What is it to exist?
Once he started setting Lewis Carroll's words to music, Daniel Hales didn't want to stop
Daniel Hales, guitarist and lead singer of Daniel Hales and the Frost Heaves performs during one of last year's performances of Alice in Wonderland at the Shea. "I feel my voice is the voice of Lewis Carroll," Hales said, of his work on Contrariwise, "And Anna's viola parts are the voice of Alice." Photo courtesy of Daniel Hales.
Daniel Hales and the Frost Heaves at a live performance. Photo courtesy of Daniel Hales.
James Lowe, bass player for Daniel Hales and the Frost Heaves, wrote all of the viola parts for the songs on the band's new CD, Contrariwise. Recorder/Trish Crapo
Anna Wetherby's often melancholy viola parts rise through the songs on Daniel Hales and the Frost Heaves' new CD, Contrariwise. Recorder/Trish Crapo
Ivan Ussach, drummer with Daniel Hales and the Frost Heaves, practices for the upcoming CD release party at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls. Recorder/Trish Crapo
About a year ago, one of Greenfield poet and musician Daniel Hales’ friends asked if he’d be interested in setting poems from Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice books to music for a performance she was working on.
Hales was intrigued. Though he didn’t know Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” as well as he would come to know them, he was familiar enough with the books to feel a kinship with Carroll’s tendency toward word play, his dry wit and absurd humor. Sure, he thought, he’d give it a try.
The friend was theater director Jillian Morgan, who was staging a performance of “Alice in Wonderland” to be performed by the New Renaissance Players at The Shea Theater in Turners Falls last February. Morgan knew Hales’ music through the work he’d done with his band, Daniel hales and the frost heaves, which includes Hales on guitar, James Lowe on bass, Anna Wetherby on viola and Ivan Ussach on drums.
“I was just going to write a few songs,” Hales remembered, “And the further I got, I was basically doing a poem a day.”
Hales found it hard to stop. He kept asking himself, “Well, what about this one?”
Like Alice after she nibbles the cake labeled “Eat me,” the project grew larger and larger. Hales — with the help of Lowe, who wrote the music for “The Walrus and the Carpenter” and the all the viola arrangements for Wetherby — eventually adapted almost every poem in the two books, creating two original songs and 15 musical adaptations that are now collected on the band’s third full-length CD, “Contrariwise.”
“They’re pretty musical poems,” Hales said of Carroll’s work. “So, a lot of them really lent themselves to it.”
Many of the poems are presented as songs in the books, he added. “‘The White Knight’s Song’ is a poem but he’s singing it to Alice, so clearly Lewis Carroll had it in mind that these are song lyrics. Most of them sort of fit and wanted to become songs already.”
Hales writes both original songs and poetry.
“That came first for me, poetry,” he said. He describes music and poetry as, “Parallel passions that inform each other and compete with other and feed each other.”
His poems have been published in both print and online journals, including Slipstream, Bateau, Leveler and others. A chapbook of Hales’ poems, “Tempo Maps, Volume 1,” will be coming out this spring from Ixnay Press.
Hales said that working from somebody else’s words was, “Harder but more liberating.”
Writing a song from scratch necessarily involves a certain amount of uncertainty. But with the Carroll poems, Hales said, “I had the whole vision of where the poem wanted to go and how the music had to take us there. So the road map was already there. It was a case of just feeling a real affinity for him as a poet and really feeling a sympathy for his sensibility, and feeling like we were kindred spirits in a lot of ways.”
Commentary on reality
Hales said he appreciated Carroll’s commentary on reality. “The world is not what we think it is and our lives aren’t what we think they are,” Hales said, articulating Carroll’s view. “He’s making you question what it is to exist.”
And along the way, Hales added, “There’s some pretty pointed social and even political commentary.”
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” were published in 1865 and 1871, respectively, and many of the poems in the books poke fun at the popular poems of Carroll’s time, Hales explained.
“A lot of what he’s satirizing and parodying is just the uptightness of the time period. There’s also, I feel, some class satire going on.”
“He was out of step with his time,” Hales said of Carroll. “And that’s what gave him the perspective of an artist … He related more to kids than adults, really. Their imagination and spontaneity inspired him.”
Hales took some liberties with some of the poems, trimming or rearranging lines in order to create stronger songs. The song “In Winter When” is based on a long poem that Humpty Dumpty recites to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass,” he said.
“I just took the first two stanzas and cut the rest,” Hales said. “The first two I feel are very beautiful, spare poetry and then it goes into more a Lewis Carroll-like absurdist landscape.”
Hales thought, “We’ve got absurdism here in spades, so let’s just take these two lyric stanzas and emphasize that aspect of his writing. Everybody’s got the kaleidoscopic, zany, ‘he’s a wild and crazy guy’ thing now. Part of what I wanted to do was to emphasize aspects of his legacy that aren’t as emphasized.”
There’s a “deep sadness” to a lot of Carroll’s work, Hales said, a sadness that is often expressed on the album in the melancholy airs Wetherby plays on the viola.
“There’s a big fear of death that runs throughout the stories,” Hales said. “And, there’s a lot of mortality.”
The last song on the album, “But a Dream,” is “really steeped in that,” he said. The underlying message of the song is that, “You’re not going to be a child much longer; you’re an adult, you’re going to die. It’s really weighted and freighted with mortality. I wanted some of the songs to get at some of the more complex moods and not just the fun and happy, isn’t-everything-a-joke sort of mood.”
Hales tried to represent the variety of creatures and people that Alice meets in her journeys through shifting musical genres. As he writes on the Indiegogo website, “Some of these songs rock. Some waltz. Some emerge slowly from a psychedelic haze. Others rush up to meet you.”
It’s a tribute to Hales’ understanding of Carroll’s work and to the band’s renditions of the songs that the Lewis Carroll societies of North America and England have endorsed the album. And the Valley Advocate’s Northeast Underground column listed it among the top albums of 2013, alongside Pearl Jam’s “Lightning Bolt.”
A feverish intensity
Last February, preparing for the New Renaissance Players’ theatrical performance at The Shea took on a feverish intensity, as Hales, Lowe, Ussach and Wetherby often dove right into rehearsing the songs the day after they were written. And the shows at The Shea, with their lavish lighting and energetic acting, created another level of intensity. Another level quite literally: the band members played on a thin platform above the stage while the actors performed below.
“It was a bit terrifying,” Wetherby said.
“It was narrow,” Hales said of the platform. “And it sagged when you walked. A few things fell over the edge and it was a long way down. If you fell the wrong way, you would be dead or in a wheelchair.”
“Or on an actor,” Wetherby said, which all the band members agreed would have been the best option.
“There were eight performances and we were engrossed in that,” Hales said. “And then we basically had a week after the show to catch our breath.”
Rather than heaving a sigh of relief, setting aside the Alice songs and moving on to other projects, Hales said that everyone in the band thought “We’ve got to keep going, we know the songs really well, we’ve got to record them now.”
“So it went from being this thing that was going to be a fun little detour to an all-consuming project that devoured a year of lives,” Hales said.
Hales describes the resulting CD as, “A culmination of just tons and tons of effort and vision.”
Not only did the band spend hours in the studio but soliciting financial support through the fundraising site Indiegogo demanded additional hours, including posting updates and crafting music videos to pique supporters’ interest.
One video, set to the song “(Push Them into the) Wishing Well,” uses black-and-white footage from the first film adaptation of the Alice story, shot in 1903. The flickering edges and the halting quality of the characters’ movements add to the ethereal, down-the-rabbit-hole aura of Carroll’s story. Another video, “Jabberwocky,” intersperses shadow puppet cut-outs of the John Tenniel illustrations from the Alice books with live footage of the band performing in a color-altered world. (You can find links to the videos, sound samples and other information on the band’s web site: www.thefrostheaves.com/
Double-album release party at The Shea Friday
To celebrate the culmination of the project, the band will be performing the songs from “Contrariwise” at a double-album release party this Friday, Jan. 10, at 7 p.m. at The Shea. Mystics Anonymous, another Greenfield-based band, will be the double-header, performing its fourth album “Dreaming for Hours.”
Hales said that Mystics Anonymous leader Jeff Steblea has gathered a “star-studded” array of local musicians to perform, including Pat Garland (Groove Shoes), Andrew Goulet, Brandee Simone and Matt Silberstein (Salvation Army String Band), Steve Koziol (Span of Sunshine), Ken Maiuri (Young at Heart Chorus), Heather Maloney and many others. And there were will be a lot of cross-pollination between bands during both sets.
This year’s performance will be different than playing the songs during the theatrical performance last year, band members agreed.
Then, “The play was the main thing,” drummer Ussach said. “Now it’s just us. I mean, hard to be brilliant. Nothing to hide behind.”
But if the show lives up to Hales’ press release, it will be far from “just” anything. Publicity for the show promises an extravaganza of light, video projections and what Hales mysteriously called “inter-dimensional portals.” Pressed to describe them, Hales replied equally as mysteriously, “I’m sorry, but people must come to the show to experience the Inter-dimensional portals … Words won’t do them justice.”
Adding to the festivity of the event, Bill “Lefty” Goldfarb of Lefty’s Brewing Co. will be bringing some special locally brewed beers renamed to jibe thematically with the show. And people who show up early get the reward of watching a 1915 film version of “Alice in Wonderland,” Hales said. The silent film, set to music by Daniel hales and the frost heaves, will air at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $5 for children 12 and under; adults $10 in advance, $15 the day of the show. Advance tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets: http://frostheavesinwonderland.brownpapertickets.com. Snow date is Saturday, Jan. 11. For more information and to see some of the music videos, visit: www.thefrostheaves.com
Also in January, Hales will be stepping in to lead the house band at the Amherst Live show, Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Kirby Theater at Amherst College. Billed as a “live magazine,” the show features music, speakers and a new Amherst Live Poetry Prize of $350 for spoken poetry, awarded during the show. Poems to be considered for the prize are read not by the poets but by representatives they have chosen for the task. For more information, including submission guidelines, visit: http://amherstlive.com
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.