As far as pub quiz questions go, this one's a doozy: name the person who's sold 40 million books and who also played accordion on The Magnetic Fields' deathly-cool indie-rock classic 69 Love Songs. If you answered Daniel Handler — better known by his pen name, Lemony Snicket — give yourself a pat on the back and a $30 bar tab.
"I've worked with [Magnetic Fields' sole member] Stephin Merritt for more than 20 years," Handler says via Skype from his San Francisco home. "His and other musical projects enable me to participate in something and not be the master of it all.
"I'm used to sitting and making things up and writing them down and they get to be whatever I want. I'm not in charge of any musical situation and I think it's good to be with people who are excellent at what they're doing. Stephin Merritt is a prime example of that."
But another of Handler's musical collaborations bears a more pervasive Lemony scent.
The Composer is Dead, which the APO performs next Saturday, is a narrated whodunnit attributed to Lemony Snicket with music by Nathaniel Stookey. It acts as an introduction to classical music, highlighting the different sections of the orchestra, and Handler got the inspiration when he was asked to narrate Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.
"Peter and the Wolf is a marvellous piece of music but not my favourite piece of narrative prose and I think that what it is often used for — introducing people to the orchestra — is not the best idea."
So, Handler thought he could come up with something more fit for purpose and pitched his idea to the San Francisco Orchestra, fully expecting a rejection.
"But we got a yes, so we went right to work before they changed their minds."
Stookey's music, like the Snicket books, has an appealing whimsy. Junkestra is scored for instruments recovered from a rubbish tip and features a movement entitled 'Where does the Lone Ranger take his garbage?'
It's hardly surprising Stookey and Handler get along even if the collaborative process seems to have worked more in the composer's favour.
"I wrote [the text] and he would do some work on it," Handler says. "Then I'd go to his house, we'd have lunch and drink some beer and talk and forget we were supposed to be working. Then he'd say, 'Right!' and play some of it for me, and say some of the words had to change. By then I'd have had a beer or so and I'd say, 'Change anything you want!' He was very strategic in that."
Readers of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books will recognise the way in which The Composer is Dead works on multiple levels, though how much you get from it isn't necessarily dictated by how old you are.
"People ask, 'what age is it time for a child to read the books?' I always think it's the arrival of irony, which never arrives in some people, so there are 90-year-olds who are too young to read the work of Lemony Snicket."
The Composer is Dead is similar, says Handler.
"I wrote it as an introduction to classical music but I get a lot of feedback from grown-ups who say, 'I've heard the word cadenza and I've never really known what it is'."
Handler knew what a cadenza was from an early age. He studied classical piano and sang in the San Francisco Boys Chorus ("until puberty wrecked my career as a boy soprano").
He doesn't spare musicians from the sharpness of his pen, though. He once joked — ironically, of course — that orchestras are like the Mafia.
"Did I say that? It does sound like me. Suspicious lingo, nefarious crossed purposes that one might not be aware of, and then there are the suspicious black cases. They're probably more sinister than the Mafia, frankly, we just don't know it."
Likewise, The Composer is Dead suggests that a concertmaster is "the best violinist in the whole orchestra and is often accused of treachery". How do the musicians take his digs?
"Every time I've performed it there's been one person in each orchestra who has been offended," Handler says gleefully. "It's been the concertmaster before; the second violins are often peeved. That's when I know it's been a success, if I'm coming off stage from the dress rehearsal and one musician chases after me and says, 'I want to talk to you about something.'"
What: The Composer is Dead — A Symphonic Murder Mystery
Where and When: Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, Saturday October 6