Under Dark Water (2014) - 20 minutes
text by Toby Litt
Commissioned by Esprit Orchestra
for soprano, two mezzo-sopranos, alto and orchestra [0.0.2(I&II=bcl).2(II=cbsn) - - perc(3) - harp - pno - strings]

The clear stand-out of the night was Christopher Mayo’s Under Dark Water. According to the programme notes, the piece “sets the text of a short excerpt from Toby Litt’s 2001 novel deadkidsongs.” Mayo’s piece was economic in its orchestration and evocative of the Kindertotenlieder-themed texts. It began with an abrupt percussive gesture, and proceeded with three snare drums playing rhythmic figures with brush mallets, and a deep ‘thunk’ of a lone bass drum. The text was performed by four soloists from the Elmer Singers: soprano Gisele Kulak, mezzo-sopranos Amy Dodington and Andrea Ludwig, and alto Laura McAlpine. Both in style and delivery, it reminded me of a cross between Robert Ashley’s spoken word carriage, and David Lang’s fragmented yet lyrical vocal pieces. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Mayo in the future.
— Michael Vincent, Musical Toronto (May 27, 2014)
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I had a more favourable view of Christopher Mayo’s Under Dark Water, which utilized material from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Indeed Mayo seems to have drawn his inspiration from Mahler in more ways than one. The piece had a brilliant, earthy, quality to it that I’ve always associated with Mahler, and the four singers performed beautifully...
— Paolo Griffin, New Music Toronto (May 27, 2014)
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A distinctive contrast was presented with Christopher Mayo’s Under Dark Water for female vocal quartet and orchestra. The text consists of a paragraph (it comes across as a tone poem) from Toby Litt’s 2001 novel deadkidsongs - the title a literal translation of Kindertotenlieder. Mayo’s composition takes material from the opening bars of the first of Gustav Mahler’s five songs in his cycle, but “exploding and extending them over the 20-minute length of the work” (program notes). The paragraph describes a boy’s near-death experience while swimming in the ocean. The result is a hypnotically beautiful work. The light-textured orchestration and the almost subliminal vocal parts provide a magical correlation with the text. The soloists (soprano Gisele Kulak, mezzo-sopranos Amy Dodington and Andrea Ludwig, and alto Laura McAlpine) voice the words in a rather laconic, detached manner; the result is much like a religious litany.
— Michael Johnson, ConcertoNet.com
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Programme Note
Under Dark Water sets the text of a short excerpt from Toby Litt’s 2001 novel deadkidsongs. The novel tells the story of four young boys in Cold War-era England as their disillusionment and anger towards adults escalates into the perpetration of horrific acts of violence. The novel begins with each of the four boys having a near-death experience: falling from a tree, being buried alive, being burned in a fire and drowning. The excerpt used in this piece details one of those near-death experiences. 

The title deadkidsongs is a literal translation of Kindertotenlieder, Gustav Mahler’s song cycle for voice and orchestra. In Kindertotenlieder, Mahler sets five poems on the death of children by Friedrich Rückert. Litt prefaces each chapter of deadkidsongs with short excerpts of the original German text from Rückert’s poems alongside increasingly distorted English translations. The chapter from which the text for this piece is drawn begins:

Du must nicht die Nacht in dir Verschänken,
mußt sie ins ew’ge Licht versenken!

Within thyself fold not the Night,
Instead bedrown it in Everlight!

Mahler’s settings of these two lines occupies thirteen bars of the first of the Kindertotenlieder, ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n!’ (Now will the sun as brightly shine). The material of Under Dark Water is drawn almost entirely from those thirteen bars, exploding and extending them over the length of the work. 

The title Under Dark Water is also a reference to the song ‘Over Dark Water’ from the 2012 album Clear Moon by the Anacortes, Washington-based lo-fi band Mount Eerie. In addition to Litt’s text and Mahler’s music, months of obsessive listening to this album have had a clear influence on the piece. 

Performance History
May 25, 2014 - Gisele Kulak, Amy Dodington, Andrea Ludwig, Laura McAlpine and Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk, conductor, Koerner Hall in the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, ON, Canada