This year's Artist in Residence program brings Alarm Will Sound, one of the most creative ensembles working today, to the Met. Just beyond the cutting edge of music, dance, and theater, this hugely respected and highly accomplished group of performer-composers turns its collective imagination for one year to the Met's permanent collection and galleries. The Alarm Will Sound you'll see from the stage is a large, twenty-member ensemble—young, intent, unstuffy—presenting virtuosic compositions. They approach performances with an unwavering unity and intuition as a group, which is especially impressive given that they live in nine different states (and Canada) and converge upon a location for a performance or rehearsal. The group has developed a reputation for taking on daring musical compositions and championing contemporary composers, and has emerged as one of the most vital ensembles on the scene.
As their first performance of the season (Friday, October 11) approaches, I had a chance to chat with Artistic Director and Conductor Alan Pierson to talk about the ensemble—although they prefer to call it a band.
Alarm Will Sound is entering its thirteenth season. How did the group come together?
We were all students together at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, and I was part of this group Ossia, which was a student-created group. Gavin [Chuck, the Managing Director] and I were two of the founders. It was a new music laboratory—we'd look into exciting ways to put concerts together, the "playing together" craft, and the "putting together cool concerts" craft. So when we were graduating and had the "What do I do with my life?" moment, we made Alarm Will Sound to take that chemistry and explore the possibilities.
You were a founding member of the ensemble, and quickly became the Conductor and Artistic Director. Was Alarm Will Sound one of your first ventures into being a conductor?
Alarm Will Sound was always cooperative, and I was Artistic Director and Conductor from the beginning, but I had conducting experience before. From Ossia I gained a lot of experience, and I went to school at MIT and did some conducting. I had even conducted in high school.
As a group you have such a vast repertory, Alarm Will Sound has been called omnivorous. What are some of the most challenging pieces in your repertory?
Thomas Adès's [Living Toys], I think, is the most challenging. It's been a record in terms of the number of hours of rehearsal in comparison to the length of the piece. And we still have more rehearsal! It's a ferociously hard piece.
Alarm Will Sound has made a name for itself performing the music of contemporary composers, but for your first performance here you'll be playing older works. How did you select the pieces?
We don't generally approach repertory like it's hanging in a museum. We usually perform music that was made for us, which is very different from the museum sensibility—meaning something that's been studied before. Everything we play is something that's been created for us. We've always had an interest in these composers, and we have forayed into older repertory, but we always try to put a uniquely Alarm Will Sound spin on it. Collaborating with the Met led to exploring this idea further—what would a new music ensemble's "permanent collection" look like? It was a fun brainstorming session.
Not all of the twenty members of Alarm Will Sound live near each other. How often are you all able to get together for rehearsals?
On average we get together once a month. When we created Alarm Will Sound we decided it was about its members and players. Because we were in a transitional place in our lives—graduating from college—we were committing to the people, not the place. That commitment means a lot to us. It's a really nice thing when we come together; we have a great time. It's like a reunion. In a way, it says something about the spirit of the group.
You often have to travel for performances. Does that make the residency at the Met a home base for the year, in a way?
Yes, absolutely. That is part of what we're interested in now. The Met residency and what we're doing in St. Louis [at the Mizzou New Music Summer Music Festival] is developing homes bases. Being everywhere is an important part of Alarm Will Sound's DNA, but we thought putting down some roots would be a good idea.
What performance are you looking forward to the most during this residency?
Playing the Steve Reich piece [Radio Rewrite] for the first time in New York is a big deal. It's something that was created for us, and to play it in New York is exciting. So that is something we're majorly anticipating. Also, in The Permanent Collection, getting to play Wagner is the craziest thing. It's something we don't usually do and it's a beautiful piece. In the spring we have the site-specific collaborations: working with [composer] Kate Soper and Nigel Maiser, who is our Staging Director; they're creating this expressive piece [I Was Here I Was I], and the Dance Heginbotham performance [Twinned] in the Charles Engelhard Court! John Heginbotham is a choreographer that I've wanted to work with for a long time. It will be a piece connecting music to movement all around this great electronic music by [Edgard] Varèse and [Tyondai] Braxton.
Pretty much I'm looking forward to everything!
There's this amazing quality of openness with your fans and followers, breaking down that barrier between the stage and the audience. Do you feel that spirit translates to your performances?
Yes, absolutely. Part of what is nice about Alarm Will Sound is the vibe of the people. We love working together. I'm always in awe of these musicians and have so much respect for them. I learn from them all the time. They are really interesting characters and great technicians.
You also seem to all have a refreshing sense of humor. What's it like backstage, half an hour before a performance?
Well, before performances everyone does their own thing. Some are practicing, some are taking a nap, and some are perfecting their make-up. You really get a sense of us after the show. We're a party hard kind of ensemble. I mean, I'm not—I'm the first one to go home. But when we get together we get really silly, laugh, and have a good time.
Alarm Will Sound begins their yearlong residency at the Met on Friday, October 11. See a list of their performances at the Met.