While in Berlin, we were lucky enough to go and see Alarm Will Sound perform at the Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie and, despite the rather daunting prestige of the venue, for me it was quite close to the ideal concert experience. The programme had been intended as a kind of overview of the ensemble’s work, demonstrating that they not only specialise in contemporary music, but that they both attract superb bespoke pieces from famous names while also developing their own unique repertoire of innovative projects from composers and arrangers within the ensemble itself.
The first half of the programme consisted of:
Birtwistle Carmen Arcadia Mechanicae Perpetuum
Rihm Will Sound
Adams Son of Chamber Symphony
The 20-piece orchestra demonstrated an exemplary range of extreme and fabulous colours, showing incredible flexibility throughout. The number of players was definitely finite, but the instruments played and sounds attained by these apparently weren’t. Rather than an ensemble which enforced its own creative restraints, Alarm Will Sound were clearly purpose-built for the strange timbral voyaging of Birtwistle’s piece, whilst this propensity was obviously understood by Rihm in his specially-written theme-tune for them: ‘Will Sound’. But the best feature of the ensemble was their ability to combine this massive flexibility and innovation of sonority with the kind of riotous, joyous energy that is for me the whole point of chamber music. It obviously requires supreme virtuosity to be able to put across unconventional gestures in a way that suggests brashness, but the group must have owned their music totally since nothing came across as self-consciously virtuosic. The fantastically-named Son of Chamber Symphony (another piece written specially for this fantastically-named ensemble) was a particularly good demonstration of this aspect of their playing. There’s nothing better than watching fast minimalist music being performed live by a large ensemble when it’s being done with real enthusiasm, and Adams’s piece provides enough ebullience, groove and brilliant hidden melodies to react spectacularly with the group’s volatile energy.
It was the second half of the concert that proved really inspiring. In a bid to represent what they called ‘their work with electronica’, the ensemble had programmed:
John Orfe Dowland Remix (Flow My Tears)
Aphex Twin Cock/Ver 10, arr. Stefan Freund
Aphex Twin Omgyjya Switch 7, arr. Evan Hause
Aphex Twin Gwely Mernans, arr. Ken Thomason
Stefan Freund Unremixed
Alarm Will Sound made a name for themselves with their Aphex Twin arrangements, released on the 2005 album Acoustica, and these have become central to what they do. They perfectly suit the timbrally inventive side of the ensemble in that the arrangers have had to find acoustic equivalents for the heavily produced noises that Richard D. James uses on his tracks. Yet they simultaneously fit the ensemble’s energetic, exuberant side in their quasi-chaotic, breakneck speeds and percussive fury, married to a hyper-complexity which requires remarkable technical precision.
It is worth thinking about what these Aphex Twin arrangements actually are. What they’re definitely not are the kind of simple pop transcriptions that you might hear played by super-mainstream light orchestras or all those Vitamin String Quartet tracks on Spotify. What appears to be physically unplayable music on the original electronic tracks is used as a source of inspiration for a playable equivalent – a kind of puzzle to be solved – while the kind of singular electronic sonorities, which are often endowed with hyper-qualities in production (hyper-harsh, hyper-echoey, hyper-screechy, etc.), are used to inspire acoustic extremes of comparable effect. On one level, these arrangements are good cover versions – the kind of thing a cover version should be, i.e. a version performed by differing musical forces whose differences require a reassessment of the musical qualities of the original. Sometimes the sonic approximations are so close, as on some of the CD recordings, that the tracks move from covers to a kind of practical experiment in the continuing relationship between man-made music and computer music. This might potentially render the works less interesting, which is why the opportunity to see these pieces performed live was such a special one. A live, visual performance of these arrangements serves as a kind of explication of the physical exertion and material manipulation that went into the recorded covers. But it also removes a level of perfection, important in discouraging any mere technical comparison between original and arrangement, and instead presents them as legitimate concert pieces for chamber orchestra.
In their live performance then, they can be regarded as contemporary pieces whose form has been fixed through a particular sort of flexible moulding process, a process quite unusual for classical music but far from uncommon in many other musical traditions. As they stand, the pieces are well-proportioned and observe calculated structural plans which nevertheless have nothing to do with classical practice or with the conventions of writing for these particular forces. If viewed objectively, they contain the same daring in extended instrumental techniques as you’d expect from most contemporary music, as well as a total acceptance of the necessity of dissonance in creating the kinds of moods – claustrophobic, paranoid, violent – that Aphex Twin specialises in. They also work with a rhythmic insistency which doesn’t rely on an understanding of minimalism, an alienated melodicism which doesn’t rely on a tradition of post-tonalism, and topics/moods which don’t cry out for justification within the language of self-conscious modernism.
It may seem like Aphex Twin just happens to be the perfect artist to proffer his tracks up for such a project – his music is potentially ‘abstract’, always deeply complex and provides the arranger with some serious challenges – but I believe that the success of these pieces comes largely from the arrangers, their knowledge of what classical instruments and modern tonalities can do, and their willingness not just to recreate the sounds but to recreate the effects of the sounds. I would suggest that such a successful process would be possible for many, many artists working in the pop world. For one thing, in a piece like ‘Gwely Mernans’ which as a track relies on quite consistent repetition, the arranger has clearly had the insight to write in a gradual sense of variation, since repetition just doesn’t have the same function in a classical context. These kinds of creative choices and cross-genre understanding are what’s needed to turn this kind of process into a very viable and productive model for composition.
However, Aphex Twin was the perfect artist for the ensemble to begin to tap into a new fanbase. Enthusiasts of his complex, often ‘serious’ and ‘difficult’ music are ripe for conversion to new classical music, and there was clearly a very significant representation of these intrigued electronica fans present at the concert. Bearing this in mind, as far as I’m concerned, nothing that the ensemble did should have come across as alienating to any potential new audience present; director Alan Pierson introduced the pieces at the beginning in a welcoming manner, the ensemble were dressed in a perfectly-pitched smart casual, subdued enough to suggest group cohesion but still remain attractive and ‘normal’ looking, and the atmosphere of the whole evening was suitably charged yet unstuffy.
Surrounding the three Aphex selections were two pieces which could more appropriately be seen as ‘remixes’ – by ensemble members John Orfe and Stefan Freund – and these, I have to say, were my favourite works of the evening. Having clearly taken inspiration from the kind of musical language that crystallises through the process of creative arranging that accompanies the transformation of electronic tracks to orchestral works, they both made the most of the sense of hyper-charged energy, distorted melody and timbral extremes, but co-opted them into original works. Orfe’s ‘Dowland Remix’ was an exhilarating acoustic transformation of ‘Flow My Tears’, a song already as diva-house-ready as any art song that springs to mind, using ingenious approximations of electronic processes, structured in dance-like plateaux with a furious, pumping climax and a thrillingly bare, countertenor-and-prepared-piano breakdown. The piece is more than a novelty pastiche of dance music, it is a very effective musical exploration of a genuine ‘oldie’ which calls on the kind of rhetorical gestures that fans of electronic remixes live by. On its welcome encore play-through, it already felt like a ‘fan favourite’. Freund’s ‘Unremixed’ was perhaps even more intriguing, ostensibly taking sonorities (‘unsynthed’ synths) from the various Aphex arrangements and building them into a new ‘track’ which presented its own infectious melody that passed through the orchestra’s acoustic ‘processing units’.
Alarm Will Sound are special, then, because they are more than a positive-thinking, hugely accessible and exciting young chamber ensemble. As an ensemble which itself contains composers and has its own particular stylistic concerns, it could operate perfectly as a discrete composing-performing entity, perfectly brandable and marketable, able to produce recordings of its own arrangements without the usual nervous distancing of writer from performer, and thereby disseminate its own music confidently as a means of widespread promotion. Meanwhile, the actual new music that they’re producing is possibly even more important, in that it can be viewed as an example of a well-developed and successful new way of writing concert music. This includes new ways of taking influence from pop music and thereby tapping into its audience, of conceiving of new musical innovations, viable structures and gestures that needn’t draw on or follow on from the history and culture of modernist music itself, and – most importantly – of demonstrating that to be accessible (and even to borrow from pop music or reproduce its ideas), music needn’t be hyper-consonant or simplistic.
Visit the Alarm Will Sound website HERE
A little YouTube promo vid about the ensemble ——-> HERE