The always-adventurous Alarm Will Sound is an ensemble that seems equally hungry for fun as they are for musical innovation. The music on their latest release seems to benefit from an approach that eschews austerity, focusing on what an incredibly good time it is for a virtuosic ensemble like AWS to perform music of such a level of fascination and complexity.
The album is cleverly bookended by contemporary takes on Varèse modernism, beginning with music that started life as a Beatles track, no less. Musique concrète and the avant-garde influenced John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the creation of their experimental track Revolution 9. McCartney was listening to quite a bit of Varèse and Stockhausen at the time, and Yoko Ono’s modernist aesthetic was also a guiding force on Lennon, who said he was trying to paint a picture of a revolution using sound. Although Matt Marks’ arrangement begins with the basic repeated building blocks of the Beatles track (a looping “Number 9” vocal sample and a piano melody), he quickly moves away from what would become an extremely annoying repetition. We are swiftly thrust into a kaleidoscopic world of similar musique concrète-like materials presented with increasing variety: samples of speech and crowd noise, short fragments of abbreviated melody, and instrumental effects that seem to mimic tapes being played backwards. The dark, noir-like feel of the first half of the track seems to veer towards a more chaotic depiction of revolutionary activity, and the ensemble is brought together at the conclusion with unified, purposeful chanting. Whatever one would call this music, it is a fascinating mix of sounds that not only reminds us of the awesome powers of a small chamber ensemble, but also connect the expressive qualities of conventional instruments with the speaking (and yelling) human voice. It is relentlessly striking, and although I am not always a fan of abrupt swerves in approach throughout a short piece, it absolutely is successful here.
In the middle, we experience a more introspective Augusta Reed Thomas, flanked with good old (new?) contemporary music party time. I saw Charles Wuorinen’s Big Spinoff live in 2014, and found the virtuosity and romping rhythms that drive the work to be intoxicating. It’s a work that unmistakably shares some DNA with John Adams’ two chamber symphonies, in all their banging rhythm and cartoonish runs of notes. The percussive, endlessly riffing texture is pretty non-stop with little variation, however, making us ready for something new by the time we get to Augusta Reed Thomas’ Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour. That next track features two texts, the titular Wallace Stevens poem and The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain by the same author. The English text is spoken and sung, and explores the godliness of artistic creation and imagination, among other things. Without a doubt, we are in the midst of a theatrical experience here, and staging and lighting effects immediately come to mind when we hear the wispy curtain backdrop of instrumental sound. Alarm Will Sound changes gear again in the following track, where disjunct saxophone melodies introduce Wolfgang Rihm’s Will Sound, a technically challenging work written specifically for AWS (duh). It is atonal nearly to the point of serialism, which makes the surprising major and minor chords at the very end that much more neat and quirky. Alarm Will Sound under the direction of Alan Pierson is tremendously well-organized in its technical outbursts, but those startling chords at the conclusion would have had an even more powerful effect if had they been perfectly in tune. Masterful displays of technique abound on the succeeding track as well, as do moments of unsettled intonation. John Orfe’s Journeyman rounds out the core of this album with music that uses some seriously wacky combinations of instruments, seeming to evoke things like a local carnival ride, a Broadway opening, and a train.
At the end of the collection, we get Evan Hause’s ambitious acoustic re-imagining of Edgar Varèse’s Poème électronique. The original is one of Varèse’s most famous works, conceived to be part of an architectural installation by Le Corbusier at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The swooping, beeping, and thumping electronic sounds have been given to the ensemble here, sort of a Poème analogique. We’ve even got a bit of singing, somehow even creepier in this arrangement than the original. Honestly, it’s an amazing arrangement executed to stunning effect by AWS; listening to Varèse’s original, it’s hard to believe that such an interesting musical feat could possibly be successful. Acoustic instruments seem to bring out more shades of character than the all-electronic sounds of the original: the bizarre, schizoid sounds are now somehow augmented with humor and intimacy.
That’s the triumph of AWS’s latest recording in a nutshell: these composers and this ensemble are able to take modernism, with its strange, confusing soundscape, and make it personable and relatable. This kind of music is probably not something you want in your life every day; but when you need it, it’s there, and it’s an amazingly good time.
Photo credit: Cory Weaver