Asylum 4
Production still from Angelus: a video installation by Aylward and Laine Rettmer based on the album

In the summer of 2014, shortly after the death of my father, I took my mother back to Europe for the first time since she fled Germany as a refugee after World War II. To be able to bring my mother back to Europe after 60 years was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. Together, we viewed Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. We saw the ‘Angel of the Future’ together, across generations. A few weeks later, I came across a Walter Benjamin text that powerfully describes a vision of Klee’s painting. The words struck me and I set them to music. Slowly, over the course of three years, other texts revealed themselves, and Angelus began to come into focus.

Asylum 6
Production still from Angelus

Angelus is a monodrama in which the voice is speaker, vocalist, witness, agent, and storyteller. The piece is an exploration of life felt through the lenses of various cultural histories, represented in the pastiche of authors that inhabit the work’s landscape. By invoking this range of influence and ordering it into physical, psychological and spiritual concerns, Angelus became a kind of treatise on the human experience for me. The piece begins with a poem by Adrienne Rich that lays out the broad concerns of the entire work: the possibilities of life, the mind, and connection to others.

Asylum 1
Production still from Angelus

The nine texts that follow approach these concerns from metaphysical, then psychological, and finally spiritual perspectives. The work concludes with a passage from a poem by Weldon Kees, A Distance from the Sea, which likens the psychological sensation of memory to the often confusing physical sensation of viewing the depth of the horizon and landforms between.

Angelus was composed between 2014 and 2018 and the complete work was recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on June 19, 21, and 22, 2019. It was a special pleasure collaborating with soprano Nina Guo on the performance and recording of this piece. Her grace, spirit, and absolute virtuosity shines across the work.

This work is dedicated to my mother and to all those who have been displaced by violence and war, to their resilience and search for meaning in darkness.


Angelus was released on New Focus Records in April, 2020.

A video installation by Laine Rettmer featuring the music of Angelus will be premiered in the coming season.

Contact for full score, parts, libretto and related media materials (all texts in public domain or used with permission).

Full Audio:

Angelus. 45
Recorded by the Ecce Ensemble
June 19th, 21st and 22nd
The American Academy of Arts and Letters. New York, NY

Nina Guo, voice
Emi Ferguson, flutes
Hassan Anderson, oboe
Barret Ham, clarinets
Pala Garcia, violin
John Popham, cello
Sam Budish, percussion
Jean-Philippe Wurtz, conductor

Joel Gordon, Recording Engineer
Sarah Borgatti. Recording Manager

Mixed and Mastered by Joel Gordon and John Aylward

Produced with funds from: The Guggenheim Foundation, The Catherine and Paul Buttenwieser Foundation, The Cynthia and John Reed Foundation & The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ