Dylan and the Snowman: Why Children are the Best New Music Audience

Dylan Building a Snowman with Victoria and Dennis

On Planet New Music (a strange planet perhaps, but the one I live on nevertheless), everyone usually focuses on entertaining adults. Playing music for children, or writing music that appeals to children, is usually considered a good deed at best, a chore at worst. It is certainly not what most "serious" musicians go to school for, unless they are planning on a career teaching children. This is unfortunate, because I think kids really are one of the best audiences for new music because they usually have the fewest preconceptions. I wrote and essay back in 2002 entitled Who is Our Most Important Audience?, in which I elaborate on this issue, but I want to tell a story about my three year old son Dylan that illustrates my point.

During the winter of 2007-08, I completed a work entitled Winter Songs, a twenty-minute, six-movement work for bass-baritone and chamber sextet. I wrote a lot of it in Vermont—the perfect place to write a piece about winter, I should add. While I was writing the fourth movement, a setting of Richard Wilbur's poem Boy at the Window, I looked out the window where I was composing, and unbelievably, without knowing what I was writing that day, Victoria and her father decided to take Dylan outside to build a snowman! You could not ask for better inspiration for setting a poem about a boy and a snowman than to look out the window and see your own son building one. Of course, the movement is dedicated to Dylan, but I meant to dedicate it to him all along.

At age 3, Dylan is beginning to understand what I do, that I write music for musicians to play. The other day he said he wanted to listen to my music. Of course, there is nothing more flattering than to have your three year old—or any family member—ask to listen to your music, so I decided to play him Boy at the Window. I described what I think it is about: a boy watching his snowman with fear in his eyes, scared that it would melt and die, and that in the second stanza, you see it from the snowman's perspective, looking inside at the boy. I told him that we should really be more afraid for the boy, and that all adults know children will eventually experience pain, and that the snowman sheds tears of rain. Dylan developed this whole, elaborate story: the singer, David Neal (who also commissioned the work), is the snowman, and he (Dylan) is the boy in the story. He then proceeded to ask me to play it fourteen times in a row. As a composer, how do you say no to that? Every night since then, he asks for "the snowman song", and has me play it at least once, usually twice, while he tells the story to me, and is now even beginning to sing along with the vocal line.

What is my point? Dylan does not know that this is "modern music" and that many people have pre-conceived notions that all new music is bad until proven otherwise. He just enjoys it as a piece of music. To my mind, this is how all people should approach new music: with an open mind, and with the innocence of a child.