SASS: How did this adventure/cycle come into being (both in a practical and creative sense)?
ALEX: It all started when Spektral commissioned a short piece from me in 2012. Adding something new to the already enormous string quartet repertoire is a daunting prospect, so I proposed adding a vocal part, and they liked the idea. Then, a few months later, Julia Holter was in town for a show. I've known her since we were at the University of Michigan together over a decade ago, so we got dinner together, and I tweeted something about hanging out with her for the first time in years. Spektral's violist, Doyle Armbrust, is a big fan of her experimental indie-pop albums, and he semi-facetiously suggested I ask her if she wanted to sing the vocal part in my piece. So I did, and she said "sure!"
At that point Behind the Wallpaper was just four songs — the first four in the current version of the cycle. As it turned out, Julia's touring schedule prevented her from performing them, so the premiere instead featured Connie Volk — Dal Niente flutist and also leader of a Tool cover band. I love working with musicians who have some sort of classical training but mostly use their voices in a pop/rock context, and both Julia and Connie fit that profile.
A year or so later, I was talking with Austin Wulliman (at the time one of Spektral's violinists), and I proposed expanding the cycle into an album-length piece. And, many long discussions later, that's what happened. The original four songs all focused alienation and altered perception, so I kept them in a group at the beginning, and followed them with new songs about undergoing an involuntary transformation and finally finding a home in another world. We worked things out with Julia's tour schedule and premiered it in three different cities in the winter of 2015.
SASS: In an interview, the singer Julia Holter (the singer for whom Behind the Wallpaper was originally written) mentions that you “have a kind of theatrical or operatic perspective.” What does that statement say to you, and how do you feel that comes across in Behind the Wallpaper?
ALEX: I would say theatrical more than operatic. I have a very conflicted relationship with opera as a whole, mostly because of my pretty idiosyncratic preferences when it comes to text-setting and vocal style. But while I have written explicitly theatrical pieces, I think of Behind the Wallpaper as more cinematic than anything else. The singer doesn't even represent a character; all the songs are in the second person. I think of them as little aural movies.
SASS: It’s so wonderful to hear music that pulls from so many seemingly different genres but comes together in your skilled brain/hands to create a piece that really defies classification by conventional means and stands as its own musical-dramatic entity. When you’re listening to music, what do you see as a common thread between genres that speaks to you as a person and as a composer? How did you come up with the synthesis of genres that you used to create Behind the Wallpaper?
ALEX: I naturally free-associate between genres without even having to think about it. If you take a listen to something like my mashup O Superfood, you can find some examples: Boulez links to Martin Denny because they have similar intsrumentation (I've always thought Le marteau sounded like alternate-universe lounge music), then the angular xylophone figures in the Denny track trigger similar figures from Messiaen and Bartók, then Messiaen's birdsongs bring in the recorded seagulls from a Mr. Bungle song, and so on.
In Behind the Wallpaper, a lot of the genre references come from the text. "Night After Night" alludes to Elizabethan music because the song opens with the image of a masquerade ball in another century. "Purple Stain" stars with a heightened sensual moment, so it uses the almost frenzied chromatic harmony of Strauss and Wagner. The spareness and formalism of the lyrics in "This American Life" demanded a similarly stripped-down style, so I ended up using textures that recall Steve Reich. But actually, just as many of my stylistic choices happened intuitively and would be hard to explain. I listen to a lot of different kinds of things, and when I sit down to write, all of those things are floating around in my head.
SASS: There’s talk here and there about the narrative in Behind the Wallpaper which is fascinating to consider, but we would actually be interested in hearing what the piece (as a whole) means to you (Not necessarily just the narrative, but what the work means to you).
ALEX: There's a fair amount of autobiographical imagery in the piece, although of course it's heightened and exaggerated. I really did take a bus through an endless series of suburban malls once, although it wasn't at midnight. I really did go to a masquerade party at an art gallery, although there was no stranger staring at me. I really did look down on an empty parking lot at night from a university science park with an observatory and a nuclear lab, although there was no impossibly tall figure illuminated by headlights.
In a broader sense, though, the cycle is about feeling lost and alienated and different and then, finally, finding your people. I'm a lot less lonely than I was when I wrote it. I've found my people.
SASS: We love your blog entry from July 26, 2013 “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?” Do you mind summarizing this for our readers and then perhaps letting us know if any part of what you said has changed for you since then? Could you talk a bit specifically about the concept of genderqueer (and how it relates to music) as it might be a new term to some of our readers?
ALEX: A lot has changed since 2013. When I wrote that post, I was still fairly early in the transition process, and while I was using "she" pronouns and had shifted toward a more consistently femme presentation, I also had a lingering sense that gender as a whole was a bizarre artifice. That's what I meant by "genderqueer" — a term that, in a broad sense, means "not identifying with the categories of 'man' and 'woman," or, more radically, "subverting the categories of 'man' and 'woman.'" The way I put it at the time was that I felt like an anthropologist from Neptune, but one who would rather be disguised as a human woman than a human man.
I don't identify as genderqueer anymore. As I've settled into my post-transition life, I no longer feel so alien (or at least, not for reasons of gender). Being a woman is just part of the background of my life. But my philosophical view of gender hasn't changed much. I see gender categories not as describing a particular set of behaviors or personality traits, but as cultural lenses through which those behaviors and personality traits are given social meaning. Someone with short hair, a vest and a bowtie, for instance, is going to strike you differently depending on whether you see them through the "man" lens, the "woman" lens or the "nonbinary" lens.
Artistic genres work the same way. The same painting of monstrous creatures tormenting a lone man will strike you very differently depending on whether I tell you it's a 16th-century Flemish rendition of the temptation of St. Anthony, or a Freudian-influenced Spanish Surrealist painting from the 1930s. More to the point, a sudden dissonance in the middle of a Baroque-style concerto means something different in Schnittke than it does in Zelenka. I don't explicitly frame my music as "genderqueer" these days, but I do think of myself as taking a subversive approach to musical genre and its categories.
SASS: Queer Voices takes place on October 12th, which is the day after National Coming Out Day. Could you share a bit about your views on “coming out” and what (if any) importance your queer identity plays in your work as a composer?
ALEX: The only thing that will lead to greater societal acceptance of LGBTQ+ people is more people coming out. I know not everyone agrees with me about that, and I certainly recognize that many people are not in a situation where it's safe for them to do so. But I am in a relatively safe position, and I believe that being open and outspoken about who I am can make things easier for others like me.
Since I wrote the blog post you mentioned, I've addressed queer and trans topics much more explicitly in my work. The original four songs of Behind the Wallpaper did touch on the idea of gender as social signifier ("Unnatural"), but the expanded version includes metaphors for coming out ("Fishmouth"), external and internalized transphobia ("Purple Stain"), and finding community ("Spires"). One song was even inspired by my Twitter friend Andi McClure's heartbreaking reinterpretation of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" as a straight woman singing to a partner who's transitioning.
Switch: A Science-Fiction Micro-Opera, which I wrote for Cadillac Moon Ensemble, is about a society in which left- and right-handedness is a primary axis of structural oppression, and it begins as follows: "I have a confession to make: I was born right-handed. Does that shock you? I realize that my telling you this is dangerous, given the current political situation, but I've always been inclined to take risks." Other pieces are about queer relationships: Second Moon, a song I wrote for Kayleigh Butcher and Chris Narloch, was inspired by a date I went on one summer night; Three Principles of Noir, a monodrama that I recently finished for Meaghan Burke and the American Composers Orchestra, unexpectly climaxes in a moment of sapphic discovery; and I'm currently working on a song for loadbang called Diadem, whose text, by poet R.A. Briggs, is about the blooming of gay desire in Medieval Europe.
And of course I have a lot of pieces that aren't about those topics too!