Execution – Alan Pierson and JG Thirlwell in Conversation

Alan Pierson, Alarm Will Sound Artistic Director/conductor, sat down with composer JG Thirwell to talk about Execution, his new work for Alarm Will Sound.

Alan: What would be useful for the performers or audience to know before they dive into this piece? Where did the titles come from? What does it mean to you?

JG: The titles came way later. With writing this piece of music, the two starting points I had were the level of intensity, I wanted this to be extremely high intensity, and Alarm Will Sound. Knowing what you do and having seen you play many times, I know what Alarm Will Sound is capable of and know that you are capable of harnessing that intensity. Another thing that was important to me, and I knew Alarm Will Sound was capable of pulling off, was performing with a sense of precision. The rhythmic material has to be tight and really spot on. The music needs to sound almost like it’s played with a metronome. 

Alan: I feel like this piece wants a kind of tight but unhinged energy. You know, there’s just a challenge to achieving those two things at the same time. A friction exists between playing all out and putting every note in place. Actually, I think playing with slight tempo variations can actually add to the intensity of the music.

JG: Yeah, absolutely. And, for this piece, the players should generally have a lot of grit in their sound though there are moments in the piece where the mood changes in an instant.  It’s like a jump cut to a new scene. 

Alan: The piece has many moments with rhythmic material in some voices and then longer lines, whole notes or longer, elsewhere in the ensemble. Could you talk about that?

JG: I often do that in my music. I refer to those longer phrases as the “Voice of God.” Often those melodies are making proclamations. That’s coming from an atheist. There’s strength in those lines.

Alan: So how about the titles? You said, they came later. What inspired them?

JG: I was struggling a lot with the titles. I wanted something that would unify the whole thing. Then I started thinking about the word, “execution.” About executing something, executing someone. And that’s how the name for the full piece came about. The other four names, “Retribution,” “Evolution,” “Involution,” and “Devolution,” came about because I wanted to give the sense of a narrative and an arc to the piece. So it feels like it’s got a historical sense to it. I feel like it moves in a linear way to the last movement which is the most intense. In the second and third movements, I wanted to have a sense of relief from that, and a sense of tonal coloration, to let in a little bit of redemption. I feel like that makes the intense sections sound even more intense. 

Alan: The second movement, especially, is so different from everything else.

JG: I really wanted to stretch out. I’ve done some visual scores and graphic scores and instructional scores but I haven’t explored it as much as I like to. There’s a certain kind of sixteenth “notieness” that’s going on in the first and fourth movements. I reached the conclusion in the last few ensemble pieces I’ve written that I had to give myself permission to go down a different path. 

Alan: Is there any particular kind of evolution that you’re imagining for the second movement?

JG: I haven’t heard it enough to talk about it. I wrote it imagining how it might go, but I kind of want to keep that open. I just want to hear it.

Alan: You mentioned a narrative. What’s the story that the four movements titles suggest to you?

JG: I talk about anxiety a lot when I talk about the piece, and I can’t help but feel, as a chronic doomscroller, fairly pessimistic about the future of our planet. There’s always an uneasiness in my work. It’s not necessarily that I search for fuel for it but when I come down to what I want to express, and also what I want to hear, it’s that uneasiness. Especially when I started making music it came from more of a personal politics point of view, and as my music has evolved it now comes from more of a universal politics point of view. I feel like “Devolution” is the unraveling of the world in some ways. And that’s how the work is bookended. 

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