PHOSPHORUS for marimba and audio playback. Duration 8:10 minutes. Available from  PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.

Phosphorus for marimba and audio playback was composed soon after the death of Cameron Haynes, my wife’s nephew.  Cameron had engaged in a year-long battle with cancer and passed away almost immediately after his 25th birthday. Throughout his life, Cameron suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, and he required extra attention and care from his family and those close to him. Living in a small town and having been educated in a public school system not equipped to deal with children with special needs, he was often the target of bullying and this, along with the behavioral side effects of his condition, made his way through life rather challenging. All this notwithstanding, he remained positive and optimistic and, in the end, his battle with cancer revealed a person of courage, poetic strength and, however hidden and unarticulated, an empathy for others atypical of his condition.

My wife, percussionist Beverley Johnston, and I had been very much affected by Cameron’s passing. I dealt with my grief by examining my own feelings and understanding of human mortality by the best available means to me: music. Two musical characters engage in a virtual conversation with each other in this eight-minute-long work. They are: (1) a quiet lament-like harmonic sequence for the marimba over descending minor thirds and (2) segments extracted from a dj mix by Cameron called Phosphorus, which he had proudly sent to us a short while before he was diagnosed with cancer. These two musical themes, which in my mind gradually came to represent Bev and Cameron as the two characters in this conversation, inhabit two different tempi, Bev’s at 75bpm and Cameron’s at 100bpm. They are radically different musical expressions: soft classical music that is close to my and Bev’s sound world on the one hand and a heavily distorted, de-sentimentalized, but otherwise matter-of-fact report on the properties of the chemical element phosphorus on the other.

Even though in his phosphorus mix Cameron speaks in a detached manner about things devoid of any emotion, I felt that in some deeper way, perhaps unbeknownst even to him, he was talking not about phosphorus but about himself. His evasion of being personal was consistent with his medical condition. I could not help, however, but read a metaphor about his own difficult life in this text, particularly after his passing when I started using it for the present composition. I chose to leave his text musically untreated, just like documentary material, since I believe that it speaks powerfully and profoundly about the human condition in spite of the seemingly humorous and comical surface. The marimba is trying to come to terms with this material by attempting a metric modulation into Cam’s tempo (the two tempi have a three to four ratio relationship) and towards the end, as understanding grows, the marimba surrenders her original tempo and abdicates to that of the phosphorus mix.

After completing this work, I realized that all three of my compositions for marimba and audio playback have a prerecorded documentary aspect. Fertility Rites, the earliest work in this series, references Inuit throat singers, while In the Fire of Conflict references the rap ponderings of a young man under severe socioeconomic duress. Phosphorus continues this theme with the voice of a young man who at one point of his monologue points out that “In Greek, phosphorus means the Light Bearer.” Cameron Haynes has been this Light Bearer for a lot of people, including us, and this work is dedicated to his memory.


Premiere performance: July 2015. Beverley Johnston, marimba. IKMA Festival, Hannover, Germany


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