Alarm Will Sound! Break Glass To Fight Ennui
Photo: Michael Clayville
I t’s true, Alarm Will Sound (AWS) — the twenty-person collective whose members are scattered across North America — were well versed in remote collaboration before 2020. But the pandemic nevertheless forced them to get even more resourceful ... even more creative. They’ll bring those lessons to an Aug 7 performance at Artpark’s Amphitheater, which will include a collaboration with Queens, NY-based artist Eartheater; and their own otherworldly acoustica renditions of electronic artists Jlin, King Britt and Marcos Alter, and the legendary Aphex Twin.
I talked with AWS Artistic Director Alan Pierson about the group’s beginnings, the challenges they faced during lockdown, and his thoughts on the upcoming Artpark performance.
Let’s start at the beginning. How and where did you all meet?
We were actually not far from where we're going to be performing [i.e. Artpark, in Lewiston, NY]. We were all students at [Rochester, NY's] Eastman School of Music together in the late 90s and early 2000s. We started a collective that still exists called Ossia. When we were getting close to graduation there was sadness at having to walk away from this student-run org that allowed us to do all these exciting contemporary music projects. Out of wanting to find a way to keep doing that work together we collectively started AWS.
"It’s led us to do all sorts of things with our instruments we didn’t know we can do; use unusual instruments like an engraving tool and shove it inside a tin can to get this amazing buzzing sound ... duck calls, a bicycle air pump!"
-- Alan Pierson, Alarm Will Sound
With twenty members, how do you make creative decisions?
There's a real feeling of community in AWS and there isn't really a hierarchy. Gavin [Chuck], who's the Executive Director (and composer), and I, as the Artistic Director (and conductor and keyboards), ultimately make the decisions. But the goal is to reflect the interests and the feelings of the group. On the artistic side, I try to cultivate an environment where people can get involved in any project, or any decision, as deeply as they want to. I think what's always made the group strongest is the creative energy of all of its members.
How have you kept the band going through the pandemic?
There are lots of ways in which we are super excited to go back to being in a room together, and doing what we used to do, but there have been useful discoveries about ways to work together remotely.
Well, situations where we're all in a room together playing in real time, but we're working with artists who are not in the room with us. We’re using a number of different protocols that are better than Zoom for real-time audio collaboration. We’ve also created works for the video chat medium: one we did with Meredith Monk and another with David Lang.
“ What has always been part of our identity is to take a broad look at the musical world and find connections; embrace, as performers, the full range of music that we find exciting.”
And the last time we were at Artpark [Aug. 2020] we did Ten Thousand Birds by John Luther Adams. Having that in our portfolio was hugely helpful, because it was a work that could be done outdoors and socially distanced.
VIDEO: Alarm Will Sound Performs “Ten Thousand Birds” at Artpark, Aug. 2020
One of the songs you’ll be performing is an Aphex Twin track. I’m interested in your approach to translating electronic music to acoustic instruments.
What has always been part of our identity is to take a broad look at the musical world and find connections; embrace, as performers, the full range of music that we find exciting. That’s always been a part of who we are.
A few years into AWS' existence, a couple of members said, “Hey, do you all know Aphex Twin? You should check out Aphex Twin and we should play this.” I didn’t at the time -- 2001, 2002 -- but started listening and fell down this rabbit hole of really sophisticated, fascinating, complex and very engaging, imaginative music.
VIDEO: AWS Performs Aphex Twin’s “Cock/ Ver 10
So we collectively embarked on this project of arranging a whole album’s worth of Aphex Twin tracks and started performing them in 2003. The experience of arranging and playing that music was stimulating and also intensely demanding. Thinking about ways to realize these sounds in a DIY, acoustic way has just been an incredibly rich and challenging creative endeavor.
It’s led us to do all sorts of things with our instruments we didn’t know we can do; use unusual instruments like an engraving tool and shove it inside a tin can to get this amazing buzzing sound ... duck calls, a bicycle air pump!
How did the collaboration with Eartheater come about?
We created a program called Alarm System that came out of our work with Aphex Twin's music. He [Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard D. James] had already created the music for which we later made acoustic arrangements. We thought: Wouldn’t it be really cool if we could work with people like that directly? So, Alarm System came out of that brainstorm. Eartheater is one of the artists we reached out to in 2017 to create music for the band. There’s a lot that we created in the moment with her and she just recorded everything — a three hour session — a mix of notated work and things she was describing that we played. And she just took it home and spliced it up, gathered some other stuff and created -- digitally -- the six movements that make up When Fire Is Allowed to Finish.
VIDEO: Eartheater, AWS “When Fire Is Allowed to Finish”
And how does it feel to be sharing a bill with JP Jofre? Are there shared sensibilities?
I think the thing we share is a kind of openness and curiosity. His work involves crossing boundaries and bringing together different kinds of music. That feeling of trying to cast a wide net and of curiosity is deeply a part of our DNA too.