Ashes to Light the Sky
for string orchestra (2016)

Performed by the Orchestre de chambre McGill, Boris Brott conducting.

Recorded live on May 3, 2016 at Salle Bourgie, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, QC, Canada. Recorded by Jean-Paul Desjardins.

Score and parts available for purchase (PDF or hard copy). Send an inquiry through the Contact page.


Program notes

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Is it safe to look at the stars?
I want to make a wish,
but with the ozone layer gone
is it safe to look at the stars?
— Stephen Daniel Mings, "Starlight" from Nuclear Winter

Humanity stands on the shoulders of giants. Throughout history, great minds – from Copernicus, to Kepler, to Newton, to Sagan – have looked into the night sky and allowed their curiosity to translate the faint light of distant stars into a deep understanding of the nature of the cosmos. Obversely, with our command of science and technology – and an often troubling disregard for our long-term survival – we hold the means of our own destruction, a potential for calamity that ever looms before us.

Ashes to Light the Sky is both an ode to those great minds of the past and a lament for a potentially dark future. Set in three continuous sections (or movements) in a slow–fast–slow scheme, the piece slips constantly and fitfully between light and dark, optimism and pessimism.

Opening with an explosion of discordant noise, the first section dwells on a sinuous, chromatic melody that winds anxiously downward, like a rain of ashes. Sporadic bursts of major tonality peek through this brooding sound world, glimmers of light filtering through the ashfall.

The second section, propelled by a nervous energy, accelerates the conflict between light and dark. Continuous, rippling string figures articulate harmonies that inhabit both major and minor tonalities. A second, more heroic theme is introduced that strives for emancipation and release. As the section reaches its climax, the structure collapses into noise.

Following this turbulence, the third section emerges slow and wounded from the settling ashes. The second theme now returns in a more mature form, growing and reaching higher and higher, eventually attaining apotheosis – while, lurking underneath the surface, our first theme faintly recalls the ashfall.
— HS