Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland', Unsuk Chin, and a traditional nursery rhyme (E)
The song cycle snagS&Snarls after texts from Lewis Carroll’s Alice-books was commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and premiered under the direction of Kent Nagano at the Ojai Festival in August 2004. Unsuk Chin considers it a preliminary study for the opera Alice in Wonderland, which was premiered in 2007 at the Bavarian State Opera. All the songs from snagS&Snarls – except the first – were incorporated in the opera, albeit in modified form.
The unusual title is made up of the words snag and snarl. Among other things, the noun snag can be defined as an “unexpected obstacle” or as a “rough, sharp object”. Snarl, on the other hand, means either a “tangle” or a “confused state,” or to “speak in a bad-tempered voice” or (of dogs, etc.) to “show the teeth and growl angrily.” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 5th edn., 1995)
The title refers to a chapter heading in the book Metamagical Themas by the cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter in which he writes about self-referentiality. Incidentally, Unsuk Chin discovered Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories through Hofstadter’s cult book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll. With this, the composer joined the long line of artists, scientists, and other readers who learned to appreciate Lewis Carroll’s Alice as a highly complex philosophical creation and as a classic of modern literature. This is not surprising, seeing as Lewis Carroll thematized fundamental philosophical questions in that in Alice “classification criteria [of any sort] such as space and time, rationality and moral, identity and communication, the hierarchy of man, animal, and matter [get caught in] the maelstrom of a subversive destruction” (Eberhard Kreutzer, Lewis Carroll: “Alice in Wonderland” und “Through the Looking-Glass”, Munich, 1984). He accomplished this feat by means of a unique creative linguistic achievement: plays on words and logical conclusions that are just as rigorous as they are absurd become the basic principles and building blocks of an absurd mode of thought. By means of this, Carroll presents a perceived experience that “appears to stand in the same capricious relationship of dependency [to every-day reality] as do waves and particles in quantum mechanics” (Frank Harders-Wuthenow, “A propos Alice,” unpublished manuscript, 2007).
Carroll’s transboundary, philosophical-poetic cosmos appears to be tailor-made for Unsuk Chin. Like Carroll’s Alice, Chin’s music is simultaneously informed by virtuoso artistry, rigorous-logical constructiveness, and an at times overdrawn humor. Like Carroll, Chin is also fascinated by word and number games: one need only consider the palindromes, crab canons, and anagrams – to name just a few – that in Miroirs des temps or Kalá become musically self-explanatory codes for infinity, death, or mental border regions. Another example would be the boisterous-ironic, self-referential vocal work Cantatrix Sopranica in which the musical processes are often created by means of experimental linguistic combinatorics (and vice versa).
In snagS&Snarls a new aspect is added: Lewis Carroll’s intertextual processes are musically mirrored by multiple stylistic parodies and allusions. The musical language of this work therefore seems – at first glance – to be more simple and traditional than Chin’s other works. However, appearances are deceiving in the same manner as in Carroll's Alice, in which the genre of the would-be children’s story only provides the framework for an unconventional consideration of key philosophical questions.
The first song is a setting of the Alice–Acrostic poem with which Carroll concluded the second Alice book. The initial letters of the lines read in order form the name of the historical model for these stories: Alice Pleasance Liddell. The author recalls here the famous boat trip on which he told the stories to Alice and her sisters for the first time. The musical texture evokes a nostalgic, wondrous “Once upon a time...” atmosphere and is predominantly consonant, whereby the tonal image is alienated by the delicate rhythmic-metrical shifts and the unusual instrumentation. This pensive beginning is followed by various scenes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The first of these scenes comes from the chapter The Pool of Tears and is called Who in the World am I? In this chapter, Alice, who has just arrived in Wonderland, experiences within a very short period of time extreme changes in her body size and other bewildering events that lead to a serious identity crisis. In her despair, Alice attempts to reassure herself by reciting a poem and other things learned at school, but she gets all the facts mixed up. Alice’s confusion is musically mirrored in various ways, for example by means of rhythmical complexity, pauses consciously used as means of expression, or the isolated entrances of the various instruments.
The Tale-Tail of the Mouse is from the chapter A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale. The title alludes to a homonymic mix-up: Alice envisages the “mouse’s tale” in the form of a “mouse’s tail.” Carroll consequently penned the mouse’s story in the form of a mouse’s tail, and with that one of the most famous figural poems ever written. The composer translates this visual model and the atmosphere of the poem into music by various means: in the solo part through a quasi-expressionistic Sprechgesang (speech-song); in the instrumental accompaniment through the filigree trills and runs, the entwined, murmuring, descending lines, and the delicate instrumentation (mandolin, harp, harpsichord, and woodwind group).
The next scene, Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy, is from the chapter Pig and Pepper. The plot of the chapter is as follows: Alice enters the house of the Duchess which is a menacingly chaos. The Duchess’s cook throws plates and dishes at everything within her range, while the Duchess, shaking and tossing her baby around, sings the song Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy, a parody of a lullaby. Alice ultimately remains alone with the baby who however then turns into a pig. Several commentators have wanted to see in this scene a statement about the “poisonous pedagogy” prevalent in Victorian England, but it is above all a burlesque grotesque. In snagS&Snarls, the Duchess’s song consists of a very simple, almost obtuse melody and of howls that fittingly reflect its grotesque-nasty character. The composer added to the text verses from an earlier theater version of Alice, which give the scene a pseudo-ritual character – almost as if the parody of an evil fairytale witch were uttering a curse. The shabby character of this scene is also given expression by means of the instrumental ostinatos, the brass and vocal glissandos, the comically dull entries of the low instruments, and, not least, by the percussion, which increasingly dominates the tonal image: the percussionists must make use here of diverse household objects, “garbage percussion,” and a siren.
In contrast to this, the cycle concludes with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, which is based on the chapter A Mad Tea-Party. Here, Alice feels herself insulted by the presence of the guests at the “Mad Tea-Party,” since they keep asking her absurd, unanswerable riddles. The text parodies the well-known English children’s song of the same name; the composer has deconstructed it even further by means of tongue-twisting nonsense verses. The music unexpectedly develops out of the reduced and nearly infantile textures into a highly virtuoso musical fabric. A further example for how the composer, in accordance with Carroll’s intentions, transforms simple musical modes of expression into a musical wonderland.
© Maris Gothóni (translation: Howard Weiner)