MEET THE AUTHOR! A Conversation with Joanne Grodzinski, Co-Author of “Maestro Orpheus and the World Clock”

MEET THE AUTHOR! A Conversation with Joanne Grodzinski, Co-Author of “Maestro Orpheus and the World Clock” 225 267 Reader Views Kids

Maestro Orpheus and The World Clock 

Joanne Grodzinski and Robert Pennee
Maestro Orpheus Productions (2022)
Reviewed by Eve Panzer, The Barefoot Librarian, for Reader Views Kids (10/2023)

Joanne Grodzinski began her career as an educator, having taught both children and adults, after graduating from the University of Toronto. She has authored books on elementary school mathematics and Canadian Citizenship for ESL students; and is the co-creator and producer of the award-winning audiobook “Maestro Orpheus and the World Clock,” a children’s story set to classical music. She is also the co-author of the Classroom Teacher’s Guide that accompanies the audiobook.

For 17 years (1984-2001) she owned and managed the Carden Street Music Shop, which specialized in classical and jazz recordings and books in Guelph, Ontario. Since then, she has held the positions of General Manager of the Elora Festival and Singers, Executive Director of the Guelph Youth Music Centre, and Director of Operations of the Guelph Wish Fund for Children.

Recently retired, Joanne remains an enthusiastic and active participant with several small and local non-profit community organizations. She lives in Elora, Ontario.

Robert Pennee, the co-creator and author of the story and book version of the story, divides the time devoted to creative work between writing – mostly fiction — and photography/computer-based art making. He lives in London, Ontario, Canada.

What inspired you to write “Maestro Orpheus and The World Clock”?

During the 1990s Robert and I were working in the Carden Street Music Shop (a small and independent classical record shop in Guelph, Ontario, Canada) for about a dozen years at that point. There was a constant question from many of our customers: ‘What recordings do you recommend as an introduction to classical music for children?’ After Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, the well was pretty much dry. There were several factors that all converged and seemed destined to inspire the creation of the story with music: my background in education and being a parent of 3 young children at that time; Robert’s exceptional talent as a writer; our joint love and knowledge of classical music; and, finally, what we thought was a need for such a product.

How did you come up with the character of Maestro Orpheus?

One sleepless night I was listening to the radio and a recording of Haydn’s Clock Symphony was playing. That was the initial inspiration for developing the story of a boy visiting his grandfather (who, in his dream, becomes Maestro Orpheus). In Greek mythology, Orpheus, with his lyre, was a musician who could charm everyone – most famously, he went down into the underworld to try and retrieve his wife, Euridice. Making use of a character whose name has musical cache, and who goes on a difficult journey, seemed a natural choice.

What is the significance of the World Clock in the story?

One of the central themes of the story is ‘time’ and clocks seemed to us to be integral in measuring it. We came across a ‘world clock’ in our research (it’s also known as a universal clock). There is a famous one built in Germany in the 1850s and currently housed in the Time Museum in Rockford, Illinois (the artist who designed the cover of the audiobook used a photograph of this clock as the basis of his image). The imaginary concept of a clock that keeps time for the entire world seemed magical.

Why did you choose to incorporate classical composers like Bach, Haydn, Chopin, and Janacek?

There are actually 18 pieces of music by 15 composers incorporated into the story – each selection chosen was thematically linked to either time, memory, or nighttime – to parallel the storyline. For example, when Fred wakes up in the morning after his adventure, the music chosen was Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt. Or traveling down the Corridor of Time, we chose Kodaly’s Viennese Musical Clock from the Hary Janos concert suite.

For the clock stories, we wanted solo piano music and we found pieces by those 4 composers you mentioned that fit our thematic criteria and the storyline. The Chopin Nocturne is a personal favorite of mine, but, in my opinion, as the grandfather lies dying in the fourth and final clock story, the Janacek piece is the most moving.

Tell us a bit about Fred and what makes him tick.

Fred is just a little boy who is on the cusp of dealing with adult problems – in this case, facing the possibility of the loss of someone he loves. He can be impetuous (as, for example, when he goes into the Timeless World) and curious as he constantly questions Orpheus about the Corridor of Time and the different doors along it. Overall, however, the aim was to portray him as just an average kid who has an adventure and learns a very important life lesson.

What role do Fred’s visits to the composers’ doors play in the narrative?

Adding the composers’ doors allowed us to include an educational element and a historical perspective to the story as Fred and Maestro Orpheus journey along the Corridor of Time from the 1700s to the present. It also moved the story along somewhat, as each of the composer’s stories inched Fred closer to facing his grandfather’s age and inevitable death. The 4 composer doors visited also gave us the opportunity to include more beautiful music as part of the story.

How do you perceive the relationship between time and music, as explored in the story?

I think that the relation between time, memory, and music is the central theme of the story and is best explained towards the end of the book itself – when Maestro Orpheus explains to Fred that every composer is in love with time and that they all try to catch it in their music and hold on to it: “Music is a time-machine.  Whenever you play or listen to music, you start time going all over again.  All the memories, and all the feelings that have taken place in the past, return and come to life again. Just like when you open a book and see a photograph of one of your friends…or your parents… or even your grandfather.  We can’t stop Time, Fred.  But we can keep it in our hearts, and we can cherish it in our Music.”

What is the role of grandfathers in both Fred’s life and the stories of the composers?

The intention that there be a parallel of the relationship between 10-year-old Fred and his grandfather and each 10-year-old boy and his grandfather in the composer’s stories was deliberate. It is hoped that the children who listen to the story can also relate to and identify with all of the ‘grandsons’, even if they happen to be ‘granddaughters.’ And, in all cases, both real and fictional, one hopes that the grandfather figure is a positive one who exemplifies wisdom, strength, and compassion.

What are the “Doors to A Timeless World and The End of Time,” and how do they contribute to the story’s themes?

Well, as in life, not all journeys are straightforward – there is always a bump or fork in the road. Both of these doors were meant to be a bit ominous and challenging. Yet, happily, Fred manages to overcome the difficulties and, hopefully, has learned from those experiences.

What was the process like in selecting the narrators and the musical selections for the audiobook?

The recording was produced in the late 1990s – when technology was a totally different kettle of fish than it is today. The smartphone was not yet a ‘thing’ and recording had to be done in a professional studio. Robert and I spent countless hours over an 18-month period planning out the storyline and then musical selections that would go with the script. Fortunately, we had personal connections to the English and Drama Department at the local university and Maestro Orpheus and the Clock Story Narrator were university professors who were friends of ours. R.H.Thomson, a well-known Canadian actor, was the neighbor of the recording studio engineer we hired and, when presented with the script, he happily joined the cast. We used a professional talent agency to find a professional child actor to voice the role of Fred. There were hours spent in the studio recording the voices and then putting the music, narration, and sound effects together, line by line, second by second. This was also an expensive process, and we raised the funds needed by asking friends and family to invest in the project – all before ‘Go-Fund-Me’ and the iPhone were realities. Today the project could have been done just sitting in front of a laptop at a fraction of the time and cost!

Can you tell us about your collaboration with the English Chamber Orchestra?

Again, it’s who you know…I was a friend of Simon Wynberg, a professional guitarist and music impresario. He was a colleague of Ian Watson, a conductor affiliated with the English Chamber Orchestra. We arranged for Simon to go to London, England to record the musical selections with the orchestra in his role of music producer for the project.

How did you ensure that the storytelling and the music would be seamlessly entwined?

As mentioned earlier, we worked with an engineer in a recording studio for many hours, pairing the words, music, and sound effects into the recording, patiently and painstakingly.

The audiobook comes with an extensive Classroom Teacher’s Guide. Can you share how this idea came about?

When the recording was first produced, it was well received on many levels, especially considering it was independently released. It was picked up by a national record distributor and nominated for a prestigious Juno award (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys). Reviews were consistently positive, and we were encouraged to expand and diversify the products that could be developed around the story. In fact, we produced a live concert version for 2 actors and symphony orchestra (for children’s classical music concerts). The live show turned out to be problematic to maintain, but a Teacher’s Guide to accompany the story was a much more realistic proposition. My co-author of the Guide, Carolyn McMillan, was a music resource teacher for the local school board and, with her expertise, paired with my educational background and intimate knowledge of the story and music, we created the Guide with the aim of it being used by an elementary classroom teacher with little or no musical background. Even back then, music education in the classroom was being cut drastically and we hoped that the use of the story and Guide might help address that gap.

What do you hope educators and parents will take away from the guide?

Even if the Classroom Teachers’ Guide is not utilized fully, chapter by chapter, the hope is that children who are exposed to the audiobook, as part of a formal educational program, will still learn a little bit about classical music and appreciate its beauty in an enjoyable way. And, more importantly, explore their own creativity and imagination through a wide range of activities.

If you could summarize the essence of Maestro Orpheus and The World Clock in one sentence, what would it be?

Maestro Orpheus and The World Clock is a story with music for children that explores the intimate relationship between time, memory, and music, in a way that is intended to delight and fill with wonder.

Are there plans to expand the world of Maestro Orpheus and The World Clock into a series or other mediums?

There are no plans for a series, though, when we originally created the story, we had begun planning a follow-up story about a little girl and her grandmother (I suppose today we would probably have to add a story with non-binary characters!).

As for other mediums (the story is very visual), we won’t say no to discussions with any interested parties who might have the means and ability to transform the story into a visual medium.

Is there anything else you’d like to add today?

Maestro Orpheus and The World Clock was originally created in 1997 – and the question is, why re-release it 25 years later? The original motivation for the project was to create a vehicle that would introduce classical music to children in an enjoyable way. That is still the case today, and, believing that the story deserves to be out there in the world was the incentive for re-issuing it in 2022. With the growth and expansion of the audiobook industry, the narrated story with music and sound effects seemed to be a perfect fit for this medium. That, and the inherent benefits of good storytelling. One could say, it’s about time!



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