Friday, December 7, 2012

Anthem to Uniqueness

Michael Hearst 
By his own admission, Michael Hearst, author of Unusual Creatures, is attracted to the uncommon. He collects unique instruments and plays them. He collects unusual creatures and composes for them. No words, just melodies. (And by "collects," I mean collects and researches information about them, not that he collects the actual animals; though Hearst does collect the actual musical instruments.) 

The format of his book invites kids to dip in and out or read straight through. When I got a chance to interview him, he said the design was inspired by Safari Cards, which he collected as a kid. All of his interests inform his book.

Hearst said that hearing Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens was one of the reasons he went to music school. "That gave me the idea of writing pieces of music inspired by the animals, and even by their sounds," he said. He heard Carnival performed by the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, with poems by Ogden Nash to go with the songs. When he performs the 14 songs from the CD Songs for Unusual Creatures* (which preceded the book), he also reads the poems he wrote, inspired by the animals.

If you listen to "Blobfish," for instance, you can hear its blobbiness in the music. He used two unusual instruments for the song: the contrabasson, which he said is a very deep oboe--"the lowest you can get, from the reed family"--and the tubbax. He explained, "I wanted it to sound like two blobfish talking to each other." Michael Hearst is also passionate about saving these creatures, many of whom are endangered (but he saves his gentle proselytizing for the endnotes). A Renaissance man, Hearst smoothly integrates art and science through his music, his writing and his research. 

*Note: All 14 creatures featured on the CD are also included in the book; although the CD is not included with the book, you can hear a preview (and order it) on the author's Web site.

Photo credit: Chris Smith Photography

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