Lewis Carroll’s influence is on all contemporary culture.
There is a surreal image of going “through the mirror”; a Tim Burton movie appearance, including the “Alice in Wonderland” version; The distorted angles of Tom Petty’s video “Don’t Come Around Here No More”; use of a word like “galumphing”.
And, as a new album from Albany Symphony shows, composer David Del Tredici has musical works inspired by Carroll, some of which have been recorded for two world premieres by the David Allen Miller-led ensemble.
These long-awaited performances – “Pop-Pourri” (revised from 1968 and 1973) and “Adventures Underground” (written in 1971 and revised in 1977) are a booming, psychedelic marvel. In the first seconds of the first episode of “Pop-Pourri,” Del Tredici breaks down the transitions between “Es Ist Genug,” the Bach harmony of a Lutheran chorale, and the place where Carroll edited his text. “Litany of the Blessed Virgin” is also in the mix – refining Del Tredici’s claim in the album’s notes that the track is “a sort of Sacred and Blasphemous Cantata”.
But that’s not the weirdest or even the most appealing part of the beginning: It would be saxophone music for a soprano, which tends to be sharp and languid under high-flying writing (in this recording, a tireless Hila Plitmann). The second move contains noisy, fast-moving lines for the contrabassoon. And in the third act, Del Tredici waves the freak flag of the late ’60s with bursts of percussion and woolly lines for distorted electric guitar and bass.
“I always try to animate text,” 85-year-old Del Tredici said in a recent phone call. For “Jabberwocky” quoting the third act, “I needed something for the Beast,” he recalled.
He found exactly what he was looking for in a percussion shop in New York. He recalled the period shortly before conductor Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the piece in 1972. : ‘Well, he’s only been hired once for a movie at MGM. I think you can.’”
“I was doing weird things,” Del Tredici said of her work on the “Alice” tracks. Credit… Vincent Tullo for The New York Times
Del Tredici then went to Thomas, who was working with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and said, “Can you rent this for me for a full-on shot?” Answer: “Okay, of course.” (Del Tredici winked and said, “They had money.” Miller and Albany players likewise make the snippet look like a million dollars on the new record.)
“I was doing weird things,” Del Tredici said. “None of these instruments were in symphony orchestras – like all electric instruments. You could find the instrument, but then you wouldn’t have anyone to play it with. The hardest part was the banjo. It was always fighting some kind of tradition by demanding what I did.
But in just a few years Del Tredici was able to bend that tradition. Encompassing chamber music, grand symphonic entries, and even a 1990 opera called “Dum Dee Tweedle,” works of “Alice” have garnered public acclaim and attention from distinguished artists for decades. “Final Alice”, released on Decca in 1981 for large orchestra and soprano, boasts no less on the podium than Georg Solti, who grasped Del Tredici’s passion for dashing, experimental intensity with Barbara Hendricks and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Despite the name, “Final Alice” was not Del Tredici’s last word on Carroll. “Child Alice” followed shortly after, which lasted over two hours. A selection of this work – “In Memory of a Summer’s Day” – won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet the massive score only received its first recording in the last decade, thanks to conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Del Tredici was clear in the liner notes for this edition about how the layered measurements relate to Carroll’s text. While the musical surfaces may seem crazy, the underlying structures are; The small, micro song units are offset by larger processes and callbacks that give these tracks a heavier sense of scale.
How did Del Tredici achieve this? “One notebook at a time,” he said. “Then I put the notebooks together.” After putting together 50 different sketchbooks for a piece like “Child Alice”, he began to assemble and edit. This process was a “fun” but also a “scary” episode.
“I’ve been just writing for a long time,” he said. “I didn’t care what I wrote. I insisted I didn’t know what I was doing. Like magic, it came together.”
This magic touch is evident in the new “Pop-Pourri” record released by Albany Records; The languid saxophone music in the first episode also has a role to play during the amplified excesses in the third episode. With the intent to please an audience – “I’m not accidentally entertaining!” Del Tredici exclaimed with a laugh – the writing also rewards closer listening.
As critic Frank J. Oteri observes, after “Pop-Pourri,” Del Tredici never again used such majestic, rock-like amplification in his “Alice” work. But there is still an audible connection between “Pop-Pourri” and the folk ensemble in “An Alice Symphony” (memorably recorded by composer Oliver Knussen as conductor).
If “Alice” music is not often heard in concert halls today, it may have more to do with the orchestral world’s declining investment in great contemporary works than with style. “I was lucky to get some great performances in the beginning,” Del Tredici said. “The commitment of the orchestras—that’s very important. They gave my music a commitment they don’t have these days, I see that.”
Del Tredici hopes “Dum Dee Tweedle” will be staged in one day. (It was only presented in concert.) During the interview, he explained that he showed the piece to an orchestra conductor. “I haven’t heard it in a long time,” he said. “And I couldn’t believe it: 75 minutes of uninterrupted, fast-paced music. This is so weird.” (A recording is available for publication on the website and provides an exciting journey.)
And he’s currently contemplating another opera that hilariously recounts his recent experiences with Parkinson’s disease. During the conversation, he compared this effort to his decision in the 1990s to write music directly on gay themes.
“I like to be open about anything that’s hard to be open about,” she said.