Alarm Will Sound is a 20-piece
chamber orchestra new music ensemble band
which boasts an enviable critical and popular reputation -- the New
York Times called them "the future of classical music," fercrissakes. As you can tell from my sidebar, I'm a fan -- and Joe is too, in fact they were one of the bands he had in mind when he first proposed our merry composers' federation.
Last night, they made their (sold-out) debut at Carnegie's Zankel Hall with a program called "Odd Couples," which paired works by composers who share a personal connection but represent very different styles:
Edgar Varèse - Frank Zappa
John Cage - John Cale
Bernard Woma - Derek Bermel
Wolfgang Rihm - John Adams
All of the music was accompanied by projections on the screen behind the band, announcing the pieces and occasionally supplying quotes, photographs, graphics, etc. Purists will no doubt cringe, but I thought these were mostly -- with one notable exception (see below) -- effective and unobtrusive.
The gig kicked off with Zappa's Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat, in a similar arrangement to the one used on the Ensemble Moderne's The Yellow Shark. Performers walked on stage only as required, and the brass made their initial entrances from opposite sides of Zankel's two-tiered balcony, giving a very effective antiphonal (3D surround-sound) effect. Dog/Meat features a lot of brief solos and solis, which gave most of the members of ALS a chance to introduce themselves -- in fact, the players were in constant circulation throughout the piece, moving to center stage when needed, and retreating as necessary. Of course, this meant everyone had to play from memory. Definitely a dramatic, engaging set-opener.
Next was Cage's 0'00" -- a followup to the infamous 4'33", written ten years prior. The score for 0'00" (which actually lasts for an undetermined length of time) consists of the following sentence:
"In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action."
As it turned out, the "disciplined action" consisted of the members of AWS reconfiguring the stage for the next piece -- a parodically stylized and choreographed moving of instruments, chairs, music stands, etc, the sounds amplified out of all proportion by the floor mics. The piece's end was signaled by a sudden change in lighting.
Next, Ghanian gyil master Bernard Woma contributed a Brazillian-inflected piece called Gyil Mambo, in a colorful and effective arrangement by one of Woma's students and collaborators, David Rogers. As you might imagine, this piece featured AWS's killing percussion section -- Dennis DeSantis, Payton MacDonald, and Peter Wise -- offering up a credible, hard-grooving Brazillian mambo. I did wish the winds could have played a bit less on top of the beat, but that's a relatively minor quibble -- this was an infectiously joyful rendition of Woma's work, and the composer himself seemed quite pleased with how it turned out.
The one premiere last night came courtesy of German composer Wolfgang Rihm, who was quoted (in the projected slides) as saying "I am very excited to write for your crazy ensemble." Will Sound is an expressionist sound-painting via Jackson Pollack, a showcase for AWS's cohesive ensemble sound and Alan Pierson's amazing conducting chops. (Man, I gotta get a lesson with this guy... )
AWS closed the first set with a piece by another Woma student/collaborator, Derek Bermel. Three Rivers is a metametric-influenced piece which incorporates three distinct rhythmic currents -- sometimes discretely, and sometimes in combination. It's a very attractive composition, beginning with swing brushes on the drum kit and syncopated grungy Mingusian figures in the low winds and strings. I liked this piece a lot, and the performance was impressive.
But... well, okay, please indluge me in a little digression:
There are actually a lot of classically-trained musicians who have a deep and sincere love of jazz, but nonetheless can't swing from a rope. This is understandable. Swing is hard enough to grok for jazz players of my generation, who didn't grow up with Basie and Lunceford and Henderson on the radio every night, didn't come of age in an era where all popular music was saturated with swing figures, have no intuitive understanding of the hugely significant regional differences in swing feels -- Kansas City swing vs. Detroit swing, and so on.
Now, plenty of professional jazz musicians -- including a number of big names, coming soon to a jazz festival near you -- have no concept of swing to speak of. So it's a bit much to expect most classically-trained musicians to master an elusive time feel that isn't anywhere near as central to their repertoire as it is to ours.
On the other hand, I still have nightmares about some of the nauseatingly misguided performances I've heard of pieces like Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs or (more seriously), Kleiner blauer Teufel from Gunther Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Now, I certainly don't mean to suggest that the AWS rendition of Three Rivers was anything like the cringe-inducing performances of which I speak. Far from it -- in fact, Dennis DeSantis's drumming and Miles Brown's pizz bass playing are both eminently credible. I would even say that AWS swings harder than any classical ensemble I've heard (and I apologize if that sounds like damning with faint praise).
However... look, I know there's nothing cheaper than free advice, but allow me to tender a suggestion that comes straight from Bob Brookmeyer, who, uh, knows whereof he speaks. The trick to swing phrasing in a large ensemble is to understand the difference between anticipations (i.e., offbeat eighth notes tied over, or followed by a rest) and consecutive eighth notes. Anticipations are always played late, on the back side of the third triplet. AWS are actually pretty good on the anticipations. Where they fall down is on the consecutive eighth notes, which are much straighter than you'd think. In fact, why not try playing them perfectly straight, but with a slight tongue (/bow) accent on the offbeats? There are worse places to start.
[Obviously, this maxim doesn't apply to skip beats on the ride cymbal or in bass lines -- that's an entirely different thing.]
Moving on... the second set opened with Varèse's Intégrales, done in an even more aggressively antiphonal style -- the performers circulated up and down the aisles, took up strategic positions on the balconies, and were constantly reconfiguring themselves even while on stage. By necessity, Alan Pierson conducted from the middle of the audience -- and, like the first-set opener, this work was done almost entirely from memory.
All of this might have seemed a wee bit mannered and pretentious if the performance fell short in any way... but it didn't. In fact, this was, hands-down, the most astonishing rendition of Varèse I have ever heard.
Integrales was definitely the highlight of the evening -- it was the piece everyone kept gushing about after the gig -- so it seems almost churlish for me to mention the projection of a stupid, casually misogynistic Zappa quote during the piece (something to the effect of "I'd put a piece by Varèse on and it would drive away all the girls and the stupid boys -- the rest, you could have a conversation with"). But sorry, it pissed me off and took me momentarily out of the piece -- especially since there are plenty of non-idiotic Zappa-on-Varèse quotes that could have gone in its place.
The second Cage piece on the program, Variations III, was another furniture-moving piece, this time with more improvisatory choreography. As the program says, "the score consists simply of a series of transparencies with markings on them, which are then dropped onto a blank sheet of paper by potential performers, who interpret the resulting marks whichever way they desire." There was a cute bit with Alan Pierson (still seated in the audience at this point, remember), asking his neighbors if he might borrow their program, using any word order except the normal one -- and then reading every nth word from the program notes. However, the collective stagehands-with-OCD routine evntually wore thin -- and honestly, with all the kabuki-hubub on stage, I found it very difficult to even try to perceive this as a work in and of itself.
Next up was Dennis DeSantis's arrangement of John Cale's 1994 soundtrack for Andy Warhol's 1963 short film Kiss -- which, for those of you who haven't seen it, is exactly what you would expect if someone told you Andy Warhol made a film called Kiss. The music was stripped-down and minimal, with beautiful wordless vocals by Courtney Orlando, and a searing improvised violin solo at the end from Caleb Burhans.
Burhans also arranged the last piece on the program, John Adams's "Coast," from the composer's 1993 synth record Hoodoo Zephyr. Despite some sound problems with the electric bass and keyboards, this was a hugely satisfying and energetic finale, a cascade of accumulated cross-rhythms and asynchronous bliss.
The crowd insisted on an encore, which turned out to be Cock/Ver10, the first track from AWS's latest record, Acoustica -- a curious collection of Aphex Twin covers. Alarm Will Sound is the rare classical group with the rhythmic authority to credibly tackle the breakbeat canon, and it was immensely satisfying to hear the live version of this track. Acoustica might sound like a bit of a gimmick -- and, to be fair, it is, kinda -- but the inventive arrangements and aggressive recontextualization suggest subtle and musically meaningful parallels between recent trends in Downtown metametricism and the 1990's English ambient scene.
Bottom line: a inspired and inspiring night from a brilliant group. I can't wait for the next one.
[xposted at Pulse]
UPDATE: Arthur S. Leonard comments as well.