for chorus (2011)

First performance: May 13, 2011; Volti, Robert Geary, conductor; Berkeley City Club (Berkeley, California).

Commissioned by Volti.

Duration: 30'

Chorus: SATB (20-part divisi)

Availability: For Hire


Genesis (2011), by Matthew Barnson, was the highlight of the evening. Barnson calls it a triptych, using three poems by Ted Hughes, Richard Siken and Alec Derwent Hope.  However, each functions well as a stand-alone composition.

The effect of the first could only be described as searing. The beginning of the second, a Siken composition called “Scheherazade”, started on a quieter note, providing a much-needed contrast before voices rose up, mimicking the horse hooves described in the poetry.  The voices cantered in regular rhythms before building to a siren at the end, making it impossible for the audience not to pick up on the repetition of the words “tell me,” that began and ended the poem. Volti split in two again for the performance of the last piece, a poem titled “Paradise Saved.” One side offered up the lyrics of the poem, while the other repeated a figure over and over, with tones ranging from breathy to keening, seagull cry to siren call, as if the true poetry lay in their lack of words. (Stark Insider)

Matthew Barnson’s 25-minute “Genesis” cleverly split the singers, with a focal group rendering the texts while a fringe group of high voices provided an emotional roller-coaster, whether wailing, lamenting, showing trepidation, or simply radiating electricity of frightening amperage. There was dramatic declamation, a variety of shouts and cries, and even some jumbled tone clusters. This is explosive music of high theater, where for “horses running” you almost hear the hoofbeats. Barnson, 31, took bows at the end. (

Program Notes

Texts by Ted Hughes, Richard Siken and A.D. Hope. 

Genesis re-imagines the Biblical stories of creation through a triptych of poems by Ted Hughes, Richard Siken and Alec Derwent Hope. Like three panels of an altarpiece, the three tableaux are independent of one another but together draw parallels in the telling of a story. In this case, the trio is wholly dependent on the Book of Genesis to give it meaning, but each is a subversive exegesis of the stories and themes of birth, death, sin and obedience and disobedience and each posits a slight, but vital alternative to the traditional narrative that changes the outcome of the myth in ways that are sometimes insignificant (but poignant) and sometimes darkly different. 

The outer movements of the triptych retell stories from the Bible. In Ted Hughes’ Lineage, the creation of the world is retold in a dark send-up of the genealogical lists found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Alec Derwent Hope’s Paradise Saved imagines a scenario where Adam does not partake of the fruit offered by Eve. The middle movement is a setting of Richard Siken’s Scheherazade from his brilliant, ecstatic and anxious book of poetry, Crush. 


Lineage is declaimed with short, violent, unison motives reflecting the stark shock delivered by Hughes’ verse. As the work progresses, the motive expands in length and in harmonic content culminating on the word “Crow,” where the chorus launches into a devastating, visceral, slow descent ending in muttering.


The story of Scheherazade is obviously not found in Genesis. But Siken’s poem is replete with images of the Biblical Eden. Furthermore, the history of sacred music is replete with erotic interludes drawing parallels to sacred subjects: settings from the Song of Songs since the Fourteenth Century attest to this. Thus, in referencing Scheherazade, Siken reminds us that she wove tales for a thousand and one nights to assuage and seduce her captor, lover and would-be executioner: she wove her tales to fend off death. Siken’s lover (captor, murder?), addressing his lover (whose kiss always yields more apples), admits that love will ruin them. Indeed, Siken’s poem is addressed to a teller or tales. Originally, the model for Genesis was Schütz’s Musikalische Exequeim and while the expansive assemblage of a first movement was not used, the two remaining were used as reference points. The second movement, written for eight-part chorus is set, as in the Schütz, as though it were a motet. The third movement too emulates Schütz’s structure but also memorializes another composer, Fausto Romitelli.


In Paradise Saved separation is made audible:  the third movement is composed for two separated choirs. The antiphonal choir, composed of higher, all female voices sings a series of wordless, descending chromatic, chordal sighs against a chorale-chaconne sung by altos, tenors and basses narrating the non-fall of Hope’s proud Adam. Paired with Siken’s Scheherazade the works reflect a common theme of humankind’s futile attempts to defer death. In Siken’s case by filling weaving tales, in Hope’s by avoiding the cause altogether.  Hope’s Adam refuses to eat the fruit, thereby assuring his immortality. But his sinless Adam, justified and impotent, watches as God’s mercy bestows another helpmeet on his fallen Eve, his obedience seemingly overlooked, her disobedience craving and receiving companionship and mercy.