b.1961, Canada

James Rolfe writes music for chamber ensembles, orchestra, choir, voice, and the operatic stage. He studied composition with John Beckwith at the University of Toronto and Jo Kondo in Japan.

His works have been commissioned and performed by ensembles in Canada (including Arraymusic, Continuum, Esprit Orchestra and Vancouver New Music), the USA (Bang on a Can All-Stars), Europe (Asko Ensemble, Ensemble Contrechamps de Genève, Ensemble Avant Garde, Ives Ensemble, Ixion Ensemble, Nash Ensemble, Nieuw Ensemble), and New Zealand (175 East). He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000. He currently resides in Toronto, Canada.

Open Road, a new James Rolfe work commissioned by Soundstreams, premiered at The Music of Arvo Pärt concert on October 1, 2013. Video archival recording of this event available at above link.


Artist Compositions


Premiere Title of Commission Listen
10/01/2021 Open Road Listen Close

Whitman's long lines and purple passages are a challenge to set and to sing. The soloists deliver the more personal, incantatory lines, with the choir responding, shading, interfering, echoing.

01/27/2013 Five and a Half Bridges Listen Close

11/29/2011 Tango: Del Amor Imprevisto Listen Close

Rolfe’s own words best describe the challenge he faced in composing this work—the difficulty of writing from outside of the culture and style—and how he rose to meet it: “As an Anglo-Canadian composer writing a tango, I’m skating on thin ice. How can my stolid northern soul find its way into the very particular language, singing, rhythm, and soul of this dance?"

03/23/2011 Breathe Listen Close

'Breathe' redefines many musical periods through its blending of ancient and modern texts, and through the performance of new music with historical instruments and techniques. Each part of the piece focuses on one of the four classical elements—air, fire, water, and earth—all of which are strongly present in the poems Rolfe has chosen for his text.

11/03/2021 When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d Listen Close

Commissioned for Soundstreams’ biennial University Voices event in 2006, 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d' is based on the lyric elegy written by Walt Whitman upon the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. It began life as a piano piece, Lilacs, which imagined the poem’s free-verse rhythms and cadences as a purely musical narrative.

04/22/2004 Freddy's Dead Listen Close

Rolfe emploie certaines des méthodes que Bach a lui-même utilisées pour l’Offrande musicale, notamment le renversement, le rétrograde et le renversement du rétrograde. La majeure partie de Freddy’s Dead est dérivée du troisième mouvement de la sonate en trio de l’Offrande musicale, dont Rolfe a accéléré le matériau pour ensuite le contraindre en l’ajustant aux temps forts (clé de fa) et aux temps faibles (clé de sol).

11/03/2021 Under the Sun Listen Close

The assertion that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ is also comfortingly ironic for a twenty-first-century composer who was schooled as a proper twentieth-century avant-gardist.” Rolfe’s text, condensed and compiled from several different translations, comes from the first chapter of Ecclesiastes. His setting, with its multiplicity of voices, provides a large acoustic space in which to explore the text’s dimensions.

02/27/2002 O, that you would kiss me Listen Close

The text of O that you would kiss me comes from the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon. In this setting, the voices caress each other with shared motifs, at close intervals, weaving in and out at close quarters, touching or overlapping in an embodiment of the intense physicality of the text.

04/17/2001 Six Songs Listen Close

In his earlier compositions inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, Rolfe was interested more in the sound of Whitman’s verse than in its meaning. In these settings of poems from Leaves of Grass, however, he takes a more traditional art-song approach, his music reflecting the thoughts and sentiments conveyed by the words.