by GARY FERRINGTON
“True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
Those words from Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story, The Tell-Tale Heart, grabbed Paul Safar when the Eugene composer and pianist and Delgani String Quartet artistic director Wyatt True heard them read by Eugene actor Rickie Birran in a meeting last year. The Delganis had asked Birran, of the Man of Words Theatre Company, to suggest possible literary-themed works that might work for their April 20-21 concerts. When Safar heard Birran’s reading of Poe’s tale, the themes of sanity, guilt, and fear in the voice of the narrator/murderer transfixed the composer. “I was immediately interested in setting it to music right from those first few words,” Safar says.
Birran’s readings and Delgani’s premiere of Safar’s The Tell-Tale Heart highlight the Saturday and Sunday Murder and Madness concerts of spoken word and music in Springfield and Portland, which dramatizes crimes of passion and human insanity in celebrated texts by Edgar Allan Poe, Leo Tolstoy, and Mary Shelley.
The premiere will be the third collaboration between Delgani and Safar, who performs regularly with his partner, soprano and poet Nancy Wood. The couple founded the non-profit Cherry Blossom Musical Arts organization in 2003 to create and perform new music in collaboration with a wide spectrum of performing artists.
In 2016, Safar engaged Delgani to perform his Moonfish with Wood in a Cherry Blossom concert in Eugene. Birran joined the collaboration two years ago, participating in Delgani’s performance of Safar’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, Tyger, The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Satan Speaks, all inspired by well known literary works.
This time, when he set out to compose The Tell-Tale Heart, Safar wanted to convey a musical atmosphere that was “both nervous/relentless but also somehow a bit understated and “normal” as the narrator is trying to convince us of his sanity.” The score, composed for string quartet with narrator reading the story throughout, uses repetitive half step motives to create the sense of nervousness and Safar’s own version of something he calls “a Biedermeier style for the normalcy.” Given that the Poe story is set in the early-mid 1800s, Safar thought of a Schubert-like sound with “a somewhat understated/utilitarian texture.” The score also briefly quotes the opening of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written around the same time as Poe’s short story.
Safar employs extended techniques performed by the players such as fingernails tapping, feet stomping and humming, “but only when the music really called for it,” he explains. “I know the players enjoy the variety of some of these added elements that are less likely found in a Beethoven quartet.” Safar also includes a frame drum played by cellist Eric Alterman for what he calls “the omnipresent heart.”
The score’s diverse harmonies and textures evoke “the essence of Poe’s tale, the creepiness of ‘the eye’ and the skittishness of the narrator,” says True. “In moments it has this sort of psychedelic mind-bending effect.”
While Safar was composing the final section of the score during his residency at Summer Lake’s PLAYA institute in southern Oregon, a furious windstorm whipped around outside his studio, inspiring the dark chaotic mood of the music. Safar notes that although doesn’t share the character’s murderous tendencies, he does resonate with the story in that as he does have a “bit of underlying nervousness sometimes as a composer. I have motivs stuck in my head (ear worms) like the heartbeat of the narrator.”
Also on the program is the performance of abridged monologues from Shelley’s Frankenstein read by Birran accompanied by passages from Dmitri Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet.
Birran’s reading of excerpts from Tolstoy’s 1889 story The Kreutzer Sonata will illustrate the connection between Leoš Janáček’s first string quartet and the novella that inspired it. The story references Beethoven’s ninth violin sonata, which the composer dedicated to violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. In Tolstoy’s text, the sonata is performed by the narrator’s wife (a pianist) and her violinist companion. Their relationship drives the husband, the narrator, to insanity and murder.
In addition to Safar’s music, Delgani Quartet has commissioned new music from other Oregon composers since it was formed in 2014: Pius Cheung, Flow (2017); Noah Jenkins IIX IXI XII (2016); Terry McQuilkin, Invisible Light: Fantasy for String Quartet (2015); Greg Steinke, Image Music XLIII from Songs of the Firec Circle (2017); and Roydon Tse, Metropolis (2017). This concert continues the adventurous and innovative ensemble’s connection between the literature of the past and the music of the present.
Safar will discuss his process of writing music for spoken voice and string quartet, including working with Birran and Wood on various compositions, in a Cascadia Composers presentation at 7 pm Monday, May 7 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, room 291. He will play excerpts of pieces and videos of live performance.
Delgani Quartet and Rickie Birran perform Safar’s The Tell-Tale Heart and other works at 7:30 pm Friday, April 20 at Portland’s Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church 2828 SE Stephens St., and 7:30 pm at the Richard E. Wildish Community Theater, 630 Main St., Springfield. Tickets $25-$35; Students $10; Available at www.delgani.org or (541) 579-5882.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.