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What’s in a Word?

As my exchange with Alex Temple progressed, I realized I had too much great material on my hands for just one blog post about Behind the Wallpaper.  Aside from the rich stylistic suggestions and musical background of the piece, the lyrical content of these four songs is truly remarkable.  So, I continue our interview here with more thoughts from Alex, as well as our dulcet-voiced guest Constance Volk. Do not miss the premiere of this piece this Saturday at the Hideout!

JAW: Without creating a spoiler situation, I’m wondering if you’d be willing to discuss the “unsettling experiences” you based this piece on.  Do each of the four songs come from your own personal experiences, or are there a range of sources?

AT: I think it’s impossible to talk about that without creating a spoiler situation to some degree, because ideally I’d like people to hear the songs without knowing anything about the texts in advance.  That’s not just me being a Composer Diva — I also like to approach other people’s work with as clean a slate as possible.  Some of my best cinematic experiences, for example, have been ones where I went in with absolutely no idea what the movie was going to be about.  I’ve also said before that composers should write “SPOILER ALERT” before talking about the philosophical or conceptual aspects of their work, because in my experience that kind of thing is more meaningful when you discover it for yourself.  But I realize that not everyone sees things the way I do, so I’ll try to answer your question without giving away too much.

The first three songs are about altered perception.  They’re written in the second person, but the first two, “Midnight Bus” and “Unnatural,” are loosely based on my own life — specifically, on moments when I’ve looked around at groups of people and suddenly seen them in a different light.  The third song, “Tiny Holes,” is a mixture of my experience and that of a friend;  it’s about a type of phobia that works by analogy and could only exist in the internet era.  The fourth, “This American Life,” is a bit different.  It’s not in the second person — in fact, there are no pronouns at all — and every sentence has the same grammatical structure.  It’s a glimpse into an unnamed person’s lonely life.

A lot of my recent work is surreal and mysterious on the outside and secretly political on the inside.  Behind the Wallpaper is no exception.  I’ll leave it at that for now, but I’d be happy to say more once people have had a chance to hear the piece.

JAW: I also asked our amazing guest vocalist, Constance Volk, to speak to her experience with the words Alex wrote.  As an instrumentalist, I usually find myself behind the curve in understanding the true meaning of lyrics.  Even though Constance has a well-known alter-ego as flutist-extraordinaire, she clearly has no such troubles.
 
Constance Volk
 
CV: I connected with the lyrics to the song ‘Unnatural’ immediately. The scene is set ‘in an office plaza downtown’. A person sits and watches a whirling crowd, ‘covered in their neighbors opinions’. This describes to some degree how almost every person comes to look/dress the way they do. We as humans seem to be programmed in this way. If we care about how we look it is relative to what we perceive others will conclude about our character based on the display we present them with. If we don’t care about how we look, that is often the conclusion we wish others to reach. ‘Thousands of people, a wild tangle of blood and bones’ is what we actually are. When you imagine a crowd of people in this way, it suddenly seems silly to judge based on ‘every haircut, hemline, horizontal stripe, lapel, lens type, leather jacket’. But we are a curious type, and we need to conclude something as quickly and efficiently as possible. Our sense of sight leads us to the quickest conclusion, and so the clothes others wear are ‘suddenly a map and a survey’. Every outfit is an equation, the solution to which varies from judgment to judgment.
 
In the song ‘this american life’, we hear an unnatural sounding asexual voice. This person sits alone at a bar in an uncomfortable dress with chipped nail polish, a drunk patron is laughing in the background. This alienated person sounds mechanical, wears one permanent expression, is not emotional, but rather has paused emotions, lying in wait, for a scenario they have never known in which a person like them belongs where they are. ‘This dead dog is underground’.
 

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