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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World Premiere of “Ten Thousand Birds” by John Luther Adams in Social Media

@alarmwillsound Stefan

Alarm Will Sound performing 10,000 Birds



Playing the flowerbeds #tenthousandbirds #johnlutheradams #alarmwillsound #publicmediacommons

#alarmwillsound #johnlutheradams #tenthousandbirds #publicmediacommons #worldpremiere

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Maneuvering in the Classical Cloud

There’s an interesting Alex Ross article in this week’s on classical music’s migration to the cloud and what might be lost in the process. My transition to conducting off of a tablet has been part of a bigger digital-migration project this year, which has also involved transferring all of my CDs (liner notes included) to digital. With all of this finished, I’ve been enjoying the “gleaming, empty rooms” that Alex speaks of. Wide open space is a precious thing in a New York apartment, and the elimination of all those CDs racks has left our home feeling simpler and more open, with fewer dust-bunny havens, less clutter, and more wall space. Similarly to Alex, there are a few discs I’m too attached to to part with, such as the scratched-up-beyond-use recording of Tehillim that I ran out and bought after first hearing the piece in 1992. But for the most part, I’ve found that my attachment is to the music rather than the objects. And the music is actually much more accessible now than it was as discs on a shelf. I spend over a third of each year on the road, so I love being able to access music and liner notes from any country on any device. Search functionality means that I no longer have to pull my hair out trying to locate that one piece that I know I’ve got on some compilation album somewhere, or tracking down the disc that’s been misfiled among over a thousand others. And digital file sharing means no longer needing to track down or write off the disc I loaned to someone and then completely forgot about.

But I share Alex’s frustration with online music services being ill-suited for classical music. Few services have “composer” as well as “artist” fields. Google Music, which is where I do most of my listening, now has a “composer” field, but it’s not viewable from the mobile apps and isn’t searchable at all. And this far into the digital age, there really should be a better way of dealing with liner notes than manually scanning them in. I also share Alex’s concern about the impact of streaming services on independent artists. However, one needn’t retreat to the era of discs to deal with that: there’s a middle option here, which is to buy digital albums. There are many  options for this, some of which (such as Bandcamp) give artists a higher share of the sale price than album sales generally do.

A Google Music search for "John Luther Adams" gives you limited information on the recordings. The artist is either the performer or the composer but you cannot easily view both.

Despite these hangups, I’m enjoying life without all the “space-devouring, planet-harming plastic” that Alex speaks of. Though of course, listening to it all depends on all of my planet-harming metal, glass, and plastic gadgets. And heaven help me if the power goes out.

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Kate Moore:The Art of Levitation

Alarm Will Sound will premiere The Art of Levitation, a new work by Kate Moore at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on April 27. Kate took the time to answer some questions about the piece:

Michael Clayville: The piece you wrote is for the “(post)folk concert” of David Lang’s collected stories series. Did the idea of “folk” or “story-telling” influence you as you wrote the piece?

Kate Moore: I definitely take Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales stance on story-telling – I love gathering collections of snippets of fact and fiction found along the way on a journey, hauling them all together, joining the dots and making up a new story where the most nonsense made up thing suddenly seems plausible and the brutal truth seems ridiculous. All my pieces have a story behind them. They all capture a moment in time, a journey or a memory. – it makes life more real for me. If not more real certainly more entertaining.

MC: Are there any overt elements of “folk” that you included?/Is there a story you are telling?

KM: The spark for the piece came about on a night-time road trip to Rotterdam Port for my birthday. It was a moment of serendipity. I was, at that moment, arranging Tuba Mirum from Mozart’s Requiem, a movement about the last judgement, when I realised I was the same age as Mozart at the time he wrote pieces for the Glass armonica. While driving through the port, surrounded on all sides by infernal oil refineries and power stations I saw that the shapes of the cables and insulators used to carry the electrical current were the same shapes as the crystal bowls in the armonica. Like an electric shock it suddenly occurred to me that it was Benjamin Franklin who both invented the armonica and gave the earliest demonstrations of electricity. I was mesmerised. I knew at that moment that the piece had to be about the armonica, the sound of the resonance of the glass and electric currents. The sound of the glasses morph into metal, strings, winds and brass pitted against 8 layers of electroacoustic pulses set at slightly different tempi to create static interference.

MC: You’ve said that your pieces “answer a question” or come from a “desire to understand something better.” Does The Art of Levitation fill one of those descriptions? If so, how?

KM: Well yes – with this piece I am delving further into currents, streams and wave patterns created by the conflict between human and mechanical time, exploring the sense of tempo and feeling of duration in relation to a definitive interval of time set by a mechanical device. Each member of the ensemble is playing a melody where the duration of each note in different parts is varied, creating clouds of harmony that seeps in and out of itself, making the melodic thread come to life through movement, depth and perspective.

MC: You’ve said that you do sketches (images?) during the process of planning the piece. Do you have any for this work? Could you send them along if so?!

KM: Yes but it’s top secret. (actually it’s because I’m on the road and my sketches stayed at home)

MC: You have a very diverse background (Australia, The Netherlands and time spent in the US), what is your take on music globally? Do you see divisions or similarities between the places you spend time? Does that influence your compositions?

KM: I thrive on places where everyone can be their own person and reach their full potential in their own way. I have never understood why a whole bunch of people would want to be the same and stay in one place generation after generation. Diversity is what makes the everyday rich, beautiful and unexpected. I like to belong to everywhere and nowhere simultaneously.

MC: When you listen to music what do you find yourself listening to? What gets you most excited about a composer or performer?

KM: Musica Humana and Musica Mundana

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