After Sylvester inadvertently uses the magic pebble to transform himself into a rock, his parents soon become aware their son is missing (“Where is Sylvester?). As they grow more anxious, they venture out to ask their neighbors if anyone has seen their boy (“Ask The Neighbors”), and then the neighbor’s children (“Ask The Children”).
A note for the benefit of any tune detectives among my readers: the third part of today’s track, “Ask The Children,” is based on a composition by Maurice Ravel, the Prelude from Le Tombeau de Couperin. I selected this track as dummy music during the workshop of Sylvester because I thought the scurrying sixteenth notes were a wonderful evocation of children at play, and eventually decided it would be okay to incorporate it as a quotation in the score. Of course, I’ve fiddled with it a bit, adding the “Oatsdale” theme as a foreground melody in the first section and tinkering with the tempo in the middle. It makes me feel a little self-conscious to dress myself in borrowed finery from Ravel, but you should think of this more as a hommage than a rip-off.
It’s time to showcase another project I created for my friends at Enchantment Theatre Company, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Sylvester was the second original score I created for Enchantment, following up on the successful collaboration that led to the creation of Harold and the Purple Crayon. I wrote it four years ago, in the summer of 2011, and recorded it with the same group of instrumentalists that were featured on Harold: Matt Gallagher (trumpet), Ron Kerber (saxes and flute), Kevin MacConnell (bass) and Lars Halle (drums). I’ve already posted a few of my favorite tracks, which you can find using the Sylvester tag, but now I’m starting from the beginning – from sunrise.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is a book by William Steig (1907-2003), the illustrator and author who is probably best known for Shrek, the book that launched an animated film franchise and a Broadway musical. Sylvester was published in 1969; it won the Caldecott Medal and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Children’s Literature the next year. The book is well known and beloved by teachers at the elementary school level, or so I’m told by my friend Laurie, a teacher who has taught several generations of young readers.
The score begins with a musical representation of a sunrise, followed by a theme which I call “Welcome To Oatsdale,” a friendly down-home tune that conveys the easy, happy life in the small fictional town where Sylvester Duncan and his family live. The Duncans are all donkeys, if you haven’t figured that out from the picture above, but they live in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in rural Connecticut, where Steig lived for many years.
I took my copy of Sylvester down from the shelf and discovered that this edition includes the speech that Steig gave when he received the Caldecott Award. May I quote a bit from it?
I am well aware not only of the importance of children — whom we naturally cherish and who also embody our hopes for the future — but also of the importance of what we provide for them in the way of art; and I realize that we are cometing with a lot of other cultural influences, some of which beguile them in false directions. Art, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe, and … ithelps us to know life in a way that skill keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life.
… I am hopeful that more and more the work I do for children, as well as the work I do for adults, will approach the condition of art.
I don’t think I have anything useful to add to that statement, except perhaps to say, True dat.
For today’s post, I’m taking a breather from Leading Lady songs to celebrate my grandson’s fourth birthday. Miles Buffalo Gilbert was born on May 25, 2011, and in the spring and summer of the following year, I composed the score for Enchantment Theater Company’s production of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. The production included a sequence which was not in William Steig’s story, a flashback to Sylvester’s birth and childhood, with tender, happy scenes where he bakes cookies with his mom and builds something with his dad in the back yard. I scored the sequence with a simple but poignant jazz waltz, and decided to name the tune for my grandson. It evokes happy memories of times spent with my own sons, and experiences that await my son Alex as he discovers the joys (and all the many emotions) of fatherhood. The fierce joy of fatherhood was something I never expected to be so powerful!
This is another selection that I performed at last Saturday’s salon. “Hello” was written in 1985, the year that D’Arcy and I moved to Syracuse with our infant son Alex, and it’s a song of self-introduction. (Feel free to admire the snazzy two-camera edit on this video! I’m a DIY Spielberg, baby!) More about the song below.