Keep in touch with AWS
Sunday, February 5th, 2:00pm
Minneapolis Institute of Art
John Luther Adams, Ten Thousand Birds*
*written for Alarm Will Sound
Conceived, designed, and directed by Alan Pierson
Peter Ferry, staging and assistant direction
Ten Thousand Birds is based on the songs of birds that are native to, or migrate through the American northeast and midwest. It explores the connections between nature and music, a topic that John Luther Adams has pursued over the course of his remarkable career. Most recently in Sila: Breath of the World and Become Ocean (for which he won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and Grammy) he has portrayed—in big musical gestures—the awe one experiences in response to nature’s grandeur. In Ten Thousand Birds, on the other hand, the source of inspiration is particular birdsongs, captured in minute detail.
Ten Thousand Birds has an open, modular structure: each page of music can be combined in varied ways. Our 70-minute interpretation follows the cycle of a day, starting with bird songs heard in the morning, then afternoon, evening, night, and return to morning. It also uses space by moving the performers around the venue as they play, and encouraging the audience to walk around to experience the music from many perspectives.
Ten Thousand Birds; personal statement by Alan Pierson
I’ve lived my entire life in urban spaces, mostly hectic ones: Chicago, New York, Boston. The rumble of cars and trucks has always felt like home. So when I closed my eyes for my first night of camping out in the wilds of Alaska’s Denali National Park, the thing that hit me was the depth of the quiet all around me. The world felt so strangely silent. It was only after some minutes that my ears, gradually acclimating to this unfamiliar world, began to perceive just how alive that world was with sound.
Similarly, when I first looked at John’s music for Ten Thousand Birds, my very first reaction was shock at what was absent: there was no score in a conventional sense, just page after page of songs for individual instruments, with no indication of how they were to be played in relation to each other: which songs are played simultaneously? What order should the other songs be played in? And what material would be left out entirely? (This was surely more music than we would play in a single performance!) And where should the players be in relation to each other? I’m used to scores which more specifically convey a composer’s vision for a piece, and in the absence of that, I felt confused and unmoored. The possibilities were overwhelming. I called John: “um …. what do I do here?” John said that it was up to me to structure AWS’s performance using the material he’d created. He gave me just one suggestion: “Think about structuring the piece around the cycle of a day.”
I loved that idea, which seemed the perfect way to structure music that’s so deeply connected to the natural world. John is an artist who grew up in urban spaces too; but it was when he moved to Alaska in the 1970s that he found his voice. So I carved out some quiet time at my desk, spread out all the pages of music that John had given me, and began to imagine how to put all of this together. Like that first night in Denali, it was only after adjusting to what was missing that I began to appreciate the richness of what was all around me. The day structure suggested a natural arc: beginning and ending with the delicate sounds of wind and the brightly delicate calls of morning birds, with thrilling climaxes that could be created out of aggressive afternoon calls and a cacophony of night-time frog sounds. There were harmonic shapes to be created. There were opportunities for dialogue, and for moments of surprise, drama, and humor. And because John hadn’t predetermined where players would be placed, I could uniquely create the piece for each environment we’d perform it in: immersing the audience in a naturalistic musical environment for them to explore.
Despite spending so much time and care envisioning Alarm Will Sound’s Ten Thousand Birds performance, there was one element that took me completely by surprise at our first performance: how small our own role is in the performance. John is an activist as much as a composer, and his music is always about connecting listeners to the sounds of the natural world. In Ten Thousand Birds, Alarm Will Sound’s performers are in dialogue with the sounds of the environment and because John filled the piece with sounds of birds of North America, our performances are often joined by the very birds whose songs we’re playing.
This experience of connecting with the natural world through John’s music has become particularly poignant during the pandemic, since so many of us—myself included—have spent so much of this year indoors, cut off from natural spaces. This poignancy inspired me to create a short online experience of John’s piece—called Ten Thousand Birds / Ten Thousand Screens—early in the pandemic, and it’s brought me back to this music again and again in the year since. I’m so happy to be sharing it with all of you today.
And because it is not a conducted work, I get not only to share Ten Thousand Birds with you, but to experience it alongside you. Which is a pleasure I never tire of: there are surprises in every performance. This is music that is utterly alive to the moment and to the ever-changing environment. I’m so happy to get to enjoy it with all of you. Let’s explore it together.
Ten Thousand Birds is supported by a New Music USA project grant, made possible by annual program support and/or endowment gifts from Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Helen F. Whitaker Fund, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc., New York State Council on the Arts.
Alarm Will Sound gratefully acknowledges our individual donors and the following foundations for their support: Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Amphion Foundation, Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, BMI Foundation, Cheswatyr Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, New Music USA’s Organizational Development Fund in 2022-23, Mellon Foundation, and the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation.
Additional Support provided by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature; and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Alarm Will Sound
Alarm Will Sound is a 20-member band committed to innovative performances and recordings of today’s music. They have established a reputation for performing demanding music with energetic skill. Their performances have been described as “equal parts exuberance, nonchalance, and virtuosity” by the Financial Times of London and as “a triumph of ensemble playing” by the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times says that Alarm Will Sound is “one of the most vital and original ensembles on the American music scene.”
With classical skill and unlimited curiosity, Alarm Will Sound takes on music from a wide variety of styles. Its repertoire ranges from European to American works, from the arch-modernist to the pop-influenced. Alarm Will Sound has been associated since its inception with composers at the forefront of contemporary music, premiering pieces by John Adams, Steve Reich, David Lang, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Tyondai Braxton, Augusta Read Thomas, Derek Bermel, Meredith Monk, and Wolfgang Rihm, among others. 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 at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the festival features eight world premieres by early-career 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 eighteen recordings, including including For George Lewis | Autoshchediasms, their most recent release featuring music of Tyshawn Sorey; Omnisphere, with jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood; a collaboration with Peabody Award-winning podcast Meet the Composer titled Splitting Adams; and the premiere recording of Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite. 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.
Alarm Will Sound collaborates with artists who work beyond the bounds of classical music. Alarm System, the Matt Marks Impact Fund, and Video Chat Variations, a YouTube series developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, are initiatives that have created cross-genre music with electronica artists Eartheater, Jlin, King Britt, and Rashad Becker; jazz composer-performer Dave Douglas; multimedia artists Mira Calix, Bakudi Scream, and Damon Davis; soundtrack composers Brian Reitzell and JG Thirlwell; producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, and singer-songwriter Alyssa Pyper.
In 2016, Alarm Will Sound in a co-production with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, presented the world premiere of the staged version of Donnacha Dennehy’s The Hunger at the BAM Next Wave Festival and the Touhill Performing Arts Center. Featuring Iarla O’Lionárd (traditional Irish singer) and Katherine Manley (soprano) with direction by Tom Creed, The Hunger is punctuated by video commentary and profound early recordings of traditional Irish folk ballads mined from various archives including those of Alan Lomax.
In 2013-14, Alarm Will Sound served as artists-in-residence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. During that season, the ensemble presented four large ensemble performances at the Met, including two site-specific productions staged in museum galleries (Twinned, a collaboration with Dance Heginbotham and I Was Here I Was I, a new theatrical work by Kate Soper and Nigel Maister), as well as several smaller events in collaboration with the Museum’s educational programs.
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, Paul McCartney, Luciano Berio, Yoko Ono, 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.”)
Alarm Will Sound has been presented by Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, (le) Poisson Rouge, Miller Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Kitchen, the Bang on a Can Marathon, Disney Hall, Kimmel Center, Library of Congress, the Walker Arts Center, Cal Performances, Stanford Lively Arts, Duke Performances, and the Warhol Museum. International tours include the Beijing Modern Festival, Now Hear This (Korea), the Holland Festival, Sacrum Profanum, Moscow’s Art November, St. Petersburg’s Pro Arte Festival, and the Barbican.
The members of the ensemble have also demonstrated our commitment to the education of young performers and composers through residency performances and activities at Princeton University, the University of Michigan, University of Maryland, Shenandoah University, the Community Music School of Webster University, Cleveland State University, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Missouri, Eastman School of Music, Dickinson College, Duke University, the Manhattan School of Music, Harvard University, New York University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
For more information and to join the mailing list, visit Alarm Will Sound’s website at www.alarmwillsound.com
Alan Pierson has been praised as “a dynamic conductor and musical visionary” by the New York Times, “a young conductor of monstrous skill” by Newsday, “gifted and electrifying” by the Boston Globe, and “one of the most exciting figures in new music today” by Fanfare. In addition to his work as artistic director of Alarm Will Sound, he has served as Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and guest conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Steve Reich Ensemble, Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble ACJW, the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, the New World Symphony, and the Silk Road Project, among other ensembles. He is co-director of the Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble, and has been a visiting faculty conductor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, the Eastman School of Music, and at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Mr. Pierson has collaborated with major composers and performers, including Yo Yo Ma, Steve Reich, Dawn Upshaw, Osvaldo Golijov, John Adams, Augusta Read Thomas, David Lang, Michael Gordon, La Monte Young, and choreographers Christopher Wheeldon, Akram Khan and Elliot Feld. Mr. Pierson received bachelor degrees in physics and music from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a doctorate in conducting from the Eastman School of Music. He has recorded for Nonesuch Records, Cantaloupe Music, Sony Classical, and Sweetspot DVD.
Erin Lesser, flute and piccolo
Jacqueline Cordova-Arrington, flute and piccolo
Christa Robinson, oboe
Bill Kalinkos, clarinets
Elisabeth Stimpert, clarinets
Maya Stone, bassoon
Laura Weiner, horn
Tim Leopold, trumpet
Michael Clayville, trombone
Matt Smallcomb, percussion
Chris Thompson, percussion
John Orfe, piano and celesta
Courtney Orlando, violin
Lauren Cauley, violin
Gillian Gallagher, viola
Stefan Freund, cello
Miles Brown, bass
Alan Pierson, Artistic Director and celesta
Peter Ferry, Assistant Artistic Director and percussion
Gavin Chuck, Executive Director
Jason Varvaro, Production Manager
Annie Toth, General Manager
Tracy Mendez, Development Manager
Michael Clayville, Director of Marketing
Bill Kalinkos, Librarian