enormous emotional impact and an incredible musical inventiveness. You can watch the premiere of that piece, with Symphony Nova Scotia, on CBC. The TBSO commissioned Ecstasy as a kind of counterpoint to Lamento, as the names would suggest. They also commissioned another piece from Hatzis, which they will perform in October 2016. Although it would be rude of me to say I hope to be there, since my being there would require someone else's getting sick, the impact of Hatzis' music, and the experience of being the first person to get a part, hear it in the context of the whole, and be present for the creation of something both new and lasting, is almost enough to make me want to say it. Anna Norris(bassonist) blog.


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