5 Questions to Alan Pierson (Artistic Director, Alarm Will Sound)

Conductor and pianist Alan Pierson is the artistic director of Alarm Will Sound, a 20-member ensemble formed in 1999 which is dedicated to performing and recording contemporary music. In April 2017, the album Splitting Adams was released on Cantaloupe Music. It is a collaboration between Alarm Will Sound and New York Public Radio’s podcast Meet the Composer, and features recordings of the music of John Adams as well as recorded interviews with the composer and performers. We asked 5 questions to Alan about the new release and AWS.

What led you to create a podcast record?

Alarm Will Sound has had a long-time interest in storytelling, and in finding creative ways to incorporate storytelling into our concert experience. We’ve done that in the past with shows like Odd Couples and 1969. And with the wonderful work that Nadia was doing on her Meet the Composer podcast, we started thinking that the podcast format could point us in a new direction for telling stories in concerts. The first thing we worked on together was a Ligeti show that we’re bringing to Carnegie Hall in 2018, which looks at the extraordinary story of Ligeti’s early-life traumas in Eastern Europe. I was really thrilled by how that show turned out, and with a John Adams chamber symphonies album project already in the works, we started thinking about a second collaboration around that.

Alarm Will Sound

Alarm Will Sound

How did the ideas of recording the chamber symphonies of John Adams and collaborating with Meet the Composer converge?

There a number of things that I think made the Adams chamber symphonies feel like the right project for a Meet the Composer collaboration. They’re pieces that are already quite well known, that have been recorded (I can’t even count how many Chamber Symphony recordings there are out there), pieces that have really already become part of the standard repertoire. They’re also pieces that we have very deep connections to — Chamber Symphony being one of the first pieces we ever played together, and Son of Chamber Symphony being written for us. And the combination of those things meant that we felt like we had stories to tell about the music that people would be interested in, and that these pieces were ripe for the kind of fresh presentation that the podcast album represented.

More generally, this seems to be a moment for looking with fresh eyes at what an album is and can be. When I was growing up, you put a CD in your player and played it all the way through. That’s not how people really listen to music anymore, and that’s made us interested in exploring new possibilities for what an album might be.

How do you translate the podcast concept for a live audience?

It’s a very different experience! The biggest difference is that in the live performance, all of the music is played and sung by Alarm Will Sound: not just the chamber symphony material, but everything — the opera, jazz, cartoon music excerpts , etc… So there’s a whole virtuoso element to the live performance of seeing the ensemble turn on a dime, leaping from one kind of music to another, It’s lots of fun!

Alan Pierson--Photo by Michal Ramus

Alan Pierson–Photo by Michal Ramus

Can you discuss the developments that led Alarm Will Sound from being a performance ensemble only to becoming involved with music theater, multimedia and music education?

Theater and multimedia were part of our vision of Alarm Will Sound from the very beginning. We always said that we didn’t want our performances to be just about playing notes, but wanted instead to create holistic experiences. It took us a few years to start creating shows, like Odd Couples in 2006 and 1969 a few years later, that lived up to those ideals, but that was always where we were headed.

Education is something we started thinking about much more recently. In 2010, we started collaborating with the University of Missouri on the International Composers Festival, which nurtures and mentors young composers. And we’re continuing to think about other ways in which AWS can meaningfully get involved education.

What are the most important things you’ve learned about getting your work—and that of the ensembles you work with—out to the world?

We’re learning that we still have a lot to learn, and that the ways of doing this are changing. When we first started out, you were on your way to having a successful album release if you got good reviews in the Guardian, the New York Times, and a couple of other major outlets. That’s all changing, with major publications writing less about music, and with interest in albums being more of a grassroots, diffuse kind of thing. We’re talking a lot about how to navigate that to best get our work out in front of as many ears as we can.