Beers with Alarm Will Sound

In this age of ridiculous celebrity, it was a treat to knock back a few with some of the members of Alarm Will Sound after their concert Thursday night.

It was doubly so not only because we got to discuss music with artistically driven performers we respect – come on, I get to do that all the time – and not only because I’m usually in such a rush after shows to either a) relieve a babysitter and/or b) do my write-up, but because we left the bairn at home with his grandparents and were seeing the show for pleasure and enjoyment, allowing us the privilege to stretch time and live like it was 2010 again.

Our drive to Columbia, MO, had been accompanied by podcasts from NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. We listened to an interview with Brad Pitt, who is, coincidentally, an almost-graduate of the University of Missouri. Personally, I’d be more interested in having coffee with Gross, but I wouldn’t turn down an invite to drink beers with Pitt. He seems like an interesting guy and I’m always game for hanging out with a passel of kids.

Alarm Will Sound performed as part of the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, their third year in residence, partnering with MU School of Music, an arrangement instigated by the fact that the group’s cellist is also a professor at the university.

The week before the festival serves as a sort of grown-up summer camp for the ensemble, as they gather in Columbia, MO to prepare their concerts. It was a refreshing peak behind the curtain, a reminder that no matter how technically advanced, artistically driven, or critically lauded a group may be …. well, they’re also a bunch of 20-and-30-somethings who like to have a good time, spilled beer and all.

While they take what they do seriously, they don’t take themselves too seriously, which can be one of the biggest detriments to the audience of new music. Like most art forms, there is a wide chasm between silliness and great art – one that can be easily and tangibly broached with the right skill set and attitude.

Driving into Columbia I was a little dismayed at the sameness of the strip malls, just like everywhere in America, and then amused by the likeness of their downtown area around campus to Mass Ave in Lawrence, KS (home of Mizzou’s once-rival, our beloved KU) and to Indiana University’s Kirkwood. College towns, eh?

This same sense of “been there” was served, with a hearty side of nostalgia, at Shakespeare’s Pizza, that sat down the block from the Missouri Theatre.  It reminded me of Mother Bear’s, a similarly wood-paneled, kitschily-decorated pizza place just south of IU’s Jacobs School of Music. And oh so tasty.

We met up with our friend Bill, who was performing with Alarm during this festival. He is an inventively talented, well-rounded musician and, more importantly, a great guy we never see often enough, so when we found out he was performing we just had to get to the show. And it was super fun catching up on all his life and percussion adventures  over beers and some slices.

*******

Listening to never-before-heard music is one of the most gratifying and challenging aspects of my job. Making judgments and striving to accurately describe a work, let alone discuss the merits or detriments of performance, with a piece that I have no or few preconceived notions is daunting (I want to represent my experience accurately) and freeing (reacting to only that which makes the biggest impression).

They opened with an “oldie” from 1979, Oliver Knussen’s Coursing (Etude I). It was a sobering (for me, literally, since I was still processing my pint from dinner) piece, with chaotic fragments of melody, pointillist winds and muted brass.

They followed this with a piece written for the ensemble, by Alarmist Caleb Burhans. oh ye of little faith…(do you know where your children are?)  was written for the group’s performance at the opening of Alice Tully Hall in 2009. It had the epic slo-mo vibe of Sigur Rós, with layered rhythmic values, chords subsumed by violin slurry, lots and lots of bowed percussion. There was a steady sense of growth, akin to Ravel’s Bolero, but also with a sort of hurdy-gurdy drive.

Steven Stucky’s Etudes, which featured flutist Erin Lesser on soprano and … what? ultra-soprano-recorder?, was next. He introduced the work by doing my pet peeve of pessimistically biasing the audience. Ready for a metaphor? – Don’t tell me the fish isn’t going to taste very good when you serve it. Regardless, I don’t think this piece did anything to raise the status of the recorder, even though it was neat to see the soloist (who had shed her silver heels) standing in crane position and plug the end of the bell on her leg to pop out the high notes.

But this mild disappointment was overshadowed by the concert’s final work, which blew us away. Donnacha Dennehy is Irish and the work is based on the transformative event of the Great Famine. The ensemble premiered two excerpts from The Hunger. The piece was commissioned by Alarm Will Sound and singer Dawn Upshaw, who recorded and premiered a portion with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The first part used a field recording of a man singing an old style song in Gaelic, a sean nós. Dennehy remarked that it was “the saddest music in a major key.”  A scratchy, mournful a cappella song with that authentic, warped hiss-pop of a vintage recording was broadcast, sometimes overwhelmed by the acoustic instruments which supported and reacted to the recording’s pacing and structure.

The second part featured soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, stepping in for Upshaw’s role. She had an effortless vocal ability that fully supported the emotionality of the work, with easy transitions in the intense intervallic leaps.

The text of the piece is immense, drawing from the written account of American traveler Asenath Nicholson, who journeyed to Ireland during that time period to witness the situation and give help where she could. This particular passage focuses on a nearly dead man and small boy, who are asking for relief at an official bureaucratic station and, weak with hunger and with other nearly dead children at home, are callously turned away and told to return at a later date.

To say the account was heart-wrenching is putting it mildly. Dennehy’s score, If he died, what then, with pulsating percussion, muted brass and beautiful string writing, layers rhythms in triplet and quintuplet values, for an insistent, yet subdued energy. The vocal line soars over it in moments and Bird’s rendition was piercing, personal and direct. We were literally brought to tears by the content and presentation.

Listening to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra recording later, I got the same goose bumps all over again. It is a powerful piece and the full work I have no doubt will become a monument of modern music, utterly transcendent.

Here’s a little extra: a video excerpt from Dennehy’s work Grá agus Bás , which made a few top album lists, including NPR Music’s Top 50 Albums of 2011.

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