Alarm Will Sound takes on Aphex Twin, and conducter Alan Pierson explains that it's even weirder than it sounds.
Think there's nothing new under the sun, that you've heard it all before? Think again. Alarm Will Sound, a group of classically-trained alums of the Eastman School of Music, recently released an album so innovative that even a basic description of its guiding concept seems to launch long conversations about post-modern theory. Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin contains nothing but faithful renditions of Aphex Twin songs performed without the aid of any samples or synthesizers. Thankfully, the album isn't just interesting in theory; it also proves to be good listening, as noted by our own Mike Schiller in a recent review. That made it all the more worthwhile to chat with the group's conductor and artistic director, Alan Pierson, who also happens to be a childhood friend.
The group is currently enjoying a residency at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where they recorded the album. I spoke with Alan shortly before the group's performance of Acoustica material at the Lincoln Center Festival here in New York.
PopMatters: This is obviously quite an original album. It seems like no one has done anything quite like this before.
AP: Yeah, I think that's true.
PM: Certainly people have brought up Christopher Riley's work on Radiohead. This, to me, seems to be different in that Radiohead uses traditional song structures. One might think that they're ripe for interpretation by classical musicians or new musicians. But this is something completely different. You had the idea to do this before you chose Aphex Twin?
PM: So how did the original idea of adapting or interpreting an electronic album come about?
AP: There were two players in our group -- Caleb, our violinist/violist/composer/singer, and Dennis, who's one of our percussionists. And Dennis also does the remixes on the CD. Professionally, at this point, he's as much a techno artist as he is a classical composer and percussionist. They were just chatting about this. They're both big fans of the whole repertoire. It was their idea. They said, "Why don't we do this?" We all immediately were drawn to the idea. You tended to see, in the previous generation of classically-trained musicians, a real separation between what they played and what they would go home and listen to. Especially people working in contemporary music. They would play Boulez and go home and listen to the Beatles. Part of what we wanted to do, and what's a general impulse in this generation of classically-trained musicians, is to not have that divide, to bring together all the music you love in a comfortable, coherent way, and not reject certain things as being too populist or not avant-garde enough. Also, I think we were drawn to this because so much of this music really is avant-garde and weird. Part of the challenge that I hoped the project would offer to parts of our audience that maybe don't know Aphex Twin, is to say, "Hey, look, this music is as rich, as interesting, as sophisticated as Ligety and Steve Reich and all of the more conventionally New Music, classically-rooted composers who we play all the time."
The Radiohead thing had not come out when we started the project. That we saw later. The original idea was just to do electronica for acoustic instruments. We had a list of four or five artists we were looking at, and there was a group in London, after we were already working on the idea, that did something very similar. They did a show arranging a whole bunch of Warp artists. That made us look a little more carefully. We were disappointed. We hoped we'd be the first people to ever do it. But they have not put out a CD. That prompted us to look at how to clarify, focus, and differentiate what we were doing. And that's when we decided we had to just pick one artist and zoom in on him. Richard James was the obvious choice.
PM: Do you know what he thinks of this?
AP: We don't know a lot. We sent him some of our first live performances from two years ago, the first time we did this, and then we sent him a couple of tracks when we were finishing up the recording process. He was very positive and very brief. He'd just say things like, "Yeah, that sounds great." We never got a lot out of him. He supported us but was quiet.
PM: So you had a list of four or five, and you honed in on him.
AP: Right. Part of the appeal of Aphex was the enormous range of his music, the fact that we could do these beautiful ambient tracks and some more groovy tracks, and then do the really wild stuff, from Drugks, which is totally insane, and which also presented enormous challenges, right off the bat, both in terms of figuring out how to write it down and also in terms of how to play it, because it's so damn fast and so damn complicated. I know that no one had ever done anything like that. The group that did this in London didn't have drummers in the band, and did much more simple, ambient stuff. So, we were really jumping into the deep end and tackling the music that seemed the least to be open to acoustic and instrumental performance.
PM: I think that's a safe characterization. The album was recorded in short period of time, but the transcribing, I'm assuming, took you quite a bit more.
AP: Yes. The transcriptions were done in two phases. The first three tracks, which were "Cock", "Jynweythek", and "Mt. Saint Michel", were done back in 2003. That was sort of just testing the waters. We did them live, and the reaction was so strong, we just figured we'd go for broke and really do this. Last summer, we sat down and worked out the whole program of what tracks we wanted to arrange, and then Payton, one of our percussionists, coordinated the process of distributing those tracks to all of the arrangers who were going to arrange them. From that point, we had a two or three month period before we did our first readings of that, which we did in our residency in Carlisle (PA) at the college [Dickinson]. We read them then, and at that point, began a longer process of experimentation and revision. Everyone in the group was encouraged to listen to the tracks, come up with ideas on how to do some of these things, bring in weird instruments, and bring in things which they could do on their own instruments which maybe nobody had ever thought of, or the arrangers hadn't thought of. We had a couple of jams, brainstorming sessions, where we'd listen to the CD, play stuff for each other, try things. Someone would say, "Hey, can you do this with your instrument?" Then, there was a lot of back and forth with the arrangers.
It was very important to me that we really try to be faithful to the originals because I thought that would be what would make the project most interesting. If we really adhered to what Aphex did and used our creativity where it's needed, which is to find ways to make these very non-acoustic things happen acoustically. A lot of my role was to work with the arrangers, catch things that didn't quite reflect what was happening on the recording, and coordinate a brainstorming process to help them figure out ways of making some of the things that eluded acoustic realization be acoustically realized.
PM: Often, when people think about note-for-note renditions in pop songs, they think of tribute bands, and immediately, people turn up their noses. Your project is, quite rightfully, being hailed as something incredibly original. Of course, the key difference here is this vast gulf in instrumentation between the original and what you're trying to do.
AP: There have been so many horrific projects of symphony orchestras taking on name the pop artist. What's so different about this is that the original music is incredibly specific and detail-oriented, in a way that, say, the Bee Gees or Madonna aren't. We're doing a project now where we're arranging a John Cale song. His stuff is great, but it's much more conventional. They're songs. That kind of form leaves in it a lot of room for the players to play around and improvise. There, to do such a specific, note-accurate transcription would be pedantic. But in this case, given that Aphex music does not leave any room for improvisation, and where he's so clearly obsessed with detail, I thought that taking such a literal approach would be the right way to go, and also would be liberating in terms of what it would make us do creatively with our instruments. You're putting on the straightjacket of saying, "O.K. there's this crazy sound on the second sixteenth note of beat two in this measure." While it's limiting, it also opens up your imagination because you say, "Yeah, well how do we do that?" Which is very liberating.
PM: It also strikes me, listening to the remixes at the end of the album, that this is such a consummately post-modern project. I'm borrowing from here, and someone else will build on that, so on and so forth. It reminds me very much of Rhazel, the human beat box who has worked with the Roots. He's adept at vocally mimicking records to such a degree that you would literally believe the DJ is playing the record. He's taking what was originally an acoustic form, was then turned into a recorded sound or digital form by the DJs, and making it acoustic again. And I'm sure people have remixed what he has done. So it just builds on itself.
AP: That was exactly what we were going after with this. In our live performance, it goes one step further even. One of our arrangers, one of our players from the CD, Stefan Freund, has taken ideas from what we've played and has made his own acoustic piece out of it. And you can go back one step farther and realize that so much of the sound in the original pieces comes from acoustic sources, and so you have acoustic material, which is then remixed by Aphex into an electronic piece, which is then arranged by Alarm Will Sound into an acoustic piece, which is then remixed by Dennis [Desantis] into an electronic piece again. And that was a lot of the fun of this. And realizing that especially because Aphex is very closed-mouthed about saying how any of these things were created. That was one reason I think he didn't talk to us so much. I was asking him questions like, "Well, how did you do this?" Because that would have been useful to know in figuring out how to make it happen. But he wouldn't speak about that. So we ended up sort of reverse-engineering a lot of this. I know we're getting at the same things in different ways from how he originally did it.
PM: Are you taking this on tour?
AP: A little bit. We're going down south in January and the main purpose of that tour for us is to prepare for our show at Carnegie Hall in February, which is a totally different program. But we're going to play some of the Aphex, too. We're so expensive and so big that we don't tour that much, and usually, when we do, my first concern is always to prepare our next concert in New York City. So in a way, we actually have toured with this. We played it in Pennsylvania twice, when we were preparing it. But I hope we'll bring this on the road and do it more.
PM: How difficult has it been to perform these compositions live?
AP: It's certainly been difficult, but I don't think it's been more difficult than anything else we've done. We've played so much difficult music. There definitely are enormous challenges in virtuosity in playing this, but so are there in music of Ligety we've done, where you're told to play this insane stuff as fast as possible, and each time you try to get it a little faster. Nothing in this is harder than that kind of stuff. It's hard, but we're used to hard. One of the hardest things in it, in terms of bringing it off live, is not what we do, but has to do with the difficulty of mixing. You have two drumsets playing and they're loud, and in addition to that, you have a lot of really soft instruments that can't project. And they're mostly the unconventional things we do. At one point, Caleb, our violinist, is going to play a water hose. At another point, we have people playing using curtain rods to make whooshing sounds. There are things like that. There's a Jew's harp prominently featured in one piece. We have a lot of these kinds of instruments that don't make a lot of noise, and they have to be balanced against drumsets, and the only way to do it is amplification. So the amplification of the piece is very, very hard, and the whole concert is very hard to get right.
PM: What's your favorite story around the making of this record that has to do with the creation of an instrument, or the use of some random object as an instrument?
AP: The two that come to mind immediately both involve the piece called "Omgyjya Switch 7", which was arranged by Evan Hause. That was one of the hardest pieces to deal with because it's one of the oddest. Especially the ending of that piece. It took us a very long time to figure out what was happening with that. I thought, "How is anyone going to make this work?" You lose all track of the beat. It's like the piece breaks apart, basically. It's very harsh, very weird. We were very unsure how we were going to make it work. Actually, it's in 4/4 time; it's just incredibly complicated in terms of what goes on within that. You don't immediately hear -- we didn't hear for months -- that it's all in 4/4 time. That piece was a really tricky one for us. There were a whole bunch of sounds for which we hadn't found a solution.
What I wanted to avoid was turning something that with Aphex was really original into something conventional. I really wanted to keep the weird sounds weird and somehow analogous. I remember Evan, at one point, very excitedly appearing in the rehearsal room with a shopping cart full of stuff. I have no idea where he got it from. He was running the shopping cart around the stage very excitedly, convinced it was the perfect way to make some kind of sound. At some point, he decided the shopping cart wasn't such a good idea. But I love the idea that one of our members at some point would push a shopping cart across the stage. At the end of that piece, we had struggled for a long time with that final section, which is so raucous. It's a lot of really grating electronic sounds. It was hard to figure out what to do with our instruments that would have the right effect. Someone said, "Hey, what about power tools?" We debated, "Is a power tool an acoustic instrument?" Once we decided that was O.K. we spent a lot of time playing around with what we could do. Eventually, Beth, our clarinet player, came up with this idea, which was to get an engraving tool, which vibrates very quickly. We stuck it into a metal can and made this wonderful buzzing sound, which was just perfect. However, it was the wrong pitch, and I spent, along with one of our players, a long time trying to figure out how to either get an engraving tool that would be at the right pitch or reverse engineer it to sound at the right pitch.
PM: Probably not the most common question they get at the hardware store.
AP: That's right. I went to Home Depot, sat there, and asked, "Can I hear what this sounds like?" And they thought I was crazy.
PM: Things seem to be moving in directions where rock is getting connected with different kinds of music much more often, in the sense that the boundaries aren't so clear. Not just Christopher Riley, but Radiohead, and bands like Radiohead generally, where people question whether it's even rock anymore. And this isn't that new an issue, really. For God's sake, I was listening to "Eleanor Rigby" this morning, and there's no beat in the song, in the traditional, rock sense. It seems like you've gotten a lot of attention for this record in the pop or the rock press. What kind of experience is that for you, as a classically-trained musician or New Music person, to have people in that world paying attention?
AP: It's what we wanted for this. It's interesting to hear you articulate that from the other point of view. It's certainly been our sense that this is a time when, in the classical world also, boundaries didn't exist in the way they used to. There are people whose legacy we built on, who helped make that happen. I think of people like Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and all the founders of Bang on a Can, who have helped to create an environment where classical music doesn't exist in a ghetto so much anymore, or at least contemporary classical music doesn't. I've always believed that if you do something really good and can get people to come, people will enjoy it, even if they're not trained in classical music, which is not an assumption on which a lot of new music programming is done. It's a part of why Alarm Will Sound likes to do lots of stuff that incorporates theater and lighting. It's all about creating an experience. Whether the music is Aphex Twin or hardcore modernism like Ligety, to create an experience that people can just come and enjoy, whatever their training may be. Part of what is exciting about this for us is that it brings us into the eyes of people who probably wouldn't have seen our work otherwise, or haven't seen our work before. I hope that they'll stick around and see what we do next, because I do think that if we're doing our job well, that even people who are coming to us because of Aphex, if they stick around and hear the next show we do, will be psyched about that too.