Unconventional new-music ensemble ramps up the energy quotient
Georgia Rowe - Thu, Mar. 02, 2006
From the ContraCostaTimes
The name says it all: Alarm Will Sound is definitely not your parents' chamber music. The 20-member new-music ensemble hit the classical scene in 2001 and has been making waves ever since. With a wide range of experience in composition and improvisation, the group's musicians perform with the kind of energy and intensity usually reserved for rock bands.
Bay Area audiences will get a chance to experience the group this weekend, as it plays a program of music by John Adams 3 p.m. Sunday at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall. Hosted by Cal Performances in collaboration with the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, the event is part of the Composer Portrait series.
For most people, the term "classical music ensemble" conjures up images of middle-aged men in suits, giving staid performances of 200-year-old music. But Alan Pierson, Alarm Will Sound's co-founder and artistic director, says it doesn't have to be that way.
"We're very involved in the music we play," Pierson said last week in a call from New York. "And we always try to perform in a way that will communicate that to an audience."
The members of the group are mostly in their 20s. And unlike many of their contemporaries, Pierson says, they spend a lot of time together, exploring repertoire and honing their sound.
"So many classically trained ensembles seem very detached from what they're doing," he says. "Most groups our size gather and rehearse a couple of days, then play one performance. That doesn't allow enough time to really commit to the music. One of our principles is that we have to be deeply committed to everything we do. We keep the focus on the players, which makes it more like a band."
Alarm Will Sound members usually perform standing, he says, with the players free to move around the stage (and, in the case of their Carnegie Hall debut last month, into the aisles). Pierson says they employ a full-time staging director; when the music calls for it, they add lighting and choreography. "At a time when people are used to having more than one sense stimulated," he says, "it's just another way for us to communicate our feelings about the music."
The group made its official debut in 2001, but its members bonded long before that. They met as students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where they formed the new-music band Ossia. After graduation, that group evolved into the professional touring ensemble that became Alarm Will Sound.
"We grew up together artistically," says Gavin Chuck, a co-founder of the group who now serves as its managing director.
According to Chuck, the group quickly found a niche. "In Europe, each country seems to have a national ensemble," he says, citing France's Ensemble InterContemporain as an example. "At that time, there was no equivalent of that in the U.S. There were lots of pickup groups in New York, gigging musicians who put concerts together. But we wanted to build a fixed group of people to play this music with real conviction."
There's an abundance of repertoire for midsized chamber groups, says Chuck. Alarm Will Sound's debut concert featured music by Steve Reich; since then, they've played contemporary works by composers including David Lang, Gyorgy Ligeti, Harrison Birtwistle, Augusta Read Thomas and Wolfgang Rihm, as well as Frank Zappa and Aphex Twin.
Chuck acknowledges that the group's approach is unconventional. But he says their use of theatrics is always in the service of the music. "It's not a gimmick," he says. "It grows out of the relationships in the group and the music we're performing."
Sunday's all-Adams concert will keep the choreography to a minimum. But Pierson says there will be plenty of fireworks. The program includes the composer's rarely performed "Scratchband," along with beloved Adams pieces "Gnarly Buttons," "China Gates" and "Short Ride in a Fast Machine."
Also included is Adams' Chamber Symphony, which Pierson says is an Alarm Will Sound favorite. "It's the piece we're most attached to and love to play," he says. "It has tremendous energy, and a very rich harmonic language. It's a very acrobatic piece, great fun to listen to and great fun to play."
In the coming months, Alarm Will Sound will play a variety of new music. Six of the group's members are composers, and they're working on a program of original works based on music from the 14th century. It will be performed in April at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where they are artists in residence. In May, the band returns to Berkeley to play Adams' "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky" as part of Cal Performances' centennial celebration.
We're almost out of time, but there's one thing I still need to ask Pierson. Where did the group get its name? "Gavin and I were workout buddies," he says. "We had just formed the group, and we had a long list of names we were considering. We were at the gym, and we saw a sign on the door that said 'Alarm Will Sound.' That was it. We loved it because it's a door you're not supposed to go through. It suggested something forbidden, exciting -- and loud."
Of course. Just like the best rock bands.