Thursday, May 19, 2016

Alarm Will Sound, Presents Modernists

The superlative new music chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound comes at us with an unabashed anthology of high modernist works, humorously packaged (as you can see from the cover image above) as Alarm Will Sound Presents Modernists (Cantaloupe Music 21117). The cover art portrays a horrified couple hearing something they fear in proportion to the extent they cannot understand it. Other cover art emphasizes the Space Age of interplanetary exploration so much a part of the cultural gestalt that included the modernist phenom at its mature peak, say around 1965.

The liners talk about the average person's aversion to modernism, certainly during its height, no doubt continuing today. It is too new, there is too much that is new. On the other hand classic modernism emphasized leaving behind the past, ignoring it, embracing the avant present. That all-new, advanced unrooted innovation was of course the point, and it disturbed many people uncomfortable with the feeling of a foundationless, pure now.

So in this packaging Alarm Will Sound somewhat ironically looks back to the classic period of high modernism with six works that give us a chance to reconsider but also of course for those confirmed modernists or those at least sympathetic it gives us its own quasi-retrospective on it all.

And after all that is what this is about--something to introduce gun shy folks to modernism and some for the old hands to savor as well. We do have a program here that eschews the absolutely expected for an interesting mix of worthy pieces. Perhaps the most surprising is a Matt Marks arrangement of the Beatles' "Revolution 9," which either puzzled or intrigued those who bought the Beatles White Album back in the day. For impressionable and open-minded youths of the time, which I was one, the middle-period Beatles helped create a precedent of experimentation that opened at least some of us to the avant garde so much a part of the world then, though no doubt it also horrified some others.

This arrangement succeeds in adopting some of the loop dialog and other aspects into a modernist chamber piece. And in the end shows of course that the Beatles were delving into the modernist world with a gusto.

Another unexpected appearance is an Evan Hause arrangement of Edgar Varese's late '50s breakthrough "Poem Electronique," translating the electronic sounds into acoustic chamber equivalents. It is not so much a literal, note for note or sound for sound conversion, but rather like "Revolution 9" takes liberties and makes of it something different.

Those two bookends cradle some excellent modern chamber works that are musical modernist gems we may not be familiar with (I was not) but decidedly hold their place as representative examples. So we get Charles Wuorinen's "Big Spinoff ," Wolfgang Rihm's "Will Sound," Augusta Read Thomas' "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour," and John Orfe's "Journeyman." For the Read work Kirsten Sollek and Caleb Burhans sound wonderfully well as alto and countertenor soloists, respectively.

And indeed conductor Alan Pierson and the Alarm Will Sound ensemble sound very well as a totality throughout, giving us performances that do justice to the complexities and intricacies of these works. They remind us in the process of their premiere new music chamber status, as one of the very best.

The anthology stands out as exemplary in its choice of not-so-familiar works and bold arrangements of the at least once very familiar. Those who may never have taken the plunge into high modernism will be well served in this as an introduction. Confirmed modernists will gain much with this program, too.

It's something of a must-hear release. Hear it!

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