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Alarm Will Sound

December 3, 2007

I don't much like going to Stanford University's Dinkelspiel Hall. Even in good traffic conditions, it's an hour and a half's drive each way. The venue is ugly and has terrible acoustics. The concessions are pathetic (bottled water and soggy cookies) and the nearest place to get a beer or coffee in the evening is a 2-mile drive away.

But the downsides of an evening at Dinkelspiel were well worth putting up with on Friday night when I experienced a performance by the 20-member American new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound.

The group of agile musicians performed the world premiere of John Adams' Son of Chamber Symphony -- a follow-up piece to the composer's original chamber symphony written in 1992. The fact that choreographer Mark Morris will set the music to dance as part of San Francisco Ballet's 2008 season doesn't surprise me. The work is as rhythmic as a runaway train. It has a dancer's energy about it and there are beautiful wind solos in the middle movement that will no doubt lend themselves beautifully to Morris' expressive, elegiac style.

The San Jose Mercury News published an interesting Q&A with Adams about his new piece (and other subjects.) Like this new symphony's forebear, I think this work will receive hundreds of performances in the coming years. I'm sure it won't be long before we get to hear "father" and "son" together on a concert hall program.

Three other works stood out for me in Alarm Will Sound's program, all of them very different. The first was an adaptation for voice and strings of the late Medieval composer Johannes Ciconia's Le Ray Au Soleyl, which slid under my skin for its startling combination of ancient rhythms and modern harmonies. This new music ensemble should make old music a regular feature of its repertoire. The second was a piece by the Daly City-based Asian composer Mochipet. I've no idea what the title Dessert Search a Techno Baklava means, but the composer and the musicians made my heart race with their whirling dervish-like gypsy melody on speed. Thirdly, the group transformed a very bad piece of music by the 1960s pop group The Shaggs, Philosophy of the World, into something rich, strange and hilarious. The guy playing the drumkit in the back made me laugh out loud -- like the drummer in The Shaggs, he appeared to be playing a completely different song to the rest of the band.

Alarm Will Sound deserve the praise they get (and they get lots of praise) for their musicianship. Even the muffled sock acoustics of the didn't much detract from the crispness of the group's sound, though I wish I could hear the program at Carnegie Hall, the next stop on Alarm Will Sound's tour.

Yet the concert left me cold in one important way: The choreography. Half of the works performed by the group involve the musicians wandering aimlessly about the stage in socks, sneakers or bare feet. They group, walk away, re-group, kneel down, stand up, walk in from the wings, makes circles on stage, sit, stand, sit down again etc etc etc. The physical groupings on stage occasionally reveal something interesting in the music -- such as the relationship between various different lines of sound. At these times, parts of a Conlon Nancarrow or Gyorgy Ligeti piece physically become conversations between small groups of instruments. But in general, the performers seem ill-at-ease with the staging. It rarely flows. More often than not its baffling and distracting.

I know of one new music ensemble - The Gogmagogs in the UK - who successfully and dynamically incorporate physical movement into their music. But their physical performance is much more elaborate than Alarm Will Sound's. They truly dance and act with their instruments. The choreography is seamlessly integrated into the music to the point that it's hard to imagine the two elements existing separately.

Contrastingly, Alarm Will Sound's choreography (if you can call what they do choreography) feels aimless and gimmicky. It's as if the ensemble's artistic directors don't think audiences can cope with sitting through a program of new music and so feel the need to "spice things up a bit" with movement. At any rate, the toing-and-froing on stage is completely ill-advised. With the exception of the Ciconia piece, which was staged in a sort of moving circle as more musicians joined in the polyphony, the best parts of the evening's performance were those where they more or less sat or stood still.

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