Friday, April 23, 2010

The Bunny, the Moon and Me

Sadly, for space, I had to cut my own article from the liner notes of the new CD of Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny. Tant pis. Never mind, they will appear in the program for the concert. Hopefully other places. But here it is:

The Bunny, The Moon and Me

By Glen Roven

Sadly, I did not grow up with The Runaway Bunny or Goodnight Moon. I’m sure I’d be a happier, more well adjusted person now had I read Margaret Wise Brown’s masterpieces as a toddler—but then I might not have embraced these two books with the fervor I did, discovering them in my middle age.

The first time I heard of The Runaway Bunny was when I watched the movie Wit. In the film, Emma Thompson, a brilliant academician consumed with cancer, lies dying in her hospital bed when her kindly first-grade teacher pays her a visit. The teacher has brought The Runaway Bunny, and although Thompson is deep in a coma, the teacher nevertheless begins to read: “Once there was little bunny who wanted to run away.”

I listened. And I was hooked.

As a composer, I keep my ears poised, always alert to any inspiration, and it took about a second to realize that here was a story to investigate further. By the next day, I’d read the book—it only takes a couple of minutes, after all—and by the time the Mother Bunny offered her famous carrot, I knew I had my piece. In fact, the music was swirling through my mind even as I closed the cover.

I knew instantly that a violin soloist would portray the Bunny, with his violin-like impulse to “hop,” “jump,” “misbehave,” and certainly “run away.” I also knew that though I was intrigued by the notion of a female narrator, the primary adventures would be developed entirely in musical terms—so that, for example, when my bunny swims as a trout in the stream, it would be courtesy of the woodwinds and harp, as well as, of course, that solo violin. In this way, my notion of a simple composition for orchestra, voice and solo violin quickly evolved into one of music’s most noble and flexible forms: the violin concerto.

Undoubtedly the greatest pleasure I’ve gotten from this piece is having the children in the audience tell me what the Bunny is up to. For example, as the composer I was surprised to learn that in the Circus segment, the bunny rides in one of those cars packed with clowns and the bunny is the last out of the door. I find this a profound and moving observation. Even the most sophisticated computer cannot make the leap from a violin melody to envisioning a bunny in a car full of clowns. But kids do this as a matter of course! There is no greater reward for a composer: having an audience respond.


My selection of Goodnight Moon was more circuitous. After my first encounter with Margaret Wise Brown, I turned, of course, to her many other books. My violin concerto was already enjoying a bit of success; it was recorded by SONY and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Brooke Shields narrating, and for the American premiere at Carnegie Hall, I conducted, with Glenn Close providing the narration. Symphonies around the country were asking for a companion piece.

The obvious choice was Goodnight Moon. But there was a problem. I didn’t understand it. Here I was, an adult man, with no comprehension of a book every nursery child could recite from memory. I had no idea why it was so successful, nor why it spoke so passionately and deeply to children the world over, and in my desperation, I shared this with my sister, a new mother, who whispered in some embarrassment, “I don’t get it either.” (Clearly, she did not want such blasphemy to banish her from the 76th Street playground). Nevertheless, my nephew Myles loved it. Like every other pre-schooler, Myles demanded it be read each night like clockwork, and not only once; Goodnight Moon had to be read over and over and over until he fell blissfully asleep, dreaming, no doubt, of that bowl full of mush. Hush!

Still, I couldn’t write what I didn’t know, understand, or even like. So I read hundreds of other children’s books, hoping to find that same spark that had inspired my concerto. Nothing.

Because of my concerto, I met Leonard Marcus, who is not only one of the world’s great authorities on children’s literature (see his liner notes), but also the author of Awakened by the Moon, The Biography of Margaret Wise Brown. In that book he devotes over thirty pages to Goodnight Moon, a story of barely 300 words, placing the narrative in the context of the progressive Bank Street School where Ms. Brown trained as a teacher—and where the school’s youngest students formed her very first audience. It was this explanation that opened my eyes:

“Goodnight Moon is a here-and-now story, but one supercharged with emotion, with a freewheeling sense of the fantastic as an aspect of the everyday.”

After reading Leonard’s book, I got it. This was a book told from the point of view of a child: a child who discovers new things every day, a child who marvels at a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon. And it all takes place in the child’s own universe. Which happens to be a “Great Green Room.”

Finally I heard music in my head. I knew I could create that great green room in the orchestra: a magnificent comforting space where a child feels blissfully safe and warm. I would create the kittens, the mittens and the quiet old lady (who is pictorially, of course, the Mother Bunny). And I would create the explosive moment when the great green room bursts open and every grown or young listener wishes goodnight to the stars and goodnight to the air and goodnight to noises everywhere.

Among my many scores, songs and orchestral compositions, these are my two favorites, the pieces of which I am most proud. Just like the cow, I am over the moon to have the great Lauren Flanigan sing the world premiere of Goodnight Moon. I’m thrilled to have legendary Kate Mulgrew lend her husky contralto to the concerto and give voice to The Runaway Bunny. But most of all, I’m ecstatic to join the world’s community of children in appreciating—at last!—the great Margaret Wise Brown. Happy Birthday!

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