5 Questions to Gavin Chuck (Executive Director, Alarm Will Sound)

Gavin Chuck is Executive Director and a composer for Alarm Will Sound, a 22-member ensemble known for engaging with the music of our day with classical skill and daring curiosity. Alarm Will Sound’s eighth season of adventurous music programming in St. Louis features world premieres by Tyshawn Sorey, Alyssa Pyper, Lucrecia Dalt, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Toshi Reagon, as well as music of José Martinez and Hans Abrahamsen. In advance of their season opening performance on November 9, we caught up with Gavin to learn more about this year’s plans.

This is the first season featuring projects supported by the Matt Marks Impact Fund. What led to the formation of the fund, and what are its aims?

Taking risks is in the DNA of Alarm Will Sound, but it can be hard to find partners who will commission and present work that they find too risky; usually, this is because the work is unconventional, or the creator is unknown to them. Basically, resources flow to more well-known people and practices, excluding others. So we started talking in 2017 about creating a fund that would allow Alarm Will Sound to be among the first to take a chance on someone or something new. We figured others would take the leap after we did because we would lower their risk. We decided to call it the Artistic Risk & Impact Fund because the point of taking a risk is to make an impact. We realized that we would have the most impact by pushing the envelope of our music-making, and by opening our field to composers who are systematically excluded. Matt was very active in our discussions of these ideas because they were important to him. When he died, we named the fund in his memory to embody the values that he shared with us, and to model ourselves on his inclusive leadership in the field.

Matt Marks

Matt Marks

How did Alarm Will Sound come to be presenting a series in St. Louis, and what benefits accrue from it?

Alarm Will Sound is almost 20! And the successes we’ve had over that length of time are due to our members, so it’s important that we maintain our membership, even though we live all over the place. It’s totally worth it, but being spread out creates lots of challenges. Since 2012, the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have helped us meet those challenges in St. Louis, where we develop and program work we believe in while engaging an audience in the middle of the country. Having the familiarity of this kind of second home allows us to concentrate on innovation. An example of our innovation of the concert experience is this year’s second event, which is a “live podcast” that tells the story of Hans Abrahamsen and his ten-year drought in composing. We can also create innovative collaborations, especially for projects that don’t use the conventional commission-compose-rehearse-perform model. In our Alarm System program, for example, the creator may not even consider themselves a composer because they don’t use “standard” notation or didn’t go to a conservatory. In St. Louis, we have room to design a creative process around a collaborator’s own practices, however unconventional.

Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey (photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Your first concert in the series is about erasing boundaries. How so?

When we started in 2001, we were driven by a desire to bend genres and move across musical boundaries in a way that few others were doing. In 2019, genre-busting is the norm–yet the opening of this eighth St. Louis Season might be an extreme of variety across three pieces. A world premiere by Tyshawn Sorey will be very open and spacious in contrast to the high-energy density of pieces by José Martinez and AphexTwin (in a world-premiere arrangement by Stefan Freund). With Tyshawn in town, we’ve asked him to lead an added improvisation that will move the audience from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Alyssa Pyper is a new name to us. What will St. Louis hear in her work?

The third concert in the season will feature Alyssa Pyper, one of the first recipients of support from the Matt Marks Impact Fund. Alyssa’s work is based on her coming-out experience in the context of Mormon society. It expresses complicated and difficult emotions, and working with a large ensemble is a new for Alyssa, so I think she was nervous at the very beginning of our collaboration. At our second workshop, however, I was so pleased to see how comfortable she had become working in a new environment. We were asking each other all kinds of artistic and technical questions to figure out how her singer-songwriter approach and our new music approach could work together.

Allison Loggins-Hull

Allison Loggins-Hull (photo: Rafael Rios)

What can you tell us about the season-ending collaboration between Allison Loggins-Hull and Toshi Reagon?

The final program in our St. Louis season features more recipients of support from the Matt Marks Impact Fund, Allison Loggins-Hull and Toshi Reagon. The work is rooted in two long-standing African-American traditions: the oral tradition of storytelling through music, conversation, and listening; and the tradition of African-American elders writing letters to their children. Allison’s son was five years old when Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. A teacher brought this story to class and her son became frightened. She was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me to write letters of comfort and guidance to her son, which became the starting point for Love Always. She pulled in Toshi Reagon as a co-creator, whose work ranges across R&B, rock, blues, and folk and who uses her music for social activism.

The creative and collaborative openness of working with Allison, Toshi, and Alyssa is exactly what we hoped for with the Matt Marks Impact Fund. Together, we’re taking risks on work that we believe will have a big impact.