March 12, 2007

Music Review: Alarm Will Sound Live!

It was a hot day in Berkeley yesterday, the hottest day so far of 2007. I left work early to walk for forty-five minutes up to the Alarm Will Sound Concert in Hertz Hall at the University, & I was sweating in a thin shirt & white pants. (For those who think the Bay Area is summer year round, I must report that February was fricking freezing, & yesterday came as a sudden shock wave of college girls in floral skirts.) A friend of mine from high school, Mr Caleb Burhans, plays violin, viola, electric guitar, & sings countertenor for Alarm Will Sound, a contemporary classical music ensemble based in New York City. They were doing a “Composer Portrait” of Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who disappeared to Mexico after fighting for the communists in the Spanish Civil War, & for forty years wrote exclusively for the player-piano. He had been frustrated by live musicians who couldn’t play his mathematical rhythms, & punching his own player-piano rolls liberated him to explore without the burdens of human-playability. (Think about how many educated classical musicians have problems with counting syncopations in 5/4 time, &c.) He frequently writes for two or more tempos simultaneously, & I believe he’s written music in meters like Square-Root-of-Two over Two.

The concert was well-received, altho attended by more older people than students. Possibly because of the $32 price tag. Their Nancarrow repertoire is far less cool than their previous projects. Their recording of acoustic versions of Aphex Twin songs was highlighted by the New York Times as a must-hear; their live concerts of it involved a whole slew of crazy instruments to imitate the electronic sounds. As trendy as it is to arrange Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano for chamber musicians, & as exciting as it can be to perform the crazy rhythms & dual-tempos live & well, these arrangements seemed very muddy. Two of them, Study for Player Piano No. 3A “Boogie-Woogie Suite” (arranged by Derek Bermel of Bang On A Can) & No. 2A (arr. by Gavin Chuck) are heavy on the jazz & rag influence, which is fun but a little cheesy in performance. It is a chaotic-big-band sound which results, in comparison to the recordings of the piano rolls, in which the rag-timey ones sound like Silvestre Revueltes put a Gershwin roll thru a textile machine. I guess what I’m trying to say is: that you’d think orchestrating the music would bring more of what’s going on out of the thick texture, but the opposite is the result. Alarm Will Sound had much of this music memorized, & they often stand & walk around the stage while playing it, which to me seems maddeningly difficult – but the successful effect is that you’re watching a cohesive band that knows its stuff & enjoys what they do (sometimes a rarity in the performance of 20th Century Classics.) I guess they have no plans to record this music, & are putting it to rest pretty soon. I actually liked the performances of Nancarrow's pre-player-piano music much better, especially the meaty string quartet.

Coincidentally, last week, I finally got in the mail the CD/DVD of Alarm Will Sound performing Steve Reich Live at the Roxy in New York. I attended the taped-performance three years ago, & a perk of the ticket was they would send you a free copy. Apparently, there were some serious issues getting Sweet Spot DVD to release it, which are a little boring & businessy, but it didn’t get out by the time of all the Steve Reich 70th Birthday Celebrations last year. I have to say, I think these performances of these three pieces – Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ; Sextet, & three songs from The Cave – are really first rate. It’s in the clarity, & fusion of the ensemble, & the youthful energy – for some reason, I think people in my generation, in their 20s & 30s, bring an essential something to Reich’s music that grey-haired old percussionists, like Reich’s own ensemble, lack. Alarm Will Sound has also provided the world with the best recordings of Tehilim & The Desert Music. Mr Burhans plays the rock star in Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ, bouncing around with a microphone, picking out melodies from the texture & phasing them in & out with his sweet falsetto. And you can see me sitting there, next to four of my college friends, right behind him.

As for the genre, I feel like this is the first real live concert of Reich’s music that isn’t blabbed over by “interviews” (i.e., people saying boring things that aren’t as interesting as the music they’re blocking.) I know of several films or movies of Philip Glass’s music where the editors, operating under the assumption that the music is too dull to stand by itself, casually mix the interviews over it. Last week, I was watching that documentary about John Adams, Hail Bop, & they rarely let us hear more than twenty uninterrupted seconds of his music. A crucial element of this style is letting the audience get into the grooves & repetitions. Anyway, this is a live concert not a documentary, but especially with this kind of minimalism, it benefits from being performed well on video & uninterrupted. Also, did I mention you can see me sitting in the audience?

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