Alexandra Coghlan chooses 10 tracks inspired by Lewis Carroll’s fantastical Alice in Wonderland stories
It’s been 150 years since Alice first tumbled down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole, landing in a world of talking cats and smoking caterpillars, and still this curious (and curiouser) tale continues to work its magic on readers. The story has spawned films, television programmes, plays and comic books, as well as more than its fair share of ballets, operas and orchestral works.
No musician is more synonymous with Alice in Wonderland than David del Tredici, the American Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose fascination with Lewis Carroll’s book has spanned over 20 years and six major compositions. Final Alice is among the loveliest works by this unapologetic neo-Romantic, an ‘opera, written in concert form’ that concludes with the expansive soprano aria ‘A boat ’neath a sunny sky’, sung here by Barbara Hendricks. Del Tredici is joined in this playlist by fellow American Deems Taylor, whose Through the Looking Glass shares the same richly melodic sound world.
Experimental composers have also been drawn to Carroll’s paradoxical world, including Ligeti, whose Nonsense Madrigals includes a whimsical setting of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’ – and Harry Partch, whose Two Settings from Lewis Carroll includes the evocative ‘O Frabjous Day!’, using the bass marimba to capture both the menace and exotic appeal of the Jabberwocky.
Fabio Bonizzoni chooses 10 works that plumb the depths of the human experience at its most emotional
Love and death are surely the two main sources of inspiration for music of the Baroque period – possibly for all music, maybe for all arts. The reason for this is that these are the two strongest things that we – human beings – experience in life. When a composer or performer is ‘creating’ one of these entities with the sound of his voice or instrument, it is in their own soul, in their own experience, that they are looking. When a listener is touched by the music it is because they are able to let their own soul resonate with the souls of the composer and performer, eventually experiencing the same feelings.
Take the wonderful Roberta Invernizzi, who makes us feel her distress and anxiety with her intuitive voice in the aria ‘Ombre vane’ from Vivaldi’s Griselda – a piece which we’ll perform as part of La Risonanza’s Wigmore Hall concert on July 21. Or the funeral music of Purcell, Mozart’s Trauermusik and especially Bach; performing or listening to music about death and mortality is a unique experience of healing. It is hard to grasp why this happens. It’s maybe the vanishing and immaterial quality of the music – now heard, now disappeared – or the fact that music is the form of art that penetrates deepest in our body. If we open ourselves up to it, then music can be as therapeutic for us listeners as for the performers.
Pwyll ap Siôn offers a guide to English composers who revel in the subversive
John Cage is often regarded as the father of experimental music, but its manifestation in England was only partly inspired by him: Britain has always had its own tradition of non-conformism and anti-establishmentarianism. Surprising, therefore, that the aristocratic Lord Berners (1883-1950) should be seen as one of its most important precursors. Berners’s later work draws on vernacular styles (also a feature of the later school of English experimentalists), but his early compositions are unpredictable and uncompromising. Fast-forward half a century and we reach the so-called ‘golden age’ of English experimental music. The Scratch Orchestra, founded in 1969 by Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton, provided the foundations during the 1970s, and Cardew’s magnum opus, The Great Learning, remains one of its most telling achievements.
Soon after, a number of English experimentalists started embracing consonance and tonality. Skempton’s Well, well Cornelius – composed in 1982 in memory of Cardew – remains true to this spirit. Michael Nyman’s experimental 1-100 (1976), for multiple pianos, starts off with a C major chord that gradually unravels in a descending harmonic spiral of increasing dissonance. John White’s one-movement piano sonatas also often defy categorisation.
Of the group of English experimentalists, which also included Christopher Hobbs and Hugh Shrapnel, the most well known is Gavin Bryars, whose Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) acquired cult status when Tom Waits decided to sing along with the looped recording of the homeless man for a recording released in 1993. Like Cardew, Bryars formed his own experimental orchestra, The Portsmouth Sinfonia, in 1970, whose built-in inability to perform classical music resulted in low-tech performances of ‘high art’, often with hilarious results. Brian Eno was a member, and decided to feature the orchestra on the track ‘Put a Straw Under Baby’, for his 1974 album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Eno’s Obscure Label also released the first Penguin Cafe Orchestra album, founded by Simon Jeffes and Helen Liebmann, who applied the experimental principles of ‘randomness, spontaneity and surprise’ to a folk/pop idiom.