(not) knowing the answer

six sijos by james r. murphy for six unaccompanied voices in just intonation (2009-2015)

Choral Score

by Frank J. Oteri



Perusal Score


(breathe) from (not) knowing the answer
music by frank j. oteri
sijos by james r. murphy
Recording from the world premiere performance
The Crypt at the Church of Intercession, New York, NY


c. 13 min


The Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, New York, NY


soprano, mezzo, contralto (counter tenor), tenor, baritone, bass



Program Notes

The first time I ever wrote music to someone else’s poetry was when I embarked on setting 14 sonnets that were recently written by my then high school math teacher, james r. murphy, as the song cycle the nurturing river for wide ranged voice and piano. Around the same time murphy was writing all these sonnets, he also wrote a bunch of sijos, another centuries-old poetical form. The sijo, which originated in Korea at roughly the same time that the sonnet originated in Italy, consists of three stanzas containing a total of six lines, each with a strict syllabic count. Like the 14 sonnets I set in the nurturing river, Murphy’s sijos seemed to beg for an equally meticulous formally abstract musical rendering. Since voices can theoretically sing any interval, writing for a vocal ensemble seemed the ideal vehicle for an exploration of an eight-note scale derived from the eighth through fifteenth overtones and murphy’s mysterious sijos seemed the perfect texts for this sound world. I asked Murphy to send me every sijo he had ever written. I ultimately chose six, creating a 6×6 scheme that matches the 14×14 scheme of the nurturing river. The resultant piece, (not) knowing the answer, is a journey into a strange new harmonic landscape though one that is implied in nature. The vocal ensemble Ekmeles (Charlotte Mundy, soprano; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano; Amber Evans, contralto; Steven Bradshaw, tenor; and Jeffrey Gavett, baritone and artistic director) gave the world premiere performance of (not) knowing the answer in The Crypt at the Church of the Intercession in Northern Manhattan, New York City, on October 28, 2022.

–Frank J. Oteri