Any Camille Saint-Saëns fans out there? I've been asked many times why I wrote Unusual Creatures, and the answer is simple: The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. You should listen to it right now. It's a true masterpiece. And just look at his beard.
When I was in high school and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I listened to a lot of music. Not just bands like Pink Floyd, Oingo Boingo, and Led Zeppelin but also to classical music (mostly found in my stepfather's collection). A few stuck out more than others: Gustav Holst's The Planets, Philip Glass's Metamorphosis, Kronos Quartet's eponymous album (which contained their amazing version of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze"), and Camille Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals.
Five years later, with a degree in music composition, I got busy, mostly with my band One Ring Zero but eventually under my own name too. Recently I decided to look back at who inspired me to do what I do. Camille Saint-Saëns! Why don't I try to compose something similar to The Carnival of the Animals? For his musical suite, Saint-Saëns wrote a series of pieces that allude to common animals — the elephant, the tortoise, and the swan, among others. For mine, I would compose songs inspired by lesser-known animals: the dugong, the aye-aye, the Magnapinna squid.
I've also long been a collector of oddball musical instruments. Why not try to pair some of these animals with the instruments? "Glass Frog" could be performed on the Benjamin Franklin–invented glass armonica, "Honey Badger" could be played on the daxophone, and "Blobfish" could be played on the tubax.
In the spring of 2012, Songs for Unusual Creatures was released. But my interest in strange animals was just beginning. I continued to research and write. I took suggestions from friends and compiled lists. I called zoologists and visited zoos. And with a little help from my book agent, designers, illustrator, and publisher, Unusual Creatures was born. All because of Camille Saint-Saëns.
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Michael Hearst is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and writer. He is a founding member of the band One Ring Zero, whose albums include Planets and As Smart As We Are, and his solo works include Songs for Ice Cream Trucks and Songs for Unusual Creatures. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
Michael Hearst is the author of Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals