Composer Joby Talbot on Alice’s Multi-Coloured Sounds

by John Snelson
March 5, 2024

Joby Talbot Alice 1

Joby Talbot. Photo by Johan Persson

I thought long and hard before agreeing to write the score for Alice, as I realized what an enormous task it would be, and indeed, it [took] me over two years. It’s extraordinary to look at the Prologue now and think back to its inception and the many stages it has been through. I’d previously written a 90-minute piece for dance, but that was more an orchestral work to which choreography was added, and in five movements, it was symphonic and could gradually unfold. Because Alice is made up of small set pieces, it was like building a house with just one room, then adding another, then another, then another...

I divide my work fairly evenly between concert music and film scoring, and I had thought that writing a narrative ballet would be much more like the latter than it turned out to be. Within an hour-long film score, only about ten minutes of music will ever really appear in the foreground to drive the narrative. The rest fits behind dialogue, provides atmospheric underscore or catches an emotional moment. In ballet, the music is absolutely in the foreground all the time: quite literally, the orchestra is between the audience and the people dancing on stage. There’s not an easy second in it, so as the composer, you’re never off the hook. It was a much more intense – and intensive – experience composing two hours of music for Alice; ten minutes more and I might have been admitted to a sanatorium.

Joby Talbot Alice 2

Former Principal Character Artist Tomas Schramek and Svetlana Lunkina in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Usually I start composing at the piano, throwing ideas around and scribbling them down on paper. The initial process for Alice was the same, if somewhat improvised – the Muse descended into the studio I was working at in Shoreditch. We’d finished recording another project, the mixing was being done in the next room and it was all going rather well. I felt inspired, locked myself in a room with a piano for an hour, and came up with Alice’s theme, the White Rabbit’s theme, the opening music and a whole lot more, all scribbled on the backs of spare bits of music that were lying around the studio. Later I started putting the themes together and discovered a strange, shifting bitonal music – a restless ticking clock – for Wonderland. Then a love theme, and a theme for loneliness: all these recur as storytelling devices. Our version of the story has made Alice very central, rather than confining her to the more observational role she has in the book. So we meet characters through her experience of them and through the colour of her mood, which means great fun for me musically – Alice can be grumpy, happy, sad, lonely or exhausted or confused; if she were just amused on the sidelines I’d soon run out of musical ideas for her. Instead, we have a scene such as that immediately preceding her encounter with the Caterpillar: she’s met all these crazy characters, and she is fed up, tired and lost, as you would be; later, when she is finally reunited with the Knave, there’s real ecstatic joy musically. I’ve had to really think about making big gestures through musical characterization; for example, the Queen is supposed to be completely psychotic, but she does have poise – Christopher [Wheeldon] described her as some very on-edge hostess at a dinner party, wanting everything to be so perfect that it never is: cold, poised, demanding; then an outburst of anger; then the mask goes back on. This was the image that informed my writing of her tango music, with psychotic eruptions for no clear reason save her having snapped at maximum tension.

I had worked with Christopher previously on Fool’s Paradise for Morphoses, orchestrating and re-editing for the ballet a score I had written for The Dying Swan, a silent film from 1917. The score had elements of creaky Edwardian tea dance music, but developed in a very modern way with arithmetical games. That may have been a facet of my music that appealed to Christopher – given that his own work is steeped in classical ballet, but permeated by a very fresh sensibility – and when I sat down to write Alice I was mindful of the things that he’d liked about that previous score. So Alice contains melodic or harmonic gestural elements that wouldn’t seem out of place in a 19th-century ballet score, yet the whole thing is filtered through a minimal, arithmetical prism. An example is the process whereby the Flower Waltz material returns, transfigured into a huge love theme. It’s the same use of overlapping cells and rhythms that you might find in John Adams or Steve Reich, and sometimes, though it may seem easy to wallow in a kind of cod-Tchaikovsky kitsch, what you are hearing is only one strand in a whole group of musical games that are going on, so actually you’ve got to be absolutely rhythmic and metronomically uncompromising.

Unable to beam myself to a piano stool in New York, I had to get the music to Christopher by recording myself at my own piano. To minimize the hazard of wrong notes, I also made demos using the computer, during which process other musical ideas suggested themselves. Ultimately the composition was a combination of writing at the piano, writing on paper, using the computer, making demos, changing them, and then being able to settle back and listen to long stretches of it and see how it was panning out at a macro level.

I was aware that when Christopher got into the studio with the dancers he’d want changes to the music, so the orchestration was approached relatively late in the process, after the detail had been locked down. I think this has been good from Christopher’s perspective, offering as it did a degree of flexibility that would have been impossible if I’d delivered everything bound, signed and sealed to the music library in one lot. For me, however, having climbed a monolithic, two-hour compositional mountain, I then had to climb it all over again, and much faster, orchestrating as I went. I have been extremely fortunate to have made this return journey with my friend and collaborator Christopher Austin, who has worked his extraordinary and very rapid magic on a good deal of the score. Together I think we’ve managed very satisfactorily and no limbs were lost.

Joby Talbot Alice 3

Harrison James with Artists of the Ballet in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

With such a beautiful colouristic story, I wanted the score to be multi-coloured and to have that massive variety and scale. There are instruments associated with certain characters; for example, the White Rabbit is associated with the celesta, there’s an oboe d’amore solo for the Caterpillar, and the Queen of Hearts is portrayed by a solo violin tuned a semitone sharp – highly strung for a highly-strung character.

However, you are limited by what can be squeezed into the pit: at the first orchestral rehearsal I was amazed to see that everything I’d asked for was actually there, and very close together. There’s a lot of percussion – it takes up probably a good third of the space – because I like instruments that you can hit and then leave to ring on: the weightless, effortless tone of a bell sounding long after the energy of striking it has been spent. The harp, vibraphone, tubular bells and many more together can give a wonderful glowing halo to the orchestra, and individual themes can be coloured in very interesting ways, by injecting vibraphone or a tremolo marimba into the middle of a lovely warm, rich string sound and giving it a shimmering glow that really appeals to me. Then there’s the impact of timpani and bass drums: if you want people to jump out of their seats, the timpani were born to it.

Joby Talbot Alice 4

Artists of the Ballet in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The Flower Waltz is an interesting demonstration of certain signposts in the music. In the first act, Alice’s motivation is that she’s trying to get to the party – this idea is in the book, but we have magnified it. She has a glimpse of the flower garden early on, and, more importantly, she knows the Knave of Hearts will be there and that she has to get to him, so all her travels and everyone she meets in the first act are part of her journey to that party: whenever she hears the Flower Waltz music, she knows she should head towards it. Sometimes she thinks she’s there, sometimes she’s so close but gets lost and finally, when she arrives, we hear the Flower Waltz in its entirety as the culmination of a journey that has taken about 50 minutes. We then depart as the waltz is transformed by her love for the Knave and her own sense of growing up. That is the journey of the first act, and the musical structure it fits around. The second act has more individual set pieces, but continually returns to music with an urgency and drive, a sense of danger and disquiet, as it all shifts forward to another culmination at the end of the second act, the love pas de deux.

The strengths of the book are many, but we have forfeited some of the prominent ones: people think of Tenniel’s wonderful crazy illustrations, which we don’t have, and all the clever word -play, which we don’t have, but we’ve retained Carroll’s imagery and some of the humour, both of which are very strong. We had to find a way of making it work without all the elements of the book that were simply not at our disposal, and to give it more emotional bulk and texture. Very early in the process of creating Alice, Christopher, Nick [Wright] and I had the most wonderful few days flagging up possible insurmountable problems and finding ways to surmount them. Having Nick there was invaluable, he’s such an experienced and talented theatrical craftsman. That allowed Christopher and me to more freely throw ideas into the hat: we could be as daring as we wanted as there was somebody there with a very clear idea of what might and might not work. From there it was a case of problems posing themselves, Christopher thinking of a way to present them choreographically, me thinking how to present them musically, and Nick – and then Bob [Crowley] – thinking how to present them theatrically and visually. It has been a wonderful parallel creative process.

This article is from The Royal Ballet house programme from the premiere of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, courtesy The Royal Opera House.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland