One of my great joys as Alarm Will Sound’s conductor is that when we perform John Luther Adams’s Ten Thousand Birds, I have absolutely nothing to do. We perform the piece is a kind of environmental installation, with players all around the audience playing bird songs that John has imaginatively realized for instruments. It’s not a sit-down event: the performers constantly move among the audience members, and it’s up to each listener to make his or her own choices about where to be when. The path that one chooses through the space creates a unique realization of the piece. So each audience member gets to be a kind of auxiliary composer, moving through the space and making his or her own decisions about what voices of the piece to hear when. And since the piece doesn’t need a conductor, I get to enjoy this experience too.

It’s one of those “you had to be there” sorts of experiences that’s hard to convey to someone who didn’t see the show. And on one hand, that’s great: I want Alarm Will Sound to create unique experiences. But I’ve also been interested to find ways to bring this sort of interactive musical experience to people who can’t actually be there in person. We made a 360-degree video of the piece, but that leaves out the interactive element. How do you film or otherwise record an interactive experience like Ten Thousand Birds?

It struck me a year ago that virtual reality seemed poised to open up possibilities for the interactive experience of music. So I reached out to Alexander Chen at Google Creative Lab to start a conversation about an Alarm Will Sound virtual reality project. Alex was an obvious person to reach out to for this conversation: an artist and viola player as well as an engineer, he’d created the delightful Les Paul doodle as well as some brilliant musical games in the Chrome Music Lab. And it turned out that I’d connected with the right person at the right moment: Alex was an AWS fan, and Google Creative Lab was looking at what to do in the virtual reality space around the launch of Daydream.

I proposed that we create a virtual reality version of Ten Thousand Birds. My dream was to make a photo-realistic video of the piece that one could walk through, choosing to get up close to one player or another. This kind of approach felt like the best way to preserve in virtual reality the ethos of John’s music, which is very much about natural environments. But realizing the piece in this way was beyond what the virtual reality technology at hand could offer. And, really, the private smartphone-strapped-to-your-head experience of virtual reality seemed antithetical to the communal spirit of John’s music.

When we got mired trying to solve these problems, Alex suggested that we do something simpler and more open-ended: sticking with the idea of spatially exploring the voices in a piece of music, but doing so in an abstract and general way that would work with any piece of music. I was excited about creating something that other musicians could use to bring their own work to virtual reality. And the vision of exploring the voices of a piece of music reminded me of what Hrishikesh Hirway was doing with his Song Exploder podcast. It turned out that Hrishikesh was an old roommate of Alex’s and excited to get involved with the project.

So we started work on a virtual reality interface that would let you move among the different voices of a piece of music, turning some on or off. The “Roadrunner” movement from John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (from the recent Splitting Adams album that we made with Meet the Composer) leaped out as a great piece from Alarm Will Sound’s repertoire to be explored this way. Adams says that the piece is inspired by the chaos of a kid’s birthday party, and he’s right when he writes that it stretches “the edge of comprehensibility”: there’s a lot here to take in all at once. And the density of the music means that a lot more can be understood by exploring the music’s layers closely and individually, which is just what this interface lets you do. I get to hear the music like this when I’m studying and rehearsing it, but listeners generally have no choice but to hear all of the voices simultaneously. Hidden connections in the music — like the way the bass line from the beginning comes back in elephantine form after the violin solo — suddenly become much clearer. It’s fun also to zoom in on the manic and acrobatic woodwind and string lines, which harken back to the Looney Toons character that inspired the title

I’m thrilled with what we’ve started with Inside Music. As with Ten Thousand Birds, when I put on my headset and start the app, I get to be a part of creating my own musical experience, to be a kind of co-composer. It’s a new way to experience music, and that’s something I’m always eager for Alarm Will Sound to offer. I’m bowled over by the other work already on the platform by clipping., Phoenix, Perfume Genius, Ibeyi, and Natalia Lafourcade. And I hope other artists will make their own music available through Inside Music. So check it out! And let us know what you think on Twitter or Facebook. Are there other features you’d like to see added? (Google’s open-sourced the Inside Music code, so anyone can take what’s been started here and build on it.) And are there other kinds of experiences that you think new technology could bring to the kind of music that we play? We’re dreaming about these possibilities, and we’d love to hear from any of you who are too.

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Fear of the unfamiliar future. Fear of the familiar past.


Alarm Will Sound Presents Modernists is available now from Cantaloupe Music.

Modernism scares people. Is it because it’s new? That can’t be the whole explanation because everybody likes to discover new things, right? Maybe it’s the amount of newness. While discovery always involves a degree of unfamiliarity, modernism can drive really far into unfamiliar territory, becoming distant from any known landmarks. So much unfamiliarity can be scary.

It can even be alienating. The unpopularity of Revolution 9 (by one of the world’s most popular bands) is the evidence that The Beatles experimentation with found sound, tape loops, and studio technology pushed their fans away. Revolution 9 is modernist because it is a song that’s not a song, something so unfamiliar that it not only breaks with the past, but also breaks its own category.

Varèse’s Poème électronique must have also seemed like a categorical contradiction: poetry created on machines?! The piece—no less than its title—expresses his modernist zeal through never-had-a-past electronic sounds. “The world is changing, and we change with it. The more we allow our minds the romantic luxury of treasuring the past in memory, the less able we become to face the future and determine the new values in it.”

So leaving the past behind on the way to the future is the modernist mission. Or was. Perhaps paradoxically, modernism itself has become a tradition. Wuorinen, Rihm, Thomas, and Orfe are part of that tradition: their harmonies and rhythms are no longer unfamiliar. Yet we think of them as modernists because of their zeal for here-and-now experimentation, even as they draw on sounds and shapes that were meant as a future-bound break with the past. Playing these pieces—actually running the composers’ experiments through our hands and on our instruments—is the way we connect ourselves as musicians to the modernist tradition.

That said, Varèse probably would have hated the fact that we—not electronic machines—perform Revolution 9 and Poème électronique:

If you are curious to know what such a machine could do that the orchestra with its man-powered instruments cannot do, I shall try briefly to tell you: whatever I write, whatever my message, it will reach the listener unadulterated by “interpretation.”

He’s afraid his message cannot be carried by musicians, steeped in tradition, who decide how to play his creation on old technologies of wood, brass and string. So much familiarity—Varèse might be scared too.

These two are powerfully bound up in modernism. For us, though, performing this music is really joyful. It starts with the joy of sharing music that we really love. We also get a kick from meeting a virtuosic challenge (some of this music is really hard!), especially the challenge of recreating electronic originals on acoustic “man-powered instruments.” There is joy too in playing with the powerful tension, central to the modernist tradition, between past and future. Figuring out how the the familiar and the unfamiliar connect and disconnect and connect again is fun. Scary fun.

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The Future is “Now”

Alarm Will Sound at Cleveland State

It is in Alarm Will Sound’s DNA to be current: one of the missions of the group is to perform music that reflects the contemporary world. It is also in our DNA to take chances and put ourselves out of our comfort zones: performing complex music by memory, doing productions that require singing/acting/choreography.

These instincts turn up in our use of technology as well.

Recently, Alarm Will Sound performed a concert at Cleveland State University. In a traditional way, it was videotaped from multiple angles and recorded. The files will eventually be edited together and we hope to share it with you when it’s done… the process will take several months.

On the other hand, there’s already at least one video of the performance on Youtube.

You can see it now.

We also took “now” a step further. We chose to livestream the performance via Periscope. It was a decision made with consideration. In the pro column was “expand the audience to possibly include people who had never heard of Alarm Will Sound,” in the con column was “there is no substitute for being in the concert hall” and “sometimes things happen in live performance, if something goes wrong this could be recorded for posterity.”

I’m proud of the fact that Alarm Will Sound takes chances and tries new things and in the end we streamed the show. It was by no means a high-end production. Unlike the webcasts of the Metropolitan Opera or even most colleges and universities, we had no announcer, no captions, no multi-camera setups, not even a tripod. One person held an iPhone in the balcony of the hall giving an excellent view of the action albeit with peaky audio.

It was exciting to me to think we could be connecting with people outside the concert hall, but at the same time I worried about minimizing the importance of “being there.” Would, in the future, people chose to sit at home and view a performance over going to a venue? I feel it has happened in a general sense with movies. But surely hearing music in person is a unique experience that can’t be replicated anywhere else? Filmmakers may say the same about film in movie theaters, opera fanatics may say the same about opera in the hall. Yet the Metropolitan Opera has “opened a new revenue stream” with their broadcasts in movie theaters (repurposed from showing movies to showing things in the now).

The professional video from the five cameras in the hall will no doubt be an excellent product and I can’t wait to share it with you, but maybe that’s the thing… I’m so excited I can’t wait. I’d probably be less self-conscious about the choice to stream if the production value were as high as the Met’s or even as good as what we’ll end up with when the editing is done.

To be fair, high production is probably not Periscope’s intent. Just as Instagram isn’t about creating press quality photos, Periscope doesn’t seem to be about a substitute concert experience. Would it have been better to not stream the performance and wait three or four months? Or was there some connection made by sharing the action in the moment? The choice was made and the plan saw through, now is time for evaluation: do we double down and increase the production value or do we take a step back and enjoy the virtue of patience?


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Old and New: Alan Pierson conducts the Alabama Symphony


Alan Pierson, Alarm Will Sound artistic director, will lead the Alabama Symphony in a concert featuring music of Vivaldi, Haydn and Ruehr. I spoke to Alan about the performance, his preparation, relationships between old and new music and working with a chamber ensemble versus a large orchestra.


Old and New

Mike: Do you see a lot of overlap or similarities between early music and contemporary music?

Alan: One big similarity is just the kind of people who do them. I think both early music and new music attract pioneering, creative, left field types, which is a lot of why I’ve been drawn to both. When those of us who founded Alarm Will Sound were still students at Eastman, a lot of us were doing early music there too. Growing up, it was new music that excited me first. Recordings of baroque and early classical music seldom connected with me as a kid. But that changed when I started studying with people at Eastman like Malcolm Bilson and Gretchen Wheelock, learned about how composers from that time thought about their music being played, and began to understand how much there is in this repertoire beyond what’s literally on the page, sort of like how jazz is now. That opened up a new frontier for me, with performances by people like Frans Brüggen, John Eliot Gardiner, the Freiburger Barockorchester, and Gli Incogniti.  All of that made this music feel really exciting and feel fresh and current in a way that it never had to me. And there was a group of us at Eastman—including several people who later started Alarm Will Sound—that organized an ensemble called Nuove Musiche that was devoted to performing early classical repertoire in an historically-informed manner.

So I think what both new music and early music have in common is that both demand a lot of creativity and imagination to really play at the highest level. Of course all music demands creativity, but when you come to a piece of contemporary music—especially one that’s not been played before—you don’t have a recording to go off of, and you have to figure out for yourself how to make it work. Similarly with early music, there’s so much stuff that’s not on the page. And what that “stuff” is is very much up for discussion. The music is meant to be spontaneous, fresh, and flexible in a way that isn’t necessarily what you see on the paper. To bring that off also demands a great deal of creativity and spontaneity. So I think that both of these fields attract entrepreneurial and creative musicians.

Mike: Both are kind of surrounded in this fog: early music is a fog of interpretation, of reading the texts that we have without actually having recordings, only having an idea of what it sounded like through words. Contemporary music is surrounded in a fog in that we don’t have direct access to the composer all the time and there isn’t a performance practice yet.

Alan: Though in Alarm Will Sound we almost always work with the composers. And that’s awesome. But it’s also sort of like always having an answer sheet. Part of the challenge and also the fun of taking on early music is not having the composer there to tell you exactly what they want. Though I’ve also had lots of experiences with composers hearing something in their own music done differently than how they originally imagined it and liking it. Steve Reich, when he’s working with performers he trusts and who he feels get his music, likes to say “just pretend I’m dead.” It’s his way of stepping out of the way and letting the performers make the music their own. Which I really appreciate. And that’s part of the fun of going back to early music because there is so much room to make it your own. Much as I’d also love to know better how Vivaldi and Haydn imagined their music sounding.

There’s also additional freedom that comes from the fact that we’re playing this music on all the wrong instruments. So even if we knew exactly how Vivaldi or Haydn imagined their music—and I suspect there isn’t a single answer to that anyway—we don’t have the instruments that they had, and so we’re translating their work to a different medium, really, with modern instruments.

Mike: In Alabama, are you using the full compliment of strings for the Vivaldi and Haydn?

Alan: No, it’s smaller. That’s something I’ve thought a lot about: What’s the best size for the group and this music? Definitely it’s not a full symphonic string section.

Mike: What’s the reasoning for that choice? Just because the orchestras of the time had been smaller, or is there another aesthetic?

Alan: Yes, orchestras of the time were generally smaller. It’s so easy for this music to feel heavy, pedantic, and wooden, I love Vivaldi and the early Haydn with a kind of lightness and buoyancy and flexibility, and that’s easier to achieve with a smaller group.

Mike: With a smaller group, you also have a more intimate setting. With Alarm Will Sound, we have discourse: We talk about the musical decisions that we’re going to make, and being a small orchestra helps that (that we’re more of a chamber ensemble). With a smaller compliment in Alabama, are you anticipating doing the same sort of procedure or are you just going to deal with the limited rehearsal time by telling your interpretation and going from there?

Alan: In a way, both. Something I enormously love in Alarm Will Sound is its collaborative spirit. It’s something I believe in very deeply, and I think it produces the best results. The conventional orchestra model is a weird thing: all of these players have been playing together for years, and then I’m supposed to come in and impose my interpretation of Vivaldi on them? That’s weird and awkward and not really, I think, how great music-making happens. Or at least it’s not how I like to work.So I do come in with as well-developed a vision of the music as I can. I’ve been thinking about this music a great deal, and reading up on performance practice. But I also expect also that my vision isn’t going to be exactly what happens. I’ll see how they play and then work with it. It’s a dance and an improvisation.

Mike: There’s a contemporary piece on the program, Shimmer by Elena Ruehr. She was your composition teacher at MIT?

Alan: Yeah, when I first came to MIT, Elena taught my freshman year theory class. She was a first-year professor just out of grad school. I forgot how she ended up showing me her music, but somehow I saw a score to her piece Sky Above Clouds, which she had just finished as part of her doctoral program at the University of Michigan, and just fell in love with it. It hadn’t been premiered yet, and I ended up conducting the first performance at MIT with a student group I put together. Elena wanted to be sure I was up to conducting it, so she gave me a little audition: having me conduct some 5/8 for her, since that’s the time that goes for much of the piece. I gave the first performance of that piece have loved her music ever since. When we started Ossia (the group that spun off Alarm Will Sound) at Eastman in 1997, we did Elena’s Sky Above Clouds to open our very first concert, and she came out for the performance. Elena and I have been very good friends for years now, but that was the last time I played her music. That’s been a really nice part of this concert: having a chance to perform Elena’s music and work with her again. She’s coming down for the concert, which I’m really excited about that.

Mike: Did you program that piece?

Alan: Yes. The Four Seasons was already set, and Pierre Ruhe (the orchestra’s Director of Artistic Planning) asked me what else I wanted to perform and suggested something contemporary. Elena’s piece, Shimmer, was inspired by Vivaldi and was the perfect contemporary piece to include on the program that would feel connected to the Four Seasons. It’s also a piece I’ve wanted to do for years.


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Northern Lights – For Medeski, Martin and Wood and AWS


As we were discussing which artists to approach for Alarm System, John Medeski’s name was suggested as someone who was familiar with some of our work and was interested in doing a project with us. The prospect of working with someone from the jazz and improvisation world was immediately appealing. Medeski Martin and Wood and Alarm Will Sound made contacted and were thrilled to begin collaborating.

The uniqueness of the instrumentation (chamber orchestra versus jazz organ trio) ruled out any preexisting repertoire. Several approaches were decided on: arrangements of existing MMW tunes, new works by John Medeski and Billy Martin incorporating some improvisation, and new compositions by present and former members of AWS. As a musician who spends much of his time improvising and a composer, I instantly jumped at the chance to write for this group knowing that there would be no two ensembles better suited to realize a piece that may be complex rhythmically and notationally, but also improvisational at its core.

Northern Lights - Miles

Coincidentally, as this project was developing, I began writing for my own jazz quintet based in the Metro-Detroit area. Though I have composed and led bands for years, it has been only recently that I felt ready to take on my own group after moving to Michigan six years ago. During a period of inspiration two years ago, I composed a melody that turned into a really fun vehicle for improvisation for the band. It had a haunting quality, but was open enough to encourage experimentation and energetic drive. I thought this would be the perfect tune to arrange for the two groups.

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This tune, which I entitled “Northern Lights,” has a cyclic form consisting of a series of dominant chords set under the winding melody.  The name is inspired by the atmospheric effects created at the northern latitudes, but also draws inspiration from the Detroit bar where I played bass with a jazz trio every Wednesday for the last three years. The pianist and drummer in the trio are also in my current group, and the tune became my dedication to them and the music we have made to date. To me, the connection between my role as a bassist in a keyboard trio (like Medeski Martin and Wood) and my role as a bassist in Alarm Will Sound made the decision to arrange this tune obvious, as I draw upon each aesthetic throughout the piece. Given this unique opportunity, I was really anxious to write music that would feature both aspects of my personality, and highlight the strengths of the members of both groups.

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New Music Gathering 2015

NMG logo

From January 15-17, 2015 New Music Gathering took place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Performers, composers, educators, administrators and fans gathered to discuss everything from engaging the community to the economics of the industry to where to go for the best burrito in the Mission District.

I arrived Friday evening after much of the first day activities (which included what I heard was a fantastic key note address by Claire Chase), but still managed to see and participate in an incredible number of discussions and performances.

Stories of Established Ensembles

The first event I was able to catch was an evening panel discussion entitled “Stories of Established Ensembles”; Sidney Chen and Christina Johnson (of the Kronos Performing Arts Association), Claire Chase (of ICE), and Gavin Chuck and Matt Marks (of Alarm Will Sound) were on stage. Matt moderated the conversation. They each told a bit of the histories of their ensembles and where they are today.

– Alarm Will Sound arose from OSSIA, a student ensemble that Gavin Chuck and Alan Pierson, along with four others, put together at the Eastman School of Music. After completing their degrees they wanted to continue putting together adventurous programs with the people from that group. They also saw a gap in the United States: most every country in Europe has an ensemble devoted to contemporary music. There was no such group in the US.

– ICE came from a proposal Claire Chase made while at Oberlin. From what I understood of her explanation: She formed the idea for a concert event that included educational elements, live performance and recordings. She was told that she should trim back the vision and propose just one thing. “I couldn’t imagine it not being everything.” So she made her proposal as she had originally envisioned and began the mission of ICE.

– Kronos started when David Harrington heard George Crumb’s Black Angels and decided he wanted to play it. He found three other musicians. They moved from Seattle to San Francisco. Sidney talked about the group considering a move to NYC from time to time but always electing to stay in SF because it was part of who they are.

AWS and ICE talked about their current projects: Alarm Will Sound – Alarm System; ICE – OpenICE. There was a question from the audience about the best way to teach entrepreneurship in a college environment. It seemed everyone agreed with Gavin’s answer of “practicum.” “Require students to stage an event, including obtaining equipment and space.” Sidney added, “and give them a budget!”

Composer/Performer Speed Dating

The next event I caught was the morning “Composer/Performer Speed Date.” Great idea, great experience. Composers sat in a circle facing in, performers sat facing them. Performers would rotate every three minutes. It was a great way to make contact and learn a little about one another which may lead to some possible collaborations. I didn’t get to meet everyone in the room (there wasn’t enough time with only three minutes per composer) but I did get to see Ryan Ross Smith’s work with animated notation and get to hear some music of Bill Susman who’s work with the Octet Ensemble is getting some well-deserved recognition.

Education Discussion

Daniel Felsenfeld, Kate Sheeran, Brenna Noonan, Pamela Stein and Dan Becker participated in a panel discussion regarding education. They talked about their programs and who they engage. Kate (of the New School at Mannes) talked about The New School Chorus, a community choir that does repertoire from Western choral masterpieces to Eastern European folk singing, classic American jazz and popular song to traditional music. Daniel discussed the NY Philharmonics’ Very Young Composer program which gives students, grades 3-5, the opportunity to write music.

The tendency for students to hide their taste for pop music also came up. Kate remarked how it’s funny how a high school age student will be playing their favorite song from the radio on the piano but immediately stop when a teacher walked past. Where was this hesitancy born? The “stodginess” of teachers?  There was general agreement that schools could be more open to all styles.

A Rising Tide: Using Social Media to Grow a Global Audience for New Music

photo by Allan Kozinn

photo by Allan Kozinn

I then gave a presentation on using social media from within a performer-led ensemble and how we as a “new music” community could use social media to grow an audience for all of us. The crux of it: talk about things other than ourselves to get people interested, use the networks with some knowledge of how they operate, celebrate contemporary music as an experience and market that. There was more and there were good questions from those in attendance including Annie Phillips and Matt Marks.

Concert: Joo Won Park

Joo Won Park

Then I saw a fantastic performance by Joo Won Park. The composer/performer used everything from legos to chains to squeaky toys to a melodica and much more, all routed through SuperCollider to create a fantastic sound experience. The music was varied with moments of serene peacefulness and moments of near overwhelming tension. His pieces incorporated video from time to time, at times showing a closeup of how he was manipulating the objects in front of him, sometimes showing a city skyline with traffic in fast-motion through the course of the day (that image was overlaid with others, creating a dreamy/hallucinogenic effect).

New Music USA and Curing Baumol’s Cost Disease

I arrived late to Kevin Clark’s packed talk. When I entered someone was asking, “so what do we do if the robots take over all the jobs?” Apparently Kevin was discussing the increasing automation (and cost reduction) of certain jobs in the music business (recording, publishing, PR). The discussion was a lively one with questions about “is there such thing as too much new music?” and Eve Beglarian drawing a diagram showing what she sees to be the principle aspects of the performers’ and composers’ jobs:

Eve's DiagramShe points out the similarities between what each must do and how that “Book” and “Promote” portion of the jobs is the domain of the larger, established corporations. They have connections and distribution.

All-in-all it was a far-reaching, engrossing discourse. Cut short, like many of the events of the week, by not enough time.

Unfortunately I had to depart after that missing the panel discussions on women in music, technology and community engagement.

Thanks to the NMG team: Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian and Matt Marks! The New Music Gathering was a great event and one that I hope to see continue.

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