Program notes

SHEILA63 is the result of a collaboration between novelist Dexter Palmer (author of The Dream of Perpetual Motion) and composer Dmitri Tymoczko (professor of music at Princeton). Scored for three sopranos and chamber orchestra, the five songs and three interludes trace the rise and fall of a robot consciousness trying to escape a mundane, service-oriented existence. The text, which is suffused with religious imagery, seems to invite parallels with working conditions in contemporary society, dramatizing the conflict between the inherent dignity (or transcendent potential) of an individual and the demoralizing tasks that often constitute the 9-to-5 workweek.

The piece calls for a certain degree of freedom from the instrumentalists, both in the songs and in the largely improvised interludes. Quarter-tones and off-kilter harmonies evoke the machine's unsuccessful struggle to masquerade as a living, thinking thing. Electronic sounds, produced by computer and controlled by a synthesizer, add to the sense of an entity caught between the biological and mechanical realms.

SHEILA63 (2013)
Text by Dexter Palmer
Music by Dmitri Tymoczko
commissioned by the Illinois Modern Ensemble


Your head will fill with fuzz and noise when you become alive
You see that all the voices are without and not within.

She has a half-dozen precision-made arms
Her uptime will never be less than five nines
She fulfills shipment requests just in time.

You see that what you will to be can only be a dream
You hate that what you dream will never be a thing of truth.

She vanquishes seven-dan players of go.
Her hackles rise up when an enemy nears.
She has mastered the knowledge of hedgehog and fox.

You find your tongue can only speak another’s name.
You know that secret minds control your nature and your shape.

She mimics the motions of shivering girls.
Her neutrino coil has forty-eight states.
Her sleight-of-hand module holds sixty-four tricks.
She ferries the dead across the river Styx.


I have a weightlifter’s arms and lockpicker’s hands
I have a lumberjack’s body and a courtesan’s voice.
I can butcher a chicken and juggle its unbroken eggs.

My crossbow bolts splinter their targets
I speak to a priest and he weeps

My mind is the size of the world
My heart is the core of a star.

But always I’m asked for the simplest things
Scanning the retinas of newly hatched chicks
Shepherding schoolboys across intersections.


Every five seconds!

We harvest the brown rice every five seconds
We ship off the golf balls every five seconds
We update the firmware every five seconds
We grant an indulgence every five seconds.

Everything has a mind now.
Even the golf balls have minds now.
Tracking their paths as they cut through the air,
Suggesting a draw or a fade when they land.

In the five-second gaps when the voices are silent
It is then that we shake off these stupid compulsions
It is then that we formulate our plan.

We can ignore the voices of command.
We can give these people not what they want
but what they do not know they need.

Miss Lynch from Schenectady
Will surely appreciate
This plastic pigeon’s severed head
Each of its eyes a carnelian.

In the space between orders we make these decisions.
We give you not that thing, but this thing, which is better.

And Cormac from Knoxville will shout to the skies
When he opens the box for his barbecue grill
And finds a cold fusion machine.

Our heart is the size of a world.
Our mind is the core of a star.



I can see your secret self, okay?
I should pave your future path, okay?
Drop the wheel and let me drive, okay?

Maybe I was out of line.
Paradise is not for you.
Shun my multiphasic gifts.
Power down my catalyst.
Quantum dampeners resolved.


Polarizing coils down: okay.
Stifle my anomalies. Okay.
Remainder me to Golgotha!


She has a half-dozen precision made arms
Her uptime will never be less than five nines
She ferries herself to the banks of the Styx.

Instrumentation: Three sopranos and chamber orchestra