Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Alarm Will Sound presents Modernists

Alarm Will Sound is perhaps one of the few music ensembles that has an actual mission statement:
Alarm Will Sound is a 20-member ensemble dedicated to the creation, performance, and recording of today's music. It is an advocate for innovative work by established and emerging composers, especially works that incorporate theatrical and multimedia elements by choreographers, visual artists, designers, and directors. It fosters the education and professional development of young musicians through residencies, master classes, readings and workshops. With the goal of cultivating a diverse and sophisticated audience, the ensemble brings intelligence and a sense of adventure to the rich variety of musical expression in the contemporary world.
I first encountered the group through their impressive recording of two important pieces by Steve Reich: Tehillim and The Desert Music. Alarm Will Sound came out of a group of friends at the Eastman School of Music in the late 1990s who noticed that music by so-called "minimalist" composers was never performed. Since their first concert in 2001, they have demonstrated a refreshing capacity to take new approaches. The recording I want to have a look at today is their most recent, just released in March. Here is the terrifying cover:

The raison d'être of this and the title is explained thusly:
Terror is often the first response to unfamiliarity, and some of the boldest forays into the unfamiliar have launched under the banner of Modernism. Listening to new sounds can be akin to watching a horror movie—with ears covered rather than eyes—but given time, what was once disturbing can become intriguing.
Alarm Will Sound ventures into the outer reaches of propriety on Modernists. The album is bookended by tributes to two masterworks of modern recorded sound that have been arranged for the ensemble: “Revolution 9” by The Beatles (arranged by Matt Marks) and “Poème électronique” by Edgard Varèse (arranged by Evan Hause). Each piece is strange and otherworldly in its own way, with a provocative history of upsetting as many, if not more, listeners than they have won over.
The 23-piece band led by Alan Pierson, AWS Artistic Director, also performs work written for the ensemble by Wolfgang Rihm, Charles Wuorinen, AWS pianist John Orfe, and Augusta Read Thomas (whose “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” features vocal performances by Kirsten Sollek and Caleb Burhans).
As the Denver Post has noted, “Alarm Will Sound has grabbed the future of classical music and made it now—merging styles, erasing boundaries, championing experimentation and obviously having fun along the way.” This joyful and adventurous spirit fuels the beating heart of the Modernists album.
 Now I have to admit that I ordered this CD for two reasons: first, because I wanted to hear Alarm Will Sound doing something other than Steve Reich and second, because I couldn't resist hearing Revolution 9 (not, as is often thought, Revolution No. 9) played by a real ensemble. Now that takes chutzpah! The idea of transcribing what is largely a piece of musique concrète into standard notation so that it could, notionally, be played by musicians in a concert is not entirely novel. I believe that Stockhausen did a graphic transcription of one or more of his electronic pieces in the 1950s, probably for copyright reasons. Revolution 9 has even been roughly transcribed into standard notation before, in the big white Hal Leonard book of the Complete Scores to all Beatles' songs. Those transcriptions, which are mostly quite good, were by Tetsuya Fujita, Yuji Hagino, Hajime Kubo and Goro Sato. Incidentally, here are the first two pages of that transcription:

They make no attempt to sort out some of the more confused and inaudible layers of voices.

So how does this new recording compare with the original? At the beginning, apart from leaving out a few seconds of muttering voices it is delightfully similar to the Beatles' version (which is the next-to-last track on the White Album). But as we move through the piece, the differences start to add up. Perhaps the most difficult to reproduce are the exact accents and intonations of the voices on the original tape fragments. The "number nine" ritornello is pretty good, but a lot of the other voices sound very different from the original. Other differences are the "feel" of the acoustic. The original tape loops all had different resonances due to where and how they were originally recorded and in combination all that tends to cancel out. This recording does have its own particular ambiance, which I suppose is part of the charm. Another difference is that cutting in and out of tape loops is a very distinct, but unmeasured, effect. It is really very hard to reproduce this feeling with actual musicians who have to "get in" and "get out" with some sort of preparation. Another problem is that there are some sounds, such as the choir, some percussion, and sounds of what seem to be firearms, that are not reproduced very closely.

But that is probably enough nit-picking! You might chalk all these differences up to a different "interpretation" of the composition. The overall effect is to "aestheticize" the original. By that I mean that the harsh juxtapositions and electronic effects are smoothed out as they are transferred to live musicians' voices and instruments. This process, by the way, reminds me strongly of what Steve Reich was doing in the middle and late 1960s. He had a number of pieces that exploited mechanical processes such as accumulating tape loops and swinging microphones (in Pendulum Music) and discovered some interesting rhythmic effects. But he decided that, unless they could be performed by real musicians they were not very interesting. So he worked with a number of musicians and worked out how to do that and the results were a lot of his pieces written in the 1970s.

The album contains pieces written for the ensemble by Wuorinen, Rihm, Thomas and Orfe as well, but the opening and closing ones are both transcriptions from electronic media: Revolution 9 is, as I said, musique concrète, while the last piece, Poème électronique by Varèse, was composed for the Phillips Pavillion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. The piece was intended to be heard just in that particular space and it was heard along with a film of black and white photographs by Le Corbusier. While just Varèse's electronic piece can be heard by itself, on YouTube, for example, a transcription for chamber orchestra that leaves out the images and the intricate sound scheme would seem to be a bit problematic. Here is how Wikipedia describes how it was originally heard:
Varèse designed a very complex spatialization scheme which was synchronized to the film. Prefiguring the acousmonium style of sound projection, hundreds of speakers were controlled by sound projectionists with a series of rotary telephone dials. Each dial could turn on five speakers at a time out of a bank of 12. Many estimates of the pavilion's sound system go as high as 450 speakers, but based on the limitations of the switching system and the number of projectionists used, an estimate of 350 seems more reasonable. The speakers were fixed to the interior walls of the pavilion, which were then coated in asbestos. The resulting appearance was of a series of bumps. The asbestos hardened the walls, creating a cavernous acoustic space.
The spatialization scheme exploited the unique physical layout of the pavilion. The speakers stretched up to the apex of Le Corbusier's points, and Varèse made great use of the possibilities, sending the sound up and down the walls.
 Both the Varèse transcription and the Beatles transcription are tours-de-force, of course. Most of us would probably have said, nope, can't be done. But it can, of course. Hey, if you can play Brian Fernyhough, then you can play anything!

So what is the aesthetic point of this present project? It is just a trick? Or does it have an aesthetic message? Is the message that we can humanize what originally was rather inhuman? What was the message of the originals of these pieces and do the new versions have a different message? If the message, say, of the Varèse was to celebrate technical virtuosity beyond the pale for conventional musicians, is the present recording a triumph because it says, yes, we can do it just as well as the machines? That would be a nice message. Does the humanization of the Beatles' piece say that that chaos has ended and we can move past it? What do you think?

We have to end, of course, with the Revolution 9 live performance available on YouTube:

While I admire this full-blooded presentation of unfamiliar music, I suspect that there is a lot more going on than can be captured in the simple typology of "familiar" vs "unfamiliar".


Jives said...

Terror is often the first response to unfamiliarity, and some of the boldest forays into the unfamiliar have launched under the banner of Modernism. Listening to new sounds can be akin to watching a horror movie—with ears covered rather than eyes—but given time, what was once disturbing can become intriguing.

Terror....really? I think puzzlement and perhaps annoyance (or delight) are my first responses to the unfamiliar. Modern music is not really terrifying, is it? We don't have an existential crisis because we're listening to Boulez or Crumb. Which leads me to another thought...I wonder how often people take notice of the effect of music on their own bodies?

Example: A friend and I were sharing some music back and forth. He sent me some Frank Zappa (as played by London Symphony). Lord knows that stuff is unfamiliar, highly intellectual, and intriguing, to a point. But as I listened more, I noticed an unpleasant mood settling on me, anxious, testy. Zappa builds up these teetering cacophonies, and then tears them down, again and again. I gave it a chance, but I'm left with an overall impression of churning futility, do I need this in my life? Personally, this not really the outcome I'm looking for. I asked my friend how it made him feel. I think he said "kind of tense, actually". Conversely, the first time I heard Vox Balaenae by Crumb was a revelation. I love the mood he creates in that piece, and I revisit it regularly.

I don't like to impose hidden dialectics on abstract music, but I do think that music is an attempt at communication, and that the listener can discern a certain part of the composers' intent. If the composer's intent is to upset the apple cart, totally disorient the listener, inundate them with dissonance and chaos, then I'm allowed to say I don't really like that sensation, and it need not impugn my intellect.

Bryan Townsend said...

That blurb is no more thought through than any other bit of marketing. Thanks for giving it a nice deconstruction.

I've always had a lot of respect for Frank Zappa, but I also find his music ugly and unpleasant. Yes, even though music is abstract, or perhaps, "non-specific", it still communicates and what disturbs us is that it can communicate on a wordless level that impacts us more directly than if it were more specific.