“The single most important person in my life when I was trying to become an architect was a craftsman—a carpenter—and there is only way to describe him: He was what he did. We didn’t talk very much, but he showed me things,” recalls Norton Juster, a retired architect and author of the best-selling children’s fantasy novelThe Phantom Tollbooth. Another work of his, The Dot and the Line, is featured on a Carnegie Hall Family Concert October 14. “I internalized those lessons,” Juster continues, “the care that he gave to his work, the way he crafted each part so meticulously—and the idea that I should only be satisfied with the very best work that I could do.”
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As an author, Juster is also a craftsman. Authors craft a story, carefully culling ideas and characters until they are satisfied with their final product. Composers are also craftspeople, curating sounds and sonorities until their piece tells precisely the story they want.
This season, Carnegie Hall brings together authors and composers to present a Family Concert that features musical retellings of three children’s stories: Juster’s The Dot and the Line, with music by Robert Xavier Rodriguez, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Alice McLerran’s The Mountain That Loved a Bird, with a Carnegie Hall commission by Caroline Shaw; and Peter and the Wolf, with visuals from a retelling of the story by Chris Raschka. For each, the full text is integrated into the music and narrated by John Lithgow.
But how does a composer craft the right music to tell someone else’s story?
Rodriguez and Juster have known each other for years, and have worked on several projects together, so a full orchestration of The Dot and the Line was a natural development in their creative relationship.
“The experience and pleasure of working with Robert is Robert himself—he is extraordinarily talented as a musician and also a wonderful guy,” Juster enthuses. “The fact that he was able to [turn my book into music] was not a surprise—but the fact that he did it so well was simply a total delight.”
Rodriguez has written eight operas and considers himself to be primarily a theatre composer. “Even in purely instrumental works, I enjoy writing music based on texts, stories, and visual images,” he says. “Juster’s writing is vivid, clear, wise, and glowingly funny. With such great material, all I needed to do was stay out of the way and let the words speak for themselves.”
When Caroline Shaw was approached by Carnegie Hall, she was intrigued by the commission, having never composed anything using text. “It’s like painting, but with music,” she muses, “or scoring a film without any visuals.” Shaw used Facebook to poll her friends and community for their favorite children’s books. She fell in love with The Mountain That Loved a Bird, a work initially unfamiliar to her, and proposed the text to Carnegie Hall for the commission.
Although certainly a master of her craft (Shaw is the youngest-ever winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Music, among other accolades), her composition for this project is the first piece she has rewritten almost entirely. “This summer I went back—I thought it was completed a year ago—and found that the music was kind of getting in the way of the story ... and now it’s a different piece. It’s definitely not the way that I usually write. I was afraid, at first, of the clichés: using the flute to portray a bird, for instance. And I thought it should be for full orchestra. But I’ve pared down the score, and the winds are mostly one to a part. I’m up in New Hampshire, surrounded by nature, as I work on the revisions, and that has changed my perspective.”
When Shaw first approached the author about the commission, McLerran was friendly but hesitant. “We had these long phone conversations—an hour and a half or more—and enjoyed each other, but she seemed cautious about the project,” Shaw shares. “I went out to meet her in her home on Long Island, and that helped. I wanted to make sure it felt right to her.”
In The Mountain That Loved a Bird, a bird’s friendship with and commitment to a mountain transforms the mountain over time, changing it forever. It’s a beautiful story of friendship and renewal, but it’s also a story about loss and trying to hold on to something that will inevitably change.
Both authors and composers are creators, craftspeople. They work to create each piece, shaping a story with text or pitches. This project unites music and words to create powerful works that truly bring these stories to life.