SATB a cappella
approx. 65 minutes
Playlist (choose movement from upper right menu)
Positioned at the nexus of science, faith and humanity, Helios is impressive, engaging, and a beautiful addition to the canon of a cappella masterworks. Takach has crafted a wonderful narrative of control and chaos, exploring that which is within our control, that which is not, and showing that we have the power to change our trajectory. The music provides a constantly changing landscape of textures, soundscapes, vocal techniques and harmonic language, and the libretto is a combination of published and commissioned poems from contemporary writers as well as translations of ancient texts. The theme of each planetary movement is inspired by the mythology or science of its namesake.
Helios was premiered by The Singers–Minnesota Choral Artists, and was supported by Karen Koentopf, Tom Arneson, American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota (ACDA-MN) and the Minnesota Music Educators Association (MMEA), Minnesota Valley Men’s Chorale, Red Shift, Roomful of Teeth, The Singers–Minnesota Choral Artists, and Washington Community High School.
Prelude (Chaos and Order)
Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man. Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.
- Henry Brooks Adams
I. Pluto (At the Border)
Here is where chaos starts.
It is the fiercest hunger.
It is a great tearing pain
that so occupies the mind
that there is nothing else.
It is being breathed.
It is being breathless.
Standing on the border
of chaos means standing
in a sharp cold wind
on the highest pass
in the arctic mountains.
It means plunging
It means soaring into jade seas.
Here at the border
we are not in chaos yet.
This is more relentless
than chaos. And
more beautiful. Far,
far more beautiful.
- Patricia Monaghan, “Mandelbrot Set: 4. The Border” (used with permission.)
II. Neptune (The Storm Was Loose)
Neptune, meanwhile, greatly troubled, saw that the sea was churned with vast murmur, and the storm was loose and the still waters welled from their deepest levels: he raised his calm face from the waves, gazing over the deep. He calls the East and West winds to him, and then says:
“Tantane vos generis tenuit fiducia vestri?
“Does confidence in your birth fill you so?
Iam caelum terramque meo sine numine, venti,
Winds, do you dare, without my intent, to mix earth with sky,
miscere, et tantas audetis tollere moles?”
and cause such trouble, now?”
So he speaks, and swifter than his speech, he calms the swollen sea, scatters the gathered cloud, and brings back the sun. He sways their passions with his words and soothes their hearts: so all the uproar of the ocean died, as soon as their father, gazing over the water, carried through the clear sky, wheeled his horses, and gave them their head, flying behind in his chariot.
- Virgil: Aeneid I lines, 124-156 (edit), trans. A.S. Kline, PoetryInTranslation.com. (used with permission.)
III. Uranus (White Silences)
Beyond geography. Beyond blood.
Beyond latitude. Beyond salt.
Beyond continents. Beyond tears.
That kind of coldness.
My hair is beaded with crystals.
Forgetful and aloof, I am slipping
into white silences, becoming
cold skin over hard finality.
- Patricia Monaghan, “White Silences” (used with permission.)
It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions.
- William Shakespeare, King Lear, 4.3.32-33
IV. Saturn (Longing for Infinity)
When I was nine years old,
I first looked through a telescope,
And what I saw astounded me:
Floating in the inky black,
The orb of Saturn, like a pearl,
Encircled in its perfect rings.
So small it seemed, and yet as large
As almost a thousand Earths;
So close, and yet so very far way.
The sight awoke in me
A longing for infinity
And all its wonders:
The spinning planets, burning stars;
Galaxies of endless worlds
Hurtling headlong through the void;
The many-colored nebulae—
Graveyards of exploded stars,
And nurseries of the new;
The universe extending
In ever-widening spheres
Of color, light, and energy;
An endless source of wonder and humility.
This journey through infinity
Began for me when I first beheld
The icy rings of Saturn
From a field on Earth
That summer evening
When I was nine years old.
- Charles Anthony Silvestri
- Commissioned for Helios
V. Jupiter (A Wife Betrayed)
Look at him.
Just look at him.
Smug and fat, pompous, preening,
Rolling about in bedsheets
Of orange and scarlet satin,
Surrounded by his paramours—
Io and Europa,
Iocaste and Eurydome,
Callisto, Themisto— [Even S-2010-J2, that slut!]
So many I can’t even count
Or care to remember.
And yet, I do remember.
Look at him.
He cares little for my honor,
Even less for my feelings.
I am his lover! His wife! His queen!
And yet no planet wanders named for me!
No stately Juno to glide about the sun,
Wrapped in swirling clouds of rose and silver grey…
Alas, that is not to be,
For Jove takes all.
But I am Juno,
Mighty Queen of gods and men,
And I demand my due!
I shall be a tempest,
Red and roiling like an angry sore,
Digging into his tender side—
A bright red spot to spoil his splendor,
A reminder of the ageless rage
Of a wife betrayed.
So, look at him!
All who gaze at him,
From now until the ending of the worlds,
Shall see only me!
- Charles Anthony Silvestri
- Commissioned for Helios
VI. Comet (Transmigration)
Then Jupiter, the Father, spoke...” Take up Caesar’s spirit and change it into a star... He had barely finished, when gentle Venus stood, seen by no one, and took up the newly freed spirit of her Caesar from his body, and preventing it from vanishing into the air, carried it towards the glorious stars. As she carried it, she felt it glow and take fire, and loosed it from her breast: it climbed higher than the moon, and drawing behind it a fiery tail, shone as a star.
- Ovid: Metamorphosis, trans. A.S. Kline, PoetryInTranslation.com. (used with permission.)
Interlude: With My Face to the Sun
I wish to leave the world
By it’s natural door;
Do not put me in the dark
I am good, and like a good thing
I will die with my face to the sun.
- José Martí, excerpt from “A Morir”
VII. Mars (Love Asleep and Waiting)
A solitary planet spins alone
But never alone
There are moons
There are stars
A silent man lives alone
But never alone
There are voices
There are songs
Under the rocky surface
There is ice
Where once was water
Under the cold hide
There is ice
But also blood
A lonely planet spins amidst
The endless celestial bodies
The vast potential of space
A single man can never be lonely
If he’s a son, a father, a brother
If he’s a husband, a friend, a lover
Peel back the planet’s skin
And find water, waiting, for the sun
Peel back the body’s fierce façade
And find love, asleep, and waiting
- William Reichard
- Commissioned for Helios
VIII. Moon (Everything is Made of Light)
The moon translates a rhythm
of this night that knows no breath.
Everything is made of light.
The whole world is glowing.
- William Reichard, (used with permission.)
IX. Earth (Only Here)
My skies blaze and dazzle with ice,
lava burns in my veins.
All the glories of the gods are here—
but no gods gave me their name.
Mars may boast about war,
but only here are there blades,
and only here blood-stained soil.
Venus may preach on love,
but only here does an eye meet an eye
and whole new heavens are born.
Only here is there spring,
only here the breath of the rose.
Only here is there miracle, suffering, awe—
and only here do they kneel in prayer.
- Brian Newhouse
- Commissioned for Helios
X. Venus (Everything Seems Possible)
What is life with nothing to contain it?
Shore or edge of night, first rising star
Her favorite word is linger
Bliss is the blackest sky
The way she lights it
With her beauty.
When the sea became the sea
She moved like she still moves
In the opposite direction
Towards that something
To define her, beyond
which everything seems
- Julia Klatt Singer
- Commissioned for Helios
Interlude: Opening Inward
I am, at this moment, walking in a direction you cannot imagine, you who judge everything in terms of forward motion, you who imagine me unmoving, waiting as you pass through my world like a brilliant burning comet, leaving faint periodic traces in a spiral galaxy: I am opening inward,
spiralling towards nothingness and truth, moving in no direction you can imagine, opening like an expanding universe with no unmoving point within it.
- Patricia Monaghan, excerpt from “Nothing is Ever Simultaneous” (used with permission.)
In my breast are the stars of my fate.
- Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (ad. TCT)
XI. Mercury (Move Towards Freedom)
a pendulum can only swing
(no matter how fast how slow)
can only swing in that small space
(no matter how fast how slow, no matter)
it can only swing
one degree of freedom,
that is what it is called,
that limit cycle,
(back & forth, no matter
back & forth, fast and slow):
one degree of freedom
But there is a way to get more
there is a way to move
there is a way to reach
infinite degrees of freedom:
move towards chaos,
move towards change,
move towards turbulence
there are so many degrees of freedom
there are so many degrees
a rolling ring of freedom
so many degrees of freedom
this close to chaos
- Patricia Monaghan, “Degrees of Freedom” (used with permission.)
XII. Sun (Perihelion)
Helios is a musical exploration of our solar system. The libretto is inspired by the Greek and Roman gods for which the planets are named, the science of each planetary body, and the faith in unanswered questions we have as humans. The idea for this piece was born on a tour with Cantus back in 2013. I was thinking about how to combine my passions together in music, and I thought I should write a choral cycle based on the planets. Over the course of the next 6 years I researched the solar system and started to piece together the libretto movement by movement. I couldn’t find the support to fund the whole cycle in one commission, so I started to write individual movements for smaller commissions along the way. In the spring of 2018 I was talking with Matt Culloton about having it on The Singers’ 15th anniversary season, even though it wasn’t finished or funded. He told me, “if you write it, I’ll program it.” So I jumped the rest of the way in. At that point I had written four movements, and I would complete a fifth the next fall.
The libretto contains poetry commissioned for this piece alongside translations of ancient writing and previously published poetry. Each movement’s text is inspired by the planet for which it is named, and Helios itself has an overarching theme of control. In our lives, some things are within our control and others are not. Helios asks us to analyze these situations and be active in finding ways where we can choose. We have the choice to point our lives in a certain way, to decide who we want to be and how we want to live.
In “Pluto” we stand at the border of chaos, ready to jump in. Patricia Monaghan has us believe that chaos can be beautiful, that it offers us more exciting choices than control. The music brings us into chaos immediately, each section in their own rhythmic pattern, surging and combining to make something greater.
“Neptune” offers us a familiar story of a father intervening in his two sons’ conflict. As a father I can emphasize with Neptune’s rage at the chaos his sons are causing but I also love the description of how he controls them: “He sways their passions with his words and soothes their hearts.” A great way to parent. Turbulent trills and glissandi abound as the winds combat each other, and the contrasting homophony later delivers Neptune’s words.
Patricia Monaghan’s poetry embodies the cold isolation of Uranus. The axial tilt of Uranus is almost parallel to the solar plane, meaning that instead of spinning like a top, it rolls around the sun in it’s orbit, causing an alternating 42 years of sunlight then darkness at the poles. This isolating coldness is what inspired this poem choice and the paired quote from Shakespeare. So many people feel isolated, alone, unloved, and they feel as if their fate is not in their own hands.
Tony Silvestri uses Saturn as an autobiographical account of his childhood, how he gazed at Saturn and unlocked his wonder for the universe. The movement opens with a solo trio, more intimate and personal than any texture we’ve heard so far. When the choir enters the heavens crack open, and wonder is upon us. The choir lays down a familiar harmonic progression often found in popular music, rooting this movement here on Earth, but the text explores the many wonders that occur in the heavens.
The title character does not appear in “Jupiter,” but instead the movement is sung from the perspective of Juno, Jupiter’s wife. Silvestri has written a rage aria with a powerful twist. Instead of only proclaiming her rage, Juno marks Jupiter’s beautiful image as his famous red spot - a continuous storm, the largest in the solar system.
In “Comet” Jupiter asks Venus to take the spirit of Julius Caesar and turn him into a star. She agrees and carries his spirit up to the heavens, feeling it transform into a fiery comet. In ancient Rome, Caesar’s Comet was seen for 7 days in 44 BC. The repeating glissandi in the bass section are a Shepard tone, giving an unending sense of rising motion. Are we able to control the legacy we leave behind? We cannot transform into a comet, but we can choose what we wish to leave behind, how we want to be remembered.
Writing a piece inspired by Mars offered a much-needed exploration of how we view masculinity. The Roman god of war is usually portrayed in a very aggressive, stereotypically masculine way. To me, the way culture tends to convey traditional masculinity is not usually the truth but a mask we wear to show bravado, toughness and confidence. When the 2004 Mars rover Spirit broke a wheel, it ended up dragging the wheel across the surface of the planet, scratching the surface to discover silica underneath. This discovery pointed to the fact that hot water once flowed on or under the surface of Mars. It’s such a great metaphor for our sense of manliness - that as our outer layer is scarred we reveal something more gentle underneath. Bill Reichard’s wonderful poem explores all of this and offers what I think is a more complete honest view of what it means to be a man.
“Moon” has a mysterious feel to it: an exploration of sound, texture and environment. We hear a brilliant sense of light in the climax, even as a mere reflection of the true source.
Like “Saturn,” “Earth” is rooted on the ground. While both depict the wonder of the heavens, Newhouse’s poem reminds us how special our humanity is. Humans are a product of the only known cradle of life in the universe, and we alone get to experience complex emotion.
Venus has been seen in the night sky throughout most of human history, and in Julia Klatt Singer’s words “we feel a strong attachment to her—she rises for you, lingers for you, wants you to see her, notice her, want her to stay in the sky. And since she is the second brightest thing up there, next to the sun, she does linger, stay.” Venus orbits in the opposite direction from all other planets in our system, moving against expectations, showing how powerful we can be if we choose.
An interlude illustrates the value of inward growth and change, contrary to the expectation that change is always visible and in a prescribed direction. Self-discovery and awareness lead us into “Mercury,” where a limited pitch set opens the piece, eventually yielding to a wide palette of color and harmony. We are in charge of our own limits. We can make the pendulum shift in as many degrees of freedom as we can imagine. In a universe where chaos is beautiful and breeds life, we can still control our own balance and destiny.
The sun is our greatest source of energy. Our journey through the solar system ends as we finally are drawn into its warmth, enveloped in family, community wonder and light. We are home.
- Timothy C. Takach, 2019
1: (Easy) No divisi in voice parts, accompaniment doubles or supports vocal parts, diatonic, symmetrical phrases, textures mostly homophonic, simple rhythms, stepwise voice leading (conjunct), moderate ranges, no extended techniques, and limited sustained singing.
2: (Medium Easy) Limited divisi, voices somewhat independent from accompaniment, some chromatics, phrases may be longer or more fragmented, mostly homophonic, moderate rhythmic complexity, some difficult intervals (disjunct motion), moderate ranges, extended techniques are simple, limited sustained singing.
3. (Medium) Limited divisi, unaccompanied, or with independent accompaniment (voice parts not doubled), many chromatics, phrases of varying lengths, more contrapuntal textures, moderately complex rhythms, some difficult intervals (disjunct motion), moderately difficult/challenging ranges, extended techniques are potentially challenging, and some sustained singing.
4. (Medium Difficult) Abundant divisi, unaccompanied, or accompanying instruments are fully independent from voice parts, many chromatics and/or key changes, long and/or broken phrases, potentially little homophony, complex rhythms, many difficult intervals (disjunct motion), difficult/challenging ranges, potentially difficult extended techniques, and a demand for sustained singing.
5. (Difficult) Adundant divis, unaccompanied, or accompanying instruments are fully independent from voice parts, many chromatics and/or key changes, long and/or broken phrases, potentially little homophony, complex rhythms, extreme ranges, use of challenging or unusual extended vocal techniques, abundant sustained singing.