The trouble with being interested in classical music is that people look at you funny. You might be sitting with friends talking about pop music, or what you’ve read or seen on television, and everyone’s on the same page. And then you say “Yeah, it reminds me of that Shostakovich quartet, that chord at the end” and there’s a chill in the room, and the mood is killed. I thought if I seduced more people into the world of classical music I wouldn’t be as lonely and wretched.
So in 2006, Nathaniel Stookey and I wrote The Composer Is Dead to introduce audiences to classical music and orchestral instruments. We’d been at school together but didn’t keep in touch. Then we ran into each other on the street, to find that he’d become a composer while I was a novelist.
It’s a murder mystery story in which all the instruments in the orchestra are suspects. we wanted to create something that would be enjoyable if you already knew about music, and enjoyable and educational if you didn’t. In the US there’s no shortage of family concerts, but everyone is tired of the same old pieces that are part of that repertoire. So many musicians said to me “Thank God – if I’d had to play Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra one more time I was going to lose my mind.”
And then, of course, because in our piece every section of the orchestra has jokes made at their expense, pretty much every time I’ve performed it there’s been at least one offended musician. So there I also feel I’ve done my job. The first violins, goes the narrative, have the trickier parts to play, but the second violins are “more fun at parties”. One second violin came up to me to say, “That’s not true…The first violins have the higher parts.” “Don’t worry,” I said. “No one will think you’re more fun at parties.” That didn’t really resolve it.
Half the problem classical music has is getting people to the concerts in the first place. In the same way that someone might live across the street from a museum but hasn’t been in years, you forget that something is not intimidating until you get there and then you remember it’s quite marvellous.
When people hear an orchestra it moves them. They often need to be reminded of that. The way I see it, classical music is part of a balanced diet. It’s good for the brain. If someone says: “You really ought to try this Japanese restaurant down the way” you’re not going to reply, “But I eat plenty of steak and had a marvellous pasta the other night… I don’t need to try anything else.”
Friends often ask for recommendations for entry-level classical music, but I find it really difficult. The music you enjoy is as personal what you like to read or eat. If you want to lie on your bed and stare at the ceiling, maybe try Morton Feldman. If you like to have people over for dinner and have everyone talking in a lively manner, Rossini. If you are feeling dramatic and that no one understands you, I recommend Mahler. Maybe I should start an advice column? I’d love that.
This is an excerpt from an article originally published on The Guardian website, reprinted with generous permission. A link to the full article can be found here.
The Composer is Dead - A Symphonic Murder Mystery!
2pm & 4pm, Saturday 6 October
Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna
For tickets and more information click here.