December 28, 2006

Alarm Will Sound, 12/15/06

Alarm Will Sound played Kilbourn Hall a couple weeks ago. Since all of the group's members are Eastman alum, it was as much a concert as it was a homecoming: the audience was cheering before they heard a single note. The program was kind of an AWS sampler: the first movement from the Ligeti Piano Concerto, a handful of pieces by AWS composers, and a set of Aphex Twin arrangements. All of the pieces emphasized the kind of fluid virtuosity that is often featured in pieces for sinfonietta ensembles. The individual and ensemble challenges didn't seem to make anyone break a sweat.

Alan Pierson has a playful presence on-stage. His mannerisms suggest a little bit of the gawky kid next door. He conducts with a baton, but feels the groove with his whole body. The group as a whole is very comfortable using their bodies along with their instruments. It looked like they were, you know, having fun and stuff. Even when members weren't playing, you could also see them feeling the groove.

The rhythmically active nature of the program made the concert hall setting feel a bit stiff. There were times, especially with the Aphex Twin arrangements, when I wanted to get up and dance. The friends who went to the show with me felt the same way, but a (highly unscientific) lookaround during the danceable moments suggested we would've been in a very small group.

In general, the concert pointed out a lot of pitfalls in finding a halfway point between staid new music concerts and rock shows (generalizations to follow). When you go to one of the former, it's almost excusable when it feels uptight. The emphasis is placed on the music being played, not the individuals playing the music. Rock shows have a reversed dynamic. You go for the group, to see their current material and to follow their creative development. Pierson more or less said between pieces, "We're going to play some stuff we've been touring with for a while, then play some material off our latest CD."

Rock groups usually package together a personality, a sound, and a musical identity. For AWS to become the group they're trying to be, they'll need a similar package. They have the first two parts mostly together, but they've got a long way to go on the last one. The group has plenty of talented composers, but this show didn't reveal anyone that they could really rally behind. They've made it clear they can play anything they want, but I think their long-term success will depend on what they choose to play.

December 22, 2006

Mind Reader

My winter break got to a good start today with an unset alarm clock and a little transcribing for a solo recital I'm giving in the spring. My plans for school vacations usually include what most people would describe as work. I can't wait to get into them, however, because what I'm doing is entirely at my discretion. In short, less time with books and more time with music (and hopefully with the ol' blog). Over the next few days, I'll try to get some thoughts up on the Alarm Will Sound show that was at Kilbourn last Friday. Until then, an already-eloquent version of most of the program note I was intending to write for that recital:
Getting back to Cowell, let’s start with the early piano pieces, the so-called cluster pieces plus The Aeolian Harp and The Banshee. I think their simplicity is their strength, and the reason for their continued freshness. In this regard they share something with modern-day pop songs, in that relatively little information is conveyed, so that communication is immediate and right there on the surface. Many of the pieces have very simple, modal melodies, so the harmonic language is likewise very basic. I don’t really take Cowell’s justification of the tone cluster as the incorporation of the major and minor seconds into our harmonic/melodic language along some sort of musical evolutionary line too seriously. Okay — sure, fine. What blows me away about these pieces is that by compressing the interval relationships so tightly, they virtually cease to exist as such. So you are sidestepping the harmonic implications of the concept of interval, and what you are left with is: pure RESONANCE. That is the glory, the originality, the freshness of these pieces. By reducing melody and harmony to a background function, that of the simplest framework possible, one is affirming music not so much as a question of relationships, but rather of pure sounding and resonance. That is very radical, to me. One does not need to use tone clusters necessarily to achieve this effect. By severely limiting melodic and harmonic movement and by emphasis on repetition, the same effect can be achieved.
from Peter Garland, "Henry Cowell: Giving Us Permission"