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Portraits of Being (2019)
sonata for saxophone and piano

Commissioned by Becky Swanson

Premiered virtually by Becky Swanson and Maggie Hinchliffe

(Published by Murphy Music Press LLC)


I. The Modern Prometheus

II. Exhalation

III. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

IV. Solaris

V. A Momentary Taste of Being

Program Notes:

Portraits of Being is an exploration of existentialism using the texts of five science-fiction stories, each corresponding to a movement of the piece. Despite these stories spanning almost two centuries, the same timeless question is asked in all of them: “What does it mean to be human?” Portraits of Being uses this common thread to tie all these stories together and to examine some of the different ways we define “being.”


I. The Modern Prometheus (1817)

Based on the novel by Mary Shelley


Otherwise known as “Frankenstein,” this iconic novel is considered to be the birth of science-fiction. In it, the ambitious Dr. Frankenstein brings a corpse back to life and, horrified by what he’s created, abandons it in his lab. The nameless creature escapes and slowly educates itself in the shadows of society, eventually vowing revenge on Dr. Frankenstein for his ungodly existence. The creature’s conflict between his feral nature and desire for acceptance is represented in the first movement by bursts of chaos with small interruptions of Romantic harmonies.


"Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries."


II. Exhalation (2008)

Based on the short story by Ted Chiang


Set in an unknown place in an unknown time, a civilization of immortal mechanical beings is shaken after a strange occurrence. In the story, we follow one of these beings as he deconstructs his own body and, by studying his anatomy, discovers that the minds and bodies of his kind are powered by air currents. Paired with the realization that the air of their world is slowly depleting, the civilization faces the prospect of life someday ceasing to exist.


“The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I'm glad it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe.”


III. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1967)

Based on the short story by Harlan Ellison


A sentient artificial intelligence called AM has wiped out all of humanity except for a small group of survivors. As an expression for its hatred of mankind, AM tortures the remaining survivors and keeps them virtually immortal so that its punishment may be eternal.


“Surrounded by madness, surrounded by hunger, surrounded by everything but death, I knew death was our only way out.”

IV. Solaris (1961)

Based on the novel by Stanisław Lem


A psychologist named Kelvin is sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris to investigate why its crew is suffering from severe psychological trauma. Solaris, covered entirely in water, seems to project and materialize physical manifestations of the human psyche. Once at the station, Kelvin encounters a recreation of his deceased wife, who has been constructed entirely from his memories of her. She is completely sentient, unaware of her true nature, and doesn’t even remember dying. This forces Kelvin to confront his long-buried grief and decide if this identical version of his wife is real enough to allow himself a second chance to be with her.


“Each of us is aware he's a material being, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and that the strength of all our emotions combined cannot counteract those laws. It can only hate them. The eternal belief of lovers and poets in the power of love which is more enduring that death, the finis vitae sed non amoris that has pursued us through the centuries is a lie.”


V. A Momentary Taste of Being (1975)

Based on the novella by Alice Sheldon


In a distant future where the Earth is slowly decaying, a team of scientists are deployed on a mission into the far reaches of space to investigate a planet that has potential to support life. When they arrive decades later, the crew sends a small team to the surface to have a closer look. Only one woman returns from this expedition, claiming the planet to be a paradise. Yet, there is something odd about her behavior. They soon realize that the planet holds the key to humanity’s true purpose; or in other words, the meaning of life. The answers they uncover are horrifying.


“Why do we use the word human for the animal part of us, Arn? Aggression — that’s human. Cruelty, hatred, greed — that’s human. That’s just what isn’t human, Arn. It’s so sad. To be truly human we must leave all that behind.”

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