This has happened before, in a way.
In the mid-‘90s, Philip Glass got a hold of “ICCT Hedral” from Aphex Twin’s classic I Care Because You Do, and created his own orchestration of it. That version of the song, special in that it’s performed by real instruments (including some of the patented ghostly vocal work that would often appear in Glass’s own work), showed up on Aphex Twin’s Donkey Rhubarb EP, and history was made, if ever so quietly. Finally, the connection between modern minimalist composition and IDM (so-called Intelligent Dance Music) had spawned its first bit of hybrid offspring via backwards-looking means. “ICCT Hedral” had been de-mixed, and by one of the masters no less.
Electronic artists have been paying homage to the minimalists as long as they’ve been around—whether it’s the inclusion of a Steve Reich quote in an Orb song, or just the slow shifts and phases encased in massive amounts of repetition championed by Autechre (not to mention Autechre’s growing legion of clones), shades of the minimalist movement constantly color the foremost names in the electronic music scene. Even so, it’s been much harder to convince the minimalists (and those who would perform the work of the minimalists) to move in the opposite direction, referencing or even acknowledging electronic music as a valid art form. The token gesture from Glass was nice, but one gets the sense that much of the modern classical scene would much rather turn up its nose than to acknowledge its influence on some of the most forward-looking music the electronic scene has to offer.
Perhaps Alarm Will Sound will be the catalyst toward changing such damaging preconceptions.
In a way, Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin (hereafter known as Acoustica, for brevity’s sake) takes largely the same approach that Glass did, in that Glass’s approximation of “ICCT Hedral” sounded almost exactly like the original, except with “real” instruments. The 10 arrangers responsible for Acoustica have taken great pains to keep their arrangements true to the sound and spirit of Richard D. James’ original Aphex Twin tracks. There is a rather large difference in the two approaches, however, a difference that lies in just how much translating must be done to convert an electronic original into an orchestral de-mix. The original “ICCT Hedral” was practically a Philip Glass composition before Glass even got near it. Acoustica eschews the largely mainstream sounds of I Care Because You Do altogether, focusing on the more experimental Richard D. James Album, Drukqs, and perhaps most remarkably, Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2.
The results are astounding.
Alarm Will Sound is a twenty-member ensemble, but any listener will find himself hard pressed to figure out just how they got some of these sounds out of a mere 20 people. The more chaotic pieces (generally, the ones adapted from Drukqs) feature layer upon layer of noise, all of which seems to come together just as the whole ensemble sounds as though they’re going to fall into dissonant randomness. A song like “Meltphace 6” will have its listeners reading the credits, trying to figure out whether it was the water hose (played by violinist/pianist Caleb Burhans) or the curtain rods (played by flutist Jessica Johnson) that made the creaking noises at the beginning. All the while, the song’s unexpected beauty via sweeping strings and slap bass are drawing those same listeners in, lulling them into a false sense of security just in time for the explosive, forte-from-everyone orchestra hits that conclude the piece. There’s even a bit of foreshadowing, as some echoed vocals portend the ambience that defines “Cliffs”, itself saved for later in the album.
Other instruments listed in the credits are plastic tubing, air pumps, engraving tool, and (my personal favorite) the cocktail stirrer kalimba, played by the conductor himself. Most remarkably, one gets the sense that none of these “instruments” are used without reason—they just happen to be the perfect sound for a given moment. In addition to this, there are plenty of “traditional” instruments making decidedly “non-traditional” noises, as pianos are treated (to create a muted “plonk” effect), horns squawk, and violins squeal. Tracks such as “Prep Gwarlek 3B” are so odd as to contain more unidentifiable noises than familiar ones. To know that it was played live, with little to no studio tweaking, is fascinating to the point of disorienting.
As fascinating as such chaos is, however, it’s the selections from Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2 that drive home the point that Acoustica is more than a simple display of showoffery. Both “Blue Calx” and “Cliffs” are exercises in restraint, the former featuring exquisite string harmony over a repeated, metronomic percussion that approximates the slow dripping of water, and the latter highlighting more slow string work over vocals, horns, and tuned percussion each echoed several times over. I still haven’t decided whether I think the echoes are done in the studio or actually expertly performed, though I’m leaning toward actual, live performance. Either way, the translations and the performances are perfect, providing further proof of one of the maxims of classical music—any hack can play fast, but only a true musician can pull off a slow work while avoiding utter boredom. Alarm Will Sound passes this test effortlessly.
Perhaps most interesting about Acoustica are the two remixes tacked on to the end, courtesy of Dennis DeSantis. Not only are the two excellent displays of electronics (“Prep Gwarlek 3B” is transformed from a one-minute noise sculpture into a six-minute dance track, and the formerly ambient “Cliffs” is turned to dub), but they provide fascinating implications as to the future of such music. Indeed, by remixing the de-mixes, Alarm Will Sound has added a second degree of separation from James’ originals, in the process creating tracks with totally different forms and structures from the originals that they’re ultimately derived from. Perhaps one of the members of Alarm Will Sound will arrange a de-mix of one of these remixes on a future release; perhaps an entire, diverse album could be created via the de-mixing and remixing of a single track.
It’s possible, then, that Alarm Will Sound, previously known solely for the performance of some of Steve Reich’s greatest work, could blow the door open on the intersection of classical and electronic music. Seriously—you’ve got to hear this.