Friday, August 14, 2009

Alligators and Music!

Our book today is the delightful Alligators and Music, published in Boston in 1976, written by Donald Elliott and filled with the captivating illustrations of Clinton Arrowood. The book is another perfect example of that wonderful middle-ground I often write about, a presentation that is so simple, so playful, so thoughtful, that it can instantly be enjoyed by adults and children alike.

Elliott and Arrowood take us on a brief, decidedly up-tempo tour of the personnel behind any symphony orchestra. We get emotional first-hand (first-claw?) impressions of what it's like to be a member of the various constituent groups of any orchestra.

There are the strings, like the 'cello:

I'm so grateful to be a string instrument that doesn't need to be blown upon or struck, and I'm particularly grateful that I am neither one of those tiny, high-pitched violins nor one of those huge double basses. My sounds, like my size, are right in between, not frivolous and not ridiculously serious, but warm, full, and - well - just right.

And there are the brass, like the French horn:

I know what you want to ask: why must I have all those curvy tubes like noodles on a dish? I need them, that's why, to produce my music, and I'm proud to be so complicated. Life isn't simple, you know, and if you want to make a real contribution to it, you must do and be many things.

There's the percussion section, whose timpani player manages to look just as harried and ill-tempered as timpani players everywhere:

The only thing really important in life is rhythm; rhythm, beat, and timing; everything depends on these. It's all well and good to bring forth grand melodies, and I must admit that they often entrance me, but when it comes down to basics, where would anything be if it weren't for my rhythm-keeping and my booming voice.

And there are those instruments that exist apart from the crowd, foremost of which is, of course, the piano:

I stand alone. I am the prince! I am the prince of instruments, the prince of music-makers. Loud, soft, fast, slow, happy, sad - I can be and I am all of these things and more. I can produce sounds that are just like the soft sighs of lovers, the thunderings of storms, the jokes of clowns, the joys of life, the pains of death. I can be shallow, I can be deep, I can be like nature, or I can be as precise and careful as arithmetic.

And when all the pieces come together, something far, far more magical than the sum of their parts is created. Anyone who's ever appreciated a live symphony performance will agree:

I am the symphony orchestra, and through the guidance of the conductor and under his firm control, I unite all my separate elements into a creation far greater than wood, brass, silver, or gold, greater than sounds, greater than the people who compose, the people who play, than the conductor himself. And although I know that I can never completely escape my earthly limitations and that in the midst of the serious there always lurks a touch of the ridiculous, I know, too, that I can create a sublime kind of beauty unsurpassed by anything in this world.

And in case you're wondering "Why alligators?" - our collaborating creators have the perfect riposte in mind: "Why not alligators?"


laura said...

Thank you so much for this. Don and Clinton were my teachers in high school and I made notecards using the illustrations.

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