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

Angelus is a monodrama composed of ten texts set to music with focus on the voice as speaker, vocalist, witness, agent, and storyteller. I have intended Angelus to be a raw exploration of life felt through the lenses of various cultural histories, represented in the pastiche of authors that inhabit the work’s landscape. My mother’s own life as a refugee after World War II is the foundational inspiration for this work.


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Production still from Asylum

The work begins with a poem by Adrienne Rich that asks questions about the possibilities of life, the mind, and connection to others: the broad concerns of the entire work. The texts that follow plumb the depth of these concerns from metaphysical, then psychological, and finally spiritual standpoints. The texts encompass a wide range of authors who have influenced my work more broadly but seemed particularly pertinent to the explorations of this piece. Finally, 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. This poem was important to my father, who, like Kees, struggled with Catholicism, finding spiritual fulfillment in its mythologies but deception in its practitioners. 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.

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Production still from Asylum

The work’s most direct and original inspiration is Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and the Walter Benjamin text based on the painting, which is the subject of the work’s second movement. In the summer of 2014, shortly after the death of my father, I took my mother back to Europe for the first time since her childhood. We viewed Klee’s Angelus Novus together at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. To be able to bring my mother back to Europe after 60 years was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. We saw the ‘Angel of the Future’ together, across generations. Only a few weeks after, I wrote what is now the work’s second movement. Slowly, over the course or three years, other texts revealed themselves and movements began to come into focus.

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 composed between 2014 and 2018. In 2016, a performance of part of the work was premiered at Le Laboratoire, Cambridge. Subsequently, movements VIII and IX were revised and movement I was composed. The complete work was recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on June 19, 21, and 22, 2019. Both the workshop performance and the recording feature Nina Guo, soprano. It was a special pleasure collaborating with Nina on the performance and recording of the piece. Her grace, spirit, and absolute virtuosity, shines across the entire work.

in September and October, 2020, the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, MA will feature a video installation by Laine Rettmer featuring Angelus.

Audio and Live Performance Excerpts (Video) below. Contact for full score, parts, libretto and related media materials (all texts in public domain or used with permission).

Full Audio Below.

Workshop Video:

Excerpt (Movement V (Secret Memory) and beginning of VI (Anima)

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.