Editor: Marc Bridle
Webmaster: Len Mullenger
Seen and Heard International Festival Review
Lincoln Center Festival 2005 (IV): Unremixed: The Music of Richard D. James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin, Alarm Will Sound, The Allen Room, Time Warner Center, New York City, 24 July, 2005 (BH)
Alarm Will Sound
Conductor and Artistic Director: Alan Pierson
Guest DJ: Richard Devine
Guest Composer: Stefan Freund
Martha Cluver, voice, tambura, violin
Courtney Orlando, violin, piano, voice, triangle
Caleb Burhans, violin, voice, electric guitar, piano, water hose
John Pickford Richards, viola, accordion
Stefan Freund, violoncello, air pump
Miles Brown, double bass, electric bass, engraving tool
Jessica Johnson, flute, piccolo, alto flute, slide whistle, slapstick
Jacqueline Leclair, oboe, English horn
Elisabeth Stimpert, clarinet, bass clarinet, Jew’s harp, spring drum
Bill Kalinkos, clarinet, alto saxophone
Michael Harley, bassoon, refrigerator-rack lamellaphone
Matt Marks, horn, horsoon, hose horn
Jason Price, trumpet, duck call, dressage whip
James Hirschfeld, trombone
John Orfe, keyboards
Payton MacDonald, percussion, plastic tubing
Jason Treuting, drum set, percussion
Lawson White, drum set, percussion, mbira
Peter Wise, percussion, mbira
Dennis DeSantis, percussion, dressage whip
Alan Pierson, conductor, cocktail-stirrer kalimba
When members of this intrepid group were first discussing this project, the question was raised, "Could this end up being like The New York Philharmonic Plays the Bee Gees?" To the immense credit of Alarm Will Sound and perhaps the relief of some in the audience, the answer to that question would be a resounding "no." Of course, the fact that these musicians play with ferocious accuracy – regardless of repertoire – may have had something to do with it.
In the world of electronic dance music, Richard D. James (known by his moniker, Aphex Twin) has created a cult following, mostly due to his wildly imaginative use of sampled sounds, using sources and techniques that are a closely guarded secret, only adding to his mystique. Alarm Will Sound, willing to wade into deep cultural waters, decided to aurally examine some of James’ compositions and then transcribe them into notated form, playable on acoustic instruments. To review the process in another way: Mr. James has collected all types of sounds and then manipulated them electronically to produce his music. Alarm Will Sound then carefully listened to James’ material, dissecting every millisecond, and then determining what instrument, instruments, or "other" was needed to exactly duplicate James’ music, so that it could be notated and subsequently played by any ensemble similar to this one. Just one look at the instrumentation (listed in the credits above) will help explain, and afterward, talking with several Aphex Twin fans left no doubt in my mind about the level of detail that had been achieved, courtesy of some extraordinary listening and translation skills.
Impressive archaeology aside, this was an intriguing exercise in many ways, creating some fascinating listening and enlarging the boundaries of what constitutes "chamber music repertoire." Most of the packed house (sold out for months) seemed composed of those eager to abandon expectations about what a "classical" concert might be. Thanks to specially designed lighting, different for each piece, I often felt as if I were inside a jazz club.
To quote briefly from the program notes by Gavin Chuck:
"The push and pull between machine precision and human performance, between electronic and acoustic sound, between transcribing and arranging became the productive tension that drove the project. Alan [Pierson] came down on the side of sticking as close to the originals as possible. So we listened to the tracks over and over again, trying to transcribe every sampled sound into notation. We hit the aisles of Wal-Mart and scoured the crammed shelves of Larry’s Trading Post in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, looking for objects that would make the strange sounds we heard on the tunes. And we pushed our instruments to do things they were never intended to do."
I fretted briefly after the opener, called 4, which seemed just a tad bland, but most of what followed was exuberant, ear-tingling, and I’d bet if there had been space for dancing in the hall, some of the audience would have made its way down to the floor. I especially liked Fingerbib (arranged by Jonathan Newman) which began with a piece of paper being torn in half, blue calx (Caleb Burhans) that uses bowed marimba over a sharp rapping beat, and Omgyjya Switch 7 (Evan Hause) that ends with four players making a whirring sound by whirling lengths of plastic tubing over their heads.
In between, Richard Devine took the spotlight at his laptop, creating four Remixes – all electronic, with occasional acoustic accompaniment like a tangy muted trumpet – which were not only tingling on their own terms, but evoked Aphex Twin’s electronic originals. Devine is his own man, however, listing influences as diverse as Chopin, Satie, Subotnick and Stockhausen, and using equipment specially designed to meet his appetite for subverting expectations. Onstage, the musicians’ eyes were glued to Devine’s keyboard, and their unwavering concentration made me wish that his computer screen were projected above, somewhere in the room so that we, too, could observe his intricate manipulations.
As the moon rose, visible outside the sleek glass wall of the Allen Room, I was thinking that this space might be the ideal backdrop for this ensemble. Cellist (and air pump player) Stefan Freund supplied the final world premiere, pointedly titled Unremixed, a driving, tense barrage that had more than a little Bartók and Stravinsky peeping through. In yet another perspective to add to our seminar, Mr. Freund perfectly united the evening’s concepts by composing a few minutes in the same universe as the Aphex Twin orchestrations, but in this case not derived from other material. Kudos to Mr. Pierson and this bracing ensemble for asking so many questions yet having the grace to leave some unanswered, for taking time to highlight their collective process of inquiry and research, and for harvesting the intriguing results.
For more information: www.alarmwillsound.com