When best-selling author Dan Brown calls, you answer. And when you know there’s only 10 minutes to be had to run some questions by him, you try to abide. But then you start talking about your dogs. And from there you start talking about how we can all be better and learn a thing or two from the loyalty and understanding a canine exudes to the people around it.
All of this, of course, is an apt introduction to Brown’s latest creative endeavor, “Wild Symphony,” a multi-faceted interactive adventure for children that puts the audience in the midst of an orchestra conducted by a tiny mouse named Maestro. The book’s pages are filled with imaginative illustrations from the talented hands and mind of Susan Batori paired with Brown’s poetry and accompanied by a suite of classical music composed by Brown, who lives on the Seacoast, and brought to life by Bob Lord’s PARMA Recordings of North Hampton and the Zagreb Festival Orchestra of Croatia.
Oh, and let’s not forget the technological component that allows you to point your smartphone at the book and prompt the device to play the applicable piece of music that corresponds to the page you are exploring.
The book, which is set to be released worldwide on Sept. 1 by Rodale Kids, an imprint of Random House, has already been translated into more than 25 languages and counting. The music from “Wild Symphony” will also be available on major digital platforms such as Spotify, Amazon, Apple and Google.
In celebration, an assortment of concerts will take place around the globe, including a world premiere in Croatia at Lisinski Hall on Oct. 10 and a U.S. premiere at The Music Hall here in Portsmouth on Nov. 15, which will feature the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra. The Portsmouth premiere will be a fundraiser presented by Brown to benefit The Music Hall and the PSO.
Seaoast Media Group’s EDGE magazine caught up with Brown, the author of numerous No.1 best-selling novels including “The Da Vinci Code,” for a dive into the writer’s world, which includes a deep personal connection with music – a platform that, as it turns out, was one of Brown’s first creative outlets.
EDGE: First things first, because there is a lot to unpack here, what’s your relationship with animals? What kind of role have animals played in your life? What drew you to them in such a way that inspired you to create a project dedicated to them?
Brown: I got a dog for my birthday when I was 5 years old. I named him Snoopy and he was without a doubt my best friend; we spent countless hours playing hide-and-seek. And when Snoopy left the world, we had another dog named Steinway – named after the piano because I was taking piano lessons at the time (laughs). I think all kids are drawn to animals because of the unconditional love they give, and, even as an adult, there’s magic in the thought that they completely understand you, and you them.
EDGE: That said, let’s talk about “Wild Symphony.” How’d the idea of putting together a book and simultaneous soundtrack come to be?
Brown: This whole project started kind of in reverse. Thirty years ago, I wrote a little fugue on synthesizer using a setting that sounded like a bullfrog in the low register and little chirping frogs in the high register. I called it “Happy Frogs” and wrote a short poem combined with a moral to go along with it – that we all sing different tunes, and if we all work together we can make beautiful music, things like that. It was a very simple idea, but a few people heard it and reacted positively, so I kept writing. I recorded the pieces to a cassette tape and printed a handful of copies of the book at Kinkos and sold it at the Water Street Bookstore on consignment (laughs).
I never really gave it another thought until someone in China heard it and asked about publishing it a couple of years ago. I was in Shanghai on a book tour promoting “Origin” and I went on a national television network for an interview, and before we got into the new book the host mentioned that they wanted to talk about “Musica Animalia,” which was the name of that self-published book of poetry.
My initial reaction was, “Wow, I haven’t thought about that in years.” To which they responded, “Well, we got a copy on eBay. We have it right here and we’re going to play it on the air.” I said, ‘Hey, I’m here to talk about my novel, not children’s music I wrote 30 years ago,” but when I got off the air, a publisher who was in the studio said they’d love to put it out.
I called Random House to let them know about the conversation, and much to my surprise they expressed an interest in reading and hearing it. They said that if I could make it more substantial and build it out, they’d love to publish it, too.
And so that’s how it started. I wondered if I still had the chops to write classical music, and it turns out I did! I honestly feel like the pieces I wrote most recently are some of the best I’ve done. It’s a great feeling.
I wound up writing 10 new pieces of music, 10 new poems, orchestrated it all for symphony, and brought in a bunch of talented people to help bring it to fruition, including Bob Lord and his team at PARMA.
EDGE: Why music? What is it good for? Why do you seek it? I understand you tried your hand at music some three decades ago, and that it went far beyond “Happy Frogs.” Why’d you give up on it, and, further, how did that experience help fuel this collective work?
Brown: Well, I grew up in a household with parents that didn’t have any interest in owning a TV. My mom was a professional organist. My dad was a very talented singer. We read a lot, took a lot of music lessons, listened to a lot of music, went to concerts around campus at Philips Exeter, where we lived in a dormitory. So I grew up around music, played a lot of piano and really came to love it. I was kind of a loner – kind of an emotional kid, and I would just play piano, by myself, for hours. I started writing music, and even studied classical composition in college, which I then used to construct pop music.
When I got out of Amherst College – I had majored in creative writing and Spanish of all things – I thought, “Do I want to be a creative writer? Do I want to write short stories, or do I want to be a musician?” Music was my first choice, so I moved to L.A. and eventually got a production deal with a very famous producer who had worked with folks like Billy Joel and Air Supply, and I thought it was going to be great.
We made a record that came out at absolutely the wrong moment in history (laughs). The rap craze was in full swing and my record tanked. It did absolutely nothing. That was the age of Milli Vanilli, Tone Loc, Vanilla Ice, and nobody wanted to hear me singing love ballads. So, I switched back to writing, wrote a book, and the first publisher that read it, bought it. I thought, “Oh my goodness, book publishing is so easy!” (laughs). I’d been rejected everywhere in Hollywood at that point. Then, of course, the book came out and it went on to sell 12 copies (laughs). I thought, “Maybe this isn’t sooooo easy,” but I stuck with it and have been incredibly fortunate ever since.
EDGE: Did you have a loose soundtrack in your head when you set out to write this book? Did the music come first, or the poems?
Brown: It started primarily with the music. I felt like I could write a poem about any animal, but the question was, what did the animal sound like? I could write a poem about a badger, but I have no idea what a badger sounds like from a musical perspective. But if you’re talking about a kangaroo, or a hippo, or a blue whale, or a busy beetle – to me, they immediately bring a musical sound to mind. It was important to choose animals I could represent in music, and the writing followed from there.
EDGE: In general, what’s the importance of classical music? Why was it the genre of choice to bring the musical portion of this project to life?
Brown: I’m not trying to be Aaron Copland here! This is music that is supposed to be fun, an experience for kids and families to connect. I don’t want to say they’re not serious compositions, but the music is supposed to be a spark for the imagination, like “Peter and the Wolf” and “The Carnival of the Animals.” Classical music was an important part of my upbringing, and I want to help give kids and families today something new to share and experience together.
EDGE: Is it difficult to completely change your mindset as a writer to create something that appeals to children as opposed to an older demographic that you’ve long been known to entertain with works like “The Da Vinci Code”?
Brown: It wasn’t hard because I’ve always written, and continue to write, pop songs. I’ve done it for my whole life. I’m very used to writing in the short form and I’ve written a lot of poetry, so it felt good to do something familiar for me, but new for readers and listeners. Subject-wise, sure, it’s a whole different thing, but it’s also been an absolute blast!
EDGE: Back to the music … what was the experience like working with Bob Lord and PARMA Recordings to help shape the logistics and finished product of the orchestral suite that runs parallel with the book? What did you appreciate about actually being a part of the recording sessions?
Brown: It’s kind of like making a movie. You work on the script, which in this case is the score, and you tell yourself you know what it’s going to sound like. But every one of these musicians, or actors, directors, conductors, brings his or her own flair, their style, their own interpretation, so what comes out is a little bit of surprise. I remember talking to Ron Howard about this and he said, “Look, I can think I know what a movie is going to look like, but until you see the cut you really just don’t know.”
So it was a little like that. Even though I’d made pop records and composed classical music before, I hadn’t worked with an actual orchestra on my own music. I think someone with Bob’s ears could look at the score and know within seconds what it might sound like, but for me, because I’d never orchestrated any of my music for symphony, I was surprised. “Oh, wow! That actually sounds better than I thought!” (laughs).
I was very grateful for the expertise of Bob and his team. I did a lot of the orchestrating myself on sequencers – which is to say, someone with limited musical ability, who couldn’t play a note on a timpani or trumpet, can create music for those instruments using a computer – so I would create the orchestrations the way I heard them in my head and then the team would take my score and make it better, and, in the process say, ‘Hey, this is a great idea, but, you know, violins can’t do that …’ (laughs). It was a great learning experience for me.
EDGE: Why did you all opt to work with the Zagreb Festival Orchestra in Croatia to bring the musical portion of this adventure to fruition?
Brown: It mainly had to do with Bob’s connections. He felt very strongly that they could not only handle it, but really bring it to life and would love the opportunity. It was such a great choice. When you watch video of the sessions you see all these people playing their parts and smiling and laughing, it’s great. It’s also quite possible that if I took this to one of the household-name symphonies they’d be like, “Are you kidding me? I’m the concertmaster of this amazing orchestra and I’m playing a composition called ‘Bouncing Kangaroos’? I don’t think so!” (laughs).
I’m not sure if that’s the way it would have been, but in Croatia they provided us with such a high quality of execution and passion for the project. I’m grateful for it.
EDGE: What are you hoping readers take with them when they experience “Wild Symphony”? There’s so many layers, and even a continuation of your codes and clues…
Brown: A whole bunch of things! It’s about a love of music, a love of reading, about family and friendship, and about igniting imagination in children. The morals in the poems also connect with what is happening today, because we seem to be lost in the world a little bit, so there’s some reminders in the book along the lines of, “It’s great to appreciate that everyone has their own talents, and hey, you’re special, too.” These are simple messages that encourage individuality, but also speak to not being afraid to open up if you need it, because it’s the only way people can help you. I think we all need to be reminded of that from time to time, and it’s a quiet way to reinforce some of the core values that a lot of us grew up with.
EDGE: There’s an interactive element to the book that enables readers to use their smart device to hover over the pages and the corresponding piece of the soundtrack will ensue. Very cool. How’d that piece of technology work its way into the fold?
Brown: The goal was to create a seamless way to deliver the music, and it was a challenge. We wanted an app that didn’t force you to be stuck to a screen, because we want the attention to be spent on the book. In the simplest terms, we’re using a type of augmented reality so that all you have to do is hold the phone over the book and it will play whatever the corresponding music is. When you turn the page, it immediately stops and switches to the song for that animal. You can flip to any page in the book at any time and it immediately knows what the music track is. It’s like magic.
EDGE: Tell us how the release of this book and music is set to unfold. Looks like there’s a global release in Croatia, where you recorded the music, and then a stateside unveiling at the Music Hall in Portsmouth. What excites you about the launch?
Brown: The music is a very important part of the project, and pre-virus we had a massive worldwide performance schedule planned. As you can imagine, that has been partially delayed, but we wanted to celebrate the release of the book with a couple special events in Zagreb, where the orchestra will give the world premiere, and of course here in Portsmouth, where we’ll have the U.S. premiere.
I have strong ties at The Music Hall and am an enormous fan of what they do. We’re all fortunate to have world-class entertainment right here in our community without the headaches of a working metropolis. The concert will be a fundraiser for The Music Hall and the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra – two amazing organizations that I want to support. So, with a little luck, and if the virus cooperates, we’ll all be able to get out, gather and enjoy live music again.
EDGE: What were your personal takeaways from this creative journey? Did you learn anything new?
Brown: I confirmed what I kind of already knew … I love the creative process. I love creating something from nothing and developing inspiration from that process and also from the feeling of other people getting inspired by it as well.
EDGE: Final question: What animal does Dan Brown most associate himself with, and why?
Brown: I think at the moment it has to be a yellow lab (laughs). I spend all my time with Winston and I can only hope I’m as good natured as he is …
For more information, visit wildsymphony.com.