Cory Cullinan: Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony

Project Title:   Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony

Creator:  Cory Cullinan AKA Doctor Noize

Description:  For the past several years, Cullinan's been amusing kids with his Doctor Noize and Grammaropolis projects while subtly teaching them something.  And while Cullinan's passion for classical music hasn't been hidden amongst the songs he's written and recorded, in his latest project, a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 to record an album of his introduce-kids-to-orchestral-form live event, it takes center stage.

I chatted briefly with Cullinan via e-mail last about the project, though anyone who's chatter with him about a subject he's passionate about knows that it's easy for him to move beyond briefly.

You joke in the mini-opera that your kids don't listen to orchestral music, but what was the real inspiration for the project?  (Or maybe it was, in fact, your daughters.)

You are correct -- my kids have always listened to orchestral music and opera with me. But they are the exception to the norm, so I gave them those lines to say in the video.

The inspiration for the project is kids and the wonder of orchestral music.  One of my degrees from Stanford is in classical music, but I have been a teacher, coach, and children's musician my whole life.  I know what many adults forget:  Kids are the smartest, most adventurous, and most creative audience in the world.  They are made for colorful, challenging music.  The question isn't why am I creating orchestral music for kids.  The question is:  Why isn't everyone doing that?

We have dumbed down our own commercial arts culture to the point where the most revered musical art form is the 3-minute pop song with a catchy hook.  I love rock and pop music, and I love to write and record it.  But I have also studied enough great music to know that any great composer could write a great pop song on a lazy afternoon.  We are being lazy with what we present our children with, and it couldn't come at a worse time:  The next generation is going to have to be more sophisticated than our generation is.  Issues like climate change will not be solved by minds who have been fed nothing but simple instant-gratification pop song hooks and their intellectual internet-world equivalents.

We should be giving kids the kind of music that both their brains and the world they're inheriting from us demand.  We should go big and give them our best stuff.  We should inspire them to love a challenge and master big things.  They're gonna have to.

What is the difference between, say, Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" and your piece?

First of all:  I love both of those pieces.  There is no replacing what they've meant to the culture and many generations.  I taught both of those pieces to my students when I was a teacher.  I am doing this because I love pieces like Britten's and Prokofiev's, not because I think they failed.

That being said...  The Young Person's Guide, as its very title suggests, is dated and stodgy to modern ears.  Peter & The Wolf still resonates with young ears today because it features a compelling story and is character-based, like Phineas McBoof Crashes The Symphony.  But listen to the story and you will notice that it describes a world and sensibilities that are now over a century old.  Most kids today don't relate to hunts and wolves outside their back yard.

Phineas McBoof Crashes The Symphony is similar to Peter & The Wolf in that it uses story and characters to draw children -- and adults -- in.  In tone, it is both deeper educationally and more modern in its wild and crazy humor than Prokofiev's piece.

As to the educational element, it goes beyond Peter & Young Person's education on instruments and orchestration -- which it has -- to introduce some pretty deep stuff within the story.  This includes Classical Sonata Form structure, Modern Pop Song Structure, and how the former inspired the latter.  (This is something most modern rock stars who write hit songs in Modern Pop Song Structure don't even know -- but your kids will!)  It teaches about the five major periods of classical music.  And it even tells a very complex story about a complex character -- Phineas -- and how the choices he's made that seem so modern, heroic and bold have actually created problems and disappointments for the people he loves.  He learns to be a better person and relate to more complex social needs than simply the need to please his own muse.

The other difference is that, unlike Peter and Young Person's Guide, Phineas McBoof Crashes The Symphony is actually a full-length opera for kids and their parents.  It's the length of a movie, in two acts -- and we hope to make it into an animated film someday.  It's a complete work of musical theater, or opera for kids.  But it's not written by a guy who's spent his life in the concert hall for adults -- it's written by a guy who has spent the last 15 years making music for kids and -- before that -- running a high school arts department and music program.  I love classical music, but I also know what resonates with kids from years of experience.

My background reflects an unusual combination of experience that lead me to believe I had to write this opera for kids.  If I'm truly gonna live by my stated belief system, reach for the moon, and bring kids and families the most unique and rewarding thing I can give them, this is it.  They don't need another pop album from me right now -- there are plenty of others who can do that well too.  This is what I need to do now to live my life the way Phineas McBoof would live it.

The fact that we've successfully tested a one-hour live version of the show to sell-out orchestral audiences in multiple states, and it's been a hit everywhere it's played, makes it much less of a risk to record too.

So Isabel Leonard and Nathan Gunn are Kind Of A Big Deal in opera circles -- how did they get involved?

I have been friends with Nathan Gunn for a long time -- in fact, he's been on every Doctor Noize album, from the very first one.  Nathan married the daughter of my hometown childhood piano teacher.  His wife is an exceptional pianist, and the whole family is made of great musicians.  His mother-in-law (my former piano teacher) and I conducted joint orchestral/choral concerts together when we ran the music departments at neighboring high schools in Silicon Valley.  So our family connection is pretty deep.

Nathan is brilliant and hilarious, and he gets exactly what we're doing:  He has to be musically brilliant and downright hysterical to kids.  Working with him in the studio is always a hilarious and fun day.  It doesn't hurt our PR that he was one of People Magazine's Sexiest Men Alive.  And he is so revered in the industry that he has opened a lot of doors for us with this production.  For example...

Transient

I have never known a better actress and musician than Isabel Leonard.  As you may know, she won one of opera's major awards this year:  the Richard Tucker Award.  Isabel joined us because Nathan -- who has worked with her in several major productions -- told her it was a blast and she should play our fun evil villain.  I called Isabel up and thought I was gonna have to give her a sales pitch, but Nathan had already told her how much fun it was, so she was already in.  So -- thanks Nathan!

Nathan and Isabel are both parents, and they want to do this for both personal and philosophical reasons.  We may have some other fun casting news in the near future via similar "cast recruitment methods"...

What does $50,000 [the goal for the Kickstarter project] buy you these days in putting together an orchestral record?

$50,000 will get us halfway there to a double CD of an orchestral/operatic album.  We are recording with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra -- a world-class orchestra.  I wanted to record with an American orchestra instead of going to Prague, which is what a lot of people do to save money.  The album will have state-of-the-art 3D animation on the cover and packaging, and it will be produced with the best engineers and mastering in the world.  We are not giving kids a second-rate orchestral recording.

Half of the money is being raised on Kickstarter, and the other half is being raised through traditional fundraising means straight to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, which makes it a non-profit charitable donation.

If we don't raise the money to do it right, I won't do it.  We won't record anything less than a first-rate orchestra with first-rate singers and first-rate engineering.  For many kids, this is gonna be the only time someone puts orchestral music in front of them -- it would be a tragedy to give them anything less than the best opera singers and the most gorgeous colors of the orchestra possible.  Do it right and kids are intrigued for life; do it wrong and they'll think it's dull and boring.

We'll do it right or I'll do something else, just like everything else with Doctor Noize.  I am fully cognizant that it would be easier for me to make a living as Doctor Noize -- and, frankly, get more attention and acclaim from the children's media industry -- by recording album after album of pop songs with simple, catchy hits like "Banana."  But just as I challenge kids to reach in the Doctor Noize stories, I do this job to do my best stuff and make the most positive impact on the world I can -- not to find the path of least resistance to supposed success.

OK, the elevator speech -- why is it important that people pledge to this project?

Kids are the most important and creative audience in the world, and thus they should experience the most colorful and inspiring music in the world.  Today's culture promotes increasingly short-attention-span multimedia to a generation who'll grow up to face increasingly sophisticated challenges.  Kids want to reach and challenge themselves to master Big Things.  To reach is the purest state of joy.

Like any great teacher, Phineas has high expectations of kids.  Like all kids, today's kids are up to the challenge.  Watch 'em memorize every bit of a song in ways an adult never would, and you'll know they'll conquer music's highest forms with Phineas.

It's significant that all the "serious reasons" for releasing Phineas McBoof Crashes The Symphony are "under the hood" for kids.  I outlined the serious reasons to you because you asked; but as far as kids are concerned, this is just a big fun work of musical theater for orchestra.

To quote the head of the University Of Denver's woodwind department at last weekend's live orchestral Colorado premiere of Phineas:  "That was an auditorium of pure joy."  As long as it's done with humor -- in a fun way that is as playful as it is educational -- kids have more fun stretching their minds than they do relaxing them. That is one of the great truths that's overlooked by so much children's media today -- and it's overlooked because adults are lazy, not because kids are.

If you agree with what I just said, you should support this project and make sure it happens -- because there may never be another group of people with our unique combination of passion and experience to bring orchestral music to kids as the production crew and talent we have committed to this project.

If you think kids should just listen to pop songs by Doctor Noize and other musicians -- and not larger-form works -- then you should not spend your money and time supporting this project.