Music from Matjaž Pograjc's play Alice in Wonderland (2013), produced by the Ljubljana and Maribor Puppet Theatres.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE SCORE
After landing at the bottom of the rabbit hole, we dusted off our trousers and thought: now what? Where do we go from here? We turned to a funny looking cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off.
"Would you tell us, please, which way we ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the cat.
"We don't much care where--"
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the cat.
"--so long as we get SOMEWHERE," we added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the cat, "if you only walk long enough."
That is very sound advice, we thought. We had a sneaking suspicion, though, that this would be a very long walk. After all, we were hoping to find one of Wonderland’s few overlooked musical avenues and angles left.
For a place that can only be reached by means of a narrow rabbit hole, Wonderland is a pretty popular destination – especially among artists. Ever since Lewis Carroll opened the hole in 1865, a great number of excruciatingly talented composers (Oliver Wallace, John Barry and Danny Elfman to name but a few) have visited the place. During their stay, they wrote brilliant, extraordinarily diverse music. The rude buggers never stopped to consider how humbling and frustrating their work would prove for later-arriving composers.
As expected, we spent our first week in Wonderland stumbling in the dark. Fortunately, they’ve a fairly good Wi-Fi connection down there, so we were able to employ our favourite method for scouting out interesting ideas (we browsed aimlessly through suggested videos on YouTube). Soon enough, we came across the video for Radiohead’s 2003 single There there. The video features two elderly squirrels smoking pipes by a fireplace and a quaint feline wedding attended by forest animals. Needless to say, the imagery caught our attention – I’m pretty sure this is what Lewis Carroll’s work would’ve looked like had he been a music video director. We were particularly intrigued by the remarkable compatibility between the images and the music. Who would’ve thought music as dark, raw and unflinchingly serious as this – the song is based on dirty electric guitars and massive toms – would go so well with heavy smoking squirrels and feline newly-weds? Obviously, our first thought was: if it suits squirrels and cats, isn’t it likely to suit tardy white rabbits as well?
Drawing inspiration from There there and a handful of comparable songs (T-Bone Burnett’s Zombieland, Can’s Last Night Sleep, Crime & The City Solution’s The Adversary and Ry Cooder’s Last Man Standing OST), we started playing with gritty, slightly detuned electric guitars and heavy, tom-based percussion. We also gave polyphonic bass lines a go. However, these elements – still audible in tracks like Down the Rabbit Hole, A Mad Tea Party, The Gryphon and Clocks – proved insufficient. We had the requisite ingredients to conjure up Wonderland’s precariousness, but we lacked the ones necessary to summon up its magnificence and lunacy. To use Alice’s words, there was too much pepper in the soup.
Then, by a sheer stroke of luck, we ran into a serial killer. While flicking through TV channels, we stumbled upon Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Once again, Bernard Herrmann’s mesmerizing ostinato strings blew our socks off. We spent the next few days sifting through Herrmann’s works, looking for interesting approaches to scoring madness. As expected, the man behind the music for Psycho and Taxi Driver provided several invaluable pointers on how to go about the task.
Vertigo, another collaboration between Hitchcock and Herrmann, proved decisive in shaping our Alice. The film’s score features imposing brasses, hypnotic harps and swirling strings, elements we were swift to adopt. It takes but a cursory listen to see why the working title of track 2, Follow the White Rabbit, was “Vertigo”.
The film’s title sequence – designed by Saul Bass – features a spiral motif superimposed over a young woman’s eye. This, of course, is a perfect graphic representation of Alice looking down the rabbit hole. Perhaps it is this thematic kinship between Vertigo and Alice – the spiralling towards the heart of one’s subconscious, of one’s intuitive, irrational side – that explains why intensely hypnotic music, built around spirals and circles, works in both cases. More importantly, it explains why Alice in Wonderland should be treated with the utmost suspicion. The book isn’t childish enough to be trusted.
Benko, October 2013