In Flight (2015)

chorus and electronics

Included on a CD of music performed by NOTUS, available on innova.


  1. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (William Carlos Williams)
  2. July (Linda Allardt)
  3. Flying at Night (Ted Kooser)
  4. Flying Inside Your Own Body (Margaret Atwood)
  5. Night City (Elizabeth Bishop)

The texts of In Flight engage the theme of flight in several of its manifestations: the flight of birds, the myth of Icarus, imaginary levitating in dreams, and the private reflections of jet passengers. The varied approaches of the poets whose work I set allows for a wide range of tone and affect, from Linda Allardt’s light depiction of a goldfinch in flight to Elizabeth Bishop’s account of an airplane passing over an urban landscape, during which the passenger imagines terrifying violence and decay. The music of In Flight tracks the shifts in attitude and perspective embodied in these texts and explores the mysteries of flight, both real and metaphorical.

In “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” William Carlos Williams constructs a narrative around an unusual painting by Bruegel that enacts the myth of Icarus in a Renaissance pastoral scene. The farmers in the foreground of the painting seem unconcerned with Icarus tumbling into the sea in the distance. My setting uses a blend of hocketing, wordless voices and computer-generated sound-washes to create an image of the sea, glinting in the sunlight, while a tenor solo describes the scene leading to Icarus’ plunge, as well as the casual reaction of the farmers. The piece develops slowly from the opening mood, intensifying only briefly for the moment when the sun melts the wings’ wax, and Icarus falls and drowns.

In the second movement, I aim to capture the feeling of the poem, “July,” by Linda Allardt, in which a goldfinch flits about the branches of a maple tree. The short, diverse phrases match the bird’s swift flight. The singers alternate between declamation of the text and more unusual, noisy vocal production.

Ted Kooser’s “Flying at Night” considers what it’s like to see city and country lights from the air. He compares the lights seen below with the novas and galaxies in the sky above. The gravitational pull of celestial bodies is a metaphor for the way the city lights seem to draw isolated country lights into an orbit. I treated the airplane as a center of melodic symmetry, with lines above the center, in the stars, reflecting lines below, on the ground.

The fourth movement, a setting of Margaret Atwood’s “Flying Inside Your Own Body,” describes an exhilarating dream: you fly like a bird, floating lightly above the earth, with the sun shining happily above you. But, as with Icarus, all good things come to an end, and in this text the image of waking from such a dream is particularly cruel. The moment when the mood crashes — with far more impact than is shown in the Bruegel painting — is the emotional pivot of In Flight. Most of the music that precedes this moment is light and uplifting, but the tone of the rest of In Flight is anxious and oppressive.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Night City,” was written during the later years of the Vietnam war and references that era’s urban unrest. As in Kooser’s poem, the narrator is a jet passenger, but the placid, meditative thoughts expressed in “Flying at Night” contrast with Bishop’s horrific depiction of life on the ground below. The chaotic city in flames and its scenes of industrial contamination give way at the end of the poem to the calm and deliberate process of an airplane landing. My setting opens with a mysterious disembodied voice intoning the text, while the choir extends the sound of the spikey notes produced by the computer. Later, the choir sings most of the text while the computer supplies a range of textures, from an urban-inspired drum track to jittery sonic gestures.

I am grateful for the support of an IU New Frontiers in the Arts & Humanities Grant and the Camargo Foundation, which offered me a lovely residency in the south of France to work on In Flight.


  • NOTUS: IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, dir. Dominick DiOrio, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Bloomington, Indiana, 11/5/2015