In Unsuk Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland, there is a moment when the lights fall and a single spotlight shines on the character about to speak: the Caterpillar as voiced through the bass clarinet player. Chin achieves an appropriate comic feel in this interlude “Advice from a Caterpillar,” in the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s beloved classic. But as fun as the characterization may be for the listener, it is a frighteningly difficult piece for the musician to perform.
The LA Phil’s bass clarinet player, David Howard, performs, among other challenges, multiphonics—3 or more tones played simultaneously—and pitches so high David had to create new fingerings for the instrument, which he then shared with Chin’s publisher. Rapid passages run wild. The Caterpillar may move slowly, but his thoughts and speech patterns can be lightning fast. Does the creature contradict himself in the process of giving his dubious advice? Listen to see for yourself. The virtuoso requirements of this Interlude led David to give his own advice, “Do not try this at home.”