Relais papillon

Program note

Commissioned by the Festival Montréal Nouvelles Musiques (MNM)

The most astounding thing about the phenomenon of monarch butterfly migration, is that the ones that migrate south are not the ones who previously migrated north. In fact, there will have been at least three generations of butterflies since the February emergence from hibernation in Mexico, subsequent gradual northward journey toward Canada, and eventual fourth generation of butterflies that will, in fact, be the one to head south in late September. This last generation, which lives much longer than the ones before it, will migrate many thousands of kilometres, hibernate, and finally produce the first generation of the next annual cycle.

The form of Relais papillons [Butterfly Relay] reproduces, within a compressed 10-minute scale, an annual cycle encompassing the succession of four generations of butterflies. Each generation is represented by a pair of individuals, themselves “represented” by a pair of instruments: 1st and 3rd generations – clarinet and cello; 2nd and 4th generations – flute (or piccolo) and violin.

Thematic traits come in succession for each generation, to evoke the life stages of the insect: egg, larva (or caterpillar), chrysalis (or pupa), adult butterfly (or imago), mating, egg-laying, death. The fourth generation, before mating, must also make the lengthy migration and hibernate.

The materials for my piece were in large part based on Chopin’s Étude opus 25 #9, known as the Butterfly Étude, whose formal arc I felt fit closely with that of the butterfly life cycle. As well, metaphorically-speaking, I was quite pleased with the idea that something of European origin could serve as the basis for conjuring up an intra-American migration...

The work was composed for and is dedicated to the Mexican group Ónix.

- Michel Gonneville / January 2009


Relais papillons
For 5 musicians (2008)

Compared to other migrations observed in the animal kingdom, that of the monarch butterflies between Canada and Mexico is particularly fascinating. That such fragile, small creatures manage to make such a long journey from our northern lands to the high mountains of Michoacan to overwinter is already an amazing achievement.winter there, it is already a reason of astonishment. But what is really mysterious is that the individuals that migrate to the South are not those that have
the journey to the North. In fact, at least three generations of butterflies will have followed each other since emerging from hibernation in February in Mexico, gradually moving up to Canada, until the fourth generation of butterflies leaves the North at the end of August. This last generation livesmuch longer than the 4-6 weeks or so of the previous generation, enough to complete the migration of several thousand kilometers, overwinter, and finally sire the first generation of the next annual cycle.
the first generation of the next annual cycle.

(Details of this adventure can be found at:

It is this mega phenomenon that inspired Relais Papillons. The form of the piece is a reproduction, compressed to a scale of about ten minutes, of a complete annual cycle of a complete annual cycle that includes the succession of four generations of butterflies.

Each of these generations is represented by a couple of individuals, itself "represented" by a couple of
Each generation is represented by a couple of individuals, itself "represented" by a couple of instruments (a wind instrument and a string instrument each time, the piano accompanying them). We will thus have
successively: 1st generation: clarinet and cello; 2nd generation: flute and violin; 3rd generation: clarinet and cello; 4th generation: piccolo (and flute) and violin. Each generation takes up a succession of thematic characters which can suggest (always in an extremely compressed way in time) the successive stages of the insect of the insect: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly, this last one mating and then, the female surviving the male, leaving the hundreds of eggs which
become the next generation. In the life of the fourth generation is interpolated, before the mating, the egg laying and the death, the long parenthesis of the migration and hibernation. The tempo accelerates from one generation to the next, as if stimulated by the gradual rise in temperature.

Relais Papillons owes much to Chopin's Étude opus 25 # 9, known as the "butterfly study" in several languages. Beyond the evocative character of its writing it is the very form of this short study that struck me, seeming to mold itself to the life cycle of a generation of butterflies. A large part of the material of my piece was elaborated from this data. If the migration of the monarch butterflies and the phenomenon of relay which characterizes it can be seen as a metaphor for the transmission and cultural exchange between American communities, I rather like the idea that they are transmitting a "genetic" datum of European origin to each other, butI like the idea that they are passing on a "genetic" fact of European origin but strongly altered by centuries of adaptation to the geographical and historical realities of the continent.

The work was composed for the group Ónix and is dedicated to them. It was written between October and December 2008 to be included in the program of the concert given in February 2009 by this ensemble and the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal (ECM+) as part of the Pont de papillons event organized by the ECM+ and the Conservatoire
the ECM+ and the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. Funded by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, it was commissioned by the Festival Montreal New Music (MNM) for its 2009 edition which includes the above-mentioned event.

Michel Gonneville
December 24th, 2008


Year of composition
G flute /
Piccolo /
C flute /
B-flat clarinet /
B-flat bass clarinet /
Violin /
Cello /
Piano interior /