Friday, March 12, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: the CSO doing David Del Tredici's "They Told Me You Had Been To Her"

"They Told Me You Had Been To Her" is a wild aria from Del Tredici's Final Alice, a one-soprano cantata based on the chaotic courtroom scene from Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, I can't find a sound clip online, so you're just gonna have to trust me on this. But trust me: THERE'S A THEREMIN! Also lots of loud brass playing in what sounds like completely different meters at the same time. I imagine it's a bear to conduct, so God bless Georg Solti for getting it done.

Del Tredici's an interesting guy. He's best known for his series of Alice pieces, one of which won a Pulitzer in 1980, and for helping bring tonality back to contemporary classical music. When he first abandoned 12-tone serialism to write Final Alice, he was a pretty polarizing figure among composers, many of whom viewed any deviation from atonal composition as apostasy. (Critic Kyle Gann has a nice article about that movement here.)

When you listen to the music, though, it makes total sense. Just think of the world conjured by Alice in Wonderland: bizarre but recognizable, full of both nonsense language and dry wit, morphing the everyday elements of Alice's subconscious into visions absurd and monstrous. Del Tredici's music is ideal text-painting. It's based on a theme that's SO tonal it's almost annoying--completely diatonic, it spends most of its time just outlining a major scale. (Catchy, though.) But then Del Tredici takes that theme and twists it beyond recognition, or throws up multiple statements of the theme that are out of phase with one another. Chaos and dissonance ensue, but all in the service of setting a scene. It's not unlike how, more than a century ago, Richard Strauss presaged serialism by using atonality to depict absurdities and monstrosities in his music. Only, in 1976, Del Tredici was moving in the opposite direction.

In this interesting Del Tredici interview, the gay composer admits that he identified with Lewis Carroll's "closeted" emotional life more than he identified with the books themselves. (Carroll secretly pined for the real-life Alice, and Del Tredici secretly pined for men.) He'd never read Alice all the way through, but something drew him to the books for inspiration. Apparently English people didn't appreciate how the Alice pieces drew attention to this aspect of Lewis Carroll's life. From the interview:

DAVID DEL TREDICI: In a wild kind of way the Alice pieces...are about being gay... In the sense that when they were done in England—this whole idea of having the love songs come out all tonal—they took great offense at my treatment of Lewis Carroll. They thought it was horrific that I let the erotic out of the bottle, or suggested that there was this whole other side to Lewis Carroll. In America we don't care. It's not really our book. Somehow it was more proprietary in England. I was amazed by this different aspect. My settings are also very emotional, which is not really the way the book is commonly perceived.

FRANK J. OTERI: In a weird way tonality at that point in time was the musical language that dare not speak its name.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: [laughs] I like that. That's exactly right. Great.

Now there's a thesis waiting to be written! Anyway, Final Alice is still in print and available through MY local library system, at least. Mr. Del Tredici's Myspace is musically underwhelming, though he does list as influences "Lots of Gay Poets" and "All things that have to do with leather." So there's that.

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