This piece was commissioned from audio alchemist Denise Onen for the all-South African choral celebration Timeless Whispers in 2023.

Programme note and text

This piece seeks to capture the emotional journey of awe, wonder and environmental existentialism I experienced the first time I traversed the Karoo. This expansive semi-desert landscape, once submerged, now holds towering mountains and paleontological treasures. This ancient wonder, a humbling reminder of our existence as mere specks, akin to the grains of sand in the Karoo, could never tally the countless stars in the universe. 

The persistent dissonance and harmonic colour of the piece contemplate themes of environmental existentialism – the fate of this ‘Land of Thirst’ in the face of climate change, what ‘Mother Earth’ has witnessed over time in this terrain and, in time, what will be? Amidst these reflections, there is solace in that at least there will be stars out of man’s reach, and we are reminded of that in this place where the Earth meets the stars, as encapsulated by the phrase “Usque ad sidera tellus” – the Earth rising up to the stars.

I condensed this into Latin phrases that came to mind and structured the work’s distinct sections:


Usque ad sidera tellus.


A terra matre ad astra. 

A patre tempore ad terram matrem

Usque ad sidera tellus.

English translation:


Earth rising up to the stars.


From Mother Earth to the stars.

From Father Time to Mother Earth

Earth rising up to the stars.

From a kind of metaphorical process of terraforming reflections and meditative improvisations came: “Usque ad sidera tellus”.

Denise L. L. Onen

Denise Onen

Onen is a sonic cultural practitioner. Her love for choral music was sparked by the rich choral culture of her hometown: Pretoria. For nearly a decade, she sang in choirs conducted by Dr Charlotte Botha, Lhente-Mari Pitout and Dr Michael Barrett. In early 2023, her choral work ‘Siyaphambili’ was published by Hinshaw Music, a member of the Fred Bock Publishers Group.

She is Cape Town-based but her skills in collaborative projects have been showcased and won awards around the world. In 2022 she was a shortlisted nominee for the 2022 International Oram Award for feminine-bodied innovators in sound, music and associated technology.

Most recently, she has been selected as a resident artist for the 2023 OSCILLATIONS residency, a transhemispheric initiative for sound artists and cultural practitioners supported by the DAAD Arts and Media Programme, DLFK, AdK (Berlin) and CHR (Cape Town).

Interview on Fine Music Radio's 'The Choral Life' 01.10.2023

by Otto van der Walt and Denise Onen