Lewis Carroll’s crazy conundrums lured Holly Harrison down the rabbit hole in a new chamber work written for Eighth Blackbird.

A large amount of my work has been inspired by Lewis Carroll’s nonsense books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). My most recent piece Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup draws inspiration from chapters nine and ten of Wonderland, The Mock Turtle’s Story and The Lobster Quadrille

Along with Alice (of course!), the main characters in these chapters are the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle. Both creatures are composites of two animals: the Gryphon – the head and wings of an eagle, and the body and tail of a lion, and the Mock Turtle – the head, hooves and tail of a cow, and the body and flippers of a turtle. These chimera characters resonate with the style of the piece, which I see as an amalgam of multiple genres: rock, jazz, hip-hop, metal, pop, blues and funk. For me, the Gryphon and Mock Turtle are physical manifestations of Carroll’s famous portmanteau words, where two words are packed up as one. 

The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle continually scold Alice, start stories and songs which never quite finish, encourage her to recite poetry (which comes out all muddled!), and insist on her taking part in an unusual dance: the Lobster Quadrille. I’ve set these happenings and ‘little arguments’ as a type of stop-start-momentum in my piece, littering it with rhythmic hiccups. The piece appears in four main sections, and there are four main threads of melodic/rhythmic ideas which recur and are reimagined throughout. Some of these converge and intertwine, superimposed over and across each other, and others appear in a linear way, positioned side-by-side. These four ideas are influenced by the branches of arithmetic studied by the Mock Turtle and his school friends: “Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision”. Combining these new titles with the traditional branches, which they parody, makes for some rapid time signature shifts, tempo changes and additive rhythms and phrases! 

One of these ideas is a lyrical string line and insistent glissando, which continually interrupts and appears across the wilder, frenetic sections. The melody pays homage to the Mock Turtle’s seemingly sad story and heavy sobs, embracing a type of exaggerated, faux or ‘mock’ emotion. In imagining the bizarre Lobster Quadrille dance, syncopated bass lines conjure up flashes of disco and funk. Trashy cymbal stacks and rapid-fire rhythms (with glimpses of double kick!) offer moments of groove metal onslaught, while a bluesy piano and slap cello refrain, heard in the opening bars, is reset and transformed in a number of ways throughout, tying the piece together. 

Eighth Blackbird will perform Holly Harrison’s Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup on their Australian tour for Musica Viva, February 20 – March 9