Although I still have other shows to write about, I wanted to put some words down about the concert I saw tonight (Tuesday night), Alarm Will Sound at the Library of Congress. This was the best show I’ve seen since the spring — I really haven’t seen a show since then that’s had me smiling gleefully in the midst of it, but this one had exactly that effect on me.
Alarm Will Sound is a large ensemble of about 18-20 mostly quite young musicians, playing mostly classical instrumentation (a couple violins, viola, cello, bass, various winds, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano etc) but with a few notable exceptions. I think they made it onto my radar because I heard about the album of Aphex Twin interpretations they did a couple years ago. In any case, their repertoire now is something they’re calling “a/rhythmia,” in which they play a bunch of pieces that are all based on a steady pulse, but that fuck with them either by layering additional rhythms on top or simply by messing around incessantly with said steady pulse. I’m a pretty beat-based music listener (with the exception of the various ambient musics I’ve started getting into fairly recently), and as a fan of prog and RIO, in which unusual rhythms are the norm, this was a pretty ideal program for me.
Of the pieces they played — interpretations of everything from 20th century Western classical music to rock to electronica to early music (pre-1500) — my absolute favorite was something called “Yo Shakespeare” by Michael Gordon. For this piece, the ensemble shifted around their instrumentation considerably, ditching some of the acoustic instruments for three Fender Rhodes and two electric guitars, in addition to an assortment of acoustic strings and horns. The music was a loud, polyrhythmic, dissonant cacophony that sounded to me like it could have been a direct influence on Zs, that insanely awesome avant-rock band that rocks out like crazy while focusing on intricate charts the whole time. Imagine Zs‘ material fleshed out for an ensemble of 20, with many of the resulting possibilities for increased complexity and poly-everything explored to the fullest, and you get some idea of what this piece was like. My feet kept tapping out some of the rhythms in this one for at least 20 minutes after the piece was over.
Another highlight was a composition by Harrison Birtwistle called “Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum,” a disorienting slice of postwar classical experimentation that reminded me a lot of (and I’m probably showing my total lack of knowledge when it comes to this kind of thing) Penderecki’s more chaotic stuff, in effect if not really in sound. The group also played several pieces by Conlon Nancarrow that I found really appealing — each of these compositions started off with very simple jazz or blues-inspired melodies and basically layered them on top of each other, with the melody played simultaneously by mini-ensembles playing in several different meters. These pieces were some of the the most immediately comprehensible, and accessibly beautiful, examples of complex polyrhythm that I’ve heard.
Then there were the electronica pieces. A low-key piece by Aphex Twin based on a simple bass drum beat was given life by the performers constantly shifting position, first throughout the concert hall as they meandered down the aisles while playing, and then on the stage. And a manic piece by Mochipet, “Dessert Search for Techno Baklava” (clearly a play on Mr. Bungle’s “Desert Search for Techno Allah”), was fun to watch just to see these musicians tackling a composition not meant to be played by humans; their speed and dexterity was impressive, although the song appeared to my ears at least to lack the some of complexity of the rest of the program. But maybe that’s just because it was all flying by too fast for me to hear.
Finally there was a cover of a song by The Shaggs. If you don’t know it, their story is worth reading. For the purposes of this entry, though, all you need to know is that they were called “the most horrible rock band in the world” by the New York Times, which probably isn’t too far off the mark if you’re concerned with things like conventional ideas about instrumental talent, compositional chops, the ability to sing and play in tune, etc. But here’s what the text of the concert program said:
“…the rhythmic complexity of the other arrangement of commercial music, Philosophy of the World by The Shaggs, may not be the result of intelligence… The drummer seems to be flailing, the vocals and guitar are completely out of tune, and all three are never in time with one another… It is not clear whether the complexity of their music is accidental or deliberate.
One of the guys in Alarm Will Sound apparently decided to take the Shaggs’ complexity seriously, and the ensemble’s cover of “Philosophy of the World” was actually pretty great, taking the original song’s hilariously inept drumming (they played a recording of the original first) and turning it into an asset, an insanely shifting meter that formed the basis for other rhythmic shenanigans in which the rest of the ensemble indulged.
What a pleasant surprise this was. It’s like I unwittingly stumbled into a “Classical In Opposition” concert. I expected stuff like the Ligeti and even the Birtwistle, but the overt rhythms and complex beats in the other pieces was what really sold it for me. Really great fun. Sounds like the ensemble are releasing some pieces from this repertoire on a forthcoming CD, which I’ll definitely be looking into.