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The Mad Sampler

Randy Greif goes where no Alice has gone before.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Alice has ventured through the looking glass again and found herself in a digital wonderland. Her White Rabbit on this adventure? Los Angeles-based musician Randy Greif, who has created a lavish, beautifully packaged, five-CD Alice in Wonderland adaptation (available from the Netherlands-based Staalplaat label and the American-based Soleilmoon.)

Greif, who has released dozens of industrial- and ambient-leaning albums under his own name and as part of Static Effect, started the project in 1988. (The initial releases were limited to editions of 450 copies each, but a collection was released in 1999.)

Greif lifted the text from a three-LP spoken-word edition, dating from early-’60s Britain; he found it in a thrift-store bargain bin. To the somewhat abbreviated story line, reduced by approximately 20 minutes from Lewis Carroll’s original, Greif — ever the Mad Sampler — has added a barrage of aural cues and backdrops, culling material from a variety of sources; reggae dub techniques, Gregorian chant samples, tubular bells, ethnic percussion, and a greater number of unplaceable sounds color the releases.

Says Greif, “The story’s been adapted so many times, because it works on so many different levels. It could be the standard children’s book, but it’s a real adult book as well. You can apply the story in so many different ways. This one is just a very dark, psycho version.”

Indeed, Caroll’s two Alice novels, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have always lent themselves to annotation, illustration and adaptation. To start with, the books are virtually inseparable from the line drawings of Sir John Tenniel, the longstanding 18th-century Punch editorial cartoonist. (The indelibility of Tenniel’s images is especially noteworthy because, as Greif suggests, the stories are prone to widely diverging interpretations; yet no matter the reading — as bedtime story, political satire, or hallucinogenic binge — his visual renderings remain the standard.)

Animated and live-action films are numerous: check out the musicals with Ricardo Montalban (1966) and Peter Sellers (1972), the Dennis Potter-scripted Dreamchild (1986) about Alice Liddel — the true-life model for Carroll’s Alice — recounting the author’s pedophilic infatuation, or Woody Allen’s Alice, which imagined the English schoolgirl matured into an uptown Manhattan socialite.

Several dozen publishers, most retaining Tenniel reproductions, maintain the two volumes in print. In fact, Alice in Wonderland is probably the only book besides the Bible as popular in the annotated form (with margin notes explaining symbols and references) as in its original; the now defunct Voyager CD-ROM company chose Martin Gardner’s classic, annotated edition as one of its first Macintosh-ready books-on-disc.

Rock’n’roll has long had a special fondness for Carroll’s stories, likely because at the music’s core is a need to balance childhood and adolescent fixations with an adult worldview — not to mention the music’s interest in cultured, historical drug-culture precedents. For an Alice-pop primer, look to Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video, Captain Beefheart’s “Alice in Blunderland” and, of course, Jefferson Airplane’s classic-rock staple, “White Rabbit.” Classical renditions include those by the Danish composer Jorgen Jersild and the U.S.’s David Del Tredici.

Says Greif of his take on Carroll’s classic, “The text is so consistently strange, it’s almost flat, because almost anything and everything is happening. Part of what I wanted to do was to inject peaks and valleys into a text that is flat. By flat, I mean that it is consistently high, consistently very surreal, and almost always at this fever pitch. One of the challenges was how can I add a real calmness in one place and a real violence in another to make it more dramatic.”

Greif’s effort, spread over five CDs, is certainly among the music world’s most extensive adaptations yet. And its most adventurous. Though musical treatments dominate his series, Greif’s most striking mode involves manipulating the source LPs themselves. Words sometimes churn around each other, sometimes disappear into a haze of computer effects, and often run, as soundbite phrases, in the background like instrumental lines. The work ends up having far more in common with that of new-music adventurers such as Scott Johnson and Steve Reich (both of whom have extrapolated entire suites from the melodies inherent in human speech) and Laurie Anderson (whose monologues similarly explore the irrepressible musicality of her own near-monotone storytelling) than with, say, the Rabbit Ears label’s musically accompanied children’s series. In fact, for all his resources, the human voice has proven to be Greif’s greatest reservoir of raw material.

“At times I was severely cutting up voices into phonemes and mixing them together that way,” he says. “The range of pitch, intonation and the dynamics in people’s voices, just from out of a speaking voice, amazed me. Going from one octave to another, and considering the rhythms we innately use, it kind of blew me away that in a normal speaking voice there’s so wide a range of sounds going on.”

Part radio-drama serial and part marathon “listening environment” (Greif’s term), this Alice in Wonderland routinely sets tasks for its listeners; input gets demanding at times, maddening even — but isn’t that the point? He assures that whatever text he’s screwed with beyond recognizability is ultimately repeated, so that the lstener can follow the story. Nonetheless, like Alice herself, that same listener must be prepared to adapt to the inner logic of this particular Wonderland, and not expect Greif to mirror the received conception of Carroll’s book, any more than the book mirrored the real world.

“One of the themes of Carroll’s books is evolution and mutation,” says Greif. “There’s so much of that going on in them. I think he would be pleased if people would use those ideas in their own interpretations.”

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the July 1992 issue of Pulse! magazine.
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