Sirens (world premiere, LA Phil commission)
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (all = piccolo), 3 oboes (all = English horn), 3 clarinets (all = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (crotales, glockenspiel, tubular bells, vibraphone, wind chimes, tam-tam, bass drum, glass harmonica), harp, piano, and strings, plus soprano and alto soloists and chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)
The composer has provided the following note:
“Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.”
One of the most captivating passages in Homer’s The Odyssey is surely Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens. In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous bird-women, portrayed as seductresses who lured sailors with their enchanting music and voices to come to the rocky coast of their island, where they would kill them. In Homer’s tale, Ulysses – curious as to what the Sirens sound like – orders his crew to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast, not to release him no matter how much he begs, while their boat is passing the island of the Sirens. In this way he will be able to hear their deadly singing, which no man has heard and survived.
The calm sea starts stirring, ghostlike whispers seem to emerge from the depths, strange fragmented voices agitate the surface – then again, the sea lies locked in deep repose and all nature pause with attentive ear as the scene suddenly clears and the Sirens appear.
The sirens try to lure Ulysses to come to them in numerous ways – they flatter his ego:
“Great Ulysses, Achaia’s glory, Pride of Greece, hear our voices sing thy praise.”
They appeal to his mind and soul, by promising him they’ll let him know all the secrets of the world:
“All we know, all the lore that time can tell. All the mystic founts of joy. No life on earth can be hid from our dreaming.”
“Ulysses, descend with us, and feel the breathing of the world.”
They sing seductively, arousing him:
“Our melody, so wondrous, so tender. Clouds of sweet fragrance swelling and roaring around you. Breathe them, hear them, plunge into them, drown in their sweetness, we’d love to turn you on.”
“Come fly with us!”
At this point, the Sirens’ true monstrous identity is revealed, as their powerful singing gradually transforms into horrendous screaming, the mirage/hallucination dissolves and all reverts back to calm sea, as Ulysses’ vessel sails out of danger.
The text in Sirens is derived from different English translations of The Siren Song from The Odyssey by Homer, with additional text written by the composer.
The piece is dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen and in memory of Betty Freeman.