Decades have passed since Todd Barton opened the doors of his music studio to former Oregon poet laureate William Stafford, who needed a place to record his poems to create an audio archive.
That meeting and Stafford’s work made a lasting impression on the former resident composer and music director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and on Thursday, thanks in part to that connection, fans of Barton and Stafford will have a unique opportunity to experience both simultaneously.
Barton has composed an original piece of music which will serve as a score to one of Stafford’s poems, “For My Friends,” Thursday night at Southern Oregon University’s Hannon Library. The 3½-minute production — pianist Alexander Tutunov’s performance has been prerecorded, and poet Vince Wixon will handle the reading — will begin the 20th annual William Stafford Birthday Reading, which is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in the Meese Room and is free and open to the public.
The event, which is one of many birthday celebrations in Oregon held in honor of the prolific poet who died in 1993, also will feature readings by poets Morgan Hunt, Jim Bronson, Alma Rosa Alvarez, Jay Schroder, Dylan Kistler and Joshua Boettiger and, as in previous Stafford readings, audience members also will be invited to read their favorite Stafford poems.
Barton, who has plenty of experience setting music to dialogue, having worked on some 250 OSF productions over a 40-year span before retiring in 2012, said he met Stafford when Vince and Patty Wixon arranged to have Stafford read some of his own work in Barton's studio.
“Bill and I hit it off and his poems really resonate with me, and it’s easy for me to hear what I feel is the music that goes with them,” Barton said.
About eight months ago, Barton was asked to compose a piece of music to kick-off the reading. He accepted, but couldn’t start working on it until November.
The poem he chose to set his music to has a special significance to Barton. Printed on a card, “For My Friends” was sent to Barton from Stafford’s wife, Dorothy, as a thank-you after Barton had written a string quartet piece based on five Stafford poems.
“And it also seemed very appropriate,” Barton said. “They’re honoring Bill, and it seemed like a great message from him.”
Barton said he sketched the piece out in one day, the poem echoing in his head, then spent a week fine-tuning it. He chose to record Tutunov’s performance because, given that lugging a 1,000-pound piano to the top floor of the Hannon Library was unlikely, it was determined that even a recorded grand piano was preferable to a live electric.
As for the music itself, Barton is pleased with what he’s created.
“I’m very happy with it,” said Barton, who leaves today to attend the Women’s March on Washington Saturday and will miss the Stafford reading. “(Tutunov) gave a great performance.
“I guess I tried to be as clear to think and magical as I find his poetry, so the music is not trying to follow the poem but it’s trying to be a counterpoint to the poem. I’m not trying to speak the poem in music, I’m trying to create a music that can embrace and blend with the poem.”
The Stafford reading will be emceed by local poet Angela Decker. Following the Stafford/Barton opening, Decker said, each of the featured poets will make their way up to the podium and read a poem by Stafford, followed by one of their own. Once the featured writers have finished, the podium will be opened up to the audience.
The whole event usually lasts about two hours, Decker said, adding that cookies will be served and parking is free for those who park next to a campus meter and use the code: FHL0119.
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.