Thursday evening brought what I expected would be the highlight of the week, and a concert I had been anticipating for many months: Alarm Will Sound performing a program they titled “A/RHYTHMIA.” One of the reasons for my excitement was being able to hear John Adam’s new Son of Chamber Symphony (which would make it three Adams premieres for me since last fall) and the chance to experience this group in performance again. I had seen them for the first time in Berkeley last spring, and was impressed with their performing style, which amounts to more than just playing notes on instruments. Alarm Will Sound performs, they add an extra dimension of staging and choreographer to the performance, part physical manifestation of the act of playing music, like Meredith Monk, and part translation of the music through movement, which is the essence of Mark Morris‘ work.
The concert was also didactic in the best sense – it presented an argument about music meant to stimulate minds and ears, not to settle questions, and one which I’m going to respond with my own arguments. I’d like to think that in this I am fulfilling Alarm Will Sound’s ideal expectations for what they would like to produce, which is a response and reaction which seeks to bring the idea further along the road towards some sort of understanding.
The idea which structured the performance, clear from the title, was that of rhythm and pulse and the different ways it can be made complex through interruption, opposition, disregard. It’s natural to the group’s style and also to ongoing developments in contemporary music, and meant that the program stretched from Conlon Nancarrow to Aphex Twin, and even included The Shaggs. Yeah, The Shaggs.
To begin this debate, allow me to transcribe Alan Pierson’s introduction:
Great composers of the past century have staked out strong and divergent positions on the proper role of pulse in contemporary music. Some argue that truly innovative music must avoid rhythmic regularity, while others are convinced that only music built on pulse feels vital and alive. The pieces on tonight’s program bind these apparently contradictory claims together. In each piece, a basic pulse is disturbed, either by distortions in the flow of time (like a record player with an unsteady motor) or by juxtaposition with other conflicting pulses (like turn signals flashing at different speeds at a stoplight). Alarm Will Sound has found this sorth of rhythm – where regularity and irregularity meet – to be particularly engaging: the underlying sensation catches the ear, while the disturbances keep us alert and guessing. The “want of rhythm or regularity [arrhythmia – my comment]” becomes palpable.
It’s a true divide in 20th century music. What made Steve Reich so radical and so important was his certainty that an audible beat belongs in contemporary music. I’m agnostic on the issue, good music of all kinds can be made. A personal touchstone of mine is the first Icebreaker CD, which makes both cases with equal success. The first track is Michael Gordon’s teeth-rattling YO Shakespeare, nothing but pulse, and the last David Lang’s superb Slow Movement, with no pulse whatsoever, just a mass of sound, forbidding and appealing at the same time.
Nancarrow is a great illustration of this in music, and they played transcriptions of two of his Player Piano Studies, 2A and 6. This is music too complex in counterpoint and mixed rhythms and pulses to be played by a person at a piano, though several have been arranged for ensemble. The pioneering recording is by the Ensemble Moderne, and it made me weak in the knees when I first heard it. Since then, I’ve seen the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players give a concert of the music, and Alarm Will Sound focussing on it last year at the Berkeley concert. The ear has by now been conditioned to hear the works as normal, and Alarm Will Sound are ideal performers of it, as they naturally feel the jazz and blues roots at the core of the works. Their staging also brings to mind a New Orleans brass band slow-marching down the street, which is appropriate for this very American music.
Complex, and even conflicting, pulses are not a new idea, they go back to pre-Renaissance days. That’s an argument that was presented as well, with arrangements for the ensemble of a movement from a Joaquin mass, and one of the group’s staples, and wonderful little arrangement of Le ray au soleyl, going all the way back to the earliest part of the 15th century. Early music developed complexity through structured variations and juxtapositions of melodic and harmonically simple material through time. It’s the idea of a canon, but with different voices performing their lines at different speeds. In many ways, the arrangements for instruments are the ideal way to hear this as the vocal music of the 15th and 16th centuries doesn’t convey the same kind of attack and articulation, and the sonic ideal is a sort of exalted melange of voices. The Josquin had a bit of a severe edge to the sonorities, but the Johannes Ciconia tune is a pleasure to hear, swinging and singing in the way of music from the Middle-Ages, which is frequently spry, witty and joyful.
Some composers try and destroy pulse, creatively of course. Pierson, crouched on the floor and surrounded by instruments, led a fascinated, focussed account of the Movimento preciso e maccanico from Ligeti‘s Chamber Concerto, and a more conventionally arrayed Carmen Aracadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum from Harrison Birtwistle. There is a mechanical pulse in each piece, less obvious in the former, where the instruments are placed in time but lack the kind of regular attack that delineates a clear pulse. The latter piece has a pulse meant to be both mechanical and also incompetent, like a winding down spring mechanism: in short, discrete moments the pulse is apparent, but from one moment to the next it goes off kilter, falls apart, winds down.
Pulse, the audible beat, is an essential feature of pop music, and ‘serious’ music has been incorporating ‘pop’ music at least as far as the Middle-Ages (the tune “L’homme armée” was the basis for a lot of masses), and that continues today. I think there is a built-in prejudice in audiences and music makers, however, which favors pop music of the past and sees contemporary pop music as benighted crap. Well, most of it is, but that’s always been the case. Contemporary pop music, though has been making adventurous, creative use of technology, especially in what the program notes call Intelligent Dance Music. Alarm Will Sound already has an interesting album that features ensemble arrangements of the electronic music of Aphex Twin, and they brought one of those tunes, Gwely Mernans, to the stage, and added Dessert Search 4 Techno Baklava from the artist Mochipet. My feeling is that these arrangements work only as well as the original music is good. There is a fascination in hearing hyper-complex computer-based music performed on acoustic instruments, and Aphex Twin at his best makes use of beguiling timbres and the rich possibilities of structure free from music notation – tools like Csound produce music based on an entirely different conception, essentially tables of numbers that serve as arguments for the execution of algorithms, so it’s possible to produce conflicting pulses, rhythms, tempos and meters on a large scale without having to consider whether musicians can play them. But groups like Alarm Will Sound make virtuosity seem commonplace, and it’s breathtaking to see them just play this stuff. Still, though, Aphex Twin himself is wildly inconsistent to my ears. Some of his work is at the height of the greatest electronic music, while some is banal product. I’m not familiar with Mochipet, but this arrangement actually furthered the argument, perhaps unintentionally, since it sounded like nothing so much as Balkan social music, especially wedding music, which has been built on a very flexible idea of tempo and pulse for more than 100 years. It’s interesting that a kid with a laptop can find his own way to the same idea, but with the possibilities that electronics allow, I much prefer hearing things that cannot and have not been done. Alarm Will Sound does stretch that point to an extreme and exciting limit.
[Updated]: The Shaggs arrangement was a curious choice – the ensemble playing “Philosophy of the World,” preceded by an excerpt of the original recording. The problem with this is that The Shaggs are deeply weird, mainly because of their complete unselfconsciousness about their own musical incompetence. It’s part of their charm, the unintended avant-gardistes of pop music. The only thing that is anywhere near them is Ornette Coleman’s music, where considerations of form and technique are secondary to what needs expression. Of course, Coleman is a deeply sophisticated and accomplished musician who found his way to that point through work and exploration. It’s very hard for great musicians to sound naturally, charmingly, incompetent, and Alarm Will Sound just doesn’t have it in them to play badly. Without that sense, I don’t think there’s a coherent argument to be made about issues of pulse with The Shaggs – there’s nothing there at all.
The new John Adams piece was the core and high moment of the concert. I’ve been listening to his first Chamber Symphony since its premiere, and have not yet found much affection for it. It’s an interesting piece, but his exploration of cartoon music and Schoenbergian structure is well-though but not felt. That piece expects us to follow behind, when Adams at his best always invites us alongside. The new work does just that. Adams is not only the premiere American composer a truly premier American composer in the best sense. His work is aurally and emotionally appealing, full of rhythmic excitement and energy, beautifully crafted and full of challenges and rigor. It is populist in that it presents entry into its world, but it doesn’t pander. And though he was born in Massachusetts, he’s very much a California composer, with a view West, off the shelf of North America and into the seemingly endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean. His music is clearly founded on the America of Ives and Ellington but also looks to the future. His idiom is a wonderful synthesis of American music and culture with Sibelius and Stravinsky – quite a pedigree!
Pierson descries methods in the piece similar to Beethoven, and material that is similar to the voice of Adams in his Naive and Sentimental Music, especially the device of a cantabile melody over strummed chords, but to me this dynamic new work is founded in a great, and underrated, 20th century masterpiece, the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. It’s the style more than anything else, an urban, brash, almost obnoxious American swagger, a sense of moving forward through space and time, eagerly gaining way into the future. There’s a syncopated pulse very much like Stravinsky in the first movement, and a dazzling violin solo that owes something to Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. Also, like Stravinsky, Adams makes great use of short melodic and rhythmic elements, displacing them through time, kicking the pulse forward at times. It’s a great new work, and a real favorite of the audiences, which applauded after each movement.
Nothing like the rousing, and deserved ovation at the end. This was a great concert, a great performance, and best of all an argument that was stimulating, that I want to continue. It’s an argument about what the tradition is, where it is, where it’ s going, a conversation that involves the past vertically and the present horizontally. There is no right or wrong, there’s just possibilities. This group shows there’s enormous possibilities, not just musically but in terms of the audience as well. Other well known new music ensembles, like Kronos and Bang on a Can, have an edge of hipness to them and in my experience tend to draw audiences more from rock fans. How far those audiences go into contemporary music is questionable. Alarm Will Sound, though, is a nerd ensemble in the best sense of the word, and their audience seems to be both younger and older, made up of classical music fans, and this audience will stick with them every step of the way. A great evening, perhaps the best of this entire season, and a group that is now on my Must See list, along with Kurt Elling and Jason Moran.
Tonight, self-indulgence. Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Berlioz, Wagner and Debussy. Time for me to relax in a cocoon of echt-Romanticism. Expect only a few words on that.