Alexina Louie’s composition, Music for Heaven and Earth, is more complex than the McPhee and the Freedman works, both in the fullness of its metaphorical constructions, and in the exotic sounds of the instruments and practices she uses. Her exposure to experimental compositional techniques during her training in California in the 1970’s has been fused with a solid understanding of traditional orchestral techniques, and in this case, with a deliberate pictorial quality.

Music for Heaven and Earth was commissioned by The Toronto Symphony for a tour of the Pacific Rim, with support from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It had its premiere April 25, 1990, shortly before the Orchestra’s departure. The character of the work, utilizing sounds from Chinese and Japanese traditions, stems from the circumstances of its commission, giving Ms. Louie “a unique opportunity to reach out to a large part of the world in a very direct and immediate way”.

The work’s five sections are contained in one expansive, continuous movement, beginning with the symbolic representation of an individual’s human expression, and expanding to a cosmic starscape. The opening “Procession of Celestial Deities” was influenced by Japanese Gagaku Court music. When the brasses and drums enter with a noisy fanfare, we are meant to hear an invocation of the “Thunder Dragon”; this powerful celestial deity enters to the clanging gongs and cymbals of the Beijing Opera, followed by a tremendous roaring. In the reverberant space left at the Dragon’s departure, we approach the cosmic “Void”, whose eerie timelessness was inspired by astronaut Charles Duke’s description of the almost palpable texture of the total blackness of outer space.

Both “Void” and the following movement, “Earthrise,” were inspired by the space photographs in The Home Planet, edited by Kevin Kelley. The ringing of Japanese temple bowls and a tender oboe melody lead the way into a descriptive passage of the Earthrise, the dawning of our tiny blue planet and its eventual ascent, as viewed from a vantage point on the surface of the moon. Louie’s journey ends almost magically, with a return to Earthbound mythology: an aural picture of the “River of Stars,” as the Milky Way was known in ancient China. The sounds begin with wind chimes (actually notated to look like a star map in the score), crotales, vibraphone, and glockenspiel (“like glitterdust”); the chiming ushers in an orchestral finale of grand proportions.

  • Recording: CD: CBC Records SMCD 5154