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An album celebrating The King’s Singers’ trademark musical storytelling—and with no shortage of comedy. All of the works included here were commissioned by the group across their (so far) 55-year history.
When our predecessors in The King’s Singers made the album Kids’ Stuff in 1986, they put English nursery rhymes at the album’s core. Almost 40 years on, we’ve returned to that world of magic, myth and fairytale to guide our choices for this album. And right now feels like the right moment to do so: in our fast-paced world dominated by data, technology and commerce, there’s a real place for stories that slow us down and ground us in the natural world and our own histories and traditions. With endless information at our fingertips, we want to help our listeners to suspend disbelief and enter a magical universe for just a few minutes. This isn’t just for kids, but for all of us. So if you take nothing else from Wonderland, take the opportunity simply to enjoy these stories, in all their richness, weirdness and comedy.
There was so much music we could have chosen for Wonderland. Vocal music of the nineteenth century (like that of Schubert, Strauss or Wagner) is full of folk tales, magic and mystery; and slightly later, in the aftermath of the First World War, composers like Ravel, Bax and Elgar used musical weirdness as a way of responding to the horrors of the age. But we didn’t need to look that hard. In our 55-year history, we have commissioned hundreds of works from composers around the world, and from this body of work alone we’ve compiled a collection that reflects the idea of Wonderland perfectly: it’s an anthology of myths, legends and folktales shared through great musical story-telling. But it’s also a tribute to some of the fantastic works written for us over our history, right up to the present day.
One of the inspirations for the title Wonderland is Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In it, a young girl tumbles down a rabbit hole and enters a surreal world of oddities which famously get ‘curiouser and curiouser’. The Hungarian composer György Ligeti found several of the texts for the six Nonsense Madrigals that he wrote for us between 1988 and 1993 in this book. This year—2023—marks 100 years since Ligeti’s birth. So we’re celebrating Ligeti’s centenary by interspersing his Nonsense Madrigals across the album like a spine holding everything in place. If you ask any of us or any of our predecessors about the hardest pieces in our whole library, you’re likely to get this set as your answer. They’re avant-garde, fiendishly complicated and technically demanding, as one might expect from Ligeti. But they are also funny, wittily-set and built upon fragments of beautiful melody and harmony that fade in and out with the waxing and waning comedy and hysteria. They’re also hugely rewarding to sing: each of the six has its own unique flavour. The first is Two Dreams and Little Bat, which was premiered (along with the following three movements) in Berlin on 25 September 1988, after a commissioning partnership between Brigham Young University and the Berlin Festival. In both its conceptual structure and its music, it is by far the most complex of the six madrigals. It sets three texts at once. In the two countertenor voices we hear The Dream of a Girl who lived at Seven-Oaks; whereas in the three lowest voices, it’s The Dream of a Boy who lived at Nine-Elms, both by William Brighty Rands (1823-1882). In the tenor part, there’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat (a surreal version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, as told by the Mad Hatter in Chapter Seven of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). For most of the piece, the two ‘dreams’ and the ‘Twinkle’ sit at odds with each other, delivered in different time-signatures with phrases that compete for the listener’s attention. They coalesce perfectly, yet manically at the end, on the final line of poetry (which is almost the same in both dreams), ‘I dreamt it all plain; With bread and jam [and cheese] for supper I could dream it all again’.
This first Nonsense Madrigal is preceded by a prelude to open the album: Makiko Kinoshita’s (b1956) Ashita no uta (Song for Tomorrow), a piece she wrote for us in 2020 for a planned tour to Japan (later cancelled because of the pandemic). On the rare occasions in 2020 that we were able to assemble and sing together, we hugely enjoyed learning this beautiful work, which reflects the perpetual turning of the earth through spiralling harmonies that pivot multiple times in each phrase. Kinoshita is one of Japan’s foremost contemporary choral composers. She was born and raised in Tokyo, studying composition at Tokyo University of the Arts, before beginning her esteemed career writing orchestral, chamber, and choral music for artists in Japan and around the world. She chose as her text Masumitsu Miyamoto’s poem, which explores the heart-warming idea that the earth spins itself in order to find new hope in each new day.
A dream within a dream by Ola Gjeilo (b1978) was commissioned by our sister charity—The King’s Singers Global Foundation—in 2022 as part of its New Music initiative, and was premiered at Wigmore Hall, London, in November that year. Although it is a single piece and single poem, A dream within a dream is divided into three short movements, each with its own character and colour. Gjeilo is a celebrated Norwegian composer, who studied composition in Oslo, New York and London, and who has found particular success in the USA where he now lives and works. The poem is by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), the American poet best known for his Gothic horror style, whose work is often infused by the mystical and macabre. This poem is somewhat bleak, told in the voice of a dying man who seems to slide between reality and ‘vision’, questioning the nature of reality and perception, asking ‘Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?’.
Another work commissioned by The King’s Singers Global Foundation in 2022, and premiered at Wigmore Hall, is Alive by Francesca Amewudah-Rivers (b1998). Francesca is a young British composer, of Ghanaian-Nigerian heritage, who is forging a multifaceted career as an actor, composer and sound designer. Alive is her first foray into choral composition, and the result is something which—much like her own career—plays with the boundaries of genre. Set to original lyrics by Francesca, it sits somewhere between a pop song, folk song, and choral anthem. In the lyrics, which were inspired by a visit to Cyprus shortly after the pandemic, and during which she saw the sea for the first time in years, she asks the listener to be aware and appreciative of the physical real world around them: it ends with the insistent refrain, ‘Do you know how it feels to be alive?’
The two movements of Ligeti’s Nonsense Madrigals that sit either side of Alive are on the more light-hearted, whimsical end. Cuckoo in the Pear-Tree sets another surreal poem by William Brighty Rands (who, one supposes, enjoyed brightening up his days as a reporter in the Victorian-era House of Commons by writing his eccentric children’s poetry). It imagines the social dance of a cuckoo trying to go home and being challenged on whether it is in fact the right cuckoo, and not an imposter waiting to hijack the nest. The inclusion of ‘Cuckoo’ between every line of poetry must have felt like a gift to Ligeti, who scatters duetting ‘cuckoos’ liberally throughout the piece. The Alphabet is … well, just that! It’s a setting of all the letters A to Z, one by one. Starting on a pair of notes a tone apart, each new letter arrives as a new note in the chord. As the piece progresses, the harmony shifts almost imperceptibly as notes fade in and out with the journey through the alphabet—something Ligeti called ‘micro-polyphony’ and used in some of his famous orchestral works like Atmospheres. A few moments of drama mark themselves out, such as the new tonality that appears at ‘E’, and ‘S-T-U’ with its almost-hysterical crescendo. Setting the very building-blocks of language to music with such vivid imagination was a truly wondrous idea, helping us to see words and music in an entirely new light.
We had hoped to commission something from Joe Hisaishi (b1950) for a long time, and it was thrilling to find out in early 2022 that he was able to write for us. As one of the world’s greatest film and game soundtrack composers, Joe is in incredibly high demand and his reach has grown beyond his native Japan to a truly global level, through his work on the Studio Ghibli films. The stars aligned when we were scheduled to tour Japan in Christmas 2022, and Joe agreed to write a piece that we would premiere at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall as part of the tour. What was most astonishing to us was that this was going to be his first ever piece of unaccompanied choral music. I was there is the result, written in a minimalist musical language, and setting phrases of Japanese and English interspersed. It explores cultural memories of tragedy: 9/11, the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, and the 2020 COVID pandemic. By using repeated rhythmic patterns, Hisaishi navigates projections of horror, nostalgia, and hope in a series of sections ending each time with the words ‘I was there’ or ‘I’ll be there’.
Flying Robert is the fourth of Ligeti’s Nonsense Madrigals, and the final one to have been composed in the initial 1988 set. Reflecting his own deep academic appreciation of early music, both this and the next movement, The Lobster Quadrille, use the musical technique of passacaglia. In each of these pieces, Ligeti writes a phrase that’s continuously repeated and forms an axis around which the rest of the music revolves. In the case of Flying Robert, there are in fact two of these: a slow moving chordal sequence in the lower voices (most audible at the opening, but which returns to great effect at the end) and a duet passage in the countertenor voices (‘All good little girls and boys stay at home …’). Onto this structure Ligeti loads the dramatic cautionary tale by Dr Heinrich Hoffmann of Robert—a boy who ignores advice to stay inside in a storm, and who is then (along with his hat) picked up by the wind and carried into the clouds, never to be seen again. In The Lobster Quadrille, the passacaglia element sets the famous Lewis Carroll refrain, ‘“Will you walk a little faster?” Said a whiting to a snail’. This text is The Mock Turtle’s Song (1871), a poem from a few years after Alice in Wonderland but with a similarly bizarre concept: animals assemble on a shingle beach, persuading a reluctant snail to come and join a dance with them across the English Channel to France. The only moment at which Ligeti’s passacaglia temporarily ceases is the surreal moment when the music breaks into a low-set quotation of the English and French national anthems, fused together on the words ‘The farther off from England, the nearer is to France’.
When we invited her to write Tricksters, Judith Bingham (b1952) wrote to each of us, asking us to share thoughts about our personalities and character traits. Her aim? To ‘pair’ each of us with a Trickster-God from a different world mythology. The story starts somewhat earlier than that, though. Judith was one of the first composers ever commissioned to write for the group, in the early 1970s. The resulting piece was so technically demanding that it never actually found its way to the concert platform. From this starting point of unfinished business, Judith used Tricksters as a chance to take some of the ideas from her earlier work and reframe them into a new piece, almost 50 years later. The premise of the piece is that competitive and mischievous tricksters from various different parts of the world—Earthmaker (Gaia), Coyote, Loki, Kawku-Ananse and the Moon-Hare—all make their claim to having brought fire into the world. In a similar mould to The musicians of Bremen, Judith gives an exposition to each of the five trickster characters, creating a kaleidoscope of different choral sound-worlds around them in response to each trickster’s story. A final message of unity and harmony comes from the Moon-Hare: ‘Let us all tell stories and sing songs; the same moon will shine on us, wherever we are’.
The penultimate track on Wonderland is the final Nonsense Madrigal by Ligeti. A long, sad tale is another multi-texted movement. Both texts are by Lewis Carroll, and the sense of play and fun Ligeti creates as they intersect is magical. The famous passage ‘Off with her head’ from Alice in Wonderland tells the story of a dog called ‘Fury’, who (bored one day) puts a mouse on trial and quickly condemns it to death. Around this is played out a word game from Carroll’s celebrated Games and Puzzles publication. In this, words are changed—one letter at a time—into the total opposite word (‘head’ into ‘tail’ in the first instance).
1972 was something of a bumper year for commissioning in The King’s Singers, despite being very early on in the group’s history. The final two major works on Wonderland both come from that year. It saw the group embark on its first major Australasian tour, and on that trip the group gave the world premiere of The musicians of Bremen by Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003) in Sydney. The musicians of Bremen is an old German folk tale that was collected and published by the Brothers Grimm in 1819. It’s the story of four animals—a donkey, dog, cat, and cockerel—who become scared of their masters and leave home to join a fabled orchestra in the north German city of Bremen. On their journey, they stumble upon a couple of robbers when they stop to eat in a cottage in the forest. Our version sees each singer play one of the animal-characters, as well as joining together in choruses and chorales that are repeated at key moments in the narrative. This piece was written by Williamson when he was a rising star of Australian contemporary music, but before he was invited to be Master of the Queen’s Music for Queen Elizabeth II from 1977 until his death. His appointment to this esteemed post was controversial; other notable British composers such as Malcolm Arnold had seemingly been overlooked for it, prompting William Walton to say ‘They got the wrong Malcolm’. But this piece holds a special place in our library, as live performances provide ample opportunity for amateur dramatics.
The other piece from 1972 is Time Piece by Paul Patterson (b1947). It’s an ingenious reimagining of the creation story, with lyrics by Tim Rose-Price which propose that it was in fact time, rather than snakes, apples and fig leaves, that brought about the downfall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. From an opening section depicting chaos and darkness, order emerges gradually, and ‘Paradise’, we are told, ‘was looking cool’. When Eve asks Adam what he’s wearing on his wrist, he responds: ‘a watch’. From this point, the ticks and tocks of the world’s clocks begin to dominate—including an unvoiced ‘Mechanical Fugue’—until God has enough and demands they all stop, putting an end to time … for a long time.
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