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.

Muses and the Curse of Memory

Euterpe by Battoni These days I am working on a new opera entitled Invisible Child. I love writing vocal music, but I find that the more tuneful my melodies are, the harder it is to let them go. They end up permeating my thoughts when I am awake, and even my dreams. This may sound delightful—how much better could it be than to dream your own music, right?—but imagine having the same soundtrack running through your brain over and over again. It is both a blessing and a curse.

Not only do the melodies themselves repeat ad nauseam, but the singers who will be performing the roles are the muses behind those lines. I will be recording a demo of two in a few days, and I haven't even heard the singers sing the lines yet, but I already hear their voices—perfectly of course, because it's all in my head.

Of course, sometimes I have someone else's music as my life soundtrack. This is great, particularly if it is something I like, such as Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Bach's Golderberg Variations before bedtime, or if I am feeling particularly badass, the soundtrack to the The Matrix, but what if I just came from an awful concert? Then it's hellish, but that's what iPods are for: you can reset by listening to a favorite piece of music, or in my case, more often than not, either works submitted by composers for AME, or a recent podcast.

I wonder if other composers have this problem. What is the background music for Milton Babbitt's dreams? Are they serialized? How about Helmut Lachenmann? Has he ever dreamt a melody? Is this phenomenon a thousand times worse for a composer like Stephen Schwartz, the composer who wrote Wicked? I would suspect that even for Schwartz, there are only so many times you could dream Defying Gravity before going a little batty. I can take comfort in never having had Philip Glass's music as my background, as that would be too repetitive for my taste (I wonder what the background music for his dreams is?), or Kenny G.

I guess that's when I will know I am in hell: when Kenny G becomes my permanent background soundtrack.

The Top Eleven Reasons Why I Love Vinyl

  Dylan Enjoying Listening to Annie


Computers surround me and the digital realm is a huge part of my life, but there is so much to love about records. They are analog, old-fashioned and so yesterday, but I am not the only one. During the last few years there has been a resurgence of interest in records.

In homage to Nigel from This is Spinal Tap, here are the top eleven reasons why I love records:

1. They are Fun to Look At

This summer we visited my in-laws in Vermont, and they have a fairly large record collection. My son Dylan was fascinated with their record player, and especially with the pictures inside the foldout record cover. Every day, he wanted to listen to Annie and read along, singing the whole time. Sorry, but it is just not as fun—particularly for a toddler—to read along with a tiny CD booklet. If you want to get kids interested in music, this is the way to do it.

2. They are Fun to Browse Through

I don't relish browsing through my CD collection. Admittedly, digital browsing is fun, but it's still a huge chore to see liner notes (if they even exist), lyrics and so on. There is something both thrilling and relaxing about holding a colorful album cover in your hands and not having to squint. I imagine that aging baby-boomers will start to wish they kept their record collections when they get older.

3. Better Sound

This is probably the most dubious claim: do records really sound better? No one will argue that digital tracks (track—a quietly antiquated term, like splice, or groove) sound much cleaner: no pops, hisses and usually no skipping, unless you have a toddler who regularly handles your discs with grubby fingers. My theory is that people think records sound better because the noise helps your years focus, and the fuzzy lack of clarity in the analog realm mellows out the high frequencies, making the sound waves seems less harsh. Call me crazy, but my ears tire more listening to CDs, particularly if I am forced to listen using cheap headphones or speakers.

4. You can Raid your Parent's Collection

My dad has an amazing classical record collection. He has recordings that I am certain will never be re-released, particularly ones that were put out by indie record labels. Recently, for our Food & Music American Modern Ensemble concert, I went online and purchased a recording of Three Place Settings by Barbara Kolb on the long out-of-print Desto label, for the whopping grand total of $1.00. This is the only recording that is currently available. I used a service I found online to transfer it to a CD to use as a reference recording for a few of the players. Although we played it quite differently, it was great to hear this recording to give us an idea.

5. More Music for Less Dough

If money is an issue, you can't beat records. You can find some real treasures in stores that still sell records. Even trolling garage sales will turn up some great finds, usually for no more than a dollar.

6. Fewer Anti-Piracy Restrictions

If you have the right equipment, it's very easy to make a mix tape of a record, and a hell of a lot of fun. Time consuming, but so deliciously retro. You can immediately see why piracy is a much bigger deal now: you cannot easily upload a record onto a file sharing service and distribute it to hundreds or thousands of people, and you cannot rip a record in less than five minutes—like you can with a CD—without severely harming the sound quality.

7. They Make You Slow Down

We live in the age of "fast". Listening to records takes more time than scanning tracks on your iPod, and again, you can not easily load them into your computer. I think it is nice to chill once in a while, and records make you do just that.

8. The Memories

The smell of vinyl brings back so many memories. When I was playing records for my son Dylan at my in-laws house, the smell instantly reminded me of my father dancing with me and throwing me up in the air when I was his age, playing me Stravinsky, Bach and Shostakovich, three of his favorite composers. Those are some of my happiest memories as a child.

9. The Machinery

One detail I miss with CD players, iPods and so on is being able to see what's happening. I love seeing the needle approach the record, looking at the grooves and actually seeing where a track ends and the next begins. Dylan also loved this, and I am certain that the mechanics of the record player are part of the reason he loves playing records so much.

10. The Concept Album

 As much as I love the convenience of only downloading the one track that I like from an album, the idea of a unified album is gradually disappearing, particularly with pop music. Even the idea of putting out a release (antiquated) based on the length of a CD, let alone a record (doubly antiquated) will eventually disappear. If it was not for the limitations of records, we would probably not have concept albums.

11. They Are Just Plain Cool

There is something deliciously retro about playing records; movies like High Fidelity remind me how much of my daily life as a teenager was built around this medium: waiting for releases (not downloading tracks before a band releases them—whatever happened to delayed gratification?) and actually going to a record store (will those exist in ten years?)—a real record store, not two isles in Barnes & Noble or Wal-Mart.

I do not suppose that an analog renaissance will last long. The digital age is too convenient, and as much as I love to slow down and smell the vinyl, I love having a hundred albums on-hand when I am traveling even more. Even so, I am so glad my parents and in-laws have their collections, waiting for us to enjoy when we visit.

Dylan, TED and the New Renaissance

Dylan Painting Lately I have been listening to webcasts in the background as I work, particularly if I am correcting scores and parts (which as any composer will attest, is personally fulfilling but mind-numbingly tedious). Damon Lee, a composer friend of mine who lives and teaches in Germany, recently turned me on to TED, an amazing site that contains talks by some of the world's greatest inventors and thinkers, including Dean Kamen, Ray Kurzweil, Al Gore and others. One brilliant, very funny lecture that caught my attention is by Sir Ken Robinson, entitled Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Something Robinson points out and that I have noticed with children—mostly with my  2 1/2 year old son Dylan who is the child I spend most of my time with—is that if they are not hindered by adult preconceptions, they will interactively express themselves in truly unique and organic ways. Dylan synthesizes all sorts of influences and stimuli into his own form of creativity. He sings and dances while he paints, holds two paint brushes like drumsticks, painting and drumming on the paper all at once, and even depicts stories in his paintings that combine all of his diverse stimuli—everything from Itsy Bitsy Spider to the moon and the stars. Interestingly, everything makes perfect sense to him because no one has told him otherwise. Nothing is a mistake. The whole time, he is developing motor skills, exploring and stretching boundaries. His personal expression, without adult-imposed limits or categorization, is a highly entertaining and profoundly beautiful experience to watch.

Back to TED, the summary on the Do Schools Kill Creativity? page states that Robinson makes a "profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity." Robinson calls the meeting of passion and skill "The Element" and perfectly summarizes all that is wrong with most modern educational systems. Even some of the most radical schools still treat the arts, sports and "the other intelligences" (anything other than the humanities and languages) as second class citizens. Arts courses are allotted fewer credits, and most schools still structure their degrees and curriculums using outmoded models meant to prepare people for a society centered around industrialization.

I think we are entering—or already experiencing—a New Renaissance. Our life spans are now long enough that we need not have one career, one passion or even one intelligence. We can have multiple facets, either at the same time or one after the other. They can be related or not, and we do not have to choose one over the other. You can be a musician and a corporate CEO, a dentist and a pianist, a photographer and a professional chef. Technology is helping us express ourselves and save time enough to distill the essence of what we desire. Our only limits—other than a lawful society and survival—should be what we place on ourselves.

As I have always said, genius is mostly about connecting disparate elements where there were no connections before, and having the skill and passion to carry out your ideas. I only hope that as parents, we can allow Dylan to be as unique, creative and skilled as possible.

Oops... I Won't Do That Again

Shower Shock Soap Last night I was cleaning our kitchen, and since I had not given it a once-over in a while, I decided to clean our coffee machine. It wasn't that grimy, but fresh is best, at least in my book, so I like to go the extra mile.

There I am lying in bed at 3AM, thinking, why can't I sleep? I did not have a late-night snack or drink, I did not watch TV, and I only read a little bit, and what I read was tame. My composing has been going great lately, so I am not at all anxious about that. I should have been able to fall asleep easily, right?

At 3:30 AM, the thought crossed my mind: I wonder if caffeine can be absorbed through the skin? Then I found this Shower Shock soap, and that pretty much confirmed my suspicion. My fingers probably absorbed some of the caffeine residue on the machine while I was cleaning it.

Next time, I'll clean it in the morning.

Amazing Food Facts

I really love odd facts, or as I like to call them, factoids: strange, and usually useless trivia about people, places and things in our daily lives. Here, I have compiled a few amazing food facts that you might not know: • Certain foods such as Blow Fish and Bamboo Shoots will kill you if not prepared correctly.

• Most of us eat seaweed on a daily basis without even knowing it.

• A Mouse would live longer on a corn flakes box than on the cereal itself.

• Cereal boxes uses Elmer's glue for the milk on the front of the boxes.

• 90% of all ketchup is made by the same company.

• Honey is really bee vomit.

• Someone else has already drunk a portion of the water you drink, maybe several times over.

Frozen food is sometimes better for you than fresh food.


A banana is an herb.

Bamboo and sugar cane are from the grass family.

Tomatoes are fruits.

Peanuts are legumes.

There. You probably knew these facts already, but if you didn't, don't say I didn't tell you.

Is This Photo Unrelated to This Article or is it Just Me?

Most days I take a quick look at articles posted online instead of reading a printed newspaper. I keep noticing that file photos attached to articles are often only surface-related, like in this Reuters article entitled Runaway mouse delays flight. The article is about a mouse that somehow ended up on a Boeing 777 scheduled for a flight to Tokyo, but the following photo is of a lab rat: Runaway Mouse, or Not?

I'm trying to wrap my mind around why they chose this photo. Could it be that Reuters assumes the average reader's I.Q. is so low that they won't know what a mouse looks like? Is there any modern-day adult anywhere in the world who has never seen a mouse? Maybe the staff photographer, Alessia Pierdomenico, gets a little money every time a photo is posted online and she's dating the person who wrote the article. Probably not, as the Reuters employee reported from Hanoi. No, I think Reuters is just plain lazy. It would have been much more interesting if they could have obtained a photo of the mouse in question, at least so it could have had its fifteen minutes of fame before they killed it.