“Music begins where the possibilities of language end.”
At last, there is to be a world premiere of the work to the film, this month as part of the concert series at Jazz at the Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, Scotland. It’s been harder than I thought it might to find appropriate venues willing to take this on, but I’ve played at the Blue Lamp many times and I’m looking forward to taking something quite different there. It also happens that there is a newly restored high definition version of the film, and we will be showing that.
Here is an improvisation on one of the themes I’ve written for #aliceinwonderlandjazzscore. This is for the short section with the verses about Father William’s antics – standing on his head and balancing eels on his nose. As this was a piano improvisation, the film clips have been added afterwards – I was not playing to the film or attempting to synchronise here.
And below is a ‘lead sheet’ of the piece – a lead sheet is a simple notation of the melody, which usually comes with chord symbols annotation of the harmony. This is a preferred written format for jazz musicians to improvise from.
Continuing a look at themes, this time showing how I developed a simple whole-tone motif into several different melodies. This sequence of 8 notes, when played, at first, sounds just like a descending C major scale.
But it misses out the first C, so the first 4 notes form a sequence of whole tones. On reaching the bottom C – the 7th note, instead of continuing to B natural, it hits a Bb, and this choice makes it clear that it’s not in fact a C major scale, but two ‘tetrachords’ made up of whole tone intervals. Experimenting with different ways of harmonising this scale led to the theme for “The Rabbit’s House”
The whole tone scale also generates the melodies for several other sections of music in the score, the sombre and dour “Trial” music:
And, in a very different mood, the bright and happy Lobster Quadrille melody:
As I explained earlier, the listener / viewer isn’t meant to recognise or even understand this. Music works on several levels at once, and the composer has to call on many tricks and processes to create the material. Sometimes we don’t know which methods will turn out to be useful, sometimes we don’t even know which ones we have in our arsenal, and discovering this is part of the reward of creating music.
It’s been so exciting to hear this music brought to life. Here is a clip from a rehearsal, playing the music for the Rabbit’s House scene.
Something that composers have done for centuries, particularly when writing music for drama – film, theatre, opera or whatever, is to make use of themes that recur in different ways. Perhaps the most studied example is the ‘leitmotiv’ in Wagner’s epic operas, but this practice is everywhere in TV and film music. The repetition and transformation of the themes can be made to be obvious to the listener, or made to be felt almost subliminally. Perhaps more importantly, it can lend coherence to the music, and it has lots of appeal to the composer, as it presents both a challenge and a useful process device – a way of making a tune go further.
Often themes are assigned to characters, locations, or objects, but In Alice In Wonderland, I opted not to go down this route, as I feel it is difficult to do with any degree of subtlety. I didn’t plan my use of recurring themes, but as the music came about, some specific interval groupings and shapes began to appear. Near the end of the process, I took out a section I didn’t like, and found that re-using the opening theme in a different key and rhythmic feel led me to exactly the mood I needed for this section. Here it is, illustrated:
This theme has a distinctive descending semitone pattern and use of repeated notes. It forms the opening (and closing) music :
…but, the same melodic pattern is the tune in “To The Convention”, which needs a much brighter, happier mood, with more forward motion. With different tempo and chords, this is easily achieved.
As I said earlier, I’m not holding to any hard and fast rules, and in fact some of these things came about without me being conscious of them. For example, the ‘crying theme’ below has a resemblance to the theme above – the initial note repeats 4 times followed by a step down a semitone down. After that, it then does its own thing… but the similarity at the start is valuable to the overall sense of unity of the music.
In the next post I’ll show some other themes and how they are used.
I’ve previously written music for film, as a collaboration with drummer and percussionist Stu Brown, in our duo Herschel 36. This was a commission from Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema to write music for the 1929 German silent documentary “Wunder Der Schöpfung”. This was a massively challenging and enjoyable project, and the music that resulted can be heard and downloaded here.
“As a composer I’m always looking for something new to take on.”
It became clear to me that if I just sat waiting to be asked to write something to accompany a film, then I might be waiting a long time. I decided I needed to kick something off myself, so I started to search on YouTube, discovering a huge world of silent film. I shortlisted a number of films, all of which were public domain – which basically means the legal rights have lapsed over time – this will make any future performances to film much easier to do. Late in 2020, I did some exploratory composing to a short section of a few of these films, including the 1915 Alice In Wonderland. I liked the possibilities of this story, its weird and fantastic characters, the darkness, magic, surrealism and nonsense. The themes of escapism and absurdity at the heart of the story seem particularly fitting for these times, and the elements of bewilderment, disorientation, and not knowing what’s coming next, areperfect for adventurous improvising musicians to work with.
When I was young, most of my favourite books were fantasy or fantastical in nature. Whilst I avoided Alice in Wonderland initially, perhaps as it was somewhat unfashionable, when I did read it I loved it. Later in life, I read about something called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, a medical condition more correctly known as dysmetropsia. I then realised I already knew of this – the strange hallucinations and distortions I had experienced on several occasions when feverish as a child.
“Much composition to film is written with no scope for improvisation.”
Whilst new musical scores for existing films are nothing new, there are not many as jazz musicians embracing the possibilities as there are electronic musicians, rock bands, or ‘serious composers’. There is a lot to offer here, as by our nature we jazzers know how to make a wide spectrum of sound and expression from our instruments, and explore a variety of approaches from unusual angles and different starting points. A key aim I have in mind is that the music will stand on its own without the film – yet also complement and elevate it in the way the best scores have throughout history. This music will be a set of contemporary music featuring jazz musicians, which works with the film, but also without. This music won’t be a subservient and over-reverent accompaniment, and certainly not background music.
Stay tuned for a look at the melodic themes and ideas which the music is based around.
I’m writing the Alice music for a group made of 5 musicians including myself. I have worked with all of them before, but this will be the first time they will have played together. Between them there is a wealth of different ideas, stylistic knowledge, and experience of collaborative practise. Their feedback and suggestions will be invaluable through the process of putting together this work, as I believe the best jazz composition is written with with individual sound, personality and improvisational style in mind.
“the most complete mix of invention and originality” The Times
Originally following a path in medicine, drummer and percussionist Tom now makes a living from music. He has played with musicians as diverse as SunRa,MartynBennett,GeriAllen and BillWells. Founder member of the PathheadMusicCollective Tom has an interest in worldwide musical traditions and pedagogies, has worked extensively with Scottish and Irish traditional musicians and is an innovator on the traditional Celticdrum the bodhran. He has studied, collaborated, and performed in India, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco, Malawi, Vietnam, Taiwan.
“Rachel Lightbody provides one of those beautiful performances that stop you in your tracks and force you to listen.” JazzJournal
Vocalist and educator Rachel Lightbody performs worldwide, but has immersed herself into the busy Glasgow music scene, providing vocals on many exciting projects, including sold-out performances of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court and Spark’ (featuredonBBCRadioScotland, 2018), and Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ with Start- to-End at Celtic Connections. She was the featured vocalist with Mezcla for their 2019 Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Islay Jazz Festival performance; and also worked as a backing vocalist for folk singer Siobhan Miller (featured on BBC Quay sessions 2019).
“Andrew Robb on Bass…is all about close ensemble interaction” Jazzwise
Since winning 1st Prize at the 2018 European Society of Bassists Jazz Competition, Andrew is establishing himself as one of the most versatile and talented young improvising double bassists in Europe. He won BBC Radio Scotland Young Jazz Musician of The Year in 2009, and went on to study in London and Norway. He co-founded trio A Northern Code, with Mathias Marstranderand Sigurd Steinkopf, released their debut album “Boundaries” in December 2019 on the Øra Fonogram to critical acclaim. As a composer, his music has been featured on BBC Scotland, BBC Radio 3, Radio ORF and the London Jazz festival. Andrew is also an in demand educator and is currently Head of Jazz at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh,Senior Lecturer of Jazz Bass at Leeds College of Music and a guest lecturer at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He is an endorsing artist for Remic Microphones, a Trusteefor the Scottish Double Bass Trust, and in December 2019 he was named as the only representative for the arts in Scottish Review’s 20/20 Vision Young Scots of The Year.
A unique emerging voice, saxophonist and composer Norman Willmore comes from Shetland. His stylistic interests span contemporary and exploratory improvisation, electronica, and Scottish traditional music and in particularly Shetland music. His quartet blend Scandinavian and Appalachian folk music with elements of free jazz, and also play arrangements of old wartime songs and hymns, played with a sense of humour, and with respect to the tradition. His album “Alive & Well at the Muckle Roe Hall” was launched with a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign.
Hello, my name is Paul Harrison, and I’m creating a new score for the 1915 silent film “Alice In Wonderland”. I’m a jazz musician based in Scotland. Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting here about the creation and development of this project. There’ll be clips from rehearsals, excerpts from the musical score, and of course I’ll talk about the film. Please bookmark the page, keep checking in, or subscribe to updates below.