Tuesday, December 8th, 2015
by Tim Hansen
Composer Alex Temple is fascinated by cheese. Not the dairy kind. The musical kind. Faux world-music. TV news themes. General midi instruments. Sound logos. That music your massage therapist puts on and it’s all soothing pads and bells and a husky-voiced alto going “ooh ooh aah ooh” over a floaty bed of whale-song samples. Temple finds it both an endless source of inspiration and a revealing insight into how we as a society think about music.
“I’m fascinated by how little it takes to turn seemingly innocuous sounds into something unsettling,” Temple enthuses. “Sometimes they’re already unsettling; Johnny Mathis’s version of “Sleigh Ride,” for example, sounds like an uncanny-valley horror trip to me. But even when they aren’t, a shift of context can turn them darker. See: almost all of David Lynch’s work.”
But Temple says she’s also “troubled” by the political overtones of what counts as “cheesy” music. The sort of musical snobbery that dismisses little moments of musical genius based on social context or what she calls “its position in the hierarchy of ‘coolness.’”
“When something is too readily dismissed,” she says, “I start getting curious about it. What if there’s a secret hiding in plain sight? And in fact, there often is. For example, in 1978, Suzanne Ciani created a logo for Coca-Cola that imitates the bubbling and fizzing of a soda pouring into a glass, and she did it entirely using a Buchla synthesizer. Why isn’t that widely recognized as one of the great miniatures of all time? Because she did it for commercial reasons, and people think it doesn’t count as art.”
In her pre-teens, shortly after she started piano lessons, Temple’s family took a vacation in a house with an enormous CD collection. Being the inquisitive kid that she was, Temple started exploring this musical treasure trove and in doing so, discovered classical music. In one fell swoop she amassed a swathe of new musical idols—Schubert, Chopin, Brahms—and perhaps, by her own admission, fell a little too hard.
“Between the ages of 10 and 15 or so, I listened exclusively to classical music, and I was kind of a snob about it,” she laughs. No pop or rock artists could breach the shell Temple had constructed around herself, convinced as she was that nothing could come close to the level of intricate sophistication she adored about classical music. Then, like so many of us who spent our teens resisting the music of our peers, that shell was finally cracked open by the music of her parents’ generation. Temple discovered the Beatles. Strawberry Fields followed by I am the Walrus, Temple was hooked by the trippy musical surrealism from the world’s most famous Liverpudlians. But the real musical revelation was to come, when Temple stumbled upon the work of arguably the most bizarre figure in twentieth-century music: the one and only Frank Zappa.
“Specifically the albums Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It for the Money,” she enthuses. “There was no way I could maintain the idea that classical music had a monopoly on complexity in the face of that weird, wildly inventive music. It was also the first music I ever heard that played with contrasts between seemingly incompatible styles, mixing doo-wop, hard rock, lounge music, noisy improvisation, Stravinsky quotes and musique concrète.”
Temple’s talents have enabled her to make a career out of taking these sad little overlooked musical outcasts and placing them squarely back in the spotlight. So when Temple learned that she was one of three composers selected from around the country to write for LA ensemble wild Up in the ACF’s National Composition Competition, there was no doubt in her mind what she would do.
“The idea of style as a topic still informs a lot of what I write, so I wanted to acknowledge the composer who introduced me to it,” she says of Zappa. “Lately I’ve been thinking of writing for someone as being a bit like making a present for them, so before I started the piece, I called Chris Rountree (of wild Up) and asked him a bunch of questions about wild Up. I learned that the group includes improvisers, experimental rockers and new-music specialists. They love playing difficult music, and their overall sound in Chris’s words is ‘janky and noisy.’ And they’re based in LA, too. Sounds like Zappa to me!”
The Man Who Hated Everything is Temple’s gift to wild Up. And what a gift: it’s a hectic mishmash of doo-wop, sleazy neo-noir jazz, ‘60s filmstrips, ‘50s modernism, smatterings of improvisations with instructions like “think New Complexity” and, of course, unmistakable nods to Zappa’s own work. “There are also a lot of motivic connections between seemingly disparate passages,” Temple explains further. “The opening melody comes back in various guises — now as a Monkish piano solo, now as dissonant chamber music, now floating high above a glimmering web of major seventh chords. Other materials are transformed in similar ways: there’s a tune that starts out as crunchy atonal rock and later gets turned into a kind of poisoned Christmas music.”
But the crowning climax of Temple’s work is the final section in which the musicians sing a list of the things that Zappa hated. And it’s a long list. “I didn’t make any of that up,” says Temple. “I spent quite a while combing through interviews, lyrics and message-board posts while writing that list. But of course I’m exaggerating and making fun of Zappa, too—partially because that’s what he would have done, and partially because I didn’t feel right paying totally uncritical homage to someone who, for all his musical brilliance and original thought, could be pretty sexist and misanthropic.”
You could call her music “pastiche” or use Schnittke’s term and call it “polystylistic,” Temple isn’t fussed, but it needs to be pointed out that her work isn’t simply a club-sandwich of kitschy musical quotes. Ultimately for Temple, it’s about seeking connections between two apparently unrelated musical worlds and bringing those similarities out into the light. “I’ve got a piece called Grass Stem Behaviors that’s all about finding connections between different styles, but it’s all stuff from the Western canon: a triumphant Beethovenish climax splintering into skittering Webern-esque counterpoint, stuff like that.” Temple’s music is like going to dinner at the house of a pal obsessed with exotic and unusual food. It seems there’s a lot of wonderfully bizarre yet sophisticated cheese out there; you just have to know where to look and how to serve it.