Q&A: Alarm Will Sound

Alarm Will Sound: 1969

By the end of the 1960s, The Beatles had been absent from any kind of live performance for years. This supposed retirement from commercial concerts, however, never fully quelled speculation that the group could return to the stage in some way. Of the various conjectured shows, none held more what-if potential than a rumored collaboration between the Fab Four and German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

According to a vague report noted in a biography by author Michael Kurtz, Stockhausen was said to have arranged a meeting with one of The Beatles at his New York apartment in 1969 to discuss a joint concert, but a blizzard ultimately kept the two parties apart. Between Paul McCartney occasionally citing a fascination with Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge” in interviews, The Beatles including a image of him in the cover crowd of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and John Lennon’s “Revolution 9” getting regular critical comparisons to Stockhausen’s Hymnen, The Beatles and Stockhausen maintained at least a shred of connectivity to make such a collaboration possible.

Though the rendezvous, like most hearsay, has been proven to be devoid of truth, fiction has never gotten in the way of inspiration. Such is the case with avant-garde ensemble Alarm Will Sound and its most recent work, 1969. Mixing musical composition, scripted acting, audio dialogue, and archival video, the group’s live production uses the myth of the would-be collaboration as a jumping-off point to examine a time period rife with political, artistic, and social change. ALARM recently spoke with the ensemble’s conductor, Alan Pierson, to discuss the new work, its combination of history and falsehood, and why the year of 1969 was such a big deal.

Let me ask you about 1969. How did this concept develop?

We had been working on this for a long time. In a way, it goes back to those composer portraits as one-composer concerts. Those sorts of concerts, we felt, were a really good way for us to be developing our reputation in New York. But at a certain point, we felt like we wanted to do something broader than that. What I liked about the composer portraits was that they were a way of creating a contemporary music concert that really felt like an event, rather than just a collection of pieces.

There was a really special kind of vibe that you got when you had people walking into a hall to experience an entire evening of Steve Reich or of György Ligeti. The question was “How [do we] create that kind of experience with a broader repertoire?” and “What is a way to bring together really different kinds of music in a coherent framework?”

We did a couple of things along those lines. We did a show called Odd Couples at Carnegie Hall in 2006, which I think was really successful. But as we started brainstorming ideas for concerts, one thing I started thinking about was this idea of doing music of a single year and using a period of time as a way to connect really different kinds of music. Nineteen sixty-nine just emerged pretty quickly in that process as a really interesting time to look at. In the process of looking at that more deeply, I stumbled on this story of the planned meeting between Stockhausen and The Beatles, and it just seemed like too great a story not to tell.

What is it about Lennon and Stockhausen that makes 1969 center around their potential meet-up? What is their juxtaposition supposed to represent?

In the show, we really characterize it as a meeting between Stockhausen and Lennon. But the source where this comes from only talks about Stockhausen and The Beatles — someone from The Beatles, or multiple people from The Beatles. Out of the need to make it a dramatic reality for the show, we turned it into Lennon, but that is from our own imagination. There are a couple of reasons why that event seemed like it needed to be the center of a show. One is just the nature of who we are as Alarm Will Sound. This seemed like a kind of symbol of a coming-together of these very separate worlds of popular music and art music. Alarm Will Sound has always tried to take a very broad view of the musical world and look at what is out there for us to play, not as being one kind of music or another kind of music, but as being the totality of what is happening now musically.

The concert and album that we did of music by Aphex Twin, I think, communicated that really strongly to people. Here was a new music group that was not just doing music by the sort of usual suspects that were writing for classical instruments, but was taking on electronica and figuring out how to play it. We looked at that meeting [between Stockhausen and The Beatles] and the idea of that meeting as having a kind of ancestral affinity to what we were trying to do as an ensemble.

How do you regard the finished product? Do you see it as an offshoot of musical theater? Is it film theater or an amalgamation of music mash-ups?

It is a concert that eludes categorization. It is certainly not a musical. It is certainly not a conventional concert. I guess I would characterize it as a theater piece in which music has a central role. Many of the pieces of music that we are visiting during the course of the event are kinds of collages that bring together many different elements and try to do so in a way that has a sort of continuity and integrity.

That is everything, from “Revolution 9” to Stockhausen’s Hymnen to Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. It was something that was happening a lot in different realms during the late 1960s. In a way, 1969 has taken the form of the music that it’s talking about — the show itself has become a kind of collage that does tell a story. We are combining music and theater and image into this sort of indescribable unity that hopefully tells this story — more than tells the story, but brings people into this world of 1969.

The production definitely has an interesting thing to say between pop music and something more avant-garde or abstract. Do you feel that the distance between rock and the avant-garde has gotten smaller or larger over time?

Without a doubt, smaller. In 1969, you feel how big that gulf was at the time that these people were trying to cross. And that’s part of why they really feel like pioneers, because that gulf was pretty big in 1969. Looking at people like Leonard Bernstein and Stockhausen and The Beatles — who are all characters in the show, who were all seeing the possibility of making those connections and were reaching across that gulf — I have a lot of respect for that, seeing how big that chasm was then. It’s much closer now. There are concerts happening all the time that elude an easy categorization. I think that minimalism has been a big part of that; you now have that common language. So much of rock music has been influenced by minimalism. It’s rare to find a piece of concert music that doesn’t, in some way, show the mark of minimalism or seems untouched by it.

I look at someone like Caleb Burhans, who’s one of Alarm Will Sound’s violinists, whose music is very deeply influenced by post-rock. I look at groups like Dirty Projectors that we collaborated with a year ago, which is a really great indie band now, whose work has the kind of complexity that you would expect to see in a contemporary music concert. Those kinds of collaborations that we did feel very natural now because the boundaries are much less present. It’s hard to imagine how a collaboration like that would have worked 40 or 50 years ago.

Is it exciting to be performing 1969 in front of individuals who lived through that time period? Has anybody ever come up to you and said, “I was there, I lived through that?”

Yeah, we’ve gotten a lot of those kinds of comments. One of the major, non-composer characters of the show is Father Berrigan, who was a Catholic Priest and staunch anti-war activist during the time. Someone came up to me after the Carnegie performance and said, “I hid him; I was part of a group that hid him from the police,” after some of the events that we talked about in 1969. There are lots of people who came up after the show and shared personal experiences of the events that we’re talking about.

We’ve heard a lot that people are really moved by what they see and feel a special kind of resonance watching this story and these events being recreated and the time being recreated on the stage. And that’s really satisfying. As someone who didn’t live through those events, it’s clearly an extraordinary time in history. It was important for us not just to tell a story of it, but to try, in some way, to capture it and bring it to life on stage.

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