Nathaniel Stookey and Daniel Handler Raise the Dead

Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is arguably the most iconic piece of music for young audiences in the classical repertoire. If you’re a professional orchestral musician, performing it is unavoidable. However, with the addition of Nathaniel Stookey’s composition for narrator and orchestra—ironically entitled The Composer Is Dead—the Prokofiev classic, as well as Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, now have some serious competition.

The San Francisco Symphony commissioned the new work, a collaboration with celebrated children’s book author Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler, who served as the work’s librettist and narrator), in 2006. And that first performance, like those of all too many new compositions, could have been the last.

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Artwork from The Composer Is Dead
Illustration by Carson Ellis; courtesy of HarperCollins

But The Composer Is Dead has received over 50 performances since its July 8, 2006, world premiere in San Francisco. With more scheduled performances by additional orchestras, including the Winnipeg Symphony in October of 2009 and the National Symphony Orchestra in May of 2010, the work shows no signs of retreating into the shadows. “We definitely have heard from orchestras how tired they were of playing Peter and the Wolf,” says Handler. “So I think to some extent, it’s relieving a certain tedium from programmers of young people’s concerts and the orchestras who perform them.”

The Composer Is Dead is, at its heart, a musical murder mystery, in which an inquisitive inspector seeks to solve the case of a recently deceased composer by interrogating the various instruments in the orchestra. “The thing I love about this piece,” says Edwin Outwater, who conducted the 2006 premiere and the 2009 SFS recording that followed, “is that it’s pretty sophisticated, and somehow manages to be accessible and communicate with kids without being easy or facile in any way. Even the little kids who don’t get the music jokes get the feeling that there’s something subversive and naughty going on with this piece, and they’re into it.” The work’s accessibility may be due in part to its lack of a sterile, academic attitude toward its audience. “It doesn’t feel like penicillin to me,” Handler stresses. “It doesn’t feel like something we ought to give to children so that they turn out better.”

Katy Tucker, promotion manager for G. Schirmer—the company that publishes Stookey’s work—also recognizes the subtle educational approach of The Composer Is Dead. “It is not only an engaging piece of music that is educational in and of itself, but it’s also an engaging story for kids, so they’re learning something without actually knowing that they’re learning something, which is very similar to Peter and the Wolf.”

But unlike Peter and the Wolf, The Composer Is Dead draws much of its educational value from narration that chips away at any seeming austerity or musical snobbery by exposing common stereotypes about the instruments—whether it be the aviary tendencies of the flutes or the often-overlooked, underappreciated contributions of the violas. But instead of apologizing for these characteristics, Handler seems to revel in them, and invites the listener to share in all the affectionate jesting. Stookey’s score both enhances the humor and offers insight into the instruments’ typical function within the orchestra—from the boisterous brass section, whose incessant fanfare borders between enjoyable effervescence and obnoxious grandstanding, to the timid yet lovely arpeggios of the harp, identified here as the tuba’s “Landlady.”

Interestingly enough, perhaps the greatest compositional achievement of the work was not written by Stookey, per se. The “Funeral March,” which the composer refers to as “a complete mind sudoku in music,” serves as the climax of the piece. The march quotes 12 works of famous composers—ranging from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and the requiems of Mozart and Brahms to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire—all in the original keys and orchestrations.

The most distinctive element of the piece, according to the composer, is the opening “hook” or death theme. San Francisco Symphony trombonist Paul Welcomer would probably concur. “He [Handler] says the first line— ‘The composer is dead.’ —and then you hit those big octaves, and see all the kids in the audience, just see their eyes sort of get big,” remembers Welcomer. “And then they’ll probably get it, that it’s a motive. When that comes back, they remember it.” But trombones are not the only lower brass instruments to get the spotlight. The composition also contains what Welcomer calls “the loveliest tuba solo ever written—period.”

According to Stookey, pleasing the audience means pleasing the musicians first. “I was thinking more of the players—Are they going to be able to take this kids’ piece and really sink their teeth into it instead of the typical kids’ pieces?” says Stookey. San Francisco Symphony bassist Charles Chandler was indeed pleased with The Composer Is Dead. “It’s great to have a storyline like that, and humor and good music, and combine it all in one package, but I think it’s hard to do. And they did it really, really well.” Welcomer recalls having an “Oh—finally!” moment of realization that The Composer Is Dead represented what children’s music should be.

And while the work’s creators acknowledge how Peter and the Wolf succeeds, they are also aware of its limitations. “Peter and the Wolf is a beautiful piece of music, but pedagogically, it doesn’t really introduce you to the orchestra,” explains librettist Handler. “If you didn’t know what a flute sounded like, you still won’t know. And so that was our goal—to have it that you could honestly walk in and not know what any of the instruments were, and you could come out knowing what they were.”

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Librettist and narrator Daniel Handler during the recording of The Composer Is Dead. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Rather than refer directly to the musicians, the instruments themselves are personified in Handler’s text. “When you hear the trombone section suddenly come in, you hear the personality of the trombones,” says Handler, “and you’re probably not thinking of the unionized guys and gals who’ve been rehearsing for weeks in order to bring you this performance. I think that seems natural.” Conductor Outwater also recognizes the importance of the orchestra’s distinct traits in The Composer Is Dead. “I think thematically, both in the text and the music, the underlying message, which isn’t explicitly stated, is that the orchestra is an organism quite full of personality and variety,” he says.

When Outwater led his Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in a performance of the piece in March of 2008, it was part of an evening program designed for both kids and adults. Even with all of the trappings of children’s music, The Composer Is Dead is very much a composition written for adults.

“I wanted to write a piece for skeptics, and I would say, if anything, I was addressing my own generation even more than my children’s generation,” says composer Stookey. “All the people I know, that is most of them, don’t really find classical music that engaging or exciting, partly because they don’t know it and they haven’t been exposed to it. They see it as being remote, rule-bound, and often they see it as lacking emotional immediacy, which to those of us who love classical music, [we] can’t understand at all. But we wanted to reach those people with something that would be immediately engaging without being trite. You know, we wanted to seduce them, or as Daniel [Handler] says, ‘We wanted to trick them into listening.'”

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Composer Nathaniel Stookey during The Composer Is Dead recording sessions. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

In some ways, The Composer Is Dead is not merely an orchestral concert piece, either. Stookey sees the narrative-heavy drama of the work as something akin to opera, which makes complete sense in light of Stookey and Handler’s aspirations to write an opera together.

In the more immediate future, however, there are plans to take The Composer Is Dead on tour as a puppet show. Handler envisioned the opportunity to spread the composition beyond the concert hall after witnessing firsthand the enthusiasm that suburban and small town audiences had for his Lemony Snicket books. In collaboration with New York-based puppeteers Phantom Limb, Handler plans to circumvent the limitations of touring with an orchestra by using the SFS recording in conjunction with the puppets.

But what does the now-proven success of The Composer Is Dead in live performance say about current audiences and the culture of classical music? For Outwater, the piece represents a sea change, liberation from what he sees as the “needless formality of concert music.” “I think the more we can break down those barriers of us taking ourselves so seriously, rather than just being ourselves and taking the music seriously, the better we’ll be,” he asserts. “And this piece kind of automatically does that, it kind of intentionally shoots down all those kind of snobby constructs that have built up around classical music.”

But once such a work is accepted into the repertoire, a difficult question remains: Where does it fit? Stookey admits there’s no easy answer. “It’s an unfortunate thing about orchestras generally, that there tend to be these pretty strong divisions between what is pops, and what is classical, and what is education, and things that cross lines—it’s a little hard to know where they go.”

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Daniel Handler performing The Composer Is Dead with the San Francisco Symphony; Edwin Outwater, conductor. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Outwater feels that the difficulty lies in the perceived need to be everything for everybody. “It’s always a challenge to write a new work that keeps its integrity for so many different people who have so many different agendas for it—the educators: ‘Does this educate?'; the orchestra players: ‘Does this feel right to me playing this piece?'; to the orchestra administrators: ‘Is this classy enough for us to do?’. There’s a lot of people who have agendas for new music, and the really successful pieces kind of transcend all of them somehow.”

The work’s adult-friendly, populist appeal hasn’t kept it from being pigeonholed as a children’s piece, however. Subsequently, Stookey has seen the potential pitfalls of being typecast as a children’s composer firsthand, having turned down two educational commissions for works since the premiere of The Composer Is Dead. “I think it is a danger, if you only do one thing, being known only for that one thing, and eventually only being able to do that one thing,” says Stookey. “Britten and Prokofiev weren’t [typecast] because of what else they produced. And we only know their works for children because of their huge reputations as composers of all manner of things.”

Stookey also takes issue with the segregation of composers into different philosophical camps: “I think one of the great tragedies of the times that I grew up in, in terms of the restrictions that composers felt—you had to belong to one ‘ism’ or another ‘ism.’ I have teachers who taught themselves into one of these ‘isms’—whichever one it was, it made no difference. And it never resonated for them, and you can hear that in their music.”

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But while The Composer Is Dead is grounded in the world of classical music, its roots go deep in the artistic community of San Francisco, where Stookey and Handler both reside. Both men attend “Sausages,” a loose gathering of local writers and musicians who meet over beer and sausages. “The literary scene kind of feels like family—very appealing,” says Stookey, whose early compositional output did not utilize text. “For me it’s been part of coming home, ’cause I grew up here. I’ve been rediscovering that link between music and language.”

The “Sausages” meetings have also given rise to a Stookey composition-in-process called Seven by Seven—a seven-song work about San Francisco (which is seven by seven miles in area) —with words by Handler and his “Sausages” cohorts Andrew Sean Greer, Robert Mailer Anderson, and others.

The interaction between music and literature has also impacted Handler’s approach to his craft. “I definitely feel structural, pacing ideas from music and bring it over to literature,” says Handler, a former San Francisco Boys’ Choir member. He has also performed in two of Stephin Merritt’s bands—The Magnetic Fields and The Gothic Archies—as an accordionist. “I think the advantage of having a musical background is that if you then go into another art form, you can look at things that those other writers aren’t looking at—structural ideas.” In researching a play he is currently writing for a small cast of actors, Handler has referred to Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments for inspiration regarding structure and utilization of characters: “I’ve just been thinking about, ‘Well, when you have a relatively small number of instruments, what kind of structure is being used?'”

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On the subject of Stookey’s music, Handler is candid and to the point: “I think it’s notable that he is one of the few working composers, at least that I’m aware of, that has not produced a work that is either incredibly grating or incredibly boring.”

“The fact that I write string quartets or ‘serious music’ doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally have the urge to write a heavy metal ballad,” explains Stookey, whose other compositions range from the more conventional—an in progress collection of songs with words by opera singer Frederica von Stade—to the experimental—Junkestra. “It’s basically a garbage orchestra, but it’s a serious kind of pitched piece of music for found objects,” says the composer.

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Composer Nathaniel Stookey
Photo courtesy of G. Schirmer

Stookey’s compositional priorities do not come from his audiences, whether they’re 8 or 80. “As I’m composing, I just have this buzz, and I just want to pass that on in as direct a way as I can. I feel like if you are successful as an artist, all that means is that what you do satisfies you yourself; also by chance—really, by chance, reaches other people.”

Antonia Joy Wilson, artistic director and conductor of the Midland Symphony Orchestra in Michigan saw enthusiasm for The Composer Is Dead in a tangible way when the work helped to draw 300 new audience members to a special Halloween concert in October 2008. “I could see the potential of how an exciting format like The Composer is Dead could open up more doors by creating dramatic musical stories for our living composers and writers to run and fly with creatively,” says Wilson.

Bassist Charles Chandler seesThe Composer Is Dead as aspirational for children’s music repertoire. “I’m hoping that it would be inspiring to people to see, ‘Wow, this is what’s possible. This is the level that we should be fighting for with these programs.'”

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Daniel J. Kushner
Photo by Stephen Pelaia

Daniel J. Kushner is a 2009 graduate of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Kushner has served as a classical music critic for The Post-Standard of Syracuse, New York, and interned with NewMusicBox from June to August 2009. He currently resides in Brooklyn.