Duets are a great thing on any recital – they add more possibilities of sound and texture. There aren’t a lot of good ones, which makes James Rolfe’s Beloved all the more welcome. I find Dennis Lee’s texts extremely compelling and memorable. Even years after performing the work, some of the images – the caramelized beloved – and lines still pop up in my head – “In silicon gridlock, in quagmeet extremis, basta!” and the haunting ending –

relinquish the terrene ghosthold;

crumble to alphadud; stutter to rumours of ing.

As you can hear/see, you can’t find every piece of text in the OED, and that may not be to everyone’s taste. Personally, I’m a little tired of the Victorians and Elizabethans, and I haven’t encountered anyone who hasn’t enjoyed Dennis Lee ex-Alligator Pie.

It can be fun and effective to make multi-instrumentalists of singers (c.f. David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion or Andrew Staniland’s¬†Tampobata). The percussion writing is quite regular and not especially challenging by itself, but it is always difficult to maintain two independent lines for those who are not accustomed to it. Don’t underestimate the time you’ll need to get these parts down. Similarly, the piano part has some tricky rhythmic patterns. Like most of Rolfe’s writing, it is clear and coherent, and often not as easy as it looks.

My favourite part of the piece is the acapella sections – the “blind, blind” section, and the beautiful melismas of¬† “and are creatures of nothing”. Like Hindemith, this piece can arc from starkly rhythmic to breathtakingly lyrical in the blink of an eye, or ear.

Notes to the Performer:

  • When practising the percussion parts, work in small sections and drill them slowly. One bar is not too short a unit, if you can maintain accuracy. Also try breaking it down to speaking text and percussion instead of singing, make it simpler

Title:  Beloved

Composer:  James Rolfe

Country:  Canada

Text:  Dennis Lee, from Un

Duration:  10 min

Date of Composition:  2005


How to get the score:  beloved_score

Commission:  Gregory Oh/Laidlaw Foundation


Premiere:  Heidi Klann, Vilma Indra Vitols,  Gregory Oh, 26 Feb 2005, Toca Voca, Music Gallery, Toronto, ON

Performance History:  

  • Virginia Hatfield, Lauren Segal, Gregory Oh, 8 September 2012, CASP, Music Gallery, Toronto, ON

Instrumentation Notes: 

  • one singer plays claves or woodblock, and the other plays the guero

beloved (James Rolfe/Dennis Lee)

Beloved sets five poems from Dennis Lee’s Un (2003).  His book presents a relentlessly dark and apocalyptic vision of our world, yet at the same time it still finds flickers of humanity and hope.  Armageddon is coupled with redemption, despair with exhiliration, pollution with purity.  The boiled-down texts burst with unorthodox phrases and neologisms, and I have tried to couple their unruly force with unexpected musical counterparts.  The vocal world is often independent from that of the piano, which comments and articulates more often than it accompanies.

Beloved was commissioned by Toca Loca (Gregory Oh, Artistic Director), with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation.




In silicon gridlock, in

quagmeat extremis ‚Äď basta, on wings of success,

Still we snog through

sputum waste to

caramelize the Beloved,

riffle thru alley slop for a gob of awe




You who.

You who never, who

neverest, who

ever unart.

You who summon the watch, who

hamstring the seeker, you who piss in the wine:

with this jawbone this raga this entrail,

with this pyrrhic skiptrace.

You who egg, who

slag, who un, who





light, blind

night, blind blinkers.

Blind of the lakelorn / of

lumpen /the scree.

In terminal ought and deny, indelible isprints.

Palping the scandalscript. Sniffing the

petrified fiat.




An earth ago, a

God ago, gone



a pang a lung a

lifeline, gone to



Sin with its

numberless, hell with its

long long count:


nightfears in

eden, gone eco gone

pico gone home.




And are creatures of


I noth you noth we

long have we nothed we

shall noth, staunch in true

nothing we

noth in extremis, noth until

habitat heartstead green galore & species

relinquish the terrene ghosthold;

crumble to alphadud; stutter to rumours of ing.


From House of Anansi

It is hard to think of another book like Un. Reading it is like bouncing on a moral, intellectual, and linguistic trampoline.This astonishing sequence begins with a countdown that takes us not to zero, but to un. Lee is surveying the catastrophic new reality we have made of our planet. But pushing way past the mimetic, he plunges into language itself with shovel and pick-axe, digging up free-standing prefixes, syllables, roots, in a struggle to articulate what we can scarcely bear to think.

This untology is at once a lament for our squandered earth, a wake-up call, a dramatic poetic departure, and a song of despair, streaked with craggy hope. Lee’s exploration turns play into prayer — perhaps the only kind of prayer the contemporary world permits.


Toronto composer James Rolfe has been commissioned and performed by ensembles, orchestras, choirs, theatres, and opera companies in Canada, the USA, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the K. M. Hunter Music Award, the Louis Applebaum Composers Award, the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music, SOCAN’s Jan V. Matejcek Concert Music Award, a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, and the Outstanding Choral Work Award from the Association of Canadian Choral Communities.

The Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company production of Mr. Rolfe‚Äôs opera¬†Beatrice Chancy¬†played to sold-out houses and rave reviews in Toronto, Dartmouth, and Edmonton. The company later produced¬†In√™s, which was nominated for a Dora Award. Three¬†masques‚ÄďOrpheus¬†and¬†Eurydice,¬†Aeneas and Dido,¬†and¬†Europa‚Äďwere premiered by The Toronto Masque Theatre to critical and audience acclaim.¬†Elijah‚Äôs Kite,¬†an opera for children, was co-produced in New York by Tapestry Opera and the Manhattan School of Music, and given its Canadian premiere before the Governor-General at Rideau Hall. His opera¬†Swoon¬†was premiered by the Canadian Opera Company, which commissioned a new opera,¬†Crush,¬†mounted in a workshop production at The Banff Centre in July 2015.

Current projects include a new operatic version of Gogol’s The Overcoat for Tapestry Opera / Canstage and Vancouver Opera with writer Morris Panych (to be produced in Toronto 27 March to 14 April 2018, and in Vancouver 28 April to 12 May 2018), as well as new works for soprano Janice Jackson (Pirate Song, with a libretto by Anna Chatterton, to be premiered 23 November 2017 in Halifax, NS); Continuum Contemporary Music (Clinical Notes of the Bipolar Therapist, with poems by Steven Heighton, to be premiered in Toronto 8-9 December 2017), the Hannaford Street Silver Band with the Amadeus Choir (Winter Songs, to be premiered 12 December 2017 in Toronto), and Soundstreams (I Think We Are Angels, to be premiered 6-7 June 2018 in Toronto). Breathe, a CD of Mr. Rolfe’s works for voices and early instruments, featuring singers Suzie LeBlanc, Monica Whicher, and Alexander Dobson, with conductors David Fallis and Larry Beckwith, and members of the Toronto Consort and the Toronto Masque Theatre, will be released on the Centrediscs label on 21 October 2017.

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