How old is the short story? Its roots go back to Aesop’s fables, 1001 Nights, and Boccaccio’s Decameron, but the modern genre--designed for magazine publication, with a single, named author--is not much older than three Romantic-era masters: Edgar Allan Poe, James Hogg, and Alexander Pushkin. This website displays student projects that take a look at the rediscovery and republication of overlooked short stories. Students were asked to explain their research processes and republication decisions and to reflect on the value of republishing, the implications of Web publishing, the assignment itself, and their reasons for wanting their original projects to be available beyond the English 40B course. Original projects included translations, video reinterpretations, creative writings, modern editions, and even artistic renderings. The projects on this website are from both the spring 2008 semester and the spring 2010 semester.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Tell Tale Heart

by Zach Rosen

Tempo: 28-66, 66, 66-132, 66, 54, 72

Time Signature: 4/4, 6/8, 2/4, 4/4

Key choice: D flat major

Key description: “A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.--Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.”

-Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806)


This composition is not intended to convince the listener that the narrator is sane. Rather, the goal is to give the listener a glimpse into the mind of insanity. During the story there are many references to sound and time, two things that the reader cannot experience on the same level as the actual narrator. How, then, is it possible for the narrator to fully convey his experience, the thrust of the entire story? This composition fills in those gaps. Motifs that represent various aspects of the tale can be heard and digested in a more coherent manner than they can be through a page. By translating pieces of the story into sound and experiencing both the text and song simultaneously, another dimension of the story is unlocked and the reader/listener can more readily empathize with the narrator. This is important, as The Tell Tale Heart is in itself the narrator's attempt to convey his own experience.

19 Sections:


(0:00-0:09): Presumption of Sanity


This first, small part represents the assumption that the narrator is sane in the majority of the works that we read. The harp itself represents the sanity of the narrator, which quickens and becomes lost in the argument of defiance that precedes the story. However, it is customary in literature to trust the narrator until there exists proof that contradicts his claims. These opening 16 notes signify that trust, which quickly slips away when the narrator immediately calls his own sanity into question.

The beat quickens and eventually disappears in the din of the brass and strings.


(0:10-0:26): Defiant Introduction

“...why WILL you say that I am mad?... Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story.”

All range strings, trumpet, French horn, tuba, harp, flute

Although the harp is still trying to play in the background, this section mutes it and makes the actual notes indistinct. By calling his own sanity into question and having to defend it, he places doubt in the minds of the readers. In effect, his defiance and almost desperate need to prove himself mentally sound actually weakens his defense. This is reinforced by the tendency that those actually insane never view themselves as insane, thus this section is important in its urgency and intended vehemence. As well, there are five measures in the introduction instead of the even four to hint at a slight imbalance and to unsettle the listener.


(0:27-0:47): Nervousness, the beginning of the story

“TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am”

Low strings, mid strings, mid pizzicato, high pizzicato

The low strings are to establish the dark undertone of the story. The pizzicato shifts in and out of consonance, but has a definite rhythm that drives the story forward. Although the character's nervousness is a symptom of another mental condition, the constant stream of singular notes hint at more to come.


(0:48-0:59): The Vulture Eye, introduced

“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night... 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”

Pizzicato and glockenspiel

The vulture eye is an integral part of the story and needed to have its own theme that ran concurrently with everything else that was happening in the tale. The eye exists in various forms through The Tell Tale Heart, and though its abhorrence is an is both a cause and result of the narrator's actions. There is a distinction here, however, in that the higher-pitched glockenspiel (which is only slightly higher) represents the actual eye, neither good nor bad. The other glockenspiel (lower) represents the narrator's feelings towards the eye. While these two instruments are separate, they are very hard to tell apart. The character's nervousness runs through this depiction of the eye, and the strings cease when the two meet each other. This not only negatively contrasts the dark feeling of what is about to happen, but also more emphasizes the meeting of the two.


(1:00-2:15): Obsession and Decision

“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.”

Pizzicato, glockenspiel, low strings, flute, trumpet, French horn

This section enters after the vulture eye has been introduced, and represents the narrator's thought process. This is an excellent example of how time differs between experience and retelling. The narrator writes that he “gradually” and “by degrees... made up [his] mind to take the life of the old man.” However, all this receives is one sentence, hardly worth the actual psychological depth it deserves. In order to understand the narrator, it is imperative to see this thought process, which has been extended from one sentence to a 75-second section. One possible explanation for the existence of such a short sentence is that the narrator assumes that this motivation is entirely logical to the reader. However, because this is not the case, it is important to see the actual gradation of irritancy that drives one man to kill another. The strings, symbols of the character's, emotions, move quickly, but disparately. They quickly increase in frequency and other parts are introduced to give the character's emotions legitimacy. This legitimacy breeds into decision.


(2:16-2:34): Seven Nights of Watchful Peace

“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... for seven long nights, every night just at midnight”

Mid strings, High strings, glockenspiel, tubular bells

The narrator admits that he went to watch the old man sleep every night at 12 o'clock and that during this week he was never nicer to him. This sentiment is reflected in this section; the bells chime twelve times during the length of the entire eight-night-section. The strings play for seven measures and aren't joyful, but are nonetheless calm and patient. Each measure, which represents a night, the lower glockenspiel chimes in the form of a question, seeing if the eye is awake.


(2:34-2:48): The Eighth Night

“Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door... Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers, of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph.”

Full range strings, trombone, tuba, French horn, trumpet, harp, glockenspiel, tubular bell

As soon as the measure hits eight, the brass and deep strings are introduced. These horns and strings represent the narrator's emotional state, which are very passionate when he finds that the old man is still awake. There is a great deal of expectation and dark, almost twisted triumph in the notes. He is proud at having come upon the man in his sleep and is very excited to perform the deed. However, this excitement is sharply contrasted with the next sections, which, contrary to expectation, consists mainly of waiting.


(2:48-3:10): The Waiting Game Begins, Cat and Mouse

“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... crying out, "Who's there?"”

Full range strings, pizzicato strings, glockenspiel, male voice

The narrator is reveling in his own power and triumph and consequently gives his presence away. There is a building of anticipation and a dark, subdued celebration in the strings, his emotions, before they are interrupted by the old man's cry. As it is pitch black, the old man can't see the narrator, so this call garners no response. Ever present are the pizzicato strings, which sound like the ticking of a clock. The narrator is nervous at this point, but is so caught up in the moment and in time that his existence becomes his ability to wait and pass the time.


(3:11-3:36): The Waiting Game Part II, The Hour

“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.”

Low strings, pizzicato strings, glockenspiel

The low strings add to the suspense and mood of this scene, the pizzicato strings, as stated before, detail the nervousness of the narrator, but also the nearly clock-like way in which he presents himself, and the glockenspiel represents the vulture eye, and the narrator's feelings towards the eye. Because this is the moment that the character is waiting for, and because the eye is awake, the glockenspiel is the only instrument in this section with any movement.

This is another situation in which time is considered differently from in the tale. In response to the old man's question, the character stays entirely silent for an hour. Time is often mentioned explicitly in the story, and because the story cannot take the time to detail out an entire hour, or even make the length of time seem realistic to the listener, it becomes a negligible description. However, the time is very important. It contrasts the excitement and adds to the sense of suspense; it adds to the sense of mystery and to the characterization of the narrator. Extending the time of an hour out and making it seem longer than a mere description means that the time that the narrator experience is properly conveyed. The narrator experienced the hour, the reader did not. Both need to experience the time the same way to feel the full effect.


(3:37-3:56): Empathy and Awe

“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.”

Low strings, mid strings, male voices, trombone, tuba

This part is particularly powerful in that the character shows empathy toward the old man, but in a way that commiserates with his impending doom and the impending doom of us all, rather than in any munificent way. Just as the old man's groan, the male voices, begins, the deep and powerful brass, overcharged with awe, play their own tune in response and in a type of understanding to the man's. This part completely renders the juxtaposition of an old man, frail, scared of death and the powerful passions of death that obsess the narrator. The most telling part is, however, that instead of trying to understand the man's terror, they merely complement and give it meaning in the order of life. The human side, the conscientious side of the narrator pities the old man, but the other, more primitive side views a fear of death as foolish, unnecessary and ultimately powerless.


(3:57-4:39): The Opening of the Lantern

“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...”

Low strings, mid strings

This part is very slow and deliberate in order to mirror the action in the story. This is another example of different treatment of time; the tale gives us a description of how stealthily he opened the ray covering the lantern, and how slowly, but the description does not do the act justice. In the song, the listener is forced to hear the monotony, the slow change and how, as more light enters the room, the tension builds over time.


(4:40-4:53): The Light Strikes the Eye

“...until at length a single dim ray like the thread of the spider shot out from the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye.

Full range strings, glockenspiel

This section is the second part of the previous, and the result of the deliberate action. As the narrator opens the lantern more and more, the light finally falls on the vulture eye. This is apprehension contrasts the built excitement of knowing that the old man was awake. Knowing that he would kill the man and the excitement that conveys is entirely different from having the narrator actually see the eye. The strings represent the moment of apprehension, before comprehension takes over. As soon as the light falls on the eye, the focus of all of his fear and hatred, there is a response of at last, a moment of clarity where everything done this night is seen to be done for a purpose. The viewing of the eye represents a justification for past actions and a sense of reality supersedes that of excitement and idealism.


(4:54-6:00): Wrath, Fear and Murder

“It was open, wide, wide open, and I grew furious as I gazed upon it... here came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton....the old man's heart. It increased my fury as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage. 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.”

Full range strings, trombone, tuba, French horn, trumpet, pizzicato strings, glockenspiel, bass drum

This part was very complicated and difficult to do. I needed to best represent the narrator's rage and how the drum beat him into the act of murder by using all of the instruments or none of them, as the narrator himself remarked that the house was deathly quiet. In this part I chose to use the music to represent the character's emotions, the fury that the eye made him feel. The music is not an external device, but an internal one, and while external sounds are reproduced in it, like the man's yell and the heart beat, the majority of the action takes place in the narrator's mind and feelings. Therefore, in order to be true to the music's prerogative of relaying another dimension of the narrator's story, there must be sound to emphasize and relate the narrator's anger, since the reader hears nothing while reading the book and cannot hear the narrator's fury. Alternatively, it does not render another dimension for the reader to hear nothing during the story and very little in the music.

The eye, which begins this section, incites rage in the narrator, which steadily grows as the moment passes and as he hears the low drumbeat rise and grow faster. All of the narrator's emotions are at play in this moment, and he is caught between a desire to kill the old man and his own terror and nervousness. This contradiction is a result of the moment seeming real and immediate, which itself is a consequence of viewing the vulture eye with the light. However, the fury of the music and the heartbeat and his own desire finally pushes him over the edge, and he kills the old man.


(6:01-6:32): Death

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.”

Harp, tubular bells, male voice, bass drum

Even after the murder, the old man is not quite dead. There is a brief, awkward moment where the heart is heard through the bed and the old man's life is leaving him. It is also at this point that the narrator crosses a threshold from which he cannot return. The harp, representative of his sanity, plays its own elegy and departs forever. The old man's shout never resolves and besides the slowly fading heart, the only other thing left to hear is the sound of time, moving at a constant pace. There is a slight pause after the action is done to allow everything to settle, and to allow for the scene to change.


(6:33-6:55): Cleaning up

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.”

Low strings, tubular bell

This next part represents the narrator hiding the body and cleaning up after his work. The mood is somber and slow, and the only other sound is the bell to strike the explicit hour of four o'clock. This hour is illustrated by the four strikes of the bell. As well, the man's labors are replicated in the song by two repeating notes and then one long chord, indicative of work and result. It is important to notice that the narrator knows that his action was wrong, and therefore knows the difference between wrong and right. However, another force made him go through with the slaying, which is the undeniable influence of his emotions and feelings.


(6:56-8:00): The Three Policemen

“There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police....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.

Mid strings, high strings, pizzicato strings, tubular bell, bass drum

Almost immediately after the narrator hides the body, three policemen show up to respond to a shout. At first the narrator is very confident and has them come in and search the house. Even more, however, is that the narrator convinces the police that everything is fine by his manner, that is his demeanor and how he acted. This is represented in the initial use of major chords. However, this motif, which is the policemen-narrator interaction, persists until it becomes annoying and puts the narrator at disease. Even worse is a ringing that the narrator believes he hears in his ears which upsets him even more. In the background of all of these interactions are the narrator's pizzicato strings, chirping easily until the last interaction, which is when he notices something is wrong. Starting near the third interaction, also, is a very quiet bass drum that happens to reemerge.


(8:01-8:35): Ringing in the ears

“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.”

Full range strings, pizzicato strings, tubular bell, bass drum

The narrator starts to get very nervous at this point, which is evinced by a much more dynamic pizzicato arrangement. The ringing bells in the background are also a very constant murmur. The very disjointed strings that enter mirror the narrator's speech and how it has become higher and a little off. Even when he makes it higher and a little stronger, with the addition of more strings, he is unable to drown out the perceptible beating of the drum/heart in the background. At the very end of this section he breaks down and becomes fully mad.


(8:36-9:15): The Final Descent into Madness

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.”

Full range strings, trombone, tuba, French horn, trumpet, pizzicato strings, tubular bell, bass drum

The narrator finally snaps and grows very concerned with what he is hearing. This in turn causes his emotions and actions to run the gamut of swinging around the chair he had been sitting on and grating it upon the boards. How to best represent this descent into full-flung lunacy is another version of the question of how to render the murder scene, and I decided it the same way. I wanted to capture the experience of the character and his emotions, not necessarily what others who were witness to the scene might have heard. The rage and fury of madness are embodied into sounds; the pizzicato strings are playing very quickly and his nervousness is reaching its peak. An even more interesting point to consider in this scenario is that he believes that the police can hear the sound too and know that he is the murder, that they were making a mockery of his fear. This is represented in the song in the last verse of this section, when the trombone and French horn have their own verse amidst the held notes of the other instruments. This verse is effectively saying to the policemen, “I know that you know.”


(9:16-9:30): The End

“...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!"”

Flute, full range strings, trombone, tuba, French horn, trumpet, pizzicato strings, tubular bell, bass drum

It is critically important to notice that the narrator does not give himself up because of the heart, or even because he wants the sound to stop. Instead, it is the sound that pushes him to a point where he misconstrues and misunderstands the situation; it is this situation, that he believes the police are deriding his deed and hypocritically feigning ignorance that makes him admit the deed. The only solution to make the police officers stop pretending that they don't know is to tell them, which he subsequently does. The same instruments that told the police officers “I know that you know,” the trombone and the French horn, return and admit the deed. There is a general hush and they play, seemingly saying “I did the deed!” to which the response, by all of the other instruments, is one of shock. There is another silence where the narrator points to the planks to tear up and in so doing, loses every piece of leverage that he has. After this admission is is wholly in control of the police and utterly powerless and defeated. The end comes very swiftly after this confession, echoing the abrupt ending in the story. As soon as he admits responsibility, his story is over and it is left for the reader to judge his sanity.

No comments: