nonfiction nuggets…a mysterious meeting with the orchestra

The composer is dead.  “Composer” is a word which here means “a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes the composer is going to play.”  This is called composing.  But last night, the Composer was not muttering.  He was not humming.  He was not moving, or even breathing.  This is called decomposing.

(from The Composer is Dead, text by Lemony Snicket, music by Nathaniel Stookey, illustrations by Carson Ellis)

With this dire and dreadful announcement, The Composer is Dead springs to life!  Originally an orchestral work, with an accompanying story, the entire work comes to us in this fabulous book/CD format.  As the story goes, the Inspector is called upon to investigate the suspicious death of the composer, and he interrogates, section by section, each of the members of the orchestra, looking for whodunit.  The hoity-toity violins, the unfortunately-all-but-forgotten violas, the sneaky woodwinds, boisterous brass, and the irrepressible percussion instruments all have alibis.  The orchestra members admit that “all of us have butchered a composer at one time or another,” but also insist that it is they who keep composers alive.  This is a delightful text, full of dash and flourish, peppered with orchestra jokes and musical references, insiduously teaching us about the members and personality of the orchestra while entertaining us with a dastardly mystery.  It was written by Lemony Snicket himself, with superb, retro illustrations done by Carson Ellis.

But the text is only part of the fun.

The San Francisco Symphony commissioned this new  work introducing young people to the orchestra.  The music was composed by Nathaniel Stookey.  It premiered in 2006 and has since been performed by quite a number of orchestras.  In 2009, the work was turned into this book.  The book includes a CD of  the performance by the San Francisco Symphony with narration by Lemony Snicket.  Magnificent performance by both parties.

The music is fabulous!  A grave, massive, sinister brass fanfare heralds the news of the murder; the concertmaster shows off on her cadenza; the snazzy, snappy percussion section struts their stuff; the macabre accompaniment for the role call of dead composers grows more and more frenetic. This is a brilliant introduction to orchestral instruments and meshes perfectly with Snicket’s text.

I’m posting this link to a very upbeat, funny conversation with Stookey and Snicket about their thoughts on this work, with excerpts from the recording.  Give it a listen!