top of page


  The Telling Rooms (2018), 12'

I. The Happiest Color

II. Dressed in Red

II. Ink Wash

       The Telling Rooms was first performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra                conducted by Eckart Preu on January 27, 2019 in Portland, Maine. The work is scored

  for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion, harp and strings.

As a noun, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary provides “color” with fifteen definitions, from its premiere entry as a phenomenon of light, to the pigmentation of skin, and to the final entry that speaks to the hypothetical property of “quarks.”  Color’s role in the human experience is profound. With directness and subtly, it has the power to unearth childhood, conjure atmosphere, unite or set one group against another, satiate hunger with joy or sadness, or to starve with a monochrome of deprivation.


Commissioned in collaboration with the Portland Symphony Orchestra and the Portland writing center Telling Room, The Telling Rooms is based on selected entries from the Telling Room’s annual Writing Contest for young Maine students. Given the prompt of “color,” entrants were asked to create prose or poetry that dealt with color, to ask questions of it, to explore its associations on personal or communal levels of experience. Many of the entries captured rare shades and social perspectives, challenging the traditional meanings of color. From ten finalist, three entries were selected. These three spoke of different colors, each in their unique literary voice and experience, and would form an orchestral triptych, an expression of their poetry through music. In three movements, a movement for each poem, each is conceived as a different room with a different color, a room in which the walls would talk, a room that tells a story to the visitors holding its space.


In Aubrey Duplissie’s The Happiest Color, tender then tragic memories are triggered by a nameless color, a literary haunting, a ghost in the words. The color is never mentioned by name, but there is no mystery to what it is. The association of the objects that possess its hue, unveil’s it name, and the narrative will reveal the secret of its absence. Opening with a series of seven “color” chords first in the trombones, it will appear in different parts of the orchestra, just as the protagonist recognizes the color appearing in different objects. Accompanying these color chords are dashes of sparkling percussion and a continuous flow of eighth notes in the violins. These colors will also travel through the orchestra, undertaking the same timbral excursion. The journey begins tenderly, timeless, softly and with majestic simplicity, sparsely orchestrated, but like the prose, it mirrors a sense of loss and will roar from the whispers. The meaning of this happy color transforms from the singular into a very grounded duality. The music swells into glorious catharsis at its peak as more instruments are layered, but it will be tinged with acidity, it is bittersweet. This is music that strives to capture a glimpse of the happiest color, the color of sorrow, the color of healing, the color of life and loss.


The Happiest Color

Aubrey Duplissie


It was the jacket

That defended the boy

From cascading rain, while

Mother observed from foggy windows


It coated the bus

He rode for the first time

While his parents watched,

Hand in hand


It was there on sweltering summer days,

Within his lemonade stand,

And staining his mother’s hands

From hours of squeezing


Then it was the fish

In the aquarium,

But he focused on a girl,

And it was her hair too


It was the diamond danger sign

His car skidded past,

The wheels screeching

As they fought to stay on course


It was the color left,

Scratched onto the guardrail

When it split in two

And his car went tumbling down


When his mother learned

She was sitting in a room

Of that color

And it filled her vision


It tortured her with memories

Of a boy she once had

As her stomach turned

And terrible words filled her ears


But then-

It was the dappled leaves,

Falling from the heavens

Exactly one year later


It was his favorite color

That now graced the earth

And suddenly,

She didn’t know how to feel

© Aubrey Duplissie


Discordant harmonies shadow the second movement based on Husna Quinn’s Dressed in Red, framing a portrait of family secrets and a glimpse of infidelity viewed through the eyes of a child. A pair of clarinets open the movement as two characters in a forbidden intimate embrace. A recurring 5-pitch pattern that forms a skewed ostinato, will offer the perspective of the silent witness, the child. First plucked in the violins, it is playful, innocent and curious. In this “room,” the music will revolve around this pattern, and the narrative of a carnal crimson betrayal will come through in its transformation, stretching and contracting in length, removing and adding notes, and splitting the line in interlocking alternation between pairs of instruments. If there is symbolism in music, this development may hold a glimpse of processing and the making sense of a situation difficult to comprehend, it is the breaking of promises, vows, familial bonds, a loss of innocence. Much of the music is stealthy, unfolding delicately as though hiding and witnessing, observing something unspeakable. All shades of purity are smothered with the stillness of static harmony. Low bassoons gurgle and high woodwinds flourish frenetically with accented gestures, searing glimpses of unfaithful flesh colors. At the peak, the brass and the whole of the orchestra will the spin the ostinato into a dizzying kaleidoscopic nightmare of corrupting colors. The movement ends softly, but the insidious colors linger, an afterimage of sanguine dark blinding events, a silent scream for a silent witness.


Dressed in Red

Husna Quinn


The tapping of her scarlet

pin heels

fills the family room.

Her radiant red 

dress illuminates 

the faded gray shapes

of objects surrounding her.

My gaze 

from just outside the door

follows her coal black eyes.


Glimpsing at the art

attached to the wall

she halts her steps,

ambling toward a conflicting frame.

Unlike the others,

neat rows of traditional prints—

drummers, dancers, and artists—

the family portrait

scarcely hangs onto the wall.

The left side of her faint red lip

tugs upward

as she observes the smiling faces

trapped in the photograph.


Her aura breathes “vile stepmother”

but her attire screams “fleeting lover.”

As I watch from my post

in the black shadows,

my father saunters toward her

and embraces her pear-like body.

He pecks her red lips, 

hugs her,

and rests his head on her neck.

It is a scene so natural and tender,

yet it has failed with my mother.


I close my eyes to them

and imagine my mother coming home 

later that night.

With rehearsed countenance

she will imprison my father 

in her arms.

She will hold him, and hold him, 

long enough 

for our validation of the embrace.

Detecting a lipstick blemish,

she will discreetly scold my father

advising him to be 

more vigilant 

in the children’s presence.


I open my eyes and see

the color drained from the room,

the portrait still crooked

on the wall.

© Husna Quinn

Where the first two rooms explored singular colors and shades, the third and final movement based on Eliza Rudalevige’s Ink Wash, serves a dish of swirls with a palette of the senses. There is a game-like ordering to the listing of pigments paired with sensory descriptors. The prose exudes a sucrose-laced liturgy that would find welcome in a box of Crayola. It begins with a series of descending triads and trumpet fanfare, the commencing of a tour de technicolor, an orchestral tournament. Think of the instrumental families as primary colors, the contestants in this vivid gauntlet and the occupants of a  chromatic factory of super saturated dyes. Each are introduced in exuberant fanfare, vying to be the prized and coveted winner. A game of Twister kicks off, and much of the music will explore these families outmaneuvering each other, hopscotch-ing, jumping over and under, through hoops of syncopation and mixed meter obstacles. © MTF


Ink Wash

Eliza Rudalevige


She knew how every color tasted and blue was her favorite.

Blues like moistly misty mornings,

mosquitos dancing in a haze of left-over campfire and condensation.

Blue settled softly over sloped tents

then fading into husky, grass-fed violet

the same color as lavender fields at dawn

where sheep with wool like kindness roam over the stubble.

Violet, second only to blue

and orange third only to violet;

midday skies and crushed grapes and papaya curry

swirled in a cacophony of pigment,

a tinted tornado.

Thunderous green emerges with eyes like jade set in enamel.

Lily pad green,

pine trees in the morning green,

dictionary green,

fading into lemon-scented freshness and

spraying light like fresh juice.


Then the white.

Pillowcases hanging on the line to shed their creases.

Salt crystals on her upper lip after soaks in the sea

where jellies float as soft as snow

and rest their sting on unsuspecting knees.

Majority white,

peach fuzz white,

every color compressed into a single prick of white:

violet, orange, yellow, green.

Yes, blue was her favorite,

but she savored every one.

© Eliza Rudalevige

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on August 13-15, 2021.

bottom of page