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Joe Cadagin

Joe Cadagin photo

Joe Cadagin

B.A., Music, University of Michigan, 2013
Ph.D. Musicology, Stanford University, 2020
Graduation Year: 
Dissertation Title: 
Nonsense and Nostalgia in the Lewis Carroll Settings of György Ligeti


Joe Cadagin’s research focuses on opera after 1960, the works of Hungarian composer György Ligeti, and musical settings of Lewis Carroll. He is an avid keyboardist and music critic, whose reviews and features appear regularly in Opera News. His dissertation, which received first place in USC Libraries’ 2019 Wonderland Awards, was supported by a Geballe Dissertation Prize Fellowship from the Stanford Humanities Center and a Fulbright Grant to study in Budapest.

Dissertation Abstract: 

My dissertation, Nonsense and Nostalgia in the Lewis Carroll Settings of György Ligeti, offers a comprehensive investigation of composer György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) relationship to the work of Lewis Carroll (1832-98). Drawing on Ligeti's interviews, essays, and archival material, I locate the two Alice books (1865/71) as a node on the composer’s biographical web where various strands of his life and music intersect. In parsing his memories of growing up in Transylvania—his “childhood mythos”—I evaluate Ligeti’s earliest encounter with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland via a Hungarian translation by Dezső Kosztolányi. His late-life reengagement with Carroll in the six Nonsense Madrigals (1988-93), composed for the British King’s Singers sextet, is indicative of a personal and stylistic strain of nostalgia in the composer’s late-period oeuvre. Adopting theories on nostalgia set forth by literary scholar Svetlana Boym, I interpret Ligeti’s late-life settings of Carroll and his Victorian contemporaries as a response to exile and old age.

Contextualizing Ligeti’s cycle is an overview of what I dub the “Carrollian choral tradition,” a turn-of-the-century repertoire of Alice part songs that grew out of the same Anglo-American culture of collegiate a cappella to which Carroll and the King’s Singers belonged. I show how Ligeti forges his own side-path into this tradition by curating a personalized heritage of literary and polyphonic influences: the late-medieval polymensural chanson and polytextual motet; the Renaissance madrigal comedy; the halandzsa Nonsense verse of Sándor Weöres; and the 20th-century Hungarian choral revival. Rather than enacting a wholesale restoration of any one source, Ligeti takes a more critical “reflective-nostalgic” approach, playfully subjecting his compositional models to notational equivalents of Carroll’s wordplay. Applying Boym’s concept of “diasporic intimacy,” I read the collage of 19th-century British references in the Nonsense Madrigals as an evocation of an imagined Victorian childhood that stands in for Ligeti’s past, indirectly hinting at memories colored by the pain of loss. At the same time, I identify stylistic self-parodies in the madrigals that trace the development of the composer’s career, a cyclic retrospective resembling the geriatric process of purpose-instilling reminiscence that psychiatrist Robert Butler terms the “life review.”

Field of Study: