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Tell-Tale Heart / Van Gogh

Stewart Copeland / Michael Gordon


Delirious. Manic. Damned. This double-bill features a boastful murderer and a self-condemned artist. Stewart Copeland, drummer/founder of the rock band The Police, elevates Poe's story of a meticulous murderer betrayed by his own paranoia. Michael Gordon, Bang on a Can co-founder, dives into the restless soul of the brilliant painter Van Gogh, revealing his world through the raw emotions of his personal letters.  Both operas feature music at the edge of rock, jazz, and modernism.


Stewart Copeland about Tell-TAle Heart

watch video introduction with Copeland here
It’s very operatic, the central figure is a man who is both horribly sane and completely maaaaad, which is always good for bit of singing. For a composer, opera is the ultimate. Writing pop songs is fun. You can stretch them into a concept album, but you’re still basically limited to guitar, bass, and drums. I’ve done a lot of film music, which lets you play with the orchestra, but finally the director is in the driving seat. In opera, the composer is God. And I like playing God. What’s difficult is coming up with something that will transcend the expectations set up by the idea of a rock musician writing an opera. I’m hoping Tell-Tale Heart won’t sound either classically operatic or rock in idiom. It’s scored for a string quartet, with a couple of extra basses, percussion, and piano. But I don’t write classical music – hell, I don’t want to compete with Wagner, I’d rather compete with Blur.

If Mark Twain could be called The Beatles of American literature then Edgar Allan Poe would be The Rolling Stones. The stories seem to come from a very dark place, but Poe was able to communicate very broadly. He's a giant of American letters but inhabits the murky, dark corners of fear and torment – which makes him a strange icon for such an upbeat nation.

The Tell-Tale Heart is the story of a hideous crime and the perpetrator's resulting descent into madness. The author was such an odd fish and the account is so convincing that it's tempting to see a genuine confession in the tale. In his pre-Freud, pre-Jung era, Edgar Allan Poe didn't know much about the mechanics of psychology but was able to intuit, in a penetrating way, the workings of a murderous but clearly functioning mind.

The story is perfect for opera – the loquacious murderer expounds his manic inner logic as the throbbing guilt consumes him. The language of the original text drips with lust for the deed. It soars, it gloats and it marches with the rhythm of false conviction. Even though all ends badly, the obdurate narrator just can't help but admire his evil work. It's the throbbing part that I particularly like.
––Stewart Copeland

Michael Gordon about Van Gogh

I started writing Van Gogh because of my obsession with the letters Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. I assembled the texts myself, drawing from these letters, in many cases combining lines from different letters or from different places within the same letter. What attracted me so much to Van Gogh’s writing was the pain, rawness, and brutal honesty. I found it hard to believe that anyone could tell another person, even his brother, the raw emotions that Van Gogh experienced — so painful, lonely, and humiliating.

I began working on these songs in the late 1980s, making trips to Holland and Southern France to get the vibe of the areas that Van Gogh wrote about. I wrote “Borinage” first and originally sang that piece myself. Early presentations of the piece were called Van Gogh Video Opera. These included video by Elliot Caplan and were performed in Vienna and in New York City in the early 1990s. In the fall of 2003, the Crash Ensemble performed it in Dublin and for that occasion I re-orchestrated the piece, adding three instruments (cello, bass, piano). The piece is divided into six parts and it follows the arch of Van Gogh’s life chronologically. Van Gogh is dedicated to David Lang.
––Michael Gordon


The former drummer and founder of the rock band THE POLICE is recipient of the Hollywood Film Festival's first Outstanding Music in Film Visionary Award, a Grammy nominee for his 2005 CD "Orchestralli," and a 2003 inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stewart Copeland has been responsible for some of the film world's most innovative and groundbreaking scores. His career includes the sale of more than 60 million records worldwide, and numerous awards, including five Grammy awards.

Copeland moved beyond the rock arena in the mid-1980s when he returned to his classical roots with creative pursuits in concert and film music. His numerous film scores include Oliver Stone's Wall Street, the seminal score for the Golden Globe-nominated soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, the score for Bruno Barreto's Oscar-nominated Four Days in September and his Emmy nomination for the Showtime pilot and series Dead Like Me. His work in television includes contributions to The Equalizer, Babylon V, and most recently Desperate Housewives. The rise, subsequent success, and ultimate demise of The Police over an eight-year period were all recorded and kept as a video diary in 8mm film by Copeland. That diary became the film Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and debuted on the Showtime network.  In 2009, Copeland composed an original evening-length score for the theatrical arena show Ben Hur Live, which premiered at London’s O2 Arena and runs in Rome and Cologne in 2011.

Michael Gordon (1956)

Michael Gordon's music merges subtle rhythmic invention with incredible power embodying, in the words of The New Yorker's Alex Ross, "the fury of punk rock, the nervous brilliance of free jazz, and the intransigence of classical modernism." Over the past 25 years, Gordon has produced a strikingly diverse body of work, ranging from large-scale pieces for high-energy ensembles to major orchestral commissions and works conceived specifically for the recording studio. Transcending categorization, his music represents the collision of mysterious introspection and brutal directness.

Under the baton of composer/conductor John Adams, The Ensemble Modern Orchestra toured Sunshine of Your Love to seven European capitals in 1999. His interest in exploring various sound textures has led him to create chamber works that distort traditional classical instruments with electronic effects and guitar pedals, including Potassium for the Kronos Quartet and Industry for cellist Maya Beiser. Also for Kronos, The Sad Park, written in 2006, uses the voices of child witnesses to September 11, 2001 as its subject. Gordon's monumental, 52-minute Trance, originally written for the UK-based group Icebreaker, was debuted in 1997 and recently performed twice in New York City by the ensemble Signal.

Michael Gordon's interest in adding dimensionality to the traditional concert experience has led to numerous collaborations with artists in other media, most frequently with filmmaker Bill Morrison and Ridge Theater. In Decasia, a commission from Europaischer Musikmonat for the Basel Sinfonietta, the audience is encircled by the orchestra and projected images. A large-scale, single-movement, relentlessly monumental work about decay — the decay of melody, tuning, and classical music itself — Decasia has become a cult favorite since its premiere in 2001, and is frequently performed at music festivals, art museums, and film festivals around the world. Gordon and Morrison's work together also includes two film symphonies centered on cities: Dystopia (about Los Angeles) in 2008 for David Robertson and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Gotham (about New York City) in 2004 for the American Composers Orchestra.

Works for theater and opera include What To Wear, a collaboration with director Richard Foreman, which premiered at the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles; Aquanetta, about the 1940's B-movie starlet for Oper Aachen; Lost Objects, an oratorio for baroque orchestra in collaboration with David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and director Francois Girard, which was seen at the 2004 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM); and Van Gogh, vocal settings from the letters of Vincent van Gogh, recorded by Alarm Will Sound.

Michael Gordon  on creating “classical” music in the 21st century

Vincent van gogh's letters to theo

The most comprehensive primary source for the understanding of van Gogh as an artist is the collection of letters between him and his younger brother, art dealer Theo van Gogh. They lay the foundation for most of what is known about the thoughts and beliefs of the artist. Theo provided his brother with both financial and emotional support. Their lifelong friendship, and most of what is known of van Gogh's thoughts and theories of art, is recorded in the hundreds of letters they exchanged between 1872 and 1890: more than 600 from Vincent to Theo and 40 from Theo to Vincent.

Although many are undated, art historians have generally been able to put them in chronological order. Problems remain, mainly in dating those from Arles although it is known that during that period, van Gogh wrote 200 letters to friends in Dutch, French and English. The period when Vincent lived in Paris is the most difficult for historians to analyze because the brothers lived together and had no need to correspond. (FROM WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE)

Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 9 May 1889
My dear Theo,

Thanks for your letter. You’re quite right to say that Mr Salles has been perfect in all of this, I’m much obliged to him.

I wanted to tell you that I think I’ve done well to come here, first, in seeing the reality of the life of the diverse mad or cracked people in this menagerie, I’m losing the vague dread, the fear of the thing. And little by little I can come to consider madness as being an illness like any other. Then the change of surroundings is doing me good, I imagine.

As far as I know the doctor here is inclined to consider what I’ve had as an attack of an epileptic nature. But I haven’t made any enquiries.

Have you by chance yet received the crate of paintings, I’m curious to know if they’ve suffered more, yes or no.

I have two others on the go — violet irises and a lilac bush. Two subjects taken from the garden.

The idea of my duty to work comes back to me a lot, and I believe that all my faculties for work will come back to me quite quickly. It’s just that work often absorbs me so much that I think I’ll always be absent-minded and awkward in getting by for the rest of life too.
I won’t write you a long letter — I’ll try to answer the letter from my new sister, which greatly touched me, but I don’t know if I’ll manage to do it.

Handshake, and ever yours,

Read more of Van Gogh's letters here

Poe's the tell-tale heart

TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture -- a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded -- with what caution -- with what foresight, with what dissimulation, I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night about midnight I turned the latch of his door and opened it oh, so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern all closed, closed so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly, very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this? And then when my head was well in the room I undid the lantern cautiously -- oh, so cautiously -- cautiously (for the hinges creaked), I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights, every night just at midnight, but I found the eye always closed, and so it was impossible to do the work, for it was not the old man who vexed me but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he had passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed , to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers, of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was opening the door little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea, and perhaps he heard me, for he moved on the bed suddenly as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back -- but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness (for the shutters were close fastened through fear of robbers), and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.

I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening , and the old man sprang up in the bed, crying out, "Who's there?"

I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed, listening; just as I have done night after night hearkening to the death watches in the wall.

Presently, I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief -- oh, no! It was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself, "It is nothing but the wind in the chimney, it is only a mouse crossing the floor," or, "It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp." Yes he has been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions ; but he had found all in vain. ALL IN VAIN, because Death in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel, although he neither saw nor heard, to feel the presence of my head within the room.

When I had waited a long time very patiently without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little -- a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it -- you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily -- until at length a single dim ray like the thread of the spider shot out from the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye.

It was open, wide, wide open, and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness -- all a dull blue with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones, but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person, for I had directed the ray as if by instinct precisely upon the damned spot.

And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses? now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eye. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder, every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! -- do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me -- the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man's hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once -- once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But for many minutes the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence.

I took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly so cunningly, that no human eye -- not even his -- could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out -- no stain of any kind -- no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that.

When I had made an end of these labours, it was four o'clock -- still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart, -- for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.

I smiled, -- for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search -- search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

The officers were satisfied. My MANNER had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears; but still they sat, and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct : I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definitiveness -- until, at length, I found that the noise was NOT within my ears.

No doubt I now grew VERY pale; but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased -- and what could I do? It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK SOUND -- MUCH SUCH A SOUND AS A WATCH MAKES WHEN ENVELOPED IN COTTON. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! what COULD I do? I foamed -- I raved -- I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder -- louder -- louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly , and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! -- no, no? They heard! -- they suspected! -- they KNEW! -- they were making a mockery of my horror! -- this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! -- and now -- again -- hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER! --

"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! -- tear up the planks! -- here, here! -- it is the beating of his hideous heart!"



Tell-Tale Heart

An unnamed narrator insists on his sanity after murdering an old man with a "vulture eye." The murder was carefully calculated, and the murderer hides the body by dismembering it and hiding it under the floorboards. Ultimately the narrator's guilt manifests itself in the hallucination that the man's heart is still beating under the floorboards.

Van Gogh

The piece is divided into six parts and it follows the arch of Van Gogh's life chronologically.

London: Van Gogh describes his travels in England to his brother Theo. “If I find work it will tend towards a position between clergyman and missionary in the suburbs of London, mainly to the working class population.” The scene describes Van Gogh’s happy times of domestic tranquility and peace. He hopes to find employment in the church following his wish to "preach the gospel everywhere."

Borinage: Van Gogh describes his frustration at “an old academic school, a steel armor of prejudice and convention” and his lack of employment.  However, he goes on to describe the growing power of his creative drive: “There is the man who is idle from laziness and lack of character, from the very baseness of his nature. Then there is the other idle man who is idle in spite of himself who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for action.”

The Hague, Part 1: Van Gogh seeks the companionship to allay his growing loneliness: “I found a woman, not young, not beautiful, nothing remarkable. I said to her: listen we need not make ourselves drunk to feel something for each other...” He describes the change this companionship makes on his outlook towards the world, and on his previous feelings of artistic isolation.

The Hague, Part 2: Van Gogh is increasingly isolated from the artistic mainstream, and expresses his frustration with “the market” and its demand for a certain style of painting: “The principal reason for my not making watercolors is that I must draw more seriously paying more attention to proportion that is more practical than his practical talks about what is saleable.”  He is increasingly isolated from the world as well, including from his friend and supporter painter Anton Mauve, and art dealer Hermanus Tersteeg. In addition to falling into greater isolation, Van Gogh is broke: “Theo, if you can, write soon and of course, the sooner you can send the money the better it would be for me I spent my last penny on this stamp.”

Arles: Van Gogh enters a period of profound creative energy, in spite of his increasing feelings of distance from the world.

St. Remy: Having entered an asylum, Van Gogh describes to his brother his new life of structure and stability. Van Gogh expresses great hope at his future, through the metaphor of a painting he is working on: Wheat Fields with Reaper at Sunrise.