A family affair: Composer's music featured in Dan Brown's new book

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Classical music and literary thriller don't make for a likely pair, but composer Gregory W. Brown understands why his brother, internationally renowned author Dan Brown, might blend the two in his latest novel.

"Having grown up in the same house, we have this sort of similar fascination with the meeting points of seemingly disparate things," said Gregory W. Brown, who is based in Western Massachusetts, during a recent telephone interview.

That the author decided to incorporate a classical composition, "Missa Charles Darwin," by his brother into "Origin," however, was still a shocker.

"We have always shared our work with each other, but the idea of a crossover like that hadn't really occurred to me," the Belchertown resident said.

In the novel, which was released Tuesday, symbology and religious iconography professor Robert Langdon must solve yet another international mystery. After the unveiling of a student's scientific breakthrough at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain comes under threat, Langdon must decipher both the implications of his pupil's discovery and the identity of an unknown enemy.

"Missa Charles Darwin" appears late in the story and is vital to the plot, so Brown couldn't divulge much about its significance other than to say that Langdon hears it and recognizes it as something he's listened to before, but it's safe to say that the composition and the book examine the intersection of science and religion.

"Missa Charles Darwin" is a six-movement piece that involves a quartet, New York Polyphony, singing unaccompanied excerpts from the scientist's famous texts in a form similar to a standard Mass. In 2011, the author saw the premiere of his brother's composition at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, and drew at least some of his inspiration for "Origin" from the experience.

"I think it struck a chord with him thinking about how we relate to our origins and how we think about the big questions: where we come from, where we're going, how we relate to those mysteries, and how science and religion play a role in that consideration," the 42-year-old composer said.

A press release promoting the reissued version of the composition, released on Sept. 29, appears to confirm that impression.

"I've always been fascinated by the interplay between science and religion; 'Missa Charles Darwin' is an ingenious fusion of the two, and it immediately captivated me," the elder Brown, 53, said, according to the statement. "'Missa Charles Darwin' got me thinking about evolutionary processes, spiritual views, and the origins of our species and our belief systems."

The author didn't inform his brother that the music would be in his new novel until last spring.

"Whoa, OK, that's cool," the younger Brown said of his reaction.

Craig Phillips, a bassist and singer in New York Polyphony, initially approached Brown about the idea for the composition. For the most part, Phillips selected and edited the excerpts used in the music, which includes passages from "On the Origin of Species," "The Descent of Man" and Darwin's personal correspondence.

"It's beautiful prose, but there were a couple things that needed to be tweaked a little bit to make them more singable," Brown said.

With content from an author who championed evolution and a sound that evokes Sundays at church, the work contains a striking dichotomy. In the first movement, for example, Brown said the music explores "this idea of asking, 'Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.' And natural selection, which is the heart of [the] evolutionary process, according to Darwin, is not always merciful. In fact, often not merciful. Let the strongest live and weakest die. That's sort of the conversation there."

The "credo" movement was also vital to setting the tone for the composition.

"I wanted to think about sort of what I believed in, and I believe that there are these huge, huge [geological and biological] processes at work, and this was Darwin's great insight," Brown said.

Is he anti-religion, then?

"I think now I refer to myself as a non-believer. I don't see a need for a supernatural explanation to the things that we don't understand," he said.

Both Browns' fascination with science and religion stems, predictably, from their upbringing in Exeter, N.H. They were raised religious by their mother, Constance, who was a church organist and choir director, and their father, Richard, who taught mathematics. When Gregory followed his brother's path to Amherst College, he thought he was going to be a math major. Instead, he focused in geology.

During that time, music also took hold. Like his older brother and his sister, Valerie, Brown had played piano during his youth. He had also dabbled in violin and trumpet.

"I was very bad," he said.

But his time in Amherst renewed his interest in music. He started singing; he also studied composition and conducting. After his undergraduate years, he earned a master's from Westminster Choir College and doctorate from the University of Georgia in conducting. In between and since, he has taught music in Western Massachusetts, Southern Vermont and Ohio. He has particularly enjoyed living near his alma mater, photographing birds and walking around the Quabbin Reservoir.

"I love the area," Brown said, noting that the reservoir is the subject of his latest work, "un/bodying/s."

In addition to his appreciation for nature, the composer described himself as a "dinosaur dork." He said the highlight of his career was having "Missa Charles Darwin" performed at the Museum f r Naturkunde, a natural history museum in Berlin. Sarah Darwin, the English scientist's great-great granddaughter, gave an introduction to the piece.

Brown has toured internationally and received acclaim for his work, but he knows a mention of "Missa Charles Darwin" by his best-selling brother will bring him increased attention, though not necessarily more fans.

"I certainly hope that the exposure leads to more listeners, but I don't know that it's a given," he said.


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