Although there is no obvious ‘story’, this book has, like much music, a rounded structure of a beginning, middle and end. Devernay has skilfully created a visual interpretation of an orchestral score – and the wordless book format is entirely appropriate, as there is a natural analogy with instrumental music, which is also wordless. Many artists and designers have used the visual elements of a musical score for imagery, from the Cubists and the Futurists to Milton Glaser and Tom Phillips. And music is the subject of several other wordless picturebooks too, including I See A Song (1973) by Eric Carle and Yellow Umbrella (2002) by the South Korean artist Jae-Soo Liu, whose collaboration with composer Dong Il Sheen resulted in a wordless book that has an accompanying, specially devised, music CD.
The Conductor, originally called Diapason [‘burst of sound’] in French, was Devernay’s first book and it won several plaudits, including a mention in the Opera Prima Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2011, the Korean CJ Picture Book award in 2011 and the Overall Winner at the prestigious V&A Illustration Awards in in London in 2012.
A tall thin wordless picturebook, The Conductor visually tells the story of a man who climbs a tree in order to conduct an orchestra of leaves. It is a simple, poetic idea, beautifully realised in delicate – almost abstract at times – images in muted tones of black, greens and soft yellows. The front endpapers of the book show rows of vertical, hand-drawn, five-line staves. The musical stave, a clear visual symbol, represents a blank page, the silence waiting for the music to be composed.
On the opening spread the staves transform into the trunks of trees and the conductor’s foot can just be seen entering from the left-hand side. A few pages on we see him climbing to the top of the tallest tree. Here he begins to wield his baton to conduct first the leaves of his own tree, then subsequently the foliage of the other trees. As in a real concert, the conductor interprets the score from a point where he can see and hear the whole ‘orchestra’.
With each new type of leaf joining in the ensemble, it is as if a fresh instrument is being added to the score. And, as the various leaves swoop and swirl up into the sky, it is not only instruments that can be detected. Rhythms, notes, chords, harmonies and individual melodies can all be imagined as the leaves morph into winged birds that fly between each other to interweave, overlap, or simply soar across the page. Indeed it is possible that this book, in the hands of the right musicians, could be read as a graphic score.
At last all the leaves are gone and the trees are bare. The conductor takes his bow and returns to earth, planting his baton in the ground. Soon the baton is sprouting leaves of its own, suggesting new notes that will emerge from it in the future. The music continues to live and reinvent itself.