A few weeks ago, while giving a presentation at the University of Connecticut, I was asked which composers have influenced my writing. This is an excellent, thoughtful, and revealing question—precisely the kind I try to avoid answering at all costs.
Bob Dylan once wrote,
Open up yer eyes and yer ears an’ you’re influenced,
An’ there’s nothing you can do about it.
It’s the second line of that quotation that’s the real kicker.
Because no matter what we like or don’t like, there is no escape from the effects of what we actually hear. And if you’ve ever woken up on a Friday morning with Rebecca Black stuck in your head—or worse, you can remember some of the lyrics to “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”—you know what I mean.
I would love to be able to say that my most significant musical influences have been the great opera composers through the ages (you know, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Britten…those guys), along with the great American theater composers (Kern, Berlin, Arlen, Rodgers, Loesser, Gershwin, etc.). But the truth is that probably nothing has affected me more than the albums I listened to over and over again when I was a kid: the soundtrack to Clash of the Titans and the hot pink LP of Free to Be…You and Me. (Future graduate students in musicology take note.)
Also when I was a kid, one of my favorite books was a Little Golden Book called Bugs Bunny’s Carrot Machine. Bugs builds himself a machine that will convert absolutely anything to carrots. He and Elmer Fudd throw in some junk, and they do indeed produce the desired vegetables—but they’re green, square, and nothing that you’d really want to eat. Over the course of the book they experiment unsuccessfully with adding different things in an attempt to create the perfect, orange carrot.
In a way, I think all artists are carrot machines. Toss in a childhood, a few dozen trips to the library, a box of old records, and you end up with some sort of something. You can try to tinker with the ingredients (a little more Janáček, a little less Petula Clark?), but you don’t really know what you’re going to get until the carrot flies out of the chute on opening night and you show the world what it’s actually made of. An’ there’s nothing you can do about it.
Incidentally, just when Bugs thinks he’s figured out how to make a carrot that tastes like the real thing, the machine explodes. I’m not sure how far I want to pursue that metaphor.