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Production still from Angelus: a video installation by Aylward and Laine Rettmer based on the musical work

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.

The embedded images feature soprano Nina Guo in photography shot by artist and director Laine Rettmer who has developed a video that accompanies the work. Rettmer’s work captures Guo’s recitations and immediate delivery of the texts while exploring the work’s meaning in abstract imagery. The complete installation is intended for audio and video projection across five panels, also constructed by Rettmer.

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Production still from Angelus

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 Angelus

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 and released on New Focus Recordings on April 24th, 2020. Both the workshop performances and the recording feature soprano Nina Guo. It was a special pleasure collaborating with Nina on the performance and recording of the piece. Her grace, spirit, and absolute virtuosity, shine across the entire work.

Angelus Front Cover
Album cover

Excerpt: Movement II. Angelus Novus.

Text from Theses on the Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin

“Its eyes are staring, its mouth is open, its wings are spread. Its face turned toward the past. He sees one single catastrophe piling wreckage upon wreckage.

The angel would awaken the dead – make whole what has been smashed. A storm is blowing from Paradise. Such violence the angel can no longer close its wings.”


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.