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"This was not entirely a work-for-hire," says composer Richard Einhorn of his orchestral piece My Many Colored Days. The work, inspired by the little-known Dr. Seuss poem of the same name, is the latest in a series of pieces commissioned by Minnesota Orchestra Visual Entertainment for their "Notes Alive!" children's concert and video series. The recently released video includes all-new animation (Seuss never illustrated the poem himself), abundant orchestra footage, and narration by actress Holly Hunter. On this project, unlike previous works in the series, composer and orchestra more or less approached each other.
"I approached the Seuss estate because I had this odd idea of a Seuss opera called The Cat in the Hat being presented at the Met," Einhorn explains. "I thought that this was such a funny notion that it was worth a letter." The Seuss estate, being extremely chary of rights, informed him that the theatrical rights he sought were not available. But he learned that the rights to an unpublished poem about the relationship of color to mood were available, and that the Minnesota Orchestra had already expressed an interest in it. The poem, which describes the narrator's feelings on different days, and how they seem to come from the "colors" of those days, is ripe with possibilities for an orchestral composer, who has a huge palette of sounds with which to "paint."
"It was fortuitous," Einhorn says, "and it gave me the chance to work with a really great orchestra. They attacked the piece with enthusiasm far greater than I expected." That enthusiasm for music is exactly what Einhorn hoped to foster in the piece's young listeners.
"What I hoped they would walk away with is the knowledge that this amazing organization of instruments--the symphony orchestra--could perform music that would move them and appeal to them, that they would love and take to heart." He also wanted to assure them that this "amazing band" could deliver "sounds, textures, and feelings that they couldn't possibly get from the more cookie-cutter music that's normally put forth as children's music." To that end, he treated the project no differently from any other commission.
"I approached the writing of this piece with the same seriousness of purpose with which I would have approached an opera or a dance piece or anything else," Einhorn declares. "I wanted to write more of a virtuoso showpiece than children might be used to."
What most kids are used to is commercial pop music, and Einhorn--a former rock drummer--shares some of their musical vocabulary. Here, too, he treats the material with respect. "I study rock 'n' roll very carefully," he says, both in its emotional content and in its technical aspects. "I take it very seriously."
The rock music one hears in Einhorn's score is usually far beneath the surface. Though his piece often has the raw energy and rhythmic drive of rock 'n' roll, it is far more ambitious, with dizzying rhythmic complexity, skillful and attractive orchestrations, and occasional lyrical passages of great beauty.
Listeners who are moved to clap along with the hypnotic rhythms will find their instincts confirmed when the whole orchestra breaks into an interlude of clapping and stomping. This section, part of the happy "pink days" movement of the piece, is almost as much fun to watch as it is to hear--and the players were, by Einhorn's account, as delighted as the audience.
"At the first rehearsal, everybody was laughing and very amused." Einhorn added the section as a wake-up call for audiences whose attention spans may have become taxed.
"I figured, here we have this long piece, and we're kind of coming into the seventh-inning stretch here, and it would be nice to get everybody's adrenaline pumping toward the end." But it was in this section that Einhorn discovered just how divergent his rock background was from the players' mostly classical training.
"I originally had the orchestra clapping and stomping their feet, and we realized that that was too difficult," he recalls. "Something that we rock musicians could do without even thinking about it was extremely difficult for the members of the orchestra." He ultimately rewrote the movement, dividing the clapping and stomping between different players.
"It's interesting what they found tricky," he muses. "The rhythms in the second movement"--the blue days section--"which for me are very easy, turned out to be the things that we spent the most time on in rehearsal."
How people process musical information is of great interest to the composer, who studied the psychology of music with Thomas Bever at Columbia University. Bever, a pioneer in the field of right-brain/left-brain research, laid the foundation upon which much of today's "brain research" about music has been set. Einhorn finds this much-touted latter-day research--including the hotly debated "Mozart Effect" highly questionable.
"I must say that I find most of it nonsense," he says. The promises of improved math and science performance in children who listen to Mozart and other concert music are, he believes, misleading.
"Almost all of it is extremely crude science," Einhorn says, "and crude aesthetics as well." What his professor actually proved in his experiments in the Seventies is that people who are already trained in music listen to music differently from people who are not.
"People who have no musical training tend to remember melodies by processing in the right hemisphere," Einhorn explains, "while people who have undergone musical training of any sort tend to process and remember melodies in the left hemisphere. The emphasis simply reflects the education."
This is not to say, however, that projects like the "Notes Alive!" concerts are superfluous, nor that support for arts education ever goes to waste.
"Anything that gets people to listen to music in a proactive way," Einhorn says, "that gets them to listen to music that is deep and rich and profound, should be encouraged."
But the value of music is not to be tabulated on some Dickensian ledger, nor is it merely an adjunct to more "important" study in math and science. None of the recent brain research has anything to do, Einhorn says, with the value he places on his own daughter's musical education. Rather, this has to do with "things that are less quantifiable and less bureaucratic.
"The important part of being a civilized human being, and living in a culture, is to be exposed to and understand some of the best parts of that culture," Einhorn believes. "And Western classical music is one of the greatest achievements of Western civilization--as great an achievement as our scientific and technical achievements are. The reason we should be exposed to it is not because it makes us better middle-level managers, but because it makes us better human beings. And that's not something that shows up easily on a standardized test."
Scott Robinson's music reviews appear monthly in Minnesota Parent.