Revisiting a composer's psychedelic Lewis Carroll music

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Revisiting a composer's psychedelic Lewis Carroll music
The composer David Del Tredici at his home in Manhattan, Dec. 29, 2022. The Albany Symphony is the first orchestra to record two early works in Del Tredici’s “Alice” cycle. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK, NY.- Lewis Carroll’s influence is all over contemporary culture.

There’s the surreal image of going “through the looking glass”; the look of a Tim Burton movie, including his version of “Alice in Wonderland”; the skewed angles of Tom Petty’s video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”; the use of a word like “galumphing.”

And, as a new album from New York’s Albany Symphony demonstrates, there are the Carroll-inspired musical works of composer David Del Tredici, some of which have been captured on two world premiere recordings from the ensemble, led by David Allen Miller.

These long-awaited performances — of “Pop-Pourri” (from 1968, and revised in 1973) and “Adventures Underground” (written in 1971 and revised in 1977) — are a booming, psychedelic marvel. In the initial seconds of the first movement of “Pop-Pourri,” Del Tredici smash cuts between a Bach harmonization of a Lutheran chorale, “Es Ist Genug,” and his own setting of Carroll’s text. The “Litany of the Blessed Virgin” is also in the mix — making good on Del Tredici’s claim, in the album’s liner notes, that the piece is “a kind of Cantata of the Sacred and Profane.”

But that’s not the strangest, or even most alluring, part of the beginning: That would be the music for saxophones, which tends to keen and swoon underneath high-flown writing for a soprano (on this recording, an indefatigable Hila Plitmann). The second movement features boisterous, fast moving lines for contrabassoon. And in the third movement, Del Tredici lets his late ’60s freak flag fly, with percussion blasts and woolly lines for distorted electric guitar and bass.

“I’m always trying to make the text come alive,” Del Tredici, 85, said in a recent phone interview. He remembered that, for the “Jabberwocky”-quoting third movement, “I needed something for the monster.”

He found just the thing at a percussion store in New York. “They had a huge tam-tam in one room, and I said, ‘What about that, can I rent that?’” he recalled about the period shortly before conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led the piece in 1972. “And they said: ‘Well, it’s only been rented once for a movie at MGM. I guess you could.’”

Del Tredici then went to Thomas, who was working with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and asked, “Could you rent this for me, for one shot on the tam-tam?” The response: “OK, sure.” (With a winking tone, Del Tredici noted, “They had money.” For their part, Miller and his Albany players likewise make the passage sound like a million bucks in the new recording.)

“I was doing weird things,” Del Tredici said. “None of these instruments existed with symphony orchestras — like all the electric stuff. You might find the instrument, but then you had no one to play it. The hardest was the banjo. It was always fighting some kind of tradition by demanding what I did.”

But within a span of only a few years, Del Tredici managed to bend that tradition. His “Alice” works — which encompass chamber music, grand symphonic entries and even an opera, “Dum Dee Tweedle,” from 1990 — have drawn public acclaim and interest from elite performers for decades. A 1981 Decca release of “Final Alice,” for large orchestra and soprano, boasts no less a podium eminence than Georg Solti, who with Barbara Hendricks and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra grasped Del Tredici’s penchant for brash, experimental density.

Despite that title, “Final Alice” was not Del Tredici’s last word on Carroll. His “Child Alice,” over two hours long, followed shortly thereafter. A selection from that work — “In Memory of a Summer Day” — won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet the gargantuan score received its premiere recording only in the past decade, thanks to conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

In the liner notes for that release, Del Tredici was specific about the ways in which layered meters connected with Carroll’s text. Although the musical surfaces may seem madcap, the underlying structures are anything but; small, micro-units of song are balanced with grander processes and callbacks that give these pieces a weightier sense of scale.

How did Del Tredici manage this? “One notebook at a time,” he said. “And then I put the notebooks together.” After amassing 50 different notebooks of sketches for a piece like “Child Alice,” he began stitching and editing. That process “was the fun part” but also a “scary” one.

“For a long time I just wrote,” he said. “I didn’t care what I wrote. I insisted I didn’t know what I was doing. Like magic, it did come together.”

That magic touch is evident in the new recording of “Pop-Pourri,” released by Albany Records; the swooning saxophone music from the first movement also has a part to play during the amplified extremes of the third movement. While there is an intent to delight a listener — “I’m not entertaining by accident!” Del Tredici exclaimed with a laugh — the writing also rewards a closer listen.

After “Pop-Pourri,” as critic Frank J. Oteri has observed, Del Tredici never used such imposing, rocklike amplification in his “Alice” works again. But there is still an audible connection between “Pop-Pourri” and the folk ensemble embedded within “An Alice Symphony” (which was memorably recorded by composer Oliver Knussen as conductor).

If the “Alice” music is not heard frequently in concert halls today, that may have less to do with style than it does with the orchestra world’s declining investment in grand contemporary works. “I was lucky, getting wonderful performances at the beginning,” Del Tredici said. “The commitment of orchestras — that’s very important. They did give a commitment to my music that they don’t do nowadays, that I see.”

Del Tredici hopes to see “Dum Dee Tweedle” staged in full one day. (It has only been presented in concert.) During the interview, he recounted showing the work to a conductor. “I hadn’t heard it for a long time,” he said. “And I couldn’t believe it: It’s 75 minutes of nonstop, fast music. It’s very weird.” (A recording is available to stream on his website and makes for a thrilling ride.)

And he’s currently contemplating another opera with a comic bent about his recent experiences with Parkinson’s disease. In conversation, he analogized that effort with his decision in the 1990s to write music directly on gay themes.

“I like being open,” he said, “about all the things that are hard to be open about.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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