Alarm Will Sound: Nationalism, Serialism, and Minimalism

Carnegie Hall LogoThe lights were just dimming as I skidded haphazardly around a corner at Carnegie Hall, bag and coat-laden boyfriend dutifully in tow, at 9:02 pm on Saturday, April 6, 2013. Fully aware of the promptness with which Carnegie begins its programs, I was still nonplussed to see the doors to the Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall closing just as we burst unceremoniously into the foyer. Accepting defeat, I took a glass of wine (and about a dozen Ricola from the massive dispenser by the door) and situated myself in front of the LCD screen for the first work on what was to be a deeply provocative performance by Alarm Will Sound.

Contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound (photo credit: Justin Bernhaut)

Contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound (photo credit: Justin Bernhaut)

I wish I could tell more about John Orfe’s Journeyman, the program opener, than I absorbed from outside the hall. A surprisingly accessible, yet thoroughly weird (in the best possible way) harmonic language drew my ears to attention, even through the tinny lobby speakers. Orfe, who contributes to Alarm Will Sound as both keyboardist and composer, uses some really poignant brass solo material to tie seemingly disparate harmonic material together. With the eloquently executed Journeyman, Orfe makes the unfamiliar comprehensible. Upon the first applause, I rushed inside to my seat, regretting I hadn’t been there in time to experience Journeyman up close.

Also on the program was an unlikely pairing of David Lang’s increase, and Charles Wuorinen’s Big Spinoff, in its New York premiere. This unlikelihood is not so much due to innate incongruity as to history. I was struck by the remarkable similarities in these works from proponents of two very different schools: Lang’s canonic reverb effects, syncopated gestures and flute motives reminiscent of Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint against Wuorinen’s frenetic percussion and thematic ADHD, flitting quickly from idea to idea. This all seemed like it could derive from the same mind. Curious, that, considering Lang’s letter to New York Times in 1988 wherein he throws Wuorinen some major shade for declaiming the decline of the Serialist school. Lang states, “He [Wuorinen] is very unhappy about the decline of his school, and he equates that decline with the end of civilization.” True, this article was written 25 years ago, but it’s still poignant to consider: if two very separate processes create comparable results in terms of affect, are they really that different.

Donnacha Dennehy - Photo by Sophie Elbrick

Donnacha Dennehy – Photo by Sophie Elbrick

The longest work on the program, comprising the entire second half, was Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy’s Scenes from The Hunger, another New York premiere. Ultimately to be performed in it’s entirety by Dawn Upshaw and Alarm Will Sound, this quasi song-cycle made commanding use of mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway and recorded song, which informs the development of the work. Ms. Calloway brought powerful fire to Dennehy’s low, weeping lines, but lost some of that bombast as the piece approached the high end of her tessitura. The mid-1800’s Great Irish Famine serves as thematic inspiration for the work, though thankfully it avoids contrived, ‘Irish-sounding’ tonality while still remaining rooted in a morbid sort of nationalism.

The centerpiece of the program, in my mind, was Tyondai Braxton’s Fly By Wire. Braxton has been producing work in the liminal space between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music cultures for quite some time. Braxton gravitates timbrally to amplified guitar tremolos, synth swells and frenzied tempos, the work being a striking synthesis of Braxton’s two worlds of creation. Beginning with a phase-like string duet that extrapolates on itself, the piece channels technology, Romanticism, and even a bit of mariachi before exploding into a sick military fanfare like something Shostakovich and Prokofiev would have argued about. Prominent viola solos were executed with apparent ease by AWS’ violist, John Pickford Richards. The exuberant finish, as unrelenting as it is jubilant, might be a parody of the Romantics. If it was, the delivery was a bit unconvincing. Still, Fly By Wire stood out on a program of too-cool complexity for it’s gall and, at times, blatant silliness. That’s brave.

Forrest Wu is a recovering viola player based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @4stWu.