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fire dressed in black


female voice, clarinet in B♭, cello & piano


'Noche oscura' by St John of the Cross



Year of composition:


Commissioned by:



Vanitas (Loré Lixenberg, mezzo; Zoë Martlew, cello; Dominic Saunders, piano),

BMIC Cutting Edge Tour 2002, Nottingham, 5 May 2002

Published by:

Recorded by:

Lontano: Alison Wells (mezzo), Andrew Sparling (clarinet), Dominic Saunders (piano), conducted by Odaline de la Martinez (fire dressed in black: Silvina Milstein Chamber Works, LORELT, LNT129)

fire dressed in black owes its rhetorical mode to the cinematographic language of Sergei Paradjanov, which seems to me closer to visual choreography than to conventional film narrative. ‘You are fire … you are clothed in fire. / You are fire … you are clothed in black,’ sings Sayat Nova, the 18th-century Armenian troubadour eventually turned Christian monk and martyred by the Persian invaders of Georgia, whose life is portrayed in Paradjanov’s masterpiece The Colour of Pomegranates.


Two centuries earlier, St John of the Cross – a Spanish Carmelite monk – writes of the ‘night that joined the lover / To the beloved bride / Transfiguring them each into the other’.  His poetry is remarkable not only for its visual and tactile erotic imagery but for its conveyance of visionary ecstasy by the very sound of its words, as in the chain of deep vowels that culminates in this depiction of the rapturous union of soul (the bride) and God (the bridegroom): ‘Amado con amada, / amada en el Amado transformada.’


When setting St John’s Noche oscura, I observed the flow and quality of my breathing as I reflected on each verse, and allowed it to dictate lines and harmonies.  Thus this piece, like Paradjanov’s sensuous visual poetry, is a kind of formalised journey through meditative states.


... turbulent, hesitantly ecstatic ...

Ivan Hewitt, BBC Music Magazine

Lontano, Alison Wells, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, excerpt
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