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First Words

Viviane Houle / Pierre Hébert

First Words

These are my late father’s words, his attempts to communicate with us after his near-fatal operation for throat cancer in 2010. When he woke up in the ICU after the operation, he could not speak or move anything other than his right hand. For several weeks he communicated with us by writing on pieces of paper he could not see, and we tried our best to understand. It was the first and last time he expressed many of these words and sentiments.

I immediately recognized the beauty in the shape and content of the words he wrote but it took eight years to find the right form to transform them into something musical. From 157 pages of writing, I chose 56 and transformed them into a graphic score for improvising musicians. I then asked filmmaker Pierre Hébert to translate my compositional ideas into a film.


First Words was commissioned by the NOW Society and performed in Vancouver with the NOW Orchestra in March, 2018. It was revised significantly in 2019 for Ensemble SuperMusique.

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