5 questions to Alan Pierson (conductor, artistic director)

Alan Pierson is the conductor and artistic director of both the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Alarm Will Sound.  The Brooklyn Phil’s headline concert on June 8 [sold out] and 9 at BAM, entitled “You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance,” will feature an original collaboration between Erykah Badu and composer Ted Hearne, inspired by Erykah’s album, New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War.

How did this project come about? The Brooklyn Phil has been doing some pretty bold programs this season, but this one seems to be on a different level, musically, conceptually, and logistically.

Yasiin Bey and his mom, Umi, introduced me to Erykah last summer after her show at the Afropunk Festival. Richard Dare had sent me her “Window Seat” video, and I thought she’d be a fascinating choice for a Brooklyn Phil collaborator. Yasiin, Umi, and I talked to Erykah about what the Brooklyn Phil was doing, and she immediately suggested New Amerykah as ground for an orchestral collaboration. I thought it was a great idea; the sonic richness and conceptual ambitions of those albums made them ripe for a symphonic treatment.

Alan Pierson - photo by Michael Rubenstein

Alan Pierson – photo by Michael Rubenstein

Ever since the days of Charlie Parker’s With Strings album, scores of “popular” artists have professed a strong desire to work with symphony orchestra musicians, and yet so often the end result of these projects is largely sterile: the two sides don’t know how to speak each other’s language. How do you plan to avoid that pitfall in “You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance”, both artistically and culturally?

I think about this issue a lot. To make this kind of collaboration work, it can’t feel to the audience like the artists don’t speak each other’s languages. There has to be a sense of authenticity. I think one of the keys to doing this right is to involve people who speak both languages. This is part of why Ted Hearne is the right guy for this project: he came to this project already loving Erykah and her music, already understanding her language, already fluent in the musical idioms she was drawing on, and already interested in the social ideas she was grappling with. (And, of course, he’s also just a great composer and orchestrator.)

There are also key people in the orchestra who speak both languages: Wayne du Maine, our acting principal trumpet, and Gregg August, our acting principal bass, are both as comfortable in the jazz world as the classical one and are well-versed in Erykah’s music and its idiom. And Debbie Buck, our concert master, is a brilliant stylistic chameleon, which is just the sort of person you want leading the orchestra on this sort of exploration. All of these people help to bridge the gap so that we’re all connecting and communicating despite the different worlds we come from. And I look to them in the rehearsal process to help lead the orchestra and help make sure that what we’re doing feels authentic.

It’s also essential, I think, that projects like this aim high artistically. Ted and I spoke from the beginning about trying to do something which would live enough in Erykah’s musical idiom that her audience would connect to it, but that would also aim to do something really creative, ambitious, and great with the orchestra. And something that would expound on the ideas that Erykah is exploring in the album. I think it’s always important in collaborations like this to think about why you’re doing it and about what the orchestra brings to the project. In this case, the whole project emerges from the Phil’s mission to explore local culture and collaborate with great local artists.

One of Alarm Will Sound’s most audacious achievements is the 2005 Acoustica album, which consisted of transcriptions of some really wild Aphex Twin tracks. There you seemed to be testing the limits of how far live musicians could go in getting under the skin of the EDM idiom. Do you see your work with Erykah Badu and Mos Def as an extension of this, and if so, how has getting classically trained players to achieve the “authentic” performance practice for African American music differed from the rehearsal process for Acoustica?

It’s an interesting comparison. They’re very different sorts of projects: with Acoustica, I felt that the key to making the project feel authentic and artistically exciting was to keep a laser focus on the original tracks, with the orchestration and performance meticulously recreating acoustically each of Aphex Twin’s electronic sounds. With the Erykah Badu collaboration, we’ve had very different ambitions. Here, Ted is really creating new symphonic work which builds on the original songs and their ideas. What we’ve really put together is a single 45 minute long piece which incorporates a bunch of songs from the album. So there’s a lot of original material in this project, which wasn’t the case with Acoustica. And this is also a project which is concerned with the social and political ideas of Erykah’s album, whereas Acoustica was really focused just on Aphex Twin’s sounds and music.

But the two projects do share some of the same challenges. Both have involved forays into genres that I wasn’t initially that familiar or comfortable with. And in both cases, I think that finding a sense of authenticity is key to making it work. Also in both cases, I think it’s been really important and helpful to have people in the ensemble who really understand the idioms that we’re dealing with as well as they understand the world of classically-trained musicians.

The predominant whiteness of our symphony orchestras continues to be perhaps the greatest unspoken collective shame of our post-Obama classical music culture. To its great credit, however, the Brooklyn Phil seems to be one of the few orchestras in the country making a concerted effort to address this problem, through its programming, outreach programs, and the establishment of a definite “community” identity. How do these issues intersect in “You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance”?

Well, we’re still a predominantly white orchestra performing in a mostly non-white community, so I think that’s a problem. The Brooklyn Phil has been trying in numerous ways to not only put down roots in its community, but to really harness the power of that community with programs like Outside-In and last year’s Beethoven remix competition.  And with collaborations as far ranging as our Russian cartoon music project, explorations of Brooklyn histories, performances with local writers, and projects like what we’re doing with Erykah. I’m very interested in what can come from opening up the palette of the symphony orchestra to people who don’t think of the orchestra as something through which they can express themselves. I think that doing all of that work and having those motivations at the core of the programming helps make this project feel really authentic and substantial.

Finally, how do you balance the imperatives of “relevance” and the more traditional mission of the symphony orchestra – for which, after all, the Brooklyn Phil musicians will have spent many years training? Or do you not see them as being mutually exclusive?

I’m a very mission driven person, so for me, programming is really driven by the mission of an organization. And for the Brooklyn Phil, “relevance” is very much a part of the organization’s mission. So there’s no contradiction there. But it’s always on my mind to find ways to bring to the table the great work from the classical canon, and it’s sometimes challenging to find ways to do that that make sense in the projects we’re doing.

Last year, Yasiin was really excited about developing lyrics for Beethoven, and we dreamed up the Beethoven remix project as a way to meaningfully connect the classical canon into the territory of that show. I’d have loved for this upcoming concert to include a similar gesture, for there to be some way to involve that canon that would feel right here. But none of us could think of one that felt good enough, and I didn’t want to force it. Concert programs for me have to feel authentic too, and just cramming a piece from the standard repertoire onto the program because I wanted there to be one wouldn’t have felt like an authentic gesture. But this is an ongoing challenge for me.

Tickets for “You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance” can be purchased at BAM’s website.  You can learn more about Alarm Will Sound at