1. Do you tell stories through music?
I think all music tells a story of some kind. “Story” doesn’t always correlate with the word “narrative.” “Story” can be completely literal, like my What a Fast Little Engine!: Scenes from ‘Choo-Choo’ where the original book is roughly retold. “Story” can be the progression of a composer over time, where he or she is in the compositional journey (early, mid, late period, etc.). “Story” can even mean grappling with our place in music history and what came before us, like my recent Contrafact, septet after Purcell. I realize answer is a very roundabout way of saying “yes,” but I feel it’s important to understand that “story” is everything that music is and can be when it comes from a person. I do it. Bach does it. Brahms does it. Beethoven does it. Any composer ever does it in his or her own unique way. We’re all people. We all tell our stories through music. Music is the story of us, as people and artists, rendered in real time by someone who brings their own story to ours, creating a dual narrative of composer and performer speaking to the audience. It’s ever evolving and ever changing, reactive and reflective of us at different moments and thoughts. That’s really what gives music life: the stories we add to it and tell through it.
2. How would you compare storytelling to composition?
As I said in the above question, the act of composing and the act of storytelling are very much intertwined. Whether or not the word “story” becomes synonymous with the word “narrative” is subjective, but every piece of music tells a story about the composer, and every performance tells a story about the performer. Storytelling, as in telling a narrative through words and in some cases pictures, might differ in the medium of delivery, but at the core is very much in line with composition. As a composer, I have to convey a journey without telling it, relying solely on musical affect (though I do use a few words in my piece for Box Not Found to add to that affectation). Storytelling adds in the words en masse, the only major difference between storytelling and music composition. Both tell a narrative in this case. One uses words, the other sounds.
3. Can you tell us a little about the story you chose for your piece?
Choo-Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away is the first children’s book written and illustrated by Massachusetts-born author Virginia Lee Burton (she lived for many years in Gloucester). Published during the waning years of the Great Depression, it tells the story of Choo-Choo, a steam engine who decides that, rather than be bogged down with coaches full of passengers to bring into the big city, she would rather fly down the tracks fast by herself and wow all the onlookers. She leaves her engineer, fireman, and conductor behind, but rather than getting what she wants, she instead loses her tender and runs out of steam in a long forgotten branch line, left all alone with no one to come to her aid. Her engineer, fireman, and conductor of course do rescue her, and she learns a valuable lesson about loving those who take care of her and not to give into delusions of grandeur.
4. Why is this story important to you?
When I was young, I was very much into trains. As a result, this book greatly appealed to me. Believe it or not, long before I was able to read, I had memorized this book. I remember checking out a copy of with a cassette tape audiobook from my local library. The last few pages were torn off, but the cassette worked fine, and I played it over and over. I memorized the words from pace of the audio book, and a few days later I could recite the entire thing cover to cover. I’d say that’s pretty important to me. I grew up on this story; I had it embedded into my memory. I can’t recite it any longer, but it always stuck with me. Years later, when I first entered undergraduate and heard that Eric Whitacre was setting Goodnight Moon for a commission consortium, I thought it was a good idea to set Choo-Choo. I can safely say now that no, it was not, but it stuck with me long enough to create this piece for Box Not Found.
5. Could you give us three of your favorite story books?
Excluding Choo-Choo, I would definitely say that The Railway Series by Reverend W. Awdry is among my favorites. If you recognize the name Reverend W. Awdry, you might know the internationally beloved Thomas the Tank Engine franchise he helped create; the franchise is an adaptation of The Railway Series focusing on its most popular character, running to this day. I also greatly enjoyed one of Mrs. Lee Burton’s other stories, the more famous Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. It is very much in the same vein as Choo-Choo, though less direct in its moral. The last of the three is an oddball story titled The Caboose Who Got Loose by Bill Peet. It tells the story of Katy Caboose, who doesn’t like being last on the train and longs for quiet peace. One day, she uncouples from her train, careens down a mountainside track, leaps off a curve, and lands in a tree. There, she gets her peace and quiet from nature. It definitely is an unusual story, but I remember it fondly. Suffice to say, though, I really liked trains when I was a kid.