Alarm Will Sound – Just Enjoy The Spectacle

Aoife Barry talks to Nigel Maister of Alarm Will Sound ahead of their performance of John Cage’s Song Books at The Cork Opera House on June 6th.

On a blood-red stage at the Eastman School of Music in 2000, there was, as some would refer to it, a moment. During a performance of John Cage’s Song Books, members of the cast were struck by the energetic shift that they had created in the room. As the clatter of typewriters, clocks, and chess boards melded with discordant notes created by piano, cello and other instruments, the audience and musicians were brought into an exhilarating, challenging and surprising world of sound.

That feeling is something that Alarm Will Sound have tried to capture throughout their career. Members of the long-running American ensemble were on that stage, and have chased that particular high ever since. So much so that now, 12 years later, they are to bring Song Books back to the stage, but with elements that could only be possible in today’s more technologically-driven world.

Director of the performance is Nigel Maister, who spoke to Thumped about the three forthcoming Song Books performances and what they mean to the ensemble. Ireland’s Cork Opera House will play host to the event on June 6. This will be a preview of the performance’s world premiere at the Holland Festival on June 9, before it is finally performed in New York on June 15. This year marks Cage’s centennial, the American composer and performer having passed away in 1992.

The 20-strong group of musicians that makes up Alarm Will Sound is known for its work with pieces by everyone from Aphex Twin to Steve Reich. When they take someone else’s output and perform it, they deconstruct it, embrace what they love about it and generate something new. What they aim to do with Song Books is similar.

“It’s a really wonderful project but it’s also an extremely complex project,” explained Maister. “Oddly enough, this is one of those projects that when I did it 12 years ago it was just prior to when Alarm Will Sound was founded, and I think Alan Pierson the art director had felt that the kind of exuberance and performative aspect of Song Books was one of the things that he wanted to capture with Alarm Will Sound generally. The idea of coming back to this material has always been there – I think the thing that kicked it into high gear was the Cage centenary.”

Though you “can’t step in the same river twice”, as Maister put it, coming back to this material has been interesting. The main aspect of this is “thinking about what worked and what didn’t, what could do with updating, what could do with things we didn’t have access to”. One of these elements is social media, with people encouraged to contribute to the show through Facebook and Twitter, something which Maister is “pretty sure” the forward-thinking Cage would have embraced.

Meanwhile, there is a crowdfunding effort to raise $5,000 for the project. Maister has been involved with some projects that raised funds through Kickstarter, and described it as “a fascinating model. I think it gives people, again, a stake in what’s being done and I think that can only help matters.”

Given that a lot of the scores in Song Books are determined by chance, Maister felt it would be interesting to use “the media at our control”, which is social media, to try to generate some of the material for the new production. “That would not only be sort of fitting with what Cage would have wanted or would have found interesting and fun, but would also be a way of involving people in the pieces. It becomes less of an abstract thing you look at in the distance, but you can interact with, in a way.”

During the intermission, there will be even more audience participation, thanks to a performance of a piece of Cage’s called 33 1/3, which will be accessible to view online. But, cautioned Maister, “it’s not going to be a ‘social media event’”.

The instructions given to online participants could raise a chuckle – if you have a webcam and internet access, you’re invited to perform Solo 61 from Song Books. The instructions? “Do some mathematics on your fingers. Sound of the first frog in Spring. Nightingale. Smoke. Applaud.” It’s music performance, Jim, but not as we know it – and that’s precisely the point.

Although Song Books won’t be a “traditional concert experience”, Maister said “the experience of Song Books should be an enormously enjoyable and entertaining one as well as interesting and provocative”. But at the same time, the intriguing directions don’t mean that the aim of the game is to be deliberately wacky. Maister described Cage as not being neglected, but a man who “kind of always is seen as a fringe composer” to a degree.

“I think [with] Cage’s work the danger is people have a sense that ‘anything goes’,” cautioned Maister. “Actually, that’s not true at all – there’s a rigour to the work.” His approach to composing offers much to both audience and performer. “Sometimes the simplest things he asks can be very demanding and complicated. But that being said, there is also enormous freedom in the work that co-exists with that. I think the kind of multiplicity of media that exists in the world now in some ways makes Cage really with it, and he’s very modern in some areas.”

Still, it doesn’t mean the lack of convention means that things are easy. “I think for the performers, performing Cage is quite difficult for some of them. It relies less on traditional technique and musical prowess and more on a kind of understanding of how you perform, and takes a creativity of mind that is less structured than traditional music.”

Cage was someone who broke through musical boundaries, which strikes an offbeat chord with Alarm Will Sound. “The notion of what constitutes ‘serious music’ has changed,” said Maister. “Alarm Will Sound is a group that does everything from what is traditional, standard contemporary music but also to stuff like electronic and popular genres and that’s now considered fine. It’s fine for a serious musical ensemble to embrace the pop. I think the things that Cage asks of us as a composer and as an artist, [we can] embrace.”

Above all, Alarm Will Sound don’t want the audience to wrestle with notions about what is expected in Cage’s music. The aim, assured Maister, is simple: To “just enjoy the spectacle and the all-involving nature of it”.

Alarm Will Sound bring John Cage’s Song Book’s to the Cork Opera House on June 6th.

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