The words ‘20 piece instrumental ensemble’ can strike panic in the hearts of many a pop music lover. It’s not something that you generally associate with being in any way accessible. Well, philistines fear not. Producing works as approachable as 1969, a story about John Lennon, and collaborating with the likes of the Dirty Projectors, Alarm Will Sound can easily be considered classical music for a modern audience.
In keeping with their explorative nature, they’ve tackled the intricate works of IDM virtuoso Aphex Twin with their 2005 album Acoustica, which mainly covers Drukqs but features tracks from Richard D. James and Selected Ambient Works II. Their latest show takes on material from John Cage, most famous for his track ‘4’33’’ or four mintues thirty three seconds of silence. Alarm Will Sound will be undertaking Song Books, Cage’s magnum opus, in a theatrical display that’s never before been seen in this light. Ahead of their show at the Cork Opera House on June 6th (see the end of the interview to win tickets) we talked to their artistic director Alan Pierson.
Who do you think your main audience is? Do you have anyone in mind when playing or recording?
I think our audience is really general, they’re the kind of people that will know about us already, we’re largely known amongst a new music audience or maybe a kind of indie rock audience or an electronic one because we’ve done projects that connect with those worlds too. But really I think with a performance like Song Books – and hopefully with anything we do – that anyone that’s interested in art and theatre and are open minded will have a great time, I mean I don’t think that there’s any one type of person that Song Books is aimed at you know it’s a really, it’s a theatrical performance, it’s funny and it’s smart and I think it’s a really entertaining show so I hope it could appeal to a broad audience.
Would you consider ensembles like Alarm Will Sound to be the future of classical music, and do you think traditional classical music is somewhat stale, or at least inaccessible to the general public?
I don’t know. Certainly Alarm Will Sound aims to do things that have an immediate impact that we feel like, ya know an audience can connect with. Some of it’s also just how the group plays, ya know some of the music that we’ve done is not user friendly in a conventional sense, we’ve done Wolfgang Rihm and Birtwistle and you know that’s not easy listening music. I think the group does that stuff with a kind of energy and a kind of engagement that I hope brings people in, and that’s certainly what we’re trying to do…….and you know Cage is very unusual, I don’t know if I would say that something like Song Books is the future of classical music but it’s certainly one place that the music has taken us and it’s a really interesting one so it’s a fun place to visit.
Would you ever consider tackling something as electronic as Aphex Twin again? Was it much of a challenge arranging instrumental versions of music that’s so blatantly digital?
That was a big challenge and we have done things like that again. We’ve done an arrangement Varese’s Poeme Electronique, we did ‘Revolution 9’ by The Beatles, we did that project with the Dirty Projectors which in some ways was quiet similar to the Aphex Twin project. So, once we opened up that door it’s just became part of the world we live in and it’s something that we come back to now and again. And I mean ya it was very very challenging and really rich, and creative, and inspiring. It was really exciting, it was a really great challenge. I think some of the orchestration on that Aphex Twin album is some of the best that I’ve heard, you know for instrumentation and it came out of the challenge, figuring out how to realise those crazy sounds that Aphex Twin dreamed up on the instruments we had at our disposal. That was a really great creative challenge.
Your concerts have moved from solely music based to a full multi-media show, is this something that Alarm Will Sound have always had in mind?
Definitely, that was part of the thinking from the beginning. We always aimed to do concerts that felt more like events rather than conventional concerts, and what that means is something we’ve thought a lot about, you know what it means to make a concert that feels like a proper event, something that feels more like a memorable experience as opposed to going to see ‘X’ ensemble play again and trying to remember what pieces were even played that night. We really wanted to create an experience that would stick in people’s minds, and that would have a profound affect on people.
Theatre is certainly one way to do that and we’ve tried in everything we’ve done to have a kind of theatrical awareness, you know we’re not the type of players that just sits in chairs an stares at music stands just trying to get the notes right. So, even in the more conventional concerts there’s a sense of theatricality about the group, but it was always our aim to do concerts that were more theatrical, that were more deeply theatrical. We spent a lot of playing with that and trying different ways of accomplishing that, and you know Song Books is about as theatrical as things can get.
Do you think that the theatrics on stage would ever distract from the music or does it always enhance the experience in your eyes?
I think it’s always a risk. In a way, in the most literal way it always distracts. Whenever there is something else happening on stage besides the music then it’s something else that you’re paying attention to. I think when it works really wonderfully the visuals feel like they’re informing the music and vice versa. That’s always the experience we’re aiming for when we bring together music and theatrical elements. But it doesn’t always work you know, there’s been times where it has felt like a distraction or somewhat extraneous and we don’t do that again and we try to learn from the experience and make it better the next time.
John Cage’s Song Books, while detailed, is quiet open to interpretation. Will you be following it’s instructions closely or taking it in a wholly new direction?
Wherever there are instructions we follow them very closely. What’s really interesting is all the areas where there aren’t any instructions. There are detailed instructions on each composition in Song Books but there are no instructions on how to take the individual compositions and realise them in a total piece. This is a huge collection of material with no real specifications about how to take that material and structure an event out of it, so that’s the biggest open ended parameter in Song Books, the structure of the whole evening. You have all this material but then what’s happening where and when, and how many things are going on at once, and which pieces do we do and which pieces do we not do because you don’t necessarily do all of them, and which other Cage works do you do at the same time because he opens up that possibility as well. So, there’s a huge open element which is the structure of the whole show and that’s something which Nigel, who’s our theatre director, has created for this performance. While the material of our production is Cage’s, the structure is very much Nigel’s.
It’s just Song Books you’ll be playing right, or will the audience be treated to an awkward ‘4’33’’?
No we’re not doing that but there are other Cage works, like the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, some of that material will be part of the show. And Cage invites that, the use of other material, but you won’t really know whether you’re hearing something from Song Books or a part from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra necessarily, unless you know the pieces very well as it’s all part of one theatrical continuity, all the pieces flow in and out of each other, there’s lots happening at the same time. You know, it really is a theatrical event that has been constructed out all this different Cage material.
I know in the past you’ve used actors on stage and various things like that, will that be part of the show in Cork as well?
Well this is all members of the ensemble so there are no people who only act. And that’s also one of the challenges of the show is that none of us is trained as actors and so it’s the kind of performance that takes us out of our comfort zone as musicians but in a really good and productive way, but definitely it’s challenge for us.
You have performed Song Books before over twelve years ago, though not strictly as Alarm Will Sound, how has your take on it evolved since then?
Hugely because it was really different group that did it then and I actually wasn’t involved, I mean I saw that performance in the audience, this was before Alarm Will Sound existed. I guess that was in 2000 and directed by Nigel who’s also directing this performance and who’s Alarm Will Sound’s theatrical director….. It was that performance that made me say ‘wow I want this guy to work this new music that we’re starting’. Some of the members of Alarm Will Sound played in that performance, including the guy who’s now our managing director. But for many of the people in Alarm Will Sound this is the first time we’re doing this, and the piece has really been radically restructured to make it an Alarm Will Sound piece.
We have five pairs of tickets for State readers to win for the Cork Opera House performance on 6th June. To enter, send your details to email@example.com by 5pm on Friday 1st.