Interview: Cory Cullinan (Doctor Noize)

Cory Cullinan

Cory Cullinan

Cory Cullinan is a busy man, a fast talker, a guy with boundless enthusiasm.  And for much of the past decade, he's channeled that energy into being Doctor Noize, recording and performing music (often though not always with a classical bent) for kids.  His most recent project is his most audacious -- Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony is a two-act (or two-CD, if that's still how your family listens to music) work of musical theatre for kids that runs the gamut of musical styles.  It's definitely one of the most ambitious works for kids from the past several years.

Cory chatted with me about his musical background, the process of creating this latest album, and his favorite memories from the experience.  As I noted, he's got a lot of energy, and is passionate about this project, so there's a lot to dig into here...

Zooglobble: Let me start by asking, when did you first start getting into classical music?  Did the ghost of Beethoven appear somewhere?

Cory Cullinan: When I was 17.  It was a combination of things, pretty serious.  I had very interesting high school years where my brother was a computer programmer -- Steve Jobs used to come over and hang out at my house with my brother, so I had an interesting intellectual background.  My brother got a brain tumor and ended up dying two years later.  And my father who was also very well known in the Bay Area and very depressed about this and killed himself less than a year after that.  So when I was in high school I had opportunity -- undesirable opportunity, you might say -- to look at life differently from most 15, 16, 17-year-olds.  I was really inspired by my brother.  He wasn’t into music, he was making games, programming for corporations.  He was doing what he loved at a very young age and a very high level.  And I decided I wanted to do that.  I’d always loved music and soccer.  I’d played in a bunch of rock bands, I’d written rock songs.  By the time I was 17 or 18, I still loved rock songs, and I still do, but I felt it a little bit constricting and boring since it was always the same structure and always the same instruments.  So I started reaching out to other forms of music, and I looked at jazz and looked at classical music. And I decided orchestral music and classical music was awesome.  It was amazingly colorful and vibrant and literally limitless.

So by the time I was 18 and got to Stanford, I was a classical music major.  I’d gone from being a soccer kid 3 years earlier to being a classical music major.  I still played soccer at Stanford for a little while, but retired soon after.

Doctor Noize and friends

Doctor Noize and friends

So that’s a long way of saying I had a series of inspirations and events that made me think, I want to reach for something really, really interesting and challenging.  Because when [my brother] was dying, it made him happy because he was doing something significant and challenging and wonderfully rich intellectually.  And I thought, I want to do that.  When I became Doctor Noize, it’s ironic, my first hit song was “Banana,” which is not exactly the most intellectually rigorous song that’s ever been created in this world.  But I knew I wanted to be more challenging for kids than the genre would typically demand of me.  And that has been both positive and negative for my career in terms of exposure and success level I’ve had as Doctor Noize.  But I learned from my brother, I don’t care.  I’m going to do what I’m going to do, and hopefully people will like it enough to support me, and if they don’t, I’ll do something else.  That’s sort of been my philosophy in everything, from building this crazy studio in my basement to Doctor Noize, I’m going to do what is most interesting and what I can contribute most to the world and hopefully there will be enough people to support it and if there aren’t I’ll do something else.

And I know you understand about classical music... don’t you play cello?

Violin -- I’m not in a symphony currently, but I still pull out my violin every couple weeks or so.

So I know that you get it.  An orchestra is like a sports team, too, like a football team.  There are 65 people in an orchestra, and they’re all trying to do something bigger than themselves.  That’s a really beautiful thing about orchestral music.  The same thing’s true with a 4-piece rock band, but it’s much more so with a giant orchestra of a bunch of players who are playing very sophisticated, contrapuntal music and trying to make it come together to make something really beautiful.

Were you always more interested in orchestral music than ensembles or solo work [in classical music]?

I love them both -- I love the Haydn string quartets and there’s other things I love, but I really like the Romantic orchestral music and so does the modern world because almost every film score is a Romantic piece in new clothes.  I love the chamber music, too, but as I said before I’m fascinated with a large group of people coming together to do something bigger than themselves.  That’s just conceptually beautiful.  It’s also challenging to write for -- it’s much more challenging to write for an orchestra than for a string quartet.

When did you start writing the score for Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony?

I think it was back in 2010 or 2011.  What happened is that it started as a commission for a live work.  I got a commission from the McConnell Foundation in Northern California, the Chico/Redding area -- I got a $10,000 commission to write a live, orchestral work for kids.  And Kyle Pickett, who was the ultimate conductor of this CD, was the conductor of the North State Symphony at the time.  He and I were music majors at Stanford way back in the day, and we both sung in the Stanford Chamber Chorale together -- they are the adult choir on this album.

Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony cover

Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony cover

The task was to write a 45-to-60 minute show that got kids jazzed about orchestral music.  So what we did was we did the shows, we did a tour of Northern California -- we went to Chico, Redding, and some other cities on 3 consecutive days, and each time we got more than a thousand people there in big auditoriums, and the crowds went nuts.  So we were like, “Wow, this is awesome, we’re on to something here” and we decided then that we wanted to make a recording.  The first version of that is we did an orchestral version of “Banana” on a Doctor Noise album -- that was fun, we got Nathan Gunn.  And then it became this bigger ambition, which Kyle and I had talked about from the beginning, which was to do an album of it, a two-act musical.  But the shows will still be the 45-to-60 minute version we originally did on the tour.

It was funny -- one of my favorite pop/rock guys is Elvis Costello, and just by chance every night on that tour, we played the day after the nights Elvis Costello played in the same theatre.  So his buses would go out the same night we would come in, and that made us feel good.  I never met, though, the bus was always literally pulling out as we were pulling in.

When you’re writing an original orchestral work for kids, how hard is it not to hear Peter and the Wolf constantly?

Oh, it’s easy, I don’t care about Peter and the Wolf.  I mean, I like Peter and the Wolf, but although we marketed it as a modern kid’s Peter and the Wolf, or a modern version of Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, I’ve always looked at every Doctor Noise album as an audio Pixar movie for kids.  I really wanted to write a musical that introduced kids to the orchestra and knew from very early on that we didn’t want to do a 15- or -20-minute thing like Peter and the Wolf.  There is a Peter and the Wolf-ish section in the second act when all the instruments are introduced in a dramatic narrative sort of way, but didn’t really think about Peter and the Wolf at all, to be honest.

That’s interesting because if you were to ask someone, is there a classical music piece for kids, they might say Peter and the Wolf  and if they had more than 5 [classical] CDs in their collection they might say, there’s that other, by that English guy, but beyond Peter and the Wolf and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, there’s really not much there.  But what struck me was -- you used the phrase “musical theatre,” and deliberately, because there are songs in there that are clearly not in the classical tradition, they’re much poppier, or musical theatre-y.  So that was one of your goals from the beginning, to be not just classical, but more inclusive, genre-wise?

Totally.  If you look at the Doctor Noize characters, one the ways I set it up so it’d be fun, was that characters have totally different voices -- we have opera voices, we have bad country voices, we have pop voices, so the idea is that every time one of these characters steps forward and sings, they’re learning about this other style of music, but they’re still bringing their own thing to it.  It’s not like we’re going to have the Lenny, Phineas, and Sydney the Beak all of a sudden singing opera.  That wasn’t the goal from the beginning -- it was, wouldn’t it be interesting if these three tenors characters and Lenny and Sydney the Beak, who’s a rapper, they all educated each other about their styles of music and they all learned to love all those styles.  That was always the premise behind the storylines of all the Doctor Noize albums.

When you were coming up with the storyline, did you start with the premise that you wanted to tell a story and then weave some basic classical music knowledge in there --?


So that was the way you worked rather than setting up a structure of “this is how the orchestra operates and I’m going to wrap a story around that.

Totally.  I learned from 3 places -- being a parent, being a high school music teacher, and watching Pixar movies -- that the way to get anybody engaged in anything is to tell a story with characters.  So that is always the first thing.  When I was a high school music teacher, I had this music history class.  It’s possibly the thing I’m most proud of in life because it made me realize I could do this in other arenas.  I had this classical music history class elective in high school and it became so popular it was made a required freshman course.  The way that happened was I learned that if you played Beethoven’s Fifth for people and talked about this amazing 4-note motif, they’re going to get bored out of their minds.  But if you tell a story around it, and you talk about Beethoven and how he went deaf, and why they wrote their stuff, you can get anybody, even a 9-year-old, you want to hear it and they’ll say, “Yes!”  All of that is about building drama into music, which is very easy when you’re talking about classical music because all these musicians are freaks.  There are crazy stories about all of them.

One of my favorite moments as Doctor Noize was when we made a trumpet player cry.  In the North State Symphony, in the show, we had this bad guy, Mama, who hated classical music and was trying to get us to stop the show.  We get to this part of the show where we say, “But then we’d have to play Beethoven’s Fifth.  Do you want to hear Beethoven’s Fifth?,” and a thousand kids scream, “Yeaaaaahhhh!”  And the trumpet player started crying.  I realized we don’t have to play to a bunch of blue-haired old ladies driving Lexuses.  We can introduce this music to kids if we share with them the excitement of the music instead of just getting up and playing the music for them.

The music is very easy to write once you have the story, because stories create emotional situation and drama and things that for a composer are just fun to write.  I’ve always found for me that once you have a structure, the music writes itself. 

You’ve written a lot of the music, so how do you go about getting the cast of characters -- not the characters of the musical, but all these artists -- how do you get their participation in the project?

Well, one of them was my wife, so that’s easy. [Laughs]  There’s a recording studio in the basement, so that’s easy.  Two of them are my children, so that’s easy.  Then it gets more complicated.  The whole Doctor Noize cast came back, so that was kind of easy.  Everybody knows that every year or two, we’re going to get together to make another recording.

The two big snags we had were Isabel Leonard and John McVeigh.  Isabel and Nathan were friends and had performed in many things together and Nathan [Gunn] had been on the Doctor Noize CDs since the first CD, so it’s nice to have a Grammy-winning opera singer on your first CD when no one’s ever heard of you.  That allows you to get people like Isabel Leonard interested, which was so amazing -- it’s unreal what she does.  When I called Isabel, I thought I would be selling her and pitching her on the recording, but after a minute, I realized she was in, that Nathan had already told her about it and said this would be really fun, and she was in.  So that was ridiculously easy.

There’s a track on the CD called “Mama’s Lament,” and it’s Isabel’s big introductory torch song, and that is all one take.  There’s no overdubs, and there’s no pitch-shifting.  And for a composer who’s used to working in a studio and working with all us pop singers who meticulously perfect every note, it was ridiculous to listen to her do that.  If you listen to that piece, it goes from musical theatre to pop to whatever, it’s all over the place, it’s hysterical, and she’s acting. And in one take.  So working with her was just amazing.  That was one moment I will never forget in my recording career, just watching her record that.  

John McVeigh is a guy who’s perform with the Metropolitan Opera, and done some musical theatre, and we got him through... I can’t remember, Kyle Pickett’s wife knew somebody who knew him, I don’t remember. But I just contacted him and he flew out here to Colorado and recorded his part.  He got the role of the shark coming out and being himself over time.  He got it for all sorts of musical and personal reasons and he was just hysterical to work with.  He was the last person we recorded and he made it way better.  

Other people, like Sidney the Beak -- the woman who plays Sidney the Beak is the only non-professional of the major cast members and she was my high school student when I was a high school teacher in the Bay Area.  She was a basketball star and one of the only kids who could rap at the school, and she recorded some rap songs for me and I hired her early on and she kept coming back.  Now she’s 30 years old and I think she’s [with] the global health initiative for the Clinton Foundation or something very impressive like that, but we still get her every 2 years to record for us.  It’s the only thing she does musically, as far as I know [laughs].

I was going to say it was impressive, certainly listening to Isabel Leonard, but listening to the whole album in terms of the number of styles, vocal performances -- it’s a very impressive collection.

I appreciate that, and we have people who are not super-famous who are amazing on this album, like Ben Evans plays both Bottomus and Lenny, who, if you’ve heard them, have totally different voices.  He was a guy I went to college with, and while everybody who [was there] knows Ben Evans, he’s not a household name.  He was amazing.

Cory Cullinan, Isabel Leonard, Nathan Gunn, and Kyle Pickett

Cory Cullinan, Isabel Leonard, Nathan Gunn, and Kyle Pickett

The great thing about working with Isabel and Nathan is they’re both hysterical.  They’re both big-time opera stars.  This is the problem with marketing classical music -- everyone thinks they’re so serious, but they’re actually normal people with kids who have fun.

It was really a gift for me working with people of their stature and working with the Prague Philharmonic.  I felt extremely fortunate to have been able to write something and on the recording for that level.  It’s not something I took lightly.  It was a real gift to me.  Certainly I did my part in setting up that gift, but I got lucky in a lot of ways.  It was pretty neat that they wanted to do it.   And they wanted to do it because they “got it.”  Even my PR agent, Elizabeth Waldman Frazier, when I sent this project to her, she e-mailed back in ten minutes and said, “yeah, I want to do this.”

I don’t know how much you want to get into this philosophical discussion, but we live in a world where attention spans are constricting, constricting to the point where -- and I don’t even consider this a political comment -- one of our two major presidential candidates has, like, a 10-minute attention span.  That’s the world we live in now.  And you can see why -- it has to do with the internet, it has to do with all sorts of popular culture type things.  And I love pop culture.  I would just like us to also be able to apply our minds to things that are more sophisticated and have a longer duration.  There are problems like climate change that our kids are going to need to solve, and it’s not going to get solved by something where if you can’t figure it out in two minutes, we’re going to move on to something else.

So one of the neat things about this project was that everybody was on board from the beginning with the absolute insane crazy and counterintuitive-to-the-modern idea that we are going to make a 2-act operative work of musical theatre for kids.  Right there, that’s nuts.  And part of the appeal of the project is that it’s nuts, right?  It doesn’t really fit in the modern world anymore.  In a weird way that makes it fit because there’s nothing a whole lot like it.  What sort of impact we can make will depend on how many live shows we can book and how many folks like you we can get to talk about it.  But at least we’re giving it a shot.

And what we’ve found from the live shows, is that people love it.  I’ve never had a response like this to the CD I’ve recorded -- we have, like, 75 write-ups, and everybody likes it.  I don’t know if it’s good or people are thinking, “Oh, if I criticize a children’s orchestral album I’m going to sound dumb,” I don’t know.  It seems to me that people get that this is a worthwhile thing to do.  And I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do, it was worth the risk.  It’s my project, I’m certainly no victim, I’m lucky, but it was -- and still is -- quite a financial and career risk for me to do this.  I spent a lot of my time on this, and that time has not yielded money back yet.

Twenty years from now, what are you going to remember about the project and the process of making and performing this particular work?

A couple things.  One, I am going to remember doing this with and for my kids.  Kids, for example, are the ones who came up with the idea of Mama being a bunny.  My kids were directly involved in the story.  My kids were the ones who came up with the idea of her casting spells and instruments flying all around with the musicians attached to them in the concert hall.  So my kids were at the perfect age, they were between the age of 7 and 13 as this whole process went on.  My kids helped me record this, which I do so my kids would have something like this.  So that’s number one, a very selfish reason.  I got to do the album I would love to do for my kids, with my kids.

And number two is, partly because what Doctor Noize had done before, and partly because of the preposterous premise of the whole thing, and partly because of the connections I happen to have, I was able to get literally the exact cast -- the exact orchestra to the exact singing cast -- that I would love to have to do this work.  And rarely in life, whether you’re a creative musician, or an athlete, or anything, very rarely do you get to play on the team you dream of playing on.  I’m almost getting teary just talking about that, just working with this cast on this project... I hope I don’t, but I could die tomorrow and the main thing I wanted to do in life, I’ve gotten to do and very few people get to say that.  I consider it not only my obligation and my opportunity and my good fortune to get to talk about this and get shows and play the album, but I’ve already gotten to do the thing I really wanted to do in life which is a work of musical theatre with an orchestra for kids.  So I feel very lucky is what I’m trying to say.

And that feeling of being fortunate of getting what you want to do in life I know from my childhood is not always going to be the case. There are going to be times of challenge and sorrow in your life and when you get the opportunity to take a risk and do something you really want to do, you should do it.  Every single Doctor Noize album and book tells that story.  I feel fortunate to have been able to do that.