Teddy Abrams is the youngest conductor of a major orchestra in the United States — and one of classical music’s biggest proponents of collaboration and breaking artistic barriers.
So when he became music director of the Britt Music and Arts Festival in Jacksonville, Oregon, in 2014, he unsurprisingly asked two non-classical musicians to join him in writing a suite of music based on the work of an Oregon poet.
“It was Teddy who suggested looking to the current poet laureate of the state of Oregon for inspiration with the text,” said Aoife O’Donovan, the noted songwriter who led on vocals and guitar. “We found the poetry of Peter Sears, and it was from there everything unfolded pretty naturally.”
The singer was joined by fiddler Jeremy Kittel, who wrote the strings, while Abrams filled out the orchestral sections.
O’Donovan had adapted poetry to lyrics before, but she was wary of the pitfalls associated with such a project.
“You can’t change a word here or there to suit your fancy,” she said of the constraints. “It’s not as easy as, ‘Oh, I want to repeat this’ or ‘That word’s not quite working with the rhyme,’ and often poems don’t follow the same structure as your typical song would. You have to figure out a way to make it sing-able and to make it connect with the music you’re writing.”
Unbeknownst to O’Donovan, she had chosen to adapt the work of a poet who thought intensely about the musical nature of the written word.
“If you get that stuff in your head — good poetry — you’re going to hear it and it’s going to ring. It’s going to set off vibrations literally in your own writing and you’re going to start thinking musically,” said Peter Sears in a 2014 interview with OPB’s “Think Out Loud.” “That’s hard to do. It’s the hardest thing to teach about it. I give my students exercises in just playing the music of language. It drives them crazy — syllables and tones and stuff like that. But man, that craft is critical.”
The finished musical piece became known as “Bull Frogs Croon,” and it debuted at Britt in the summer of 2015. But O’Donovan’s connection with the music and words lingered.
“I really wanted more than the audience in Jacksonville to hear it,” she said. “It was never recorded. We never kind of did anything with it. We just performed it. And that was it.”
Her connection to the poet remained strong as well.
“Peter Sears passed away in 2017 — actually, right around the time that I had my first child, my only child, Ivy Joe,” O’Donovan said. “And I remember his wife, Anita, reaching out to me and Jeremy [Kittel] and Teddy [Abrams] asking if there was any way we could be involved in a sort of memorial remembrance for him out in Oregon. I wrote back and I said, ‘I would love nothing more than to be there. But I’m expecting a child that week.’ I just had this lovely back and forth with her, and I don’t know, I just it felt important to put this music out there in the world.”
Three years later, she and Kittel have recorded the original three songs and included them in an EP titled “Bull Frogs Croon (And Other Songs)” that came out Thursday. O’Donovan will tour with a string quartet this year, performing the composition throughout the United States and Europe, including a date in Portland at Aladdin Theater on Oct. 13.
After all this time, the effect of Sears’ work on the musician is still evident in her performance.
“His poems just kind of just completely floored me,” O’Donovan said. “They knocked me out. It’s very matter of fact and very every day, I guess, maybe sounds like a condescending phrase to use about a poet, but his words carried so much weight without being overly intellectual or flowery. It’s just these beautiful phrases, these beautiful images kind of describing simple things but unlocking the depth behind those simple things.”
Perhaps the most striking example of this simple elegance is a song from “Bull Frogs Croon” based on a short, four-line poem called “Valentine.” The verses were a love letter to Sears’ wife of 28 years, Anita Helle, who thinks the selection is a wonderful representation of her late husband’s work.
“It’s a very sweet valentine, but its sweetness, I think, is a little off-set by the ordinariness and the kind of everydayness of bull frogs, you know, croaking and baby frogs slithering,” said Helle, echoing O’Donovan’s thoughts. “We used to hear those things in our backyard. And that was one of the ways, you know, spring happens in Oregon.”
Helle believes the new recording enlarges the spirit of Peter Sears’ work and legacy.
“But it’s not his creation,” she stressed. “I think what means so much to me is that another artist could take this language and give it a whole new body. That, in a way, is its whole new life.”
That’s a sentiment that Sears himself would have loved.
“Of all the human values we hear about that are wonderful — drive, resolve, insight, charm, empathy, whatever — we don’t hear much about imagination and it’s really, really critical,” he said in 2014. “We live there a lot more than we know. Whether there are any results, that’s another matter. But if a person has an opportunity to engage that imagination, as they do in writing, things can happen that they never saw coming.”