Five Poisons

Instrumentation: soprano saxophone and piano

Year: 2011

Duration: 17 minutes

Society has always had a strong fascination with poison.  There are constant references to poisons both historically and culturally, anything from the death of Socrates to the actual band, Poison.  While poison certainly is an element of the macabre, it is not just its deadliness that seems to attract people.  There is a primal quality to it.  Perhaps part of the connection is its instrumental role in the deaths of many recognizable figures such as Cleopatra and Adolf Hitler.  There are countless poisons ranging from the herbaceous to the synthetic to the natural.  Some are more recognizable such as arsenic or cyanide and some less so such as selenium.  Nevertheless, each poison has its own individual symptoms and mythology. 

In this piece, I was interested in the musical potentiality of the poisons themselves.  I wanted to capture those particular physiological elements which make each poison unique.  Of course, much of the interest in poison comes from the stories surrounding its use.  Therefore, some of the movements reflect the actual quality of the poison and some are inspired by its place in history.  Five Poisons is a five movement work for soprano saxophone and piano and was commissioned by saxophonist Andrew Harrison. 

Movement I - Hemlock:

Like many herbaceous poisons, Hemlock is only poisonous in severe doses.  In fact, it has medicinal uses both as a sedative and as an antispasmodic (a drug used in the prevention of spasms).  In literature and lore, Hemlock is most famous for causing the death of Socrates.  Plato writes about the death of Socrates: "The man...laid his hands on [Socrates] and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said "No"; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And then again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone."  Hemlock is known to cause paralysis just before death, which is why scholars have long thought that Socrates died from Hemlock poisoning. In this movement, I mimic this paralysis effect on a dark jazz groove, which, after a thunderous roar, slowly erodes the movement's propulsion.

Movement II - Belladonna/Deadly Nightshade:

Belladonna, like Hemlock, is a herbaceous poison and one that is particularly deadly to children.  Belladonna grows colorful berries with a sweet taste that can be quite alluring.  Belladonna is less harmful to adults, though still deadly depending on the dosage.  Historically, Belladonna has been used as a medicine, a hallucinogen, and a cosmetic.  For this movement though, I focused on its allure to children.  The movement begins with a simplistic and innocent lullaby that slowly becomes distorted as the "poison" begins to act.  As time wears on, the hallucinogenic quality of the poison takes over.

Movement III - Strychnine

With this movement, I sought to synthesize both strychnine's lore and its physical effect on the body.  Strychnine is an incredibly powerful and dangerous poison that induces intense spasming almost immediately after ingestion.  Death is typically caused by asphyxiation due to the inability of the body to inhale oxygen during these extreme bouts of spasming.  The famous blues guitarist Robert Johnson was said to have died from strychnine poisoning.  Supposedly, Robert Johnson was dancing with the wife of a bar owner who, out of jealously, then laced Johnson's whiskey bottle with strychnine.  For this movement, I took Robert Johnson's most famous song, Crossroads, which tells of his meeting with the Devil, and transcribed the guitar part for the piano.  The movement features two repetitions of the blues pattern; however, the blues is constantly interrupted and altered by a series of musical "spasms."

Movement IV - Cantarella

Little is known about this poison and it is thought to be simply a composite based on arsenic.  References to cantarella are primarily historical.  The Borgias, the papal family from 1400s to the 1500s, became infamous for dispatching their rivals with the poison.  Additionally, Cantarella is thought to be the poison that Juliet took to feign her death.  It is the latter story that inspired this movement.  The movement is based on a recurring melody that captures the thoughts of Juliet as she was sleeping. 

Movement V - Mercury

The phrase "mad as a hatter" is used to call someone crazy.  Its origin, though, comes from the 19th century when mercury was used in the production of felt for hats.  Workers in these factories with prolonged contact to felts began to develop mercury poisoning.  Insanity was a common side effect of exposure to mercury.  Like the poison, this movement is wacky and fast-paced and hopefully does justice to the mad hatters of the world.