Egotism fortissimo

The world's worst biographer tells all about the world's worst composer

Shakespeare claimed, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

And some, he should have added, chase greatness like a junkyard dog and never catch it. Such was the case with Simon Silber, the avant-garde composer who now, sadly, is decomposing. His oeuvre has just been released in a four-CD boxed set, amply annotated by Norman Fayrewether Jr., in this satirical debut novel by Christopher Miller. (Alas, no CDs accompany these liner notes.)

Fortunately for the field of musicology (and comedy), Silber realized that the world would not recognize his genius on this side of the grave, and so he began hiring biographers to write his life story "as if he already were famous."

It was not easy to find just the right Boswell for so complex (and abusive) a figure, but Silber was not a man to take life sitting down. (In fact, he removed all the chairs from his house and never sat down, even to play the piano.) When his first biographer proved insufficiently pliable and vanished mysteriously, Silber moved on to Norman, "an author untainted by the 'educated' musical prejudices of the day." Together, they produced this "multimedia collaboration between a little-known composer and an even more egregiously neglected author."

Some may question Norman's qualifications for this task, but as an artist with equally unlikely hopes of future grandeur, he proves to be the perfect biographer. In a footnote, he drops his modesty long enough to brag that, in addition to taking a night course on composition at the local junior college, he's also a pledge-drive supporter of the classical-music station. (His single published book, a vanity-press collection of aphorisms, contains gems like this: "Some people shudder to think, and some think in order to shudder.")

Though my own musical training is limited to three years of high school marching band – pretending to play the saxophone in order to escape PE – I found Norman's biography illuminating and hysterical.

The author moves carefully through Silber's compositions, from the four-second classic entitled "Crows" to his exact copy of Joplin's "The Entertainer" (such a remarkable coincidence!) or his day-long "Sonata" (unfinished).

Admittedly, some of the pieces sound as though they'd be difficult to hear (all sound difficult to endure). Silber was particularly interested in composing with silence, a goal that led him eventually to remove all the strings from his piano. One opus he composed only for the piano pedals. (He pursued a similarly unorthodox interest in unusual tempos, once performing an hour-long version of Chopin's Minute Waltz.)

At times, his hatred of sound could seem almost pathological, as several neighbors claimed in court or while mourning the untimely deaths of their dogs. Birds were not welcome in Silber's yard, nor likely to find much reason to roost there once he'd removed all the trees to reduce the racket of wind through their leaves. The ice-cream man never recovered from his encounter with Silber. Indeed, the composer's attack on an elderly woman who dared to yawn ended his performing career.

Norman insists, "These notes are not about me," but he never strays far from describing his own bizarre interaction with the composer. Despite the fact that Silber hired him to write a biography, his subject remains violently hostile to all his efforts to collect any information.

It seems Silber and his evil twin brother were the subjects of an odd parenting technique designed to create a musical genius. Their father, a great admirer of Beethoven's father, jumped on his production of twins as an opportunity to conduct a controlled experiment – a chance to illustrate the woeful inadequacy of the Suzuki method with its enervating emphasis on maternal involvement.

Silber was denied exposure to any music whatsoever, except for a tape of Beethoven's late quartets that played loudly and continuously in his basement room – even while he tried to practice. Or sleep. His brother, meanwhile, was all but ignored, to serve as the "control" in Mr. Silber's ruthless experiment. The results, I'm sorry to report, were somewhat disappointing.

Christopher Miller, the novelist behind this symphony of absurdity, demonstrates perfect pitch for straight-faced comedy. From the moment we first see Silber, humming confidently down the street with his eyes closed, dressed in a tuxedo, conducting an imaginary orchestra with his thermometer, it's clear that Miller has put "The Confederacy of Dunces" to music.

In the narrow structure of these liner notes, he manages to explore the entire canon of egotism through a series of increasingly outlandish conflicts between the genius and his biographer. The result is a thundering fugue of retribution against every maddening blowhard who's ever demanded your attention. But as in the best satire, there are melodies here that will echo your own pompous movements.

Encore, encore!

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to

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