Remember the days when kids would learn about the different instruments of the orchestra by attending mandatory orchestral performances of Peter and the Wolf? Well, go to bed, old man! Kids today don’t have time for stories of wolves and boys and lucky/unlucky duckys. Not them. No, these days to grasp a child’s attention fully it takes nothing short of murder. Cold-blooded, tastefully adapted, deeply illustrated murrrrderrrrr (roll them r’s about your tongue). A shot has been cast across the brow of old Peter and his dilapidated wolf, and a new author’s in town to entice your children with death, woodwinds, and questionable Offenbach references. Yes! Lemony Snicket a.k.a. Daniel Handler a.k.a. that bloke with the accordion (sorry accordion fans: no squeezeboxes in this orchestration) has gone out, written a picture book of a police procedural, found himself a composer of his own (presumably not dead yet), and an orchestra to play on the accompanying CD. There was even an illustrator thrown somehow into the mix. The result is The Composer is Dead, a kind of drawing room murder mystery where a subpar Hercule Poirot attempts to pin the murder of “the composer” on various members of the orchestra. And so, without a bit of musical background to my name, I’ll be attempting to review the book and the CD together in one fell swoop. Wish me luck.
Composers compose. Dead composers decompose. And this decomposing composer in particular has caught the interest of the local constabulary. An Inspector is dispatched right quick to interview the suspects, pardon me, the “usual suspects”, find the culprit, and haul him or her off to jail. But it is not so easy. Everyone has an alibi, and if they don’t have an alibi then they are mighty persuasive. The strings were performing a waltz at the time of the crime. The reed instruments flatter themselves out of suspicion. The trombones were having a drink. One by one everyone is questioned and released until the only logical culprit would have to be the conductor. After all, “wherever there’s a conductor, you’re sure to find a dead composer.” But the orchestra protests en masse, and in the end they admit that while they have all “butchered” a composer or two in their time, they also keep such artists alive forever. An accompanying CD brings this tale to audible life, as the San Francisco Symphony, with Snicket narrating, plays a composition composed specifically for this tale.
To be blunt, this is not a particularly obvious idea for a book. Peter and the Wolf is one of those standards that nobody pays much attention to any more. Sure, schools regularly scoop large numbers of elementary aged children and up and plop them in theaters to listen to the show, but has any child in the history of the world gone on to become a rabid (poor choice of words?) Peter and the Wolf fan? Do they insist on reading every picture book adaptation of the show? Do they want to hear the music again and again? I’m sure that there are some that do this, but for the bulk of them it’s not the highlight of their week. But to go out and make your own orchestral/picture book version of the same kind of idea? Frankly, Mr. Handler is the only person who could have even attempted this. You need someone with Snicket/Handler’s sway, influence, and musical connections (bonjourno, Mr. Merritt) to be able to wrangle an honest-to-goodness orchestra into shape. To make something like this work you need a popular figure (Lemony Snicket – check) that happens to have a sense of humor (a mention of getting the phone number of “very attractive young sailors” in the text – check) and an ear for what kids like (check and check). I hate to say it, but the reason no one has attempted this before is because nobody had the right qualifications for the job.
Which isn’t to say that Mr. Handler doesn’t put quite a lot of very swell work into this pup. Clearly, he has thought this through. So much so that when you get down to it, this book and orchestration owes far less to Prokofiev’s boy v. wolf tale than it does to Garrison Keillor’s The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra. Particularly when you hear about the harp. In Keillor’s version the harp is the kind of instrument who falls out of tune anytime someone opens a door. It would much prefer to play music in a room with the triangle all day, rather than deal with the orchestra at large. In Snicket’s version, the harp is also sequestered far away, but this time it plays landlady to the confirmed bachelor tuba and the two play cards and drink warm milk from little blue cups all night. So in the event that you would like to complement Handler’s orchestral storytelling with someone else’s, Keillor might be your best bet.
With all the wit and sly allusions readers have come to expect from A Series of Unfortunate Events, I’m certain that even people who were not fans of that particular series will gravitate to this piece. Honestly, there’s only one instance where he shakes the old “a word which here means” out of the mothballs. Maybe two. But you can’t help but love the writing. Of course the format follows the standard Agatha Christie route where a detective questions a bunch of suspects in a singularly civilized manner, trying to winkle out a murderer’s confession. The fact that this particular Inspector is utterly incompetent (elegant moustache aside) is beside the point. And while kids may need to have the explanation that orchestras have been butchering composers for years explained to them, why bother? It makes sense either way. Older kids who get it will be pleased. And younger ones will end up attending concerts for some time under the distinct impression that the people there are all bloodthirsty killers. It’s win-win!
Which brings us to the illustrations. I have some bad news here. I was not a huge fan. Carson Ellis made a name for herself illustrating the album covers for bands like The Decemberists. She later went on to do book jackets for titles like Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society. Ellis’s style is distinctive. It involves thin lines and watercolor washes that utilize a lot of grays, browns, roses, and watered down blues. I’ve little doubt that there are picture books out there that would pair with her strengths beautifully, but this book was not one of them. In this setting Ellis’s colors are almost too muted to serve the story well. Scenes that are meant to contain lots of crazy movement and dancing, as with the swing dancing section, don’t feel like they contain a lot of movement. The figures are stagnant, and sometimes utterly baffling. There is one pairing of a man with a woman upside down on his left arm that left me squinting and blinking several times in search of his head. Then, inexplicably, that same pairing reoccurs later when the Inspector is rounding up the alibis. I do not think that the pictures detract too terribly from the rest of the book, but they weren’t an ideal pairing and, if this book catches on as much as I hope it will, I’m certain they won’t be the last.
With the given understanding that my orchestral familiarity begins and ends with my six year stint in various middle school and high school orchestras (I was a second violin and therefore, according to this book, “more fun at parties"), I will attempt to critique Nathaniel Stookey’s orchestrations as found here. Yes. So. Sounded good? Sounded good. Actually I did have a question or two about the choices he made. For example, was it utterly necessary to end the piece on such a benign note? I would have assumed from reading the book that the ending would build and build and build until you reached a veritable crescendo with the words, “But those who want something a little more interesting . . . should go to the orchestra!” Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like the music as a whole. I loved the threatening horns whenever the dead composer’s unchanging dead-like state was mentioned. I liked how well the various orchestrations were combined when the Inspector summarizes everyone’s alibis. I loved the music during the litany of dead composers of the past. I just wished for a bigger bang at the end, I guess.
Recently a variety of vocal recordings of famous authors were released. Some authors matched their works. Others, like Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t. And Daniel Handler’s voice? Initially you’d perhaps find it unexpected. The audiobook version of A Series of Unfortunate Events had actor Tim Curry read the tales, and that’s about what you’d think Mr. Handler would sound like. Instead, his voice takes a minute or two to get used to. You have to ease into it, as one does a hot bath. Once you get comfortable, however, his narration acts as the perfect complement to the story (which is right). Be sure to pay close attention to the narrated portions of the CD in their entirety because there’s quite a bit of additional dialogue and small off-the-cuff asides to enjoy. Particularly when the narrator starts to get a bit peckish. The first half of the recording is words and music. The second half, music alone.
Owing no particular allegiance to boys, wolves, and their Russian composers, I would love to see orchestras across this great country of ours merrily adapting this story and this music to their usual concert repertoires. And as for the book itself, without considering its larger ramifications and applications, it’s quite strong. As I’ve said, the art wasn’t what I would have picked for it, but it doesn’t really detract. The words are hilarious, as per usual, and the accompanying CD ideal for long car trips, bedtime fare, or just sitting about the living room. A great idea that may play itself out for far longer than picture books can usually hope for.
Other Blog Reviews:
- A rather nice interview with Mr. Handler about the book in Toronto Life given the unfortunate title Murder, He Wrote (they get paid to write such titles, you know). In it he explains, "I liked the idea of Peter and the Wolf better than Peter and the Wolf, and that everyone is actually tired of Peter and the Wolf." Amen to that.
- The Wikipedia page for the book is fairly informative.
- A little bit of Stookey information, if that is where your heart truly lies.
- I think they got a bit ahead of themselves, here, but apparently there have been Halloween productions of this as-yet-to-be-published book all over this darn country for the past two years or so. Here’s an amusing ad for a Midland Center for the Arts production that uses solely Harry Potter music:
And here are a couple selections from the Redwood Symphony Halloween Concert of the book (read by someone other than Mr. Handler/Snicket.
And, finally, your standard everyday countdown widget, stuff, thing, whatchamacallit.