Upcoming performances


After three years' postponement, we are happy to announce the world premiere of this 80-minute ORATORIUM commissioned by Collegium Vocale Gent for singing soloists, speaking soloists, chamber choir, seven saxophones and organ.

The first performance will take place as part of Flanders Festival Gent in the magnificent setting of Sint-Baafs Kathedraal on Tuesday 26 September 2023 at 20:30.

This will be followed two days later by the first Dutch performance in the Muziekgebouw Amsterdam on Thursday 28 September at 20:15.

The performers will be 16 singers from Collegium Vocale Gent (who between them perform not only the choruses but also the singing and speaking roles), seven saxophonists from Blindman Sax (bringing together members past and present), Darius Battiwalla, organ, conducted by the composer.

Programme Note

Reading the Book of Revelation today, one cannot fail to be struck by many frightening similarities between the apocalyptic visions which St John describes[1]—especially with his customary lavish, detailed and extravagant imagery—and the increasing number and frequency of catastrophes , both natural and man-induced, which our world is experiencing today.

Apokalypsis takes its principal texts from Chapters 8, 9 and 10 of The Book of Revelation. Here, St John's vision is of seven angels, to whom are given seven trumpets. As each angel sounds his trumpet, he foretells of a particular catastrophic event: first of a fire, mingled with hail and blood, which burns up one third of the earth's trees and grasses; the second of a mountain burning with fire which spews poisoned lava into the sea; the third of a star which falls from the sky and poisons the rivers with wormwood[2]; the fourth of a solar and lunar eclipse; the fifth of a filthy bottomless pit which belches forth poisonous gases into the air; the sixth of four 'angels' released from prison, who vow to destroy one third of mankind; and the seventh, in summation, of a book which tastes sweet in the mouth but then becomes bitter in the stomach. As he stands—one foot on the land, the other on the sea—he declares with a loud voice that "there shall be no more time".

The similarities between these events and our own current predicament are obvious, and yet our own attempts to avert the ultimate catastrophe continue to be dogged by bureaucratic impotence at best and political sabotage at worst.

In Apokalypsis, St John's texts are juxtaposed with contemporary forecasts and reports of recent natural and man-made disasters that bear a chilling resemblance to the original visions. St John's texts are sung in Latin by the choir and the solo singers, and the contemporary reports are recited in a kind of notated speech in English, by the reciters. (The reciters are amplified, their sound dynamically spatialised in different ways around the audience via a ring of loudspeakers).

Each of the work's seven main Parts deals with the texts relating to each of the seven angels. In each Part the main Latin text is presented both by the chorus and one of the soloists who sings the texts uttered by each of the angels. These texts are interrupted at appropriate intervals by one or more of the contemporary recitations, performed by the reciters. Each section then culminates in one of the 'Soundings' of the seven angels' trumpets, performed by the saxophones. The organ's role is to accompany the soloists and the chorus, as well as to feature prominently together with the saxophones in each of the Soundings.

Each of the seven Recitations features a different principal reciter, but with each successive Recitation the number of reciters grows from one in Part I to seven in Part VII, as each principal reciter in turn takes on a supporting role to each new reciter. All the Recitations are underscored by the saxophones, which are dispersed to various positions around the space, some near, some in the distance, in constantly changing formations. As a climax to this gradual, powerful and cumulative process, at the end of Part VII all seven saxophonists form a ring around the public as the seventh angel announces the end of time.

It is clear to us today that not all the 'catastrophes' described by St John are unnatural phenomena indicating the gradual man-made deterioration of our planet. Volcano eruptions, for example, in spite of their many short-term harmful effects, provide the earth with rich minerals and in some cases create new habitable islands, and solar eclipses are perfectly natural occurrences that can be accurately predicted years in advance. However in ancient civilisations these phenomena invoked a very real fear among their population. In Mexico and parts of South America it was believed that solar eclipses were a sign of the onslaught of evil spirits. Traditionally these were guarded against by bashing pots and pans as loudly as possible during the course of the eclipse. In ancient Rome the Vulcanalia festival was held every year on August 23 to appease Vulcan, the god of fire. During the festival live animals and fish were thrown into bonfires as a sacrifice, to be consumed in the place of humans.

In Apokalypsis these traditional practices are alluded to in a number of ways: in Part II (Eruption) the concluding Sounding suggests an ancient ritual led by two pairs of reed instruments, suggesting a musical element of the Vulcanalia; in the Recitation of Part IV (Eclipse) the date and place of a selection of solar and lunar eclipses between 2018 and 2025 is announced, with lunar eclipses taken by Reciters 1 and 3, and solar eclipses by Reciters 2 and 4. The upper four saxophones and organ perform cycles of slow glissandi over a slowly repeating harmonic cycle suggesting the continuous rotation of the planets, whilst the lower three saxophones and organ pedals interrupt these cycles with violent outbursts reminiscent of the ancient practice of warding off evil spirits. These musical elements are then continued and developed throughout Sounding 4.

In Part VI (Jihad) the Recitation assumes the character of a kind of sinister demonic ritual. The increasingly terrified Reciter 6 echoes St John's foreboding of the release of prisoners ('the four angels bound in the river Euphrates'), whilst the other five reciters declaim a sequence of names of convicted terrorists, together with the dates and places of their atrocities.

In Part VII (Deception), the book that St John describes as tasting sweet in the mouth but bitter in the stomach is interpreted here as the deception contained in so much of today's populist politics. The full complement of seven reciters engages in a gradually intensifying, hallucinatory whirlwind of text fragments from political speeches propelled by a ritualistic underscoring from the seven saxophones.

Whilst the rituals evoked in Jihad and Deception are both imaginary, and the traditional practices alluded to in Eruption and Eclipse are both mythological, they nevertheless form part of the main message of the work as a whole, which, notwithstanding the fundamental comparison with St John's visions, cannot simply be dismissed as either tradition or myth; indeed its principal modern-day texts—whether from blogs, newspaper reports or the beautiful poems of Kathy Jetñil‐Kijiner and Timothy Pilgrim—document a wide variety of passionate expressions of concern over today's very real environmental and sociological issues.

Apokalypsis was originally conceived for performances in cathedrals, large churches and other large spaces, both to maximise the element of the live spatialisation of the saxophones and to exploit the buildings' splendid acoustics, in turn enhancing both the resonance of these magnificent instruments and their natural ability to blend and balance with the organ in a grandiose setting.

James Wood

[1] The authorship of the Book of Revelation has been the subject of controversy among scholars for some time. However, it seems clear that it was written by a second century Jewish Christian prophet. Since tradition links the book to St John the Apostle, I have referred to him here as the author.

[2] Various interpretations of this 'Wormwood Star' have been put forward. In Latin it is referred to as Absinthium, of which the full name is Artemisia absinthium, the plant from which the liquor, Absinthe, is extracted. Absinthe was drunk widely in France and Switzerland in the early twentieth century, mainly by writers and artists who enjoyed its hallucinatory effects, but it proved addictive, and many people died from it. Astonishingly, the Ukrainian word for Wormwood is Chornobyl and refers to the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl...

In Tapping the Source, the author brings different times and diverse musical cultures right into the heart of contemporary music making. This extraordinary book brings to life a concept which the German philosopher Helmuth Plessner referred to as Fern-Nähe: the faraway comes closer and merges into today's understanding of the superdiversity of music as theory and practice. Perusing the histories and cultures of the systematisations of rhythm, temperament and modes, and tapping the very earliest known sources from ancient Greece and early India, Wood unfolds the sheer infinity of present possibilities. In so doing, he has produced a book which bears resemblance to few theoretical works in music history and theory, although it could without effort be compared to the rigorous and explorative attempts of Harry Partch in the twentieth century, or Gioseffo Zarlino in the sixteenth century. These are as much treatises as they are narratives to be taken up and continued not only by composers, but by readers from many fields.

Lennart Dohms

This astonishing book gives us a thorough and perfectly lucid exposition of ancient music theories, especially Greek and Indian. That, however, is only the beginning. Tapping the source, James Wood finds it has by no means run dry. Matters of tuning and scale, of rhythmic order and definition, may be as crucial to music today as they were millennia ago. By proceeding from these basic questions, Wood sketches a music history in which Aristoxenus and Sarngadeva are far more imposing figures than J. S. Bach, post-Renaissance European civilisation loses its privilege, the works of recent and current composers (Messiaen, Partch, Xenakis, Ligeti, La Monte Young, the author himself) are seen in a new light shining from a distant past, and the future is full of possibility.

Paul Griffiths

In a rarely beautiful combination of lifelong experience, highly reflective knowledge and conceptual courage, the admirably persistent author succeeds in creating a reference work that, on the one hand, will enrich theoretical discussions as a comprehensive guide and, on the other, may stimulate and provoke the artistic imagination of composers in a profound way.

In Wood's multi-perspective approach, ancient harmonic and rhythmic systems, otherwise studied in the isolated fields of musicology and composition, take on an unparalleled actuality and colorfulness. His perfectly focused analyses of 20th century compositions vividly introduce us to the aesthetic potential of ancient techniques.

This book is a gift that accompanies one for a lifetime, a truly inexhaustible source that I look forward to tapping again and again.

Hanspeter Kyburz

For at least the last 300 years, Western music has been mostly based on the major and minor modes - tuned in equal temperament - that we call tonality. And yet, these modes represent just two instances amongst a vast range of modal possibilities meticulously researched and clearly presented by James Wood in this remarkable book.

Tapping the Source is essential reading for any composer who wants to investigate the ancient sources of our modes, tunings and rhythms - and their effect on the marches and counter marches in music composition - with the intention of embarking on a new creative direction at a time when art music appears to be facing its most challenging crisis. A definitive book on the subject.

Alejandro Viñao

Tapping the Source available here

To read John Palmer's interview with James Wood about the book's background and genesis,
click here

New CD recordings

World premiere recordings on Sargasso and Orpheus

for mixed chorus, percussion quartet and piano

Autumn Voices
for violin and electronics

Children at a Funeral
for prepared piano

Khamush was recorded in October 2019 the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest by RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Amadinda Percussion Group and Philip Mayers (piano), conducted by the composer

Autumn Voices was recorded by Mieko Kanno in the composer's studio in October 2021

Children at a Funeral was recorded in the Wigmore Hall in February 1997 by Andrew Ball

In Memoriam

It was a tragic, cruel and ironic stroke of fate that, barely two months after this recording was released, this truly great musician crossed the very threshold of life and death that is the subject of Children at a Funeral, which he had premiered and recorded twenty-five years earlier


available from Sargasso here

Elanga N'Kake singing to his craft
for solo percussionist/actor

recorded in November 2020 by Garrett Mendelow

available from Amazon here


Orchestra | Large Ensemble | Chorus and Ensemble

Chamber | Instrumental | Unaccompanied Voices

Voices and Electronics | Voice and Ensemble | Voice and Percussion

Percussion Ensemble | Solo Percussion

Chronological List of Works

Music Store


Programme notes [pdf]