Alarm Will Sound has established a reputation for performing demanding music with energetic skill. ASCAP recognized their contributions to new music with a 2006 Concert Music Award for "the virtuosity, passion and commitment with which they perform and champion the repertory for the 21st century." Their performances have been described as "equal parts exuberance, nonchalance, and virtuosity" by the London Financial Times and as "a triumph of ensemble playing" by the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times says Alarm Will Sound is "the future of classical music" and "the very model of a modern music chamber band."
The versatility of Alarm Will Sound allows it to take on music from a wide variety of styles. Its repertoire ranges from European to American works, from the arch-modernist to the pop-influenced. The group fosters close relationships with contemporary composers and has commissioned and premiered pieces by Steve Reich, David Lang, Anthony Gatto, Cenk Ergün, Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Gordon, Augusta Read Thomas, Stefan Freund, Wolfgang Rihm, Payton MacDonald, John Orfe, Gavin Chuck, Dennis DeSantis and Caleb Burhans. They are the resident ensemble at the annual Mizzou International Composers Festival, held each July in Columbia, MO focusing on world premiere performances of music by emerging composers. The group itself includes many composer-performers, which allows for an unusual degree of insight into the creation and performance of new work.
Alarm Will Sound is the resident ensemble at the Mizzou International Composers Festival. Held each July in at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the festival features eight world premieres by emerging composers. During the weeklong festival, these composers work closely with Alarm Will Sound and two established guest composers to perform and record their new work.
Alarm Will Sound may be heard on seven recordings. Canzonas Americanas, their latest release on Cantaloupe features music by Derek Bermel whose eclectic approach draws on the musical traditions of Europe, North and South America, and Africa. Their genre-bending, critically acclaimed Acoustica features live-performance arrangements of music by electronica guru Aphex Twin. This unique project taps the diverse talents within the group, from the many composers who made arrangements of the original tracks, to the experimental approaches developed by the performers.
In 2011 at Carnegie Hall, the group presented 1969, a multimedia event that uses music, images, text, and staging to tell the compelling story of great musicians—John Lennon, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, and Leonard Bernstein—striving for a new music and a new world amidst the turmoil of the late 1960s. 1969’s unconventional approach combining music, history, and ideas has been critically praised by the New York Times (“...a swirling, heady meditation on the intersection of experimental and commercial spheres, and of social and aesthetic agendas.... a consistent wonder.”) and the LA Times (“They exploded musical genres, made history come alive and demonstrated that art—original, vivid, reckless—can lift the grim clouds of current events, if only for two hours.”)
In 2010, the group developed and performed the Dirty Projectors' The Getty Address in its new identity as a live performance piece at Lincoln Center, Disney Hall and the Barbican. Music that Dirty Projectors front-man David Longstreth created on a computer by meticulous and complicated sampling, looping and layering is translated and arranged by Matt Marks, Alan Pierson, and Chris Thompson for 23 musicians of both bands.
Members of the ensemble began playing together while studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. With diverse experience in composition, improvisation, jazz and popular styles, early music, and world musics, they bring intelligence and a sense of adventure to all their performances.
In 1996 at the Eastman School of Music two conversations met.
I had been talking to my friends about a problem fellow composers faced getting music for large ensembles performed. Either you won an annual, faculty-approved opportunity with the school orchestra, or you pulled together an ad hoc orchestra to perform the piece on a Composers' Forum, usually with minimal rehearsal. In fact, the concert was often the first time the whole pick-up group had played together.
Alan had been talking to his friends about a different problem: none of the new music performed at Eastman featured minimalist composers.
It was Alan's first semester and my fifth. We were introduced at a party and started talking.
Soon, Alan and I drew our circles of friends into a six-way conversation about working together to change the new-music scene at Eastman. Discussing the problems we wanted to address, we realized that the solution was to create a concert series. But none of us knew how to produce concerts.
We decided to tackle the problem by creating a student-run organization that would produce new-music concerts and, in the process, teach ourselves the skills necessary to do so. We came up with a name for the organization, chose repertoire for two concerts, and designed a poster for the series, all before we had rehearsal space, performance venues or production funds. Or an orchestra. The point was to make a solid pitch to the school administration for support. Jim Undercofler, the newly-appointed dean, gave us that support and Ossia was born.
Two Kilbourn Hall performance dates, rehearsal space, a $3,000 budget, and a slick series poster in hand, we set up a table in the Main Hall to get volunteers for the orchestra. Through that recruitment effort and many others to follow, most of the current members of Alarm Will Sound met: Christa, Bill, Beth, Mike Harley, Matt, Jason Price, Mike Clayville, John Orfe, Caleb, Courtney, Stefan, Miles and Nigel. Over the next several years of Ossia concerts, the working relationships and friendships that were to become Alarm Will Sound formed.
With graduation from Eastman looming, we realized how much we wanted to continue working together in the professional world. We saw the need for a large, national ensemble dedicated to new music but we figured creating one from scratch would be an iffy proposition because there were probably many reasons why one didn't already exist in the USA. Still, we wanted to give it a try because making music together was too important and fun not to. Right there in Spot Coffee on East Avenue, we decided that "Ensemble X" would be a large, touring ensemble of fixed membership (not a pick-up band!) creating, performing and recording the best of today's music.
"Ensemble X" was, of course, just a place-holder for whatever name we would eventually take. One of the questions we are most frequently asked is how we came up with the name Alarm Will Sound. The answer, like most decisions in the group, is: after lots and lots and lots of discussion. I spied the sign on an emergency exit while working out at the gym with Alan who was pestering me for name ideas. ("How about Alarm Will Sound?" — "Really?!") It was added to a long list of of other possibilities that were endlessly debated and voted on. By the slimmest of margins, Alarm Will Sound prevailed: it captured a sense of adventure—risk, even—and had the word "sound" in it (appropriate for a musical ensemble). And we believed people would be curious about the name and, by extension, the group.
Alarm Will Sound's first concert was on May 24, 2001. It was a Composer Portrait of Steve Reich at Miller Theatre in New York City. We shared the bill—appropriately enough—with Ossia, performing Tehillim and The Desert Music. (We released an album of those pieces around the same time). For our first 4 or so years, these Composer Portraits at Miller Theatre were a regular gig and gave us a platform to grow artistically and organizationally. And it allowed us to grow an audience. We shared with them the music of György Ligeti, Harrison Birtwistle, David Lang, Augusta Read Thomas, Benedict Mason, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Adams.
In 2004, we were named Artists-in-Residence at Dickinson College. That was another significant development because it gave us time and space to develop work besides the composer portraits. Indeed, it was at Dickinson that we workshopped and recorded our next big project, which was to become a watershed for us.
Caleb first suggested the idea that we arrange the work of Aphex Twin for ourselves to play. Most people in the group already loved the complex, direct electronica of Aphex Twin, but more than a few of us were skeptical that electronica would work as live music. There were heated debates about the nature of digital vs. acoustic sound, and of machine precision vs. human expressiveness. There were disagreements about whether we should be as faithful as possible to the originals, or interpret them more openly. Alarms were sounding.
But we went through that door. And it was a rewarding adventure. We reached a diverse audience through the project and subsequent 2005 album Acoustica. And it gave us an important platform from which to pursue a wide-ranging artistic vision that doesn't worry too much about genre—electronic vs. acoustic, high-modernist vs. pop-influenced, conventional classical concert vs. multimedia experience.
For our first five years, most of the concerts we produced were “monographs” featuring repertoire by a single composer in a conventional concert setting. In 2006, we put on a mixed-repertoire concert that was also our first multimedia performance: Odd Couples paired pieces by composers who had a personal and/or artistic relationship that might be unexpected because their styles are so different: Frank Zappa and Edgard Varèse; John Cage and John Cale; Derek Bermel and Bernard Woma; Wolfgang Rihm and John Adams. The concert used video and staging to share our ideas about how the composers and pieces related to each other. We had wanted to do something like this from the beginning, but it took us time to figure out how to transform the concert experience in a meaningful way. While we continue to do many conventional concerts, Odd Couples led us to to imagine and develop other projects that bring together music, history, and ideas through multimedia performance.
Starting in 2008, Alan came up with an idea we began developing as a new performance piece that would incorporate music, video, text and action. Nigel had led some earlier efforts (like Odd Couples) that incorporated staging and video to heighten our musical performances, but 1969 was to be a quantum leap beyond anything we had done before. Alan and Nigel collaborated with writer Andy Kupfer to craft a concert-length piece centered on a story about John Lennon, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Leonard Bernstein, and Luciano Berio striving for a new music and a new world against the backdrop of political turmoil and cultural upheaval of the late 1960s. Not only is that a mouthful, it's stageful: surrounded by three video screens and three actors, everyone in the group plays their instruments, sings, and acts. 1969 pushed our limits as a group and as individuals.
The individual members of Alarm Will Sound have a shared history of pushing our limits. We grew up artistically together starting from our student days at Eastman. As we've added new members we continue to grow together with a deep commitment to new music and to each other. That's why we think of ourselves as a band rather than an orchestra. We're constantly brainstorming new ideas about projects that engage us, arguing about what works and what doesn't, trying things we haven't tried before, and sometimes making it up as we go along. It's because of that shared history and commitment that we are comfortable taking artistic risks with each other. We're going to go through that door.
I grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In grade four, students were given the opportunity to begin band instruments. I chose the french horn… Fortunately, the brass class met during the same time as my ballroom dancing lessons so I moved on to my second choice—the flute.
When I was 14, I went to hear my teacher play George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale. That is the first time I can remember being totally captivated by a performance. I went home and ordered the score and my love of contemporary music was begun!
That love continued through my studies at the University of Ottawa and the Manhattan School of Music, and has shaped my life in many ways since. I’ve been a member of groups like the Argento Chamber Ensemble, Wet Ink, Due East, Scarborough Trio, and Ensemble ACJW and have worked with great composers, premiered countless works and traveled the globe. I love the challenge of deciphering a new score, and the fact that every day is completely different.
I’m very excited to be a member of Alarm Will Sound and am looking forward to the myriad musical experiences that lay ahead.
I grew up on a pig farm in rural Ontario, Canada, and although my family appreciates music (and can boast some killer 3-part harmony/road trip singing skills), the idea of becoming a professional musician had never really occurred to me. A family move to a Toronto suburb altered that idea. Admittedly, I agreed to play the oboe at the age of 13 without actually knowing what it was, but I greatly admired my early teacher and soon fell in love with the oboe and the classical music world.
Lucky enough to be accepted by the Eastman School of Music for undergraduate studies, my idea of classical music evolved as I began to perform newly composed music. With ample performance opportunity and inspiring colleagues, how could I not love exploring these new sound worlds? …And then I won a traditional orchestra job in Canada. Whoops.
Immediately out of college, I picked up my reed tools and moved back to Canada where I put down roots (literally-I grew some killer green tomatoes!!!) in the middle of the prairies and performed as the principal oboist of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. Additionally, I taught oboe at the University of Saskatchewan and early childhood music through their extension division. Although it was a blast playing the classics for five years, there wasn’t much of a new music scene, and it was missed.
I followed my romantic heart and moved to New York City. I couldn’t be happier to be in a city filled with so much energy and am elated to be a member of Alarm Will Sound.
When I’m not playing the oboe, you can find me teaching elementary classroom music or day-dreaming of a backyard where I someday can plant a tomato garden once again.
I got hooked on the idea of music as a profession when I started playing with the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra as a sophomore in high school. I had never played in an orchestra before and survived a few embarrassing moments, including discovering what an A clarinet was was by showing up to rehearsal and accidentally playing the opening of Bizet's L'Arlesienne a half-step high...at fortissimo! I soon fell in love with the complexity and diversity of orchestral music, playing masterworks by Prokoviev, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Gershwin and decided that I would be happy forever if I could only win the principal clarinet seat in the Cincinnati Symphony. So off to school I went, first to Ohio State and then the Eastman School of Music to train as an orchestral clarinetist. Along the way, though, I picked up degrees in music theory and music education, and fell into the new music scene by being willing (and at least marginally able) to play Xenakis and Schoenberg and just about any other new music on clarinet and bass clarinet. After a short but informative stint as principal clarinetist with the Midland Odessa Symphony in Texas, I moved back east to Pennsylvania where I currently teach at Dickinson College, play chamber music of all sorts, and look forward to the challenges and delights of each new project with Alarm Will Sound.
I grew up in Goshen, Indiana, a land of corn fields and maple trees. I also grew up Mennonite, which, because instruments were not historically allowed in church services (too prideful), when it comes to making music meant a capella, four-part hymn singing (you can't beat it!) My parents forced me to take piano lessons for a time, and eventually started me on this incredible squawking beast called the oboe; they said some day I'd thank them. Thanks, Mom and Dad. At some point in late junior high, my frazzled band director looked at all four of us oboe players (can you imagine the hair-raising sound four junior high oboists make playing in “unison”?!) and begged one of us to try a completely bizarre-looking instrument called the bassoon. I thought it seemed pretty cool, and definitely much more masculine, sure to be a hit with the girls, so I decided to give it a try. I spent a week in the practice room with a fingering chart and joined the band on a piece—and I remember this clearly—called “Greasy Kid's Stuff.”
Fast-forward to the present: after finally making my way through school at Goshen College, Cincinnati, and Eastman, I’m now based in Columbia, SC, at the University of South Carolina, where I teach music theory, history, chamber music, and help direct the Southern Exposure New Music Series on a shoestring budget (we Mennonites are very thrifty). Along the way have accumulated lots of great life experiences—tops among them playing music on five continents, far from the land of Goshen—plus a wonderful wife, flutist Jennifer Parker-Harley, two darling girls, and (to my great surprise—I’m allergic!) a tiny cat named Clara Belle. I don’t have any spare time, but if I did, you’d probably find me hiking or reading or doing just about anything at the beach. And, thanks to Alarm Will Sound, I play music that might aptly be called “Greasy Grownup Stuff.”
Matt Marks splits his time between being a horn player and a composer of electronic and acoustic works. A founding member of Alarm Will Sound, he has also performed with groups such as the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), The Wordless Music Orchestra, Argento Ensemble, and many others. He has recorded for Warp Records, Nonesuch, and Cantaloupe Music.
As a composer and arranger, Matt's work has been called "staggeringly creative" by the New York Times, "obsessively detailed" by New York Magazine, and "stunning" by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, the Bang on a Can Marathon, the Tribeca New Music Festival, and for WNYC radio. His recent post-Christian nihilist pop-opera, The Little Death, will be released on New Amsterdam Records in 2010.
Other projects include his arrangement of Revolution 9 by The Beatles for Alarm Will Sound, a commission from Town Hall Seattle, and Horror Ballads - his upcoming song cycle about psychopathic personality disorder. Additionally, Matt is co-director of Ensemble de Sade, a BDSM-themed theatrical chamber ensemble known for their unique adaptations of new and classic works, and was also an organizer of the 2009 New Music Bake Sale.
I was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, a living anachronism, with a twin brother, a living clone. My mother worked as a historical interpreter and dressed in Colonial period clothes while my father was an engineer at NASA. Until Reagan was elected I firmly believed we were still at war with the English and that my father drove a train to the moon. My first musical experiences, besides fife and drum music, were the records discarded by my older brothers: the speeches of FDR, sound effects, early Beatles, music from the Renaissance, and a recording called Music from Mathematics, played by the IBM 7090.
In an effort to emulate my older brothers in every way I took up the trumpet and have continued to bother people with it for the past twenty years. Eventually I went to school for the trumpet where I figured out how to bother people with electronics as well. Meanwhile my twin brother Phil found punk rock and vintage synths. I enjoy visual and sound poetry, experimental music, free improvisation, and teaching a course in computer music. I managed to win some competitions and got to study at some nice places but nothing makes me happier than getting to perform with my brother and playing for friends. I feel incredibly lucky to play with Alarm Will Sound and to play all this great music with such exceptional folks.
I could do this the easy way. Tell you that I'm from a tiny town in Pennsylvania where I began playing the trombone in elementary school. Studied with one very influential teacher, Jim Erdman, in high school. Attended the Eastman School of Music. Attended the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival and Rice University with Novus, a trombone quartet. And now play with Alarm Will Sound.
But that doesn't tell you who I am.
I moved to rural PA from Baltimore, MD at eight. Growing up in a small town gave me a very limited worldview. It was a very conservative, close-minded area where conformity was rewarded. I never felt like I fit in... having vague memories of B-more I was aware that there was more out there.
I began playing the trombone because it looked funny and I kept playing it because it was a lot more fun than doing homework. It was something I excelled at and became how I identified myself. I really didn't have substantive reasons to play until I met Jim Erdman. He taught me that music is about communicating from your heart and the best musicians believe in what they have to say and hold nothing back.
I still wonder how I got accepted to Eastman. I really couldn't play the trombone and I sure didn't know anything about music. The only ability I had can be attributed to willpower. The experience forever changed my life. I got to meet people (like most of Alarm Will Sound) and hear music completely unlike anything I had been exposed to before. It opened doors for me to travel around the world and to play in even more unfamiliar settings. It verified my thoughts that there was more to the world than my small town.
Playing with groups like Novus and Alarm Will Sound is like a dream come true. I get to play incredible music with incredible people - music and people that keep expanding my knowledge. That's what I enjoy the most, learning more about myself, the world and how the two fit together.
I grew up in Cupertino, California, which is both the cozy suburban home of Apple Computer and a hub of what is still haltingly referred to as the "Silicon Valley." My high school was definitely not in the business of placing people on the road to becoming professional musicians, so as an aspiring drummer I somehow found my way into a cult-like activity known as drum and bugle corps. I always struggle to find the words to describe this activity; I've heard "marching band on steroids" used more than once. Through zen-like focus and a commitment that borders on the fanatical, (think 12 hour days in the dead of summer running around with fifty pounds of drum strapped to your back) these groups achieve something quite remarkable, especially considering that no member is over the age of 21. But the particular relevance for my future as a musician was that here I was first introduced to the music of composers like Adams, Debussy, Bartok, and Glass, just to name a few. I spent two summers in the Santa Clara Vanguard as a tenor player before I was finished with high school.
Thinking I would major in computer science, I entered UCLA as an undergrad and soon discovered that my interest in computers and electronics, having been basically bred into me, was at that point mainly serving my interest in music. I discovered Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers around the same time that I discovered the marimba and vibraphone. After a change of major and some serious catch-up, I felt I had finally found my place, and I ended up double-majoring in performance and composition and continuing with grad school in New York at Juilliard.
These days I'm enjoying the contemporary music scene in New York as a freelancer, and in addition to Alarm Will Sound I play with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Line C3 percussion group, Knights Chamber Orchestra, and whoever else happens to call. I live in Brooklyn and spend any rarely available free time tinkering with electronic music gadgets and trying to read comics in Japanese.
As a composer, pianist, and student, my principal teachers have included Ezra Laderman, Joseph Schwantner, and Martin Bresnick. My works have been performed in Russia, Canada, Germany, and throughout the US, and my percussion trio Dragon has received performances by nearly thirty different ensembles. I've been fortunate to receive four Standard ASCAP awards, a Tanglewood Fellowship, and first prizes in competitions held by BMI, the Music Teachers National Association, the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts, the National Federation for Advancement in the Arts, the National Association of Composers, USA, and New Music Delaware. My piano playing remains very important to me. I've premiered over fifty works and performed in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the former Orchestra Hall (now Symphony Center) in Chicago, Mandel Hall in Minneapolis, and at universities on the East Coast and the Midwest. My mentors are Alan Feinberg and Emilio del Rosario.
I didn't get started with music until I was nine. My dad used to play with Ray Charles and Kenny Rogers, but neither of my parents listened to classical music. My mother tried giving me flute lessons but I didn't dig the flute that much. We moved to Wisconsin, where I started playing violin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, saxophone, percussion and piano.
When I was fourteen I quit the piano in order to focus on composing, jazz and my punk band. A few years later I discovered Ravi Shankar, Aphex Twin and Ligeti, which I found to be more punk than punk. I went to Interlochen Arts Academy, where I began working with composers, playing free jazz, and singing countertenor. I also began dating Martha Cluver, to whom I am now married.
After Interlochen I went to Eastman School of Music where I met some of the coolest and most influential people in my life. While at Eastman, I studied composition, violin, and viola focusing on new music, period performance-practice and free improvisation. I also got to work with some great composers like George Crumb, Lou Harrison, John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young and David Lang. I got to play my brains out with Ossia, the student run new music ensemble, which is how I began playing with Alarm Will Sound. I also played in the Susie Kelly String Quartet, which was devoted to new music and student premieres.
Currently I'm living in New York City with my wife, where we both sing in the Trinity on Wall Street Choir. I primarily make a living as a freelance musician doing everything from playing with rock bands, orchestras and new music ensembles to singing with a number of church choirs. I'm still composing like mad and most of it is for my duo with Grey McMurray called, "it's not you, it's me."
I have an older sister. When we were kids, I wanted to do everything she was doing, which I guess is pretty normal. So when SHE started playing the piano, _I_ had to play the piano. I loved it – LOVED it – and my parents decided to have me play the violin as well. It was not always smooth sailing; at different points, I wanted to be a veterinarian, an architect, a doctor, a vet (again), or a social worker. But music was the one thing I had a real passion for, and at the risk of sounding trite, I am incredibly grateful to my parents for dragging me to countless lessons, youth orchestra rehearsals, and auditions. After earning a Bachelor’s degree from Temple, I went to Eastman, where I earned an MA in Theory Pedagogy and a DMA in Performance. Most importantly, I met the people who were to eventually become Alarm Will Sound. One of my favorite AWS stories is about how I became a member. When I received my part for The Desert Music – AWS’s first big project – there were at LEAST two other violinists’ names that had been written on the part and had been erased or crossed out. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling that story, since it makes it seem I was junior JUNIOR varsity, but hey, I’m glad they couldn’t do the gig or I wouldn’t be doing all this fun stuff with some of my best friends. So once more running the risk of sounding trite, I am incredibly grateful to be a member of AWS.
I grew up in Memphis, TN, and its music and culture have been a great influence on my life. Another important force in my development as a musician has been my dad, Don, a great composer and pianist. At age five I began playing piano, composing, and improvising. At 10, I switched over to cello since it was easier to read music with one staff rather than two. When I played one of my own pieces for Janos Starker at my IU audition he said I was a better composer than a cellist so I pursued that track in earnest. After winning a couple BMI's and ASCAP's I headed off to a Composition Assistantship at Eastman, studying comp with Rouse, Schwantner, Gusty, and others and cello with Steve Doane. Once I finished my DMA, I served on the Eastman faculty for a year before heading out to the University of Missouri.
My music has been played by groups like the Copenhagen Philharmonic, the Phoenix Symphony, and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and at places like Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Weill Recital hall, the National Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
As a founding member of AWS, I've played at Merkin Hall, the Miller Theater, and the World Financial Center and recorded on the Nonesuch, Cantaloupe, and I Virtuosi labels.
Born and raised in the rolling hills of Ithaca, NY, I was often exposed to music. My father is a great jazz musician and teacher, so music was a constant in my life. In fact, I think one of my first words was "Bebop." After huge frustrations trying to play the piano along with the Sesame Street theme, my mom enrolled me in piano classes at the age of four. That didn't last long, however, and I soon started playing cello, bass, and guitar in elementary school. The running joke for my parents at this point was that my dad could never find a decent bass player, so he decided to "grow his own."
Even though I was still not 100% positive about becoming a musician, I applied to Eastman School of Music, got in, and spent the next four-an-a-half years freezing to death, but loving the constant musical environment. I met great musicians and friends, and tried almost everything Eastman had to offer. After graduating with a Jazz and Music Education double degree, I decided to move to NYC to gain some life experience, and get my Master's Degree at Mannes College of Music. I love being in the city, despite rush hour subway rides with my bass, and am playing with a bunch of people including Alarm Will Sound, The David Berger Sultans of Swing, and a group I co-lead, formerly known as Sons, Brothers, and Wrestlers. All I want is to play good music with good people in good places for good money. Is that too much to ask?
Brutalized by a desperate, overbearing parent who chained me with barbed wire to a baby grand piano at an early, impressionable age, and terrorized by a series of sadistic piano teachers wielding large, wooden rulers and unfortunate hairstyles, I soon realized that the life of a musician was not for me. Instead, I fled South Africa, my land of birth, and nursed my aching artistic (and failed musical) ambitions with puppets, literature, and unhealthy doses of opera.
Needless to say, I also flirted shamelessly, directorially, and sometimes outrageously with European theatrical masters and canonical masterpieces, noh theatre, contemporary clowns and clowning, visual art, graphic design, assorted libretti and song cycles (all unperformed and—possibly—unperformable), and plays and fiction (all performed, published or some combination thereof). A dark night of the immigrant's soul led me to the upstate tundra of Rochester, New York and the Artistic Directorship of the University of Rochester International Theatre Program. An even darker night brought me to the student new music ensemble Ossia, thence to John Cage's Song Books, thence to Alarm Will Sound, thence to Miller Theatre, thence to future AWS performances, and, by this declension, into the madness wherein now I rave and all we mourn for.
I love sports. Having broken my ankle a few weeks before entering middle school, I was forced to make my first life-altering decision…Art or music? Needless to say, 20 years later, I’m still involved in the music industry and the Boston Celtics are patiently waiting for me to change my mind while I’m still in my prime.
My journey took me to Boston-Karlsruhe-Boston-Santa Barbara, before I finally settled to live in Montreal with my beautiful wife Jennifer, my son Rémi and my daughter Naela. The winters are (really) long and cold, but I love the smell of burning firewood coming from the chimneys. I also have a feeling that my laborious weekly French lessons are finally paying off! However, I have to admit that our long-term plan is to go back to Santa Barbara.
In my free time, I play Footbag and Freestyle Frisbee and I'm always looking to Spread the Jam! I also love fresh produce, especially mangoes. Dot, Hatcher and Kent are among my current favorites.
I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, a place that bursts at the seams with music. Everybody had a radio on during the day, and at night you couldn't help hearing raucous dance hall tunes blared from speakers at competing street parties all around the city. When it wasn't the partygoers, it was the churchgoers making a joyful noise up and down the crowded streets.
It was after I left for college in the U.S. that I really got into composition, even though I ended up becoming interested in music very different from what surrounded me at home. I still wonder about how the music from one half of my life is connected to the other. Two sides of the same coin, probably.
The third side of the coin is my research into musical meaning, which combines music theory and cognitive science. While studying composition at Oberlin and Eastman, I took to theory. Now that I think about it, I liked music theory even as a kid, studying outside the studios of my piano teachers from a text published by the very colonial Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. Anyway, there was nothing in that Little Red Book about cognitive linguistics and anthropology yet I somehow managed to connect them with music theory.
Ultimately, I love that I'm bursting at the seams with music: teaching music at Northwestern University, writing about music, composing music, and, of course, putting on concerts and producing records of new music. All fantastic connections.
It's fun to pick out early evidence that I was destined for a conducting career. There's a picture of me age six waving Sir George Solti's baton. And two years later, I led the first all pre-teen production of The Amazing Snowman: The Musical. But the photo was a fluke—somone thought I looked cute with the baton and asked me to model it for an auction catalogue—and my Amazing Snowman performance ended tragically when the title actor, supposedly having melted, emerged from the teacher's office in her kimono shouting "I'm the Chinese snowman." Music was actually just one among many childhood interests: I directed the fifth grade's only weekly comedy news show, and spent most of high school writing science fiction novels and scripts which got rejected by Star Trek. Then, as an undergraduate at MIT, I majored in physics and developed a new algorithm for modeling planetary system dynamics that I can no longer explain to anyone.
But whatever I've been interested in, I've always been an organizer, dreaming up big projects and bringing together people with diverse talents and their own big ideas to make things happen. And when I eventually decided to focus on music—initially as a composer rather than a conductor—I started doing the same. I helped to found Ossia, the Eastman group which launched Alarm Will Sound, and was soon spending most of my time producing concerts, playing chamber music, and leading ensembles. Without these Eastman School experiences with the musicians who would eventually found Alarm Will Sound with me, I don't think I'd be conducting today.
In recent years, I've conducted many other ensembles, including Ireland's wonderful Crash Ensemble, where I am Principal Conductor, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, where I am Artistic Director. But coming back to work with Alarm Will Sound is always like coming home, and I can't imagine my life without these people.
Alarm Will Sound
Alarm Will Sound, Inc.
51 Wooster Street Floor 4
New York, NY 10013-2292
This is our world premiere performance at the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival in 2011.
Visit our Soundcloud for more recordings.
Managing Partner, Oberon Asset Management
Director of Promotions, G. Schirmer
Professor of Arts Administration, Drexel University
Caleb Burhans is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, singer and conductor. He resides in Manhattan with his wife, daughter and two bearded dragons. He currently creates music with Alarm Will Sound, itsnotyouitsme, Newspeak and the Wordless Music Orchestra. Most of the music he creates is therapeutic. He hopes you can relate.
Read articles by our members, get behind-the-scenes reports about our projects, and share your thoughts at Alarmists, our blog.