Featured work: Execution Songs

Execution Songs

Hear the world premiere of Execution Songs at the 2014 e-Gré competition in Brandon Manitoba.  Watch for 1st prize winner Sarah Jo Kirsch touring this work in Italy and Canada! Details to come.


The score is available for rent or purchase at the Canadian Music Centre

Execution Songs was commissioned as the required test piece for the 2014 E-Gré National Music Competition. In writing a competition piece, I wanted to compose a piece that offered technical challenge and dramatic depth.

My creative process for the piece began with a musical idea that ends up appearing in the coda of the piece: a low ostinato on the very lowest key on the piano. I recall thinking as I improvised that it sounded so menacing – like the dramatic moments before an execution. What a place to sing from! Ultimate stakes. At that moment, I wondered if the lyrics from Led Zeppelin’s Gallows Pole were fair game for setting. To my astonishment, the Zeppelin lyrics turn out to be based on a centuries-old text “The Maid Free’d from the Gallows” that  exists in dozens of variations in many different languages.

The theme seems to be universal, and dreadfully timeless: A person about to be hanged pleads with an executioner to wait for the arrival of someone who may bribe him. Some versions see the person forsaken and hanged, others see the person rescued by bribe, only to be hung anyway, and others do not resolve the question. In Execution Songs, the singer chooses between 2 possible endings: one where the fate is unresolved, ending on a soaring high A (the “death note” of the aforementioned low ostinato), and one where the singer is dreadfully forsaken and hanged.

Execution seems like an old-world situation – something that could have only been done to people in a time and place gone by. Unfortunately executions are routinely carried out by states and individuals alike, often in the name of religion, and often for ‘crimes’ that defy logic (such as being stoned for the crime of being raped out of wedlock, or being executed for being homosexual). The United States carries out legally sanctioned executions, though not with ropes and stones, but with more modern techniques including lethal injection. As strongly as I feel about the subject, this piece does not seek to offer remedy or doctrine – rather, it is an art song driven by the most poignant movers of art: tragedy and hope.

Execution Songs was commissioned by the E-Gré National Music Competition and the Canada Council for the Arts.