Alarm System

Alarm System is a program that brings musical artists from a variety of backgrounds together with Alarm Will Sound to create new work. The goal is to expand the circle of those who can make great music for us, and who can contribute their ideas to the new-music world.

Alarm System artists and Alarm Will Sound’s musicians then directly share their different music-making skills and ideas so that the creative process will emerge from the effort of making each other’s different approaches work together.

Alarm System creates access between musicians from different traditions so that artistic exchange can happen where it otherwise would not.

The Twitch

by Chris Thompson

I'm not sure there was ever a time when, upon discovering some exciting new music, I would experience only reasonable, uncomplicated impulses about how to interact with it: the easy-going thoughts of "this is awesome, I'm gonna listen to it all the time and also show it to my friends," or maybe "I'm gonna go see this live and enjoy it and have a lovely time."

I imagine a normal person might think "I wonder what else this artist is up to? I bet I'll like that, too."

Search, discover, become a fan, repeat. Life enhanced! That's the whole cycle. What I'm describing is a high-functioning, emotionally healthy relationship for a human being to have with music. I've never had that relationship.

Instead, I have this twitch. It used to take a while to set in, but now it happens pretty much immediately. I hear something new and exciting and...

"I must play this," I think.

"You must play this," whisper the voices in my head.

However, more often than not, it's artists making music for instruments I don't play that gives me the twitch. It could be anything. It could be an ensemble of virtuoso ukuleleists improvising, a Romanian marching band, a 27-channel immersive sound installation in the Mojave desert, or a speed metal duo. It could be the score to Cannibal Holocaust (for the record, you can actually participate in that one pretty easily by just singing along).

Once the twitch sets in, I'm done for. The music could be everything I look for in a listening experience, but merely listening will never be enough. I must find a way to participate. An all-star fantasy-football-league arrangement starts to form in my head containing myself and any musicians I might conceptually have access to. I obsess about how something might be transcribed and notated. I fantasize playing it for a live audience. I'm not sure what the DSM classification would be for this type of obsessive thinking but until I met the people of Alarm Will sound, it just felt like crazy talk.

A History of Twitchiness

Alarm Will Sound is an ensemble full of instrumentalists with the twitch. When I started playing with the group and realized that these were other people just like me, who couldn't listen to something like Aphex Twin, or The Beatles' Revolution 9, or The Shaggs, or Dirty Projectors' The Getty Address without obsessively fantasizing about how to adapt it for available forces, it was definitely my bee girl moment. I'm home!

I mention the four pieces above because they are all examples of projects in the history of the ensemble where it followed through with the impulse to transcribe or adapt existing music. There were individual reasons why each of these projects all felt like powerful ideas, apart from the crucial fact that none of them had live versions in their original state.

Aphex Twin: The beauty, form, and hyperactive creativity of Richard D. James' works translate naturally to classical instruments, and their virtuosity adds an exciting new element for the performers and audience when played live. Richard D. James is unquestionably one of the great living composers, and we wanted to champion his work in the new music world, where we knew it would be appreciated.

Revolution 9: As fascinating and historically important a composition as it is, Revolution 9 has a coldness in it's original state (especially in the context of its strange relationship to the rest of the White Album) that can be confusing and potentially off-putting. Programming it on a concert of related music reframes it and clarifies it's influences, while live performers strongly committed to realizing every last sound have the ability to warmly welcome the audience into its sound world.

The Shaggs: Just the act of trying to accurately perform the music of The Shaggs invites the listener to take the unique and wonderful rhythms and harmonies as intentional (whether they originally were or not). The arrangement process was also a really fun exploration of the limits of traditional notation.

The Getty Address: Since it was originally recorded using bits and pieces of classical instrumentation in the first place, it was a natural fit to try to realize the meticulous editing and production of this unique record live.

There is a ton of satisfaction to be found in adapting other artists' preexisting music, especially when the original artist isn't performing it live anymore or never did in the first place. Audiences get a chance to hear it in a new light (or at all), and the ensemble gets the thrill of performing it. It feeds the twitch: our insatiable need to participate.

Alarm System -- The Antidote

The experience of transcribing, orchestrating, workshopping, and performing these and other pieces has created a whole library of techniques for how to realize music not originally intended for our ensemble, as well as various potential workflows for the process. Now we are excited to apply that experience to collaborations with new artists to create works specifically for Alarm Will Sound. We have long dreamed of playing the music of a whole world of other artists outside our network, but who don't have pre-existing music that could be successfully adapted. Alarm System is our way of getting that music created.

I've recently been very excited to see ensembles with classical instrumentation show a willingness to commission artists outside their typical networks, but there is often confusion about how to best go about it. Without collaboration throughout the process, the opportunity to create something truly natural, idiomatic, and personalized to the ensemble can be missed, and all the specialized knowledge of the players can go untapped. Furthermore, when you ask the creator to all of a sudden work in a new and unfamiliar way, they may not be as comfortable expressing their best ideas.

So instead of forcing the artist to work within the new music circle, we want to expand the circle -- to open it up to the artist's existing compositional method, whatever that may be. Every project will look different, but a successful outcome will always include constant collaboration between creator and performers from the conception of the piece all the way to the premiere.

Alarm System's first season has already involved a wide range of methods for producing musical ideas, from creating material in improvisation sessions, to workshopping ways to realize sounds created through complex production effects processes. The artists and ensemble alike are free to put out their best musical ideas, and inspired by the unlikely collaboration. It's going to produce some of the most exciting and unique new music for our instrumentation yet.


The artists

Adult Fur is a St Louis producer and music-maker. His dense, layered backing tracks carry faint whiffs of psychedelia and indie rock.

Rashad Becker is a renowned engineer at Berlin's Dubplates & Mastering. A man who makes a living with his ears, Rashad's music is layered and shaped with extreme care.

Mira Calix is a British-based artist signed to Warp Records. While her early music was almost exclusively electronic she now incorporates classical instrumentation into her work for performance, recording, and installations.

Gameshow Outpatient is the pseudonym of British composer Matt Rogers. Rogers' eclectic output reflects his open attitude to composition, taking no stylistic elements as given, and re-evaluating genres to fulfill the needs of each new piece.

Medeski Martin & Wood (or MMW) is an American avant-jazz-funk band formed in 1991, consisting of John Medeski on keyboards and piano, Billy Martin on drums and percussion, and Chris Wood on double bass and bass guitar. The band draws on influences from a number of musical traditions, from funk to hip hop, and is known for an unconventional style sometimes described as "avant-groove".

Brian Reitzell is a musician, composer, record producer and music supervisor best known for his work on many film and TV soundtracks including Hannibal. He is notable for working extensively with the American film director Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring).

Valgeir Sigurðsson is an Icelandic record producer, mixer, composer, engineer and musician. He has worked with Björk, Sigur Rós, Feist, Sam Amidon and more.


Lead support for Alarm System is provided through The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with additional support from the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation and Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research.

Member Spotlight

Caleb Burhans

Caleb Burhans

Caleb almost went to Indiana University for college but he decided on Eastman partly because he didn’t like that IU had the highest-paid basketball coach in the country. His life could have turned out pretty differently if Bobby Knight made a little less money back in the late 90s. But Eastman it was.

As a 17-year old, Caleb had a thing for Ligeti’s music so he emailed Alan before he got to Eastman to ask for an audition with Ossia to play on their Ligeti concert. He was late to the first rehearsal because he was getting his nose pierced, but he soon became a regular. Just before graduating, he terrified his conservative grandmother by telling her he wanted to move to NYC to live paycheck to paycheck as a freelance musician. Now he’s doing exactly that (although maybe not living quite paycheck to paycheck) as a freelance violinist, violist, countertenor, composer, and improviser.

Caleb started singing in a boys’ choir at age 9 then quickly picked up several instruments. At 10, he wrote his first piano piece in C major. The only early composition he’ll live up to now is a piece for 2 violins that he wrote on his first day back to school as a high school sophomore called What a Shame. It was quite a shame that summer was over.

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