Three Poems on the Sound of the Human Heart

wind ensemble

duration: 12 minutes

Three Poems on the Sound of the Human Heart was commissioned by the Farrehi Family Foundation and premiered by the University of Michigan Symphony Band, Michael Haithcock, conductor, on October 21, 2011.

Program Notes:

Three Poems on the Sound of the Human Heart arose out of a series of conversations I had with Dr. Cyrus Farrehi, a cardiologist practicing in Flint, Michigan, who has had a longstanding relationship with the Cardiovascular Center at the University of Michigan. Dr. Farrehi was interested in commissioning a piece based on the sounds of the human heart. As a cardiologist, he had spent much of his life listening to small variations in heart beats (cardiology is one of the few medical fields in which sound is used as a central diagnostic tool) and he envisioned a type of ‘bio-music’ that took inspiration from these sounds. In preparation for writing the piece I listened to recordings of hearts in a variety of states, listened to my own heart through a stethoscope, and conducted a series of interviews with Dr. Farrehi. I was particularly struck with the layers of meaning, the poetry you might say, of heart sounds. The sounds had their surface characteristics–various rhythms, pitches and timbres–but to a trained doctor, they were also had a diagnostic meaning. For example, the presence of a third heart sound (a galloping rhythm) might be natural in a young child’s heart, but suggestive of a serious condition for an adult. Even the strength of the beats could tell a physician something about the health of the individual.

I was drawn to the idea that this beat accompanies our entire lives, and is in fact directly responsible for our continued life (as well as reflecting our health in a strangely audible way). The beat is always present, even if our awareness of it varies. The first movement of Three Poems on the Sound of the Human Heart, Cycles and Circulation, was inspired by my imagination of the flow of blood through the arteries, veins and heart of a healthy adult. The heart here is not heard regularly, but only intermittently as the pump which propels the motion of the music. The second movement, Murmurs, mimics the heart of a sleeping adult, slightly changing in speed with inhalations and exhalations. As the movement continues, the pulse is accompanied by the whistled murmurs that arise from turbulent blood flow. The final movement, The Young Heart, begins with a slow, fluid introductory passage. This quickly gives way to the fast beat of a very young heart. The music flows with the wildness, extemporaneous spirit and emotional intensity I remember from my childhood.

While there is a biological basis for each of the movements, I have let the actual rhythms and pitches be pushed and pulled by the emotional needs of the music. But though the music swirls in all sorts of directions, the same basic rhythmic cells keep reappearing, much in the way that our attention is drawn to the beating of our hearts from time to time amid the chaos of life. The piece comprises three movements: three poems or meditations on the way in which the beating of our hearts accompanies our lives. Three Poems on the Sound of the Human Heart was commissioned by the Farrehi Family Foundation and I am very grateful for their support of and interest in this project.