It was Friday, April 23, 1982. I was fourteen, one month shy of my fifteenth birthday. I remember the day and the events that sealed my fate very clearly (although admittedly I had to dig up the old journal I’d kept then to look up the exact date). Whether it was an epiphany, or a choice, or simply one turn of events that set others into motion, what happened that day would mark me as a composer for life. I would not fully acknowledge that fact, undeniably embrace my fate so to speak, for another three years. But it is clear that from April 23, 1982 on, whether I wished to or not, I was a composer.
Up until then if you asked me “what I would be when I grow up” I would have said “actor” (and maybe occasionally added “director”). From as long as I could remember I loved performing and would do so unselfconsciously at any occasion that presented itself or just freely about the house (to my brother’s annoyance). It is probably in my genes. My mother is an opera singer and her mother was a singer and actress during her youth in Finland in the 1920’s. My mother has told me that the way I express myself on stage reminds her forcefully of old stage photos of my Finnish grandmother. So I was likely created a performer, Born That Way to misquote Lady Gaga (although I guess I am also Born That Way in the other sense). Except for one strange inexplicable lapse in Kindergarten when I told my teacher I wanted to be a doctor (still can’t fathom why after all these years) I always knew I wanted to be an actor.
Being a composer was not a particular ambition. I loved all the arts. As a kid I would engage in all varieties of creative pursuits, and although I did compose a couple of tunes for a make-believe musical version of Robin Hood when I was eleven, I spent many more childhood playtime hours building hand puppets and marionettes or drawing cartoons or writing short stories. If I had any serious artistic ambitions outside of performing it was for writing children’s stories, some of which I unsuccessfully tried to get published. The children’s book publisher who rejected my children’s book “Das Goldene Ei” – The Golden Egg – (with illustrations by my Mom) asserted in her rejection letter that books had to be at least a hundred pages long to be published (a ridiculous assertion, considering there is a whole class of children’s picture books that are much shorter). After I received that rejection I took it upon myself to write a children’s book of at least one hundred pages. This book, “Es war einmal ein Frosch”, begun when I was eleven, would turn me into a composer three years later.
When I was in 9th grade, my music teacher Steven Hepner ran a composing lunch club. I was a kid who just in general loved to be creative no matter the medium, and I had had nine years of piano lessons, so I composed something for the piano. Over many months I would bring Mr. Hepner a piano piece to which I added a couple measures every week. Eventually I found a way to give the piece an ending. But then I needed to bring in something else to the lunch club.
There was this snaky little melody I had come up with on the piano while my left hand was picking a simple pattern on some black keys. A phrase that first snaked down to hit an unexpected minor note and repeated to land on the major note one had first expected. Then the tune did a little more soaring, finding one more unexpected, almost dissonant harmony before ending on a major third. A little more playing around with the tune yielded a counter melody and a solemn fanfare of a coda. (Of course at the time I didn’t have the wherewithal to describe what I’d created in these terms.)
I wrote down the notes as best I could (in those days I hadn’t yet quite grasped the rule about note stems going down left of the note and going up right of the note and where on the staff one made the switch). I played the piece for Mr. Hepner at the next lunch club meeting. I also sang a set of lyrics I had written to go with the tune:
WHEN THE COMET SPRAYS ITS LIGHT ABOVE
WHEN ITS SPARKLE FILLS US WITH LOVE
THEN I’LL COME FROM DOWN THE MILKY WAY
HERE TO STAY
Mr. Hepner found the nature of the lyrics rather curious. What is this about a comet and coming down from the Milky Way? I explained that I had been writing a children’s book in German called “Es war einmal ein Frosch”, which was a riff on the Frog Prince fairy tale, but in my story Prince Charming is really an extra-terrestrial who is accidentally transformed into a frog when he is beamed down onto the planet. He manages to make contact with Princess Marianne, who is desperate not to be forced into a marriage with the neighboring kingdom’s Prince Waldemar, a union negotiated as part of a peace treaty. She ends up kissing one frog after another to find and elope with the extra-terrestrial whom she sees as her Prince Charming. This tune would be his love song to her. His space man persona explains the nature of the lyrics.
Mr. Hepner asked me “Why the Frog Prince”? I told him when I was younger I’d think about what fairy tales Walt Disney hadn’t yet turned into animated musicals (remember this was decades before “The Princess and the Frog”) and I came up with the Frog Prince, and decided to write the story as a children’s book. Then Mr. Hepner said four fateful words: “So write a musical.”
“You just said you first thought of the story as a musical. Well, now you wrote a song for that story. So turn it into a musical.”
I thought it was a crazy suggestion. It was one thing to write one little song – not even a full song with verses and chorus, just a short tune with a simple set of lyrics – it was a whole other thing to write a musical. I couldn’t do that!
But then something happened next school period while I sat at my desk in the classroom. The phrase “I’m the darling of Prince Charming” popped into my head. And if anything in this memory felt like being struck by an epiphany, like some bolt of lighting from the Gods saying “You Shall Do This”, it was that silly phrase that became the foundation of the second song I would write for the Princess character in the musical. The phrase came first, followed eventually, and with a little experimentation on the piano later at home, by the hyper, hopping melodic setting:
The next day was a Saturday, and by the end of it I had two more songs written, one for the hapless “other” Prince Waldemar and one called “Fairy Tales”. I knew I was on a path of no return. I was going to write this musical. By Sunday I was working on yet another song.
My parents would be the first audience to every new melody and set of lyrics I would create over the next several years for “Once Upon a Frog”, as the musical would eventually be called, including during that first heady weekend. My parents were always supportive of all my creative endeavors, but that weekend my father reacted differently. He didn’t just praise and support my work, he very seriously declared that I was a real composer. I practically laughed at him. I said I am just a kid messing about, I’m not a real composer. My father rather heatedly insisted that no, this stuff is really good, and I am a real composer. I rather noisily asserted my amateur teenager status. Traditionally these kinds of arguments between parents and children go the other way around. The child expresses his need to be an artist while the parent tells him to stop dreaming and pursue a sensible vocation. It amuses me greatly to remember this conversation as my father yelling ”You are a composer” and me responding ”No, Dad, I’m just a kid messing about.”
But my father had a point, and I secretly knew it. From the beginning of working on “Once Upon a Frog” it was my ambition that the songs would at least be good enough to compare well enough with your average Broadway and Hollywood musical (with which I had a wealth of experience from obsessively watching them on TV to participating in the school musical productions). I also already exhibited a strong taste for certain kinds of musical flourishes, like that minor note at the end of the first phase in “Love Theme (The Comet)”. My father loved singing that phrase about the house but he would always end on the major note rather than the minor note, and I would end up correcting him. Mr. Hepner found that note strange too and urged me to change it to the major option. He also suggested I iron out the odd dissonant phrase on “here to stay”. But I stubbornly insisted it was those very notes which made “The Comet” good and interesting. It wouldn’t be the first time I would staunchly defend one of my “unexpected” note choices from efforts to smooth them out. Once I was working on “Once Upon a Frog” in earnest I developed a strong point of view about what I was doing. Still, that didn’t mean I thought of myself as a “real composer” rather than as a kid who likes to compose, just like I didn’t think of myself as a “real writer” (and I still don’t) but as a kid who likes to write (and I still do, well, maybe not a “kid” anymore).
However, three years and one and a half months later “Once Upon a Frog” was being performed at my high school. I have a very distinct memory of looking up from the piano at the action on stage, and recognizing that the work is good but also that I was already capable of much better. There was a feeling, a certainty deep in my mind or soul or DNA that I wasn’t just someone who composed, but that composing was an integral part of who I am, as deeply ingrained as any other indelible trait, perhaps even more so. I didn’t choose to be a composer. Composing announced itself to me rather unexpectedly and forcefully. Eventually I accepted I have no choice in the matter. I am a composer.