Cube Calendar Articles from 2002

The Tell-Tale Heart
Notes on creating a one-act, one-man opera

by Jon Steinhagen, librettist of Ilya Levinson’s The Tell-Tale Heart

January 2002

The impetus for writing the libretto of The Tell-Tale Heart came from Ilya Levinson asking me for a libretto for a one-man opera. Not really a case of ars gratia artis, but a good starting point.

You have to understand that, as a musician and writer, I have an excess of books; I finished college with a degree in English, not in Music. I couldn’t tell you how many courses I’ve taken that dealt with the “deep down” of literature, or the many papers I’ve written exploring themes in “Classic Fiction.” Oddly enough, not one of my courses touched upon Poe, either as poet or author. Had Poe gone out of fashion? Had he ever been in fashion?

Edgar Allan Poe was one of my childhood discoveries, mainly through the classic tales of “horror” such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” From thereon I graduated from the protomysteries involving C. Auguste Dupin to the Roger Corman films of the stories (which were more Irwin Allen than Edgar Allan). It wasn’t until my college years that I learned that the academic consensus (at the time) was that Poe was looked on as a facile provocateur and little else. Over the past decade brave scholars have tried to resurrect his tarnished image. Numerous stage works, however, have been devoted to Poe’s dark personality and drinking problems (including an Argento opera) but have done little to revive the luster of his fiction.

Back to Ilya Levinson and the one-character opera. My initial reaction to the task was “This is a great opportunity to do a treatment of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Great idea. But the central character of Gillman’s short story was female. Whoops. I wrote up a libretto for Yellow Wallpaper anyway, and if it’s ever set to music it might make a companion piece to The Tell-Tale Heart. My adaptation of Gillman’s story served, at that point, as a template for the Poe adaptation, what with its similar themes of claustrophobic madness and paranoia. It was this exercise that suggested Poe’s story as a likely yet unlikely choice.

Likely yet unlikely? I remember my eighth-grade English teacher, who was a very dramatic fellow who liked to hear the basso rumblings of his own voice, taking time during the teaching of Poe’s poetry to give us a reading of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” His performance was quite effective though hammy, but I recalled his nuances of tone and the manner in which he went from calm conversation at the outset to raving maniac by the time the unnamed narrator confesses to his crime. I saw the possibilities of a rising dramatic and emotional arc centered on one character.

As far as the text went, I used the original text as much as possible, from structure to syntax. In certain places I stopped to linger over moments to expand upon a theme, such as the narrator’s repeated visits to the old man’s room with the aid of a dark lantern. Later, as Ilya was composing the score, he asked me for more text to fill out the piece. Initially, I had been conscious of stripping down the text to its bare plot essentials, so there wasn’t much plotwise that I had left out to be reinserted. This was when I decided to add more “character” to the narrator by further filling in the rough details of his emotional state. The “poetry” to be found in the opera lies in these passages, and is a nod to Poe’s own poetry.

The basic problem I faced while writing the libretto was simply what is this guy doing? Who is he talking to? Us? An “invisible” person he imagines? If so, are the gendarmes who visit at the end of the story likewise creations of his insanity, or there and unseen? And why does the narrator insist throughout the text (as he does in Poe’s) that he is perfectly sane when we can tell he is one sock short of a full load of laundry? I prefer to leave it open to interpretation, although I went along with the opinion that this is all happening in his mind after the murder takes place. The opera, then, is not so much a meditation on sanity but the byproduct of guilt.

Finally, I felt the original story lent itself to musicalization from the obvious ostinato of the phantom heart that beats long after the old man is buried under the floor to the grand Guignol flights of hatred, glee, fear and confession. Set this to the accompaniment of that maddening ventricular tattoo and you have Emperor Jones meets Sweeney Todd.

Vocal Percussion Duo at the HotHouse

Theo Bleckmann (voice/loops) and John Hollenbeck (percussion/drums) are two New York improvisers who intimately create melodious and mercurial soundscapes. Bleckmann and Hollenbeck work with layering, harmony and contrast using voice, drums, percussion, found objects, low-tech electronic gadgets and toys. They will perform in Chicago at the HotHouse on Sunday, March 24, at 5:30pm, following the CUBE concert.

You can find more information on the duo at


ICE Formation
Exciting new new music group in town!

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) — a cutting-edge new chamber ensemble made up of rising young composers and musicians in New York City, Boston and Chicago — announces its first mini-festival! The Ensemble will offer three programs in Chicago on June 1, 5 and 9 (see listings for program details).

ICE is a society of emerging musicians and composers from around the world who are dedicated to performing, promoting and innovating chamber music in the 21st century. By interweaving the classics with brand new, boundary-pushing works, ICE seeks to bring freshness, energy and an invigorating new approach to the live concert experience. ICE Foundation, Inc. was chartered in 2001 as a nonprofit organization with chapters in New York City, Boston and Chicago.

ICE was created on the cusp of the millennium by a group of young musicians interested in expanding definitions “new,” “world” and “classical” music. Members of ICE first performed as an ensemble in April, 2000, in tandem with New Music for a New Millennium, a year-long project of commissions, premieres and recordings underwritten by the Theodore Presser Foundation and the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music. Commissioned works by Pauline Oliveros, Harvey Sollberger, Matthew Quayle, Huang Ruo and John Fonville were part of the undertaking.

During the 2001 Season, ICE gave enthusiastically received performances in Alice Tully Hall and Paul Hall in New York City. In January 2002 the Ensemble made its Chicago debut at the historic Three Arts Club of Chicago with a program of Bach, Cage, Reich, and three premieres by ICE composers. Upcoming ICE engagements include an all-Crumb concert at The Barge in New York City. The 2002-03 season will also bring to ICE audiences brand new works by young composers from Mexico, China, Russia, the US and the European Union.

The first program in the festival — “Linking Orchids — New Voices from China” — offers new music by founding ICE Composers Huang Ruo and Du Yun that fuses Eastern and Western aesthetics. The orchid — an ancient Chinese symbol of friendship and spiritual union that transcends cultural barriers — is celebrated in this program as the new work of two emerging Chinese composers is brought to life by young American musicians. Both trained at the Shanghai Conservatory and later at the Oberlin Conservatory, Huang Ruo and Du Yun’s music gives a new voice to multicultural performance, integrating traditional Chinese ideology with Western technique. Selections will include a traditional Chinese violin sonata, a choreographed percussion solo, a duo for harp and backstage piano improvisation — a truly postmodern challenge to staged performance — and the Chicago premiere of Huang Ruo’s “Confluence,” the third in a cycle of four critically acclaimed chamber concertos.

The second program, “Fire Lyrics,” is a program that will merge standard piano repertoire with transcendental Islamic texts. ICE pianist Phyllis Chen (winner of the 2001 Barnett Piano Competition) will perform pieces by Rameau, Messiaen, and a 2002 ICE Commission by Erik Spangler, “Fire Lyrics,” based on texts by Rumi and Bahallah. “These two authors, separated by six centuries, both emerged from the Islamic culture of Persia with messages of love which transcend cultural boundaries, inviting us to recognize our common Source. The different sections of Fire Lyrics alternate modes or text settings between spoken narration with instrumental accompaniment and sung text.” (Erik Spangler, Harvard University)

The third program, “American Counterpoint,” brings together pieces that give voice to the American pioneering spirit in art and expression. ICE presents a program that incorporates folklore, theatre, and rock’n’roll within virtuosic performance. From tradition (Copland’s Violin and Piano Sonata) to spectacle (Druckman’s sadomasochistic romp for solo double bass Valentine) to theatre (Crumb’s Vox Balaenae for masked trio) this program embodies the multiform experience of time in modern American life.

Concert in memory of
Paul Martin Zonn,
composer and clarinetist

On May 13, 2002, Northwestern University will present a concert in memory of Paul Martin Zonn. Zonn (1938-2000), born in Boston, was an innovator both in composition and clarinet performance. His performance credits were many and varied: clarinet soloist at Carnegie Hall, soloist with the Lenox String Quartet, the Miami Philharmonic, and the New Orleans Eagle band; mandolin with the Juilliard Quartet; saxophone and slide saxophone with Anthony Braxton. He won many awards and honors and was commissioned by such diverse sponsors as Joel Krosnick, the Tennessee Dance Theatre, and the Intergalactic Alphorn Quartet.

Writing about his own music, Zonn said, “My music has always been concerned with the very new and the very old, and the integration of diverse elements. Each composition is a unique project with specific musical problems to be solved, and I frequently use the many languages of the world’s music, binding them together with common syntax. All of my musical interests and performance skills reveal themselves very naturally in my own compositions.”

Zonn was on the faculty of the University of Illinois School of Music from 1970 to 1996, where he served as division chair of the Theory-Composition Department. There he performed as clarinetist and conductor of the Contemporary Chamber Players. Upon retirement from UI, he resided full-time in Nashville, TN, where he continued to compose, as well as conduct the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble.

RALPH SHAPEY (1921-2002)
In Remembrance

After Elsa gave me the news of Ralph's death, the world felt like a different place. It is. We can no longer take sustenance and inspiration in Ralph's being there, in his cluttered study, right up to the end, "putting dots on paper." "Putting dots on paper" was a favorite expression of Ralph's ever since I've known him. But, especially in the context of the trials of his last months, when it took a very bad day indeed to keep him away from his desk, the expression conveys at once his fierce determination and deep humility in the service of his art. And what dots they were! The last of Ralph's music that I heard, played at the wonderful concert CUBE gave at Roosevelt for his 80th birthday, the two "Night Musics" and the Lullaby, are gems of lyricism and tenderness. They are the songs of a wise and profound artist triumphing over a disintegrating body to sing of love and humanity.

My own memories of Ralph span more than thirty years. They begin with a gift of characteristically tough honesty that provoked me to explore new worlds in my work and, eventually, to study with Ralph himself. Recent reminiscences with Ralph about this defining moment made me more than ever aware of the kindness and respect that lay behind his gruff challenge. Subsequent study only confirmed Ralph's generosity. His basic course (which I believe he would offer to Beethoven himself, if he got the chance!) was an exhilarating journey into possibilities, a stretching and discovery of musical muscles. It was also a great deal of fun and it quickly began to dawn on our little band of recruits that we could not only survive but flourish in the lion's den — and that was the point: Ralph could be blunt, but always in the service of our growth. He saved his real ire for bullies.

It was in my subsequent private study with Ralph that I saw the true dimension of his spirit. I had terrible writer's block the first quarter, so we talked and talked — about a number of things. No pressure; no do-it-this-ways; nothing but real support and understanding. His teaching was mysterious, almost minimalist in outward appearance — a comment here, a suggestion there, but what comments and suggestions! They could sometimes open up whole vistas. At the root of all his work with us, in composition and conducting, was the building of the strength of our own individual voices. Ralph emphatically did not want disciples. The extremely varied work of his students here today testifies to this fact. And I know he took great pride and delight in that variety.

For a composer, such Ralphian memories and experiences are a great legacy. But fortunately for me, I have had the added privilege of seeing Ralph, and Elsa, fairly regularly for the last year or so. They are an inspiration: Ralph in his courage and demonstrated belief in the meaning and necessity of making art as well as his humor and vitality (we had a lot of belly laughs) and love — all the while aware that any day could be his last. Elsa in the sunny fortitude that enveloped Ralph and all of their friends and, as Ralph often said, made the hated physical deprivations bearable. May we all attempt such grace when our time comes.

We have lost a great musician and a good friend, but he is here in the numerous gifts he has bestowed and in the many people who will carry him and his music in their hearts and work to the end of their days.

John Austin


Laura Schwendinger, on leave from U. of Illinois at Chicago, writes of a number of performances in the coming months, including a premiere by the Arditti String Quartet of a new work commissioned by the Harvard Musical Association. Other performances include her Six Choral Settings at the Toronto MusiMars Festival, November 1, 2002; Celestial City at Spectrum Concerts of Berlin, January 24, 2003; Cascade Range by the Deutsches Symphony Orchestra in Berlin, April 25, 2003; and Magic Carpet Music by Dinosaur Annex in Boston, May 4, 2003.

CUBE Advisory Board member Augusta Read Thomas has let us know about a concert in Hamburg on November 15, 2002, world premiere of Chanting to Paradisefor solo soprano, chorus and orchestra, performed by the Norddeutscher Rundfunk Orchestra with Christoph Eschenbach conducting. The work will be first performed in Hamburg and then taken on a tour of Germany. Other new works in the oven for 2003: 25-minute work for solo trombone and orchestra, to premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, in April; 15-minute work for chamber ensemble, to premiere as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's MusicNOW Concert Series; 15-minute work for solo violin, commissioned by the BBC for Ilya Gringotts, to premiere; 20-minute work for orchestra, to premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 2003-04 concert season; 20-minute work for band, to premiere with the Southern Methodist University Wind Ensemble, Jack Delaney conducting.