The first is to pacify the kids: shackle them into the minivan seats, pull the sun-shades down, stock the drink-holders with monster cups filled with a calming mélange of melatonin and liquefied melon; and—most important—plug the tykes’ gazes into the interior screen showing numbing movies from Hollywood. This mode recognizes that video pap and ancillary sedatives are sometimes the only effective prescription when you’re stuck in a traffic-impacted interstate, the projected travel-time distending in painful parallel with your bladder.
The other way forward is to fire the imaginations of the wee ‘uns with ever-changing sounds and ideas, to opt for inflight-entertainment that engages rather stupefies.
As of today a bracing contribution to the second strategy will be available just in-time to provision any wayfaring American family, as well as those staying safely at home: Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony is an outlandish, endlessly inventive production presented by that magician of music for young and old, Dr. Noize.
The real force behind these efforts is a high-energy genius named Cory Cullinan, an entertainer and uplifter of at least one new generation of music-lovers and makers, since he’s been in the vital business of kids’ music for some two decades. Cullinan’s nom de guerre Dr. Noize is in turn the alter ego of a musical monkey of equally prodigious talent—the above-mentioned Phineas McBoof. As in all his CDs, Cullinan sings both parts and others, as well as composing all music and lyrics for this sprawling tableau of myriad shapes and colors that are constantly shifting thanks to his clever poetics, varied orchestral gambits and quirky updates that range from the lush and sentimental to the boldly challenging.
On this latest offering hitting the musical world today, Cullinan’s idiosyncratic constellation of musical personae and poses is backed by a full orchestra of real Bohemians calling itself the City of Prague Philharmonic. Forces of this scope and accomplishment are demanded by the ambitions, indeed the very title of the 2-CD set. This ensemble has its origin as film orchestra some seventy years ago, and on Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony the group, under the deft direction of conductor Kyle Pickett, navigates the tricky tempo changes and literally off-beat humor of Cullinan’s unpredictable music with precision and panache.
Some might recall that the Musical Patriot has praised many of this one-man consortium’s creations, starting with his debut album issued under Cullinan’s own name: My Oyster. In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that the Musical Patriot himself appeared as organist on one the tracks—a scurrilous rock anthem titled “The Story of Heaven,” a savage send-up of monotheism’s favorite destination resort that no one wants to go to until death hands them that final one-way ticket. My role in the song was to give the Bachian touch to Cullinan’s ponderous canons and fugues that kept cropping up, these polyphonies meant to evoke the ravings of cerebral angels and their earthly epigones. Packing a virtuosic survey of rollicking gospel strains, ponderous hymns, sultry dance grooves into the song, Cullinan makes fun of the idea of heaven by having devilish fun himself here on earth.
Like virtually all of his creations, “The “Story of Heaven” is animated by constant eruptions of molten creativity. Throughout Cullinans’ oeuvre a stretch of song that could be extended on auto-pilot into a three-minute hit is continually punctured by his sharp musical wit. Such an approach is not without its potential frustrations: the pay-off of expectations fulfilled is one of the joys of pop, but Cullinan’s is an unfettered musical mind: in it, as on his records, there are songs within songs within songs — a sometimes infinite regression that can take on a terrific, disorienting sublimity.
In order to channel these torrents of creativity into coherent streams of refreshment and pleasure the score must be precisely notated and executed, not just by the Prague symphonists, but by the international stars of the opera stage, soprano Isabel Leonard and baritone Nathan Gunn, who adorn the album. Their participation is testimony to Cullinan’s galvanizing imagination and to his world-class abilities as a popularizing composer and orchestrator.
To describe the diversity of musical styles and concepts visited across this two-hour blockbuster of a show would be a fool’s errand. There are clever quotes from famous symphonies by Beethoven and Mozart and a host of other sources, along with many more didactic moments, in which youthful listeners (and perhaps more than a few more mature ones) are introduced to the various instruments and their taxonomies (woodwinds, strings, etc.): these traditional groupings are enriched by commentary and confusion from various voices from funk saxophone to plaintive Iberian guitar. There are Sondheim-esque ballads of intense yearning and kiddy songs of squealing delight, MoTown winners and Caribbean breezes.
Cullinan’s didacticism is often covert, but and when it emerges into the open it does so with humor and an often ironic wink in the direction of the parents. Thus the explication of sonata form—that crumbling triumphal arch that has guarded the entry to general college courses on classical music for decades— takes on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, an infamous target that PDQ Bach took hilarious potshots at in his celebrated “New Horizons in Music Appreciation” done as baseball game play-by-play with far-from-incisive color commentary.
Undaunted, Dr. Noize does a Beethoven-in-reverse, equipping this monument to absolute instrumental music with a comic chorus (like the choral Ninth turned on its head). Among other responses to the manic music, these singers express their disbelieving amazement at Beethoven’s unwillingness to end the tempestuous first movement, along the way Cullinan working into the famed oboe cadenza an allusion to his own “Banana”—a frenetic hit from The Ballad of Phineas McBoof (the second edition of which appeared in 2010.)
These kaleidoscopic creations are hung on the easily reachable pegs of a generic story in which Phineas, having run off from his band of misunderstood geniuses made up of animals of various shape and size, is reunited with them by sharing his knowledge of classical music with an eager junior fan base. As the seemingly infinite expanse of Cullinan’s creativity unspools over these two CDs there are many inside jokes and sly references to test and tease the adults even as the kids are stimulated and enthralled, surprises lurking around every bend in the road.