> Archive > Features

Randy Greif: Through the Looking Glass

By Richard di Santo
10 August 2000

Randy Greif has been experimenting with sound and music since the mid 70s. He started his own label in 1983 called Swinging Axe Productions, and has had many releases under his own name (The Barnacles Inside, Verdi's Requiem), under at least one alias (Shadowbug 4) and in collaboration with a number of artists and musicians (as Illusion of Safety, His Master's Voice/Stylus, etc.). One very intriguing project of his was released last year by Soleilmoon called Oedipus Brain Foil, which had Greif collaborating with Robin Storey (of Zoviet France and Rapoon) and Nigel Ayers (of Nocturnal Emissions).

Greif started getting some long overdue attention with the release of his monumental 6-hour classic of experimental music called Alice in Wonderland, an aural retelling of Lewis Carroll's classic, and six hours of the most dark and disturbing soundscapes you will ever hear. The first Alice CD was originally released in 1991 by Staalplaat, and the installments continued to appear over a three year period ending with its fifth and final disc being released in 1993. The original pressing was limited to only 500, so a re-release has always been imminent.

Now the Soleilmoon label has re-released Alice in Wonderland in a smartly designed 5-CD box set, complete with new artwork and a corresponding set of trading cards featuring Greif's surreal treatments of Tenniel's classic illustrations. Forget the trading cards (which in itself would represent a kind of return to childhood), what matters here is the music, which has also been completely remastered for this new pressing by Christopher Nelson (Nelson also did some restructuring work on the last track of the series). The entire work is directed by the original text by Lewis Carroll, which appears as spoken word. Its execution is brilliant: the listener is presented with a new Wonderland; a unique twist on a very well-known story. Greif's Alice is undoubtedly a classic in its own right, utilising new and intriguing methods to create sound sculptures while at the same time retelling such a compelling story from one of the classics of children's literature. If the Carroll's work has always proved to be most provoking and imaginative for its readers (of any age), full of possibilities and details, then Greif's retelling continues in its tradition. These compositions are teeming with minute details and complexity, and every one is characterised by a dense and dark atmosphere, often oppressive to the ears and the imagination. Found sounds, samples and noise loops combine with the spoken text to form a total of 60 tracks in these 5 CDs. Alice is truly a landmark achievement.


I recently had the opportunity to ask Randy a few questions about Alice, its re-release, and, in retrospect, the motivation behind the work. I began by asking him about what it was in Alice by Carroll that inspired him to create Alice by Greif:

Chance, really. I had been using a lot of "found text" from old vinyl LPs and used some of the narrated Lewis Carroll story with my music. It was sent inadvertently on the back of a cassette submission to Staalplaat. They listened to my submission of the other work and this too. The Alice is what they liked, and offered to release it. Only about a fifth of the project was completed at the time. I doubt if I ever would have finished the entire 6-hour project if I had not been committed to it in advance. We decided to release the CDs in installments as they were completed -- about one per year.

The entire work was created over a four-year period (production began one year prior to the release of the first installment in 1991). The logic of the 5-part division was determined by the time constraints on each CD. Says Greif, "After about 70 minutes were completed, we'd release it. Although, I had to tailor the work so that each CD could stand on its own without feeling like something was missing."

An important component of Randy's Alice is the text. The narration that guides the listener through this work is subject to all manner of manipulations (cut-ups, stretches, layerings...). I've often wondered about the role of text within more abstract sound sculptures, and especially so with those based on literary works. Alice is a superb example of how the two elements of speech and sound can be married in an harmonious whole. I asked Randy about how he sees the role of spoken word in his work:

I attempted to use the speech in three distinct ways. Firstly, in a traditional manner of storytelling with the music as background, although the music being far more experimental than typical. Secondly, to cut the speech into patterns that would intertwine with the music in order to force it into the mould of a song structure. So that the spoken words would operate as lyrics, without melody, of course, but rhythmically. Finally, to deconstruct the speech itself into abstraction, cutting the words into phonemes, or altering the voice electronically to the extent it becomes purely sound. The tricky part for me was to try to use these three methods of dealing with the text and still not lose sight of the story itself. I wanted the piece to move through cycles from clear story-telling to pure abstraction and then back again. And also to have the entire 6 hours move in a larger cycle, mirroring the smaller cycles within. Not that the main theme was a psychedelic experience, but I intended the work to move through real time in the manner of one.

Randy's comments here on the use of language hit on a central issue in experimental storytelling: the danger never to lose the thread of the story in the midst of experimentation and abstraction. My feeling has always been that Alice never loses that thread. This is the challenge faced by many artists, and writers especially. Take Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, for example. It's a novel which is comprised of at least 10 beginnings of novels, where the readings of these novels are always interrupted. In between these beginnings we are told about "you, the Reader", who is in constant search for that one "complete book". The Reader goes to great lengths, and finds himself in the middle of a complex and mysterious plot (worthy of yet another novel), and it turns out that the complete book he is searching for is the same that you are holding in your hands and reading at that moment. So when the Reader remarks that "we must find again the thread that has been lost", he is at once referring to the novel he is trying to read and the one you (the reader proper) are holding in your hands. One of the many challenges Calvino faced when writing this novel was in preserving the thread of the story (the Reader's adventures in a literary wonderland) in the midst of all these interruptions and narrative shifts. It's just that these shifts become a part of that thread, like the three-fold function of the spoken text as Randy describes them with regard to Alice. You couldn't imagine his work without them: the text plays a role equal to that of the sound.

The only retelling of the Alice story that comes close to being so dark and surreal is the legendary film by Svenkmayer, which uses a combination of live action and stop animation. Though he hadn't seen the film until after he was finished production on the CDs, Randy remarked that he "felt a definite kinship in our aesthetics towards the dark and psychotic side of a children's classic".

When Alice finally awakens from her dream of Wonderland (and how disappointing this must be for all readers, that it was all just a dream!), there's such a feeling of loss and loneliness, as if, in spite of all the difficulties and hardships, Alice had in fact been happier in Wonderland. Greif compliments and emphasises this feeling in his own work. When Alice awakens, the narration is accompanied by the cold sounds of a desolate landscape, where there is only loneliness and a world that is so colourless in aspect and nature. In Greif's vision of Wonderland, the surreal and nightmare aspects really come to life. Even the most trite exchanges and conversations are given a dark and threatening colouring. You'd think that this foreboding vision of Wonderland would see the awakening scene as a bit of a relief, but this is not so. What does this say about our world? or about the world of a child?


After this retrospective release of Alice, we are naturally left to wonder about what's next for Randy Greif. He's currently finishing work on his latest project called War of the World, which will probably see its release sometime next year. He had a few things to say about this intriguing new work:

It's a project I'm finishing now in which I'm not using the HG Wells story so much as the Orson Welles broadcast of it as a springboard. There is the original recording included up to the point of the drama in which Welles spoke as an actor. I'm more interested in the hoax by the radio announcer prior to the play along with the musical interludes. Although the voices are even more abstracted than in Alice, and there are a lot of other spoken word and "found sound" sources. No use of the original broadcast enters until close to half an hour into it. I'm trying to achieve the feeling of listening to an emergency broadcast with a lot of interference, while at the same time trying create a narrative with very minimal words. I wanted an ambience that was disturbing and harsh, but not dramatic. Like Alice, I'm using this classic as a metaphor for other ideas. I'm calling it War Of The World (singular) in that it is really about the battles with ourselves — in war, in ambivalence, and finally in our desire to reshape our being through technology. I believe we are in the midst of re-creating ourselves through technology and that ultimately there will be a conflict between the strictly organic self and the digital self. I know this is not a new idea, but it continuously amazes me that we are seeing such radical changes through technology on a daily basis.

In all of his projects, Randy Greif has been able to create a soundworld that is uniquely his own. His artistic vision may be comparatively dark and abstract for some, but that is, I think, part of the appeal of his work. Combine with this his accomplished skills in using and manipulating his sound sources to astonishing effect, and you have an artist well deserving of our attention and praise.

+ soleilmoon
+ swinging axe