When I spoke with the genre-juggling composer Alex Temple, 36, she was in Michigan, where her Liebeslied was being performed with the Detroit Symphony and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. In a stroke of bad luck, our call was plagued by fuzzy reception; when we finally reconnected, Temple was singing a perky, off-the-cuff chorus set to the words “Can you hear me now?” Then she paused. “Ah, no, I think that pitch is off, actually,” she said, before wheeling back and singing it again with a slightly altered melody.
That’s Temple’s music in a nutshell: often tongue-in-cheek, and capable of plucking inspiration from even the most quotidian situations. Behind the Wallpaper, her 2015 piece that Spektral Quartet and Julia Holter will reprise at the Music Box this Sunday, elevates this tango between the mundane and extraordinary, in which experiences as all-consuming as gender transition and as everyday as a bus ride to the Schaumburg Ikea can both have world-upending results. Spektral’s program will also include an arrangement by Gene Knific, keyboardist of local synth-pop quintet Iverson and collaborative pianist in ResonaTe, and a screening of Uzi’s Party, a 2015 short film by then Chicago-based multimedia artist Lyra Hill.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s doctoral composition program, Temple lived in Chicago until last summer, when she took a professorship at Arizona State University. We asked her about her time in the city and for a peek behind Behind the Wallpaper.
How did Behind the Wallpaper come together?
The story actually starts in 2012 or 2013. I knew Austin Wulliman from the University of Michigan; he was a founding member of Spektral, and now he’s with JACK Quartet. They asked me to write a piece, and I wanted to add a voice. As I was starting it, Julia [Holter] had a show in town, and we had also both studied at Michigan — I actually wrote some songs for her then, which ended up being an earlier version of my Whitman Songs. We had dinner, and I tweeted, “Hanging out with Julia Holter for the first time in forever!” Doyle [Armbrust, Spektral violist], who’s a big fan of her work, saw that and asked, “Do you want to ask her if she’ll be on our piece?”
When I was first writing the piece, I was pretty depressed. I was a lot more dysphoric than I am now, so there was a lot of discomfort-in-one’s-body stuff. When I decided to expand it, I gave it this narrative, which involves a weird encounter at a science park and gradual transformation, then, ultimately, in the final movement, finding one’s people in this gleaming fantasy city above the horizon.
Now, I absolutely feel like I’ve found my people. But in 2014? Not as much. I guess it was an accurate prediction, even though the piece isn’t about me: It’s in the second person, about an unknown audience member.
I wanted to ask you a bit more about that second-person perspective, as well as the dreamlike imagery you evoke.
The songs are a mélange of fantasy, life experiences, things I’ve read, and even other songs. For example, “Night After Night” is based on a real masquerade I went to at an art gallery, but it’s basically “Some Enchanted Evening” [from the musical South Pacific] from the point of view of the object of affection — and “Some Enchanted Evening” is in the second person. I love it as a way of narrating things.
The moment in “Midnight Bus” of looking around and feeling like people looked like aliens is something I experienced one time on a train with green-tinted windows. I also once took a really long bus ride to an Ikea in Schaumburg, and while it wasn’t at night, it stopped at a ton of malls — in Skokie, in Niles, everywhere. The image of being sort of stuck in a suburb and not really knowing where you are is one that’s popped up in my life a number of times. I grew up in the Boston suburbs, and I don’t actually find the suburbs I grew up in threatening at all. But some random suburb? Yeah, sure.
You’ve described yourself as a surrealist composer. Say more about that. What specific influences are you drawing from?
Well, I’ve been into surrealism since I found out it existed, when I was like 10. I got into my mom’s art books and discovered Dalí, Magritte, Dorothea Tanning, Tanguy, and Miró. There’s a quote that the surrealists are very fond of: “[It is] as beautiful as the chance meeting of a sewing-machine and an umbrella on a dissecting-table.” That spirit of strange juxtaposition really appeals to me. I’ve also been a huge fan of David Lynch ever since I saw Lost Highway as a teenager, and he’s very much coming out of that surrealist tradition.
Then, I’m really interested in dreams. I have this piece sampling a bunch of people talking about their dreams, and I called it Nobody Cares About Your Dreams But You in a spirit of complete sarcasm. I love people’s dreams! Most people aren’t very good at describing them, which is why they seem boring.
It’s worth mentioning that the years you spent in Chicago were especially rich for new music. A lot of groups that are prominent now were just springing up.
Oh, yeah. Spektral Quartet was founded, Fonema Consort started, Dal Niente expanded dramatically, and Constellation opened, which made a huge difference. Prior to that, everything was scattered. Constellation really provided a center for people to gather.
Tell me about Uzi’s Party, the short film being screened on Sunday’s program.
The quartet, Julian Antos [Chicago Film Society cofounder], and I all met quite a while ago and talked about what we’re interested in. I told him what kinds of films I like — I think I mentioned Lynch, Guy Maddin, [Michelangelo] Antonioni, and Terry Gilliam. He sent me a bunch of stuff, and they were mostly abstract ’60s and ’70s films. I can enjoy that, but they didn’t seem to go with my music because they were very abstruse and removed from any sort of pop culture. Then I saw Uzi’s Party, and I was like, This has gotta be the thing. It has queer moments, it has some humor, it has a narrative, it’s kind of spooky, and it’s about women.
And it was also made in Chicago in 2015.
That’s a good point, yeah. I was listening to an interview with Lyra Hill, and I liked what they had to say about reclaiming images of femininity. I haven’t met them; I don’t know them. But I would like to.
Any projects you’re looking forward to?
Right now I’m writing a band piece for the ASU wind ensemble, which is going to be very shiny. After that, I’m finally getting back to a piece I’d intended to finish last summer: a song cycle for Jodie Landau called Polycule, set to poetry by Ray Briggs [Stanford philosophy professor]. It’s all about polyamorous scenarios, which I think are very underrepresented in, well, everything.
Over the spring and summer, I’ll be working on this big thing that Experiments in Opera [NYC-based project which culminates in one large-scale opera] is doing with ten composers and eight librettists. It’s pretty exciting; we’ll be workshopping that in the fall and then premiering that the following spring.
It’s been five years since the expanded version of Behind the Wallpaper premiered. As you revisit this piece, what do you feel?
I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written. I don’t feel removed from it in terms of musical materials — it’s the kind of stuff that, if I were writing it now, I think I would write it again. I am definitely happier now than I was when I wrote Behind the Wallpaper, even though the world is objectively worse. I’m happier in my skin, at the very least.
Details:February 9 at 7:30 p.m. Music Box Theatre. Lake View. $15–$60. eventbrite.com