“thrilling to hear it live with forces as fine as the Philharmonic and the Providence Singers”
Channing Gray
Providence Journal
15 October 2016
(Mozart Requiem)


Composer Kim André Arnesen and librettist Euan Tait at the world premiere of The Wound in the Water July 28, 2016, during the St. Olaf Festival in Trondheim, Norway.

Kim André Arnesen

The Wound in the Water  (2016)
Libretto by Euan Tait

“The work explores the theme of Mammon – the traditional symbol of the love of greed and money – by singing of our exile and the wounding of our world, of the beauty of the earth, and of the struggle of profoundly divided humanity toward a shared song.”

The Wound in the Water

The Wound in the Water:
A contemporary lament and the redeeming power of music

By Richard Knox

It’s hard to find much optimism right now about the state of the Earth and the future of the 7.6 billion souls who inhabit it.

Every turn of the planet offers fresh occasions for anxiety and despair. Federal agencies have certified that Earth is warming to levels unprecedented in recorded history, a recipe for more extreme weather. Nuclear weaponry and treaties are again in the news. Tribal hostilities — in rich and poor nations alike — undercut any sense of commonality. There are observations that we’ve entered a “post-truth” era.

The Wound in the Water by Kim André Arnesen, with text by Welsh librettist Euan Tait, premiered in 2016, which accounts for its feeling of up-to-the-minute sensibility.

The text can certainly be read in a literal way. Some passages plainly allude to climate change: “What now are the seasons? Where will we go to be at home as the ground melts under our feet?” Others mourn the “poisoned” environment, damaged by humankind’s headlong pursuit of mammon — the drive for material gain, the inborn desire to possess “what we think we want.”

Still other sections paint pictures of exiles set adrift on a terrifying sea. They might well be the desperate refugees from current headlines who flee from war-torn Syria or the persecuted Rohingya Muslims pouring out of Myanmar. The chorus sings of “the strangers who came to us guessing, full of troubled beliefs,” only to meet the “unexpected hiss” of hate and rejection. They too are called “victims of mammon.”

At the same time, The Wound is a more abstract and universal metaphor. The polluted seas stand for wounded human souls, “the Mind’s Ocean,” in the depths of which lurks the monstrous creature Mammon, whose bellow “tears the waters and leaves them wounded, poisoned.”

In this less literal reading, we are all refugees exiled from our souls’ home and tossed on an “endless sea” of anxiety and unwholesome desire.

But where is that home from which 21st-century humans are exiled? The Wound points to it in a concluding section called “The Heart of the Singer,” a phrase that serves as the touchstone for this weekend’s entire concert. That longed-for home is located in the shared desire of connection, of love and empathy for our fellow human travelers in a broken world.

Music offers that yearned-for connection, the work tells us — specifically the experience of shared song: “… We know we are helplessly singing,” the lyrics say, “and seeking whatever in us we cannot stop, the song ceaseless, leaping, our utter yes.”

Paradoxically, Arnesen’s musical setting of the troubling themes is lush and lyrical. A section called “The Shadow of the Boat,” for instance, sets tranquil chords under word-images of terrified refugees — like a movie sound track of an ethereal Dona nobis pacem underneath scenes of mayhem.

Arnesen is squarely in the current mold of contemporary choral composers — Morten Lauridsen, Stephen Paulus and others. There’s a hazard in such beauteous harmonies. Listenable as they unquestionably are, they can come across as merely beautiful, even sentimental.

So, too, can lyrics that haven’t stood the test of time — as conventional choral settings of the high canon of poetry classically have. The lyrics of The Wound were written specifically for this new piece in close collaboration with the composer.

Author Euan Tait specializes in such collaborations. He calls himself a librettist rather than a poet and has worked frequently with Arnesen. Not coincidentally, Tait also spends much of his time as a leader of spiritual retreats. One commentator has compared him to “Wordsworth without Wordsworth’s vague sense of pantheism” and says Tait’s “profound and rich spiritual life … keeps his poems from floating into sentimentality.”

Baritone Richard Knox sings with the New Hampshire Master Chorale. The notes above are adapted with his permission from program notes he prepared for the Chorale’s performance in November 2017.


The Wound in the Water
Music by Kim André Arneson (2016); Libretto by Euan Tait (August 2015)

The libretto is copyright ©2015 by Euan Tait and presented here with the author’s permission.
No other use is authorized without permission.

This new choral symphony, for solo soprano, chorus, strings and harp, explores the theme of Mammon by singing of our exile and the wounding of our world, of the beauty of the earth, and of the struggle of profoundly divided humanity toward a shared song. Mammon, the traditional symbol of the love of greed and money, is a force that divides us, both internally — we become divided from ourselves, from our capacity for love — and communally — human beings become creatures of competition and conflict. Our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the vividly living planet that is our home slowly erodes and then collapses, and we come to live as homeless exiles in this threefold sense. So this symphony recognizes the long journey toward healing that we all have to undergo and ends with a fragile attempt at a shared song.

Mammon, an engraving by Louis Le Breton in the 1863 edition of Dictionnaire Infernal, a taxonomy of demons by Jacques Auguste Simon Collin de Plancy, first published in 1818.

The symphony is in three parts, each part consisting of a series of shorter movements.

Part 1: The cry of the sea

As the symphony opens, we hear the theme of the “broken song” for the first time, emerging from the seascape of the strings. The chorus cries out the human dilemma, the Mammon forces of broken desire that we struggle with every day, that have already damaged our human and global ecology. The Pilgrim (solo soprano) walks alongside the restless sea, as she has done every day of her life. She knows and loves this place, the fierce fiery presence of its waves and sky. But in recent years she has heard its music change and develop into a terrible, endless cry like the cry of a wounded animal in pain. She sees her child dance among the waves but is conscious of her own broken life, that the way she lives her life has somehow broken her connection with the beloved world that surrounds her. She feels is if she is being forced into exile. From far off come cries of the chorus, mixing with the strings’ cries of the broken song, the “wounded sea.”

In a choral interlude, as the Pilgrim departs, distant voices plead for all exiles.

Part 2: The cries of exile – chorus of the dispossessed.

In the first poem, the Pilgrim, experiencing a sense of exile, sings as all the lost and the exiled of our times sing: What she knew and loved has vanished, and she crosses the sea to an unknown destination, the remembered voices of family and friends calling their broken song all around her. In the next section, the Pilgrim sings of a sunken exiles’ boat and those lost with it. In the third poem, the Pilgrim imagines the exiled stranger among us, their pain and disorientation. In the final poem of Part 2, the Pilgrim returns to the utterly changed seashore she once loved, with nothing familiar — not the seasons, not the sea. The Pilgrim will only find her home “through a broken song … shattered music.”

A choral interlude hints at the horrors the exiles have left behind.

Part 3: The heart of the singer

The whole symphony is energized by a recognition of our exiled state, and in this movement, the search for a way out of exile, for a shared song, a sense that the shared song of humanity, its relationship with itself and its home has been broken by Mammon. In Part 3, in three short movements, the Pilgrim and the chorus, in celebrating music and the life-dance of our common global home, explore the theme of searching for that elusive shared song. Part 3 starts with the chorus of exiles, awed at the powerful landscape around them: sky, water, earth. In the central poem of Part 3, a shared song begins to emerge. In the final poem, the music erupts again, but this time into a fierce, liberating laughter.

An Epilogue ends the Symphony with a final plea: May love know us; may we be known by love.


Part 1: The Cry of the Sea

1. Mammon in the Mind’s Ocean
In the depths of our human ocean
under the immense pressure
of the mind’s suppressing waters,
desire, our own private Mammon,
what we think we want, stirs in us,
the broken creature of our lives roars,
and with its bellow tears the waters
and leaves them wounded, poisoned.

2. I Call to You
I call to you, like a creature
caught in a nylon net,
and you call back: “What
is your name, what
is my name?” All night,
we sing to each other
as creatures of our minds,
we ululate, weep, whisper
across miles of damaged ocean
this mourning call, that you too,
all of you, know well: it sounds
with the agonised cry
of our wounded seas,
while our minds reel
with broken desire.
O sweet sister sea,
O damaged one,
O harm in ourselves,
We, children of Mammon.

3. The Wound in the Water
The same rivers sing, the same
seas dance; we’re shaken by these
storms, as those we love;
yet from the glittering waters
from the rich soils
our naked feet touch
comes the same
terrible high cry
like a bird caught in flight
by the white heat
of the mammon-heart arrow
as if the light itself
is draining from the dance
of the water, as if light,
itself, bleeds, and we,
we are the archer.

4. The Song of the Sea
I have walked this shore
all my life; my children leap
among the waves
like a spray of fire,
and always I listen:
I’ll know any change
in their voices, I’ll hear
any hidden sound
of their anguish or fear,
and in the last years
I have been shocked
into silence here:
the song of this sea
is changing, its music
slowly unfamiliar,
the song becoming a cry,
like a vast creature
with a visceral wound.
The storm wind is howl.
I am no longer home,
I’m being led away
like a captive of myself,
like a sudden stranger,
like an exile.

5. The Cry of the Sea

6. Interlude 1 – Spirit, Help Us
Spirit, help us to hear
their cries like a coming storm
surging across the waters,
from boats packed with fear.

Part 2: The Cries of Exile

7. Song of Sea Exile
I, the exile,
my heart burning,
my lost life
a terrible fire,
songs of loved ones
crying all around me.
Oh endless,
endless home, the sea.
Oh my missing,
I am listening,
yet your silence
cannot answer me.
There, we left
our singing unfinished,
and our lives now
fall into the endless sea.
This the broken
gift of love:
the exile calls,
remembered names.
What you were
scorched on me,
your wounded names
sung to the endless sea.
Waves like voices
roar around you:
we’re not silenced,
but cry out like the
Your anger,fiery, living
is like love
that bleeds
like the endless sea.
Oh our exile,
torn by love,
singing words
you can no longer sing,
where’s the shores,
the harbour, the horizon,
calling to the endless sea
calling to the endless sea?

8. The Shadow of the Boat
The shadow of the boat
though the bright beauty
of the exiles’ clear water.
The body of the boat
and the voices streaming,
terrified, into the sea.
The quiet harbour,
the vacated houses,
and the trail of voices
evaporating, who cried
to the boat, carry me,
bear me like a child,
reborn, to another shore.

9. The Strangers
They, the strangers who walk among us,
carrying their imagined unborn
child in their minds;
They, the strangers who came to us
guessing, full of troubled beliefs,
meet the unexpected hiss.
They, the strangers none of us
have named, whom we do not know,
whose lives seem utterly closed to us.

10. The Song of Love
I return again to the burning sea,
again to the sea alive with sunlight,
the fire water teeming
with the voices that travel to me
light-fast through the deep,
drowning voices,
voices seeking home.
Victims of mammon,
victims of my desire
that erupts as all our wars,
wars that send our hearts,
our whole being,
into permanent exile.
Here is the seashore
I once knew, now
unknown to me:
the air howls
with the cries of the estranged:
what is the sea? What now
are the seasons?
Where will we go
to be at home
as the ground melts
under our feet?
Where will we go
to heal our broken song?
Where be at home
except in a shattered music?

11. Interlude 2
Spirit, help me to see
their broken stories
behind their eyes: a chair
overturned, the faint smear
of a last shared meal
in their abandoned room.

Part 3: The Heart of the Singer

12. The Singer’s Dance
The leaves have fallen away, and dance
to the wind-song in the garden,
and through new naked trees, we see
the two great rivers in their beauty
and restless power. The driven clouds
burn like comets in our aerial ocean,
the air is alight with the cries of birds
flocking southwards like the music
once exiled from the heart, yet our hearts
erupt and here, on this wind-driven hill
we are drawn to the centre of the dance,
and we know we are helplessly singing,
and seeking whatever in us we cannot stop,
the song ceaseless, leaping, our utter yes.

13. The Singer’s Voice
It’s always there, sounding,
circling in us; we reach in
to drawn it out, and find it
a familiar, hidden friend:
our shared song, its threads
woven from steel
made gossamer, light
as laughter, tensile,
strongly invisible,
present in the love
we attempt, in what
we seek to unfold
in each others’ lives
as students, friends,
in these singing,
unfinished days.
In our life-yes, our beings
sing from their depths;
and from our own lives
comes our answer of
and our one song wings
into the falling, still fire
of the bright snow, slowly
turning our streets
to a deep and fragile

14. Sea-singer
It is not you alone, seasinger,
in the end, your voice
into the oncoming waves,
but it is the grain of your
like a choral thread in the
linking you song to song,
and we are gathering, all of
choir, at the Tromsø shore:
Arctic church, Hovig’s spine,*
like a horse-herd of
and among us all, a singing
erupts like an unbroken sea.

15. Epilogue
Spirit, the cry has erupted
and now falls away
into the silence
of the seeking deaths
in the warm, bright waters.
Love, have mercy.
Love, say we knew you.
Love, that you knew us.

*The text refers to the Arctic Cathedral by the architect
  Jan Inge Hovig in Tromsø, a city in the northern part of Norway.