Have you ever been so bowled over by the beauty of a piece of music that you’re not even sure where to start? Us too! In this new series, we’ll be underscoring a single element you can use as a port of entry to (re)discover a beloved piece. Today we’re focusing on the “talking” bass clarinet-cum-caterpillar in Unsuk Chin’s psychedelic opera, Alice in Wonderland.
Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland transforms Lewis Carroll’s delightful English daydream into a vivid, almost psychedelic trip. The episodic opera comprises eight loosely-connected scenes and two interludes, but notably no overture: with no instrumental prelude hinting at what’s to come, we’re plunged violently into the unknown, just like Alice.
Already an adult when she discovered Lewis’s colorful cast of characters, Chin’s interpretations often verge into grotesque nightmare territory. The landscape is far from the Disney movie many of us are familiar with, both musically, and in its unambiguous embrace of the seedier side of the story.
The relatively calm and slinky interlude “Advice from a Caterpillar” represents a respite from the almost aggressively vibrant scenes it follows. A voiceless conversation between Alice and a hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the 100% instrumental interlude takes us to a new place, one that is suddenly intimate and introspective. While Alice remains silent throughout, the Caterpillar’s “languid, sleepy voice” (as described in Lewis’s original text) takes form of a lugubrious bass clarinet solo, accompanied by short texts projected onto a screen.
“Who are you?” the bass clarinet-cum-caterpillar asks in a sometimes seamless, sometimes jarring blend of jazzy riffs and extended performance techniques. Listen for the glissandi, bright, slippery slides between two notes (remind you of the opening of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, perhaps?), and the grating multiphonics, a technique that produces multiple sounds at a time.
While we often see instruments take on the role of a character, Chin’s vision of the bass clarinet as the Caterpillar is particularly well-defined. In the score, she explicitly notes, “By playing his Bass Clarinet, the Caterpillar will ‘speak’ his lines, which are projected as text.”
Achim Freyer’s staging of the opera in this 2007 production takes this idea and runs with it: the bass clarinetist is literally on stage, dressed as a caterpillar, and the larger-than-life inflatable caterpillar’s fingers run over the keys of an invisible instrument as well.