I spent a part of my summer break in London visiting a good friend from my university. One of the things I did was to discover Wilton's Music Hall, the oldest grand music hall in the world and so inconnu that taxi drivers did not know it existed.
When my flatmate and I arrived (thanks to a GPS) we were greeted with the sight of a building in such a state of decay you were not quite sure how it had stood the test of time. The walls were cracked everywhere, the paint had faded and the wood looked more innate than normal, and yet all this contributed to a feeling of being caught in the past that was even different to how it feels to live in Oxford (despite Wilton's Music Hall being from 1828).
I had been on the look for the music they played there, and that evening it was an intriguing 20-member "band" from New York called Alarm Will Sound. More than a band it was a classical ensemble, only that they did not play classical music in the conventional sense. Alarm Will Sound hails down from the same contemporary classical music environment as that of the lauded New York musician Nico Muhly (Philip Glass's protegé), among others.
It might be tempting to try and compare Alarm Will Sound and the music it produces to composers like Philip Glass (Glassworks, 1981), Edgar Varèse (Ionisation, 1929) or John Cage (Bacchanale), but this comparison would fail because the ensemble does not focus on minimalism or aleatoric music, instead opting to focus on the merging of different media (the spoken and the played). Alarm Will Sound has more in common with its contemporary Nico Muhly: Mothertongue or Clear Music.
Emerging from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, in New York, the members of the ensemble are both well versed and trained in classical music as they are in the avant garde canon of the 20th and 21st century. Their director, Alan Pierson remarks that the ensemble works because it features "18 to 20 people that not only play really well, but also improvise ... they're all steeped in jazz and world music". They have worked with modernist compositions by figures such as Edgar Varèse and Harrison Birtwistle as well as the work of minimalist composers like Steve Reich and John Adams.
The programme of the evening included interpretations of "intelligent dance music" by Aphex Twin: Meltplace 6 (arr. Payton MacDonald), Omgyiya Switch 7 (arr. Evan Hause), Blue Calx (arr. Caleb Burhans) and Cock ver 10 (arr. Stefan Freund) as well as by a band on the same (Warp Records) label called Autechre: Cfern (arr. Dennis De Santis). The Aphex Twin reinterpretations were very interesting, combining beautiful xylophone with trombone, violin with cello and many unorthodox instruments (e.g. saws) as well as sporadic chants, shouts and whispers.
The programme then included deliveries of modern classical compositions by John Orfe: Chamber Symphony, German composer Wolfgang Rihm: Will Sound and Michael Gordon: Yo Shakespeare.
As a more esoteric inclusion was the rendering of Beatles' Revolution 9, the track now known as Lennon and McCartney's vibrant and unabashed take on musique concrète. The arrangement by Matt Marks made use of a very broad range of instruments (besides the vocal contributions of various chamber players) including everything from violins to cat horns. The repetition of the phrase "number nine" proved to be a core element of the rendition, very much in the spirit of Nico Muhly.
Album-wise, the highlights of Alarm Will Sound currently released (some of the pieces played at Wilton were brand new) must be the renditions of Aphex Twin's Blue Calx and 4 from the album Acoustica.