Avant-garde chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound has broken numerous barriers in the 10 years since its inception at Rochester, New York’s Eastman School of Music. After witnessing their Sunday afternoon performance at the Lower East Side’s Abrons Arts Center, however, I’m more inclined to think that the group isn’t so keen to educate their audiences about the wonders of modern composition as they are dead set on hurtling their vision at the audience itself.
Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts—of which Sunday’s concert was a part—are free concerts meant to foster a sense of community throughout NYC’s five boroughs, while simultaneously seeking to grow audiences that wouldn’t normally head to Lincoln Center. However, the opportunity to take the platform and use it as a chance to encourage new ears to embrace the other-worldly works of John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow didn’t seem to be the group’s priority. Before the program even began, several members were onstage, bathed in a hellish red light, with one member muttering that audience members should quickly shut off all mobile devices and unwrap their candy. Soon the electronic drones intensified to ear-splitting levels before another member took to the balcony to scream the same information into a megaphone. I couldn’t help but to be offended by the tone of the proceedings, and the concert hadn’t even begun.
For the first half of the program, Alarm Will Sound chose to perform a tapestry of John Cage’s works, including selections from Song Books, Indeterminancy, Winter Music, and Atlas eclipticalis. Transforming the entire stage into a makeshift laboratory that included tables, computers, bicycles, and chess sets, the group stepped outside of their normal orchestral boundaries to incorporate some bizarre performance art techniques. Conductor Alan Pierson rode onstage in a bicycle; a small child played with an apple; a horn player sat reading the paper; and Google searches were projected onto a large screen: not exactly the kind of bridge-gapping performance one hopes will win over a new generation of audiences. To add insult to confusion, the following intermission lasted 25 minutes, so complex was the stage re-setting that needed to take place before the second half.
Thankfully, the four pieces performed after the interminable wait were worth the lengthy pause. Charlie Wilmouth’s Still Life with Benzedrine and CNN was well crafted, taking many cues from Steve Reich’s Different Trains. Incredibly complex rhythms were thrown across the ensemble, sounding barren and uncomfortable in chamber-sized groupings but lush and unified when fuller textures were employed. Gavin Chuck’s arrangement of Nancarrow’s Player Piano Study No. 2 incorporated numerous big-band elements, complete with wailing clarinets and jazzy brass inflections.
The highlight of the afternoon was certainly Elliott Sharp’s Coriolis Effect—a daunting and dark work built on a stuttering rhythm introduced by the string section that sounded a lot like the march to war in the “Mars” movement of Holst’s The Planets. The strings hammered away while cluster chords in the winds pealed like discordant bells. After several climaxes of seething intensity, the textures faded to black, with only gentle string plucks and woodwind key clicks left to sound in the hall.
To the group’s credit, Alarm Will Sound’s core audience probably would have loved the first half of the program, as it was certainly drawn outside of the box. But as part of an outreach series, the group’s aleatoric programming and long intermission probably scared off as many audience members as it may have entranced.