Alarm Will Sound is a 20-member band whose name has become synonymous with new and emerging contemporary classical work. Whether the music is playful of spiteful, dramatic or lighthearted, Alarm Will Sound nails the performance – just as they did Saturday night in Zankel Hall.

Alarm Will Sound © Carl Socolow
Alarm Will Sound
© Carl Socolow

Opening with Journeyman, a New York première by John Orfe, Alarm Will Sound immediately made their presence known. Orfe’s work was a celebratory one, one that marked the accomplishments – and strife – of man, driven by aggressive, percussive lines. Although the piece is just five minutes long, there were parts that sounded as raw as Stravinsky.

However brief the opener was, the energy remained as Alarm Will Sound dove right into David Lang’s increase. Written in 2002 when Alarm Will Sound was still in its infancy, increase is incredibly complex and draws on a variety of techniques and sounds that have come to define contemporary classical music. The most notable techniques were the two elements that formed the backbone for the work: the rising line (and increase!) in the flute and the repeated single pitch but in varied rhythms on the vibraphone. The effect was similar to a phase, and gave the piece a rich, exciting texture.

As the piece progressed, offbeat rhythmic patterns interlocked with robust accents in the bass and drums, keeping the audience and the ensemble on their toes. Boisterous throughout, after a brief return to the opening melodic material, increase suddenly ended, just as the audience was about to catch their breath, expecting more.

Keeping up their breakneck pace, Alarm Will Sound then jumped into Tyondai Braxton’s Fly By Wire. In his own words, Braxton described Fly By Wire as “the technology that 1) translates a pilot’s manual movements to digitally control a modern aircraft, 2) acts as an auto pilot, and 3) is constantly stabilizing the aircraft without the pilot’s input.” This conflict between chaos and stability, safety and total danger, is what propels Braxon’s music forward, but also makes the piece dizzyingly complicated.

Not surprisingly, Alarm Will Sound successfully navigated through Braxton’s discords, changing pace and character at every one of Braxton’s whims. The most thrilling parts were the surprises, especially that random mariachi-like section in the middle of the piece. Suddenly, the lights went up and turned bright yellow, a vibrant colour that glowed against the wooden backdrop and was perfectly attuned to the change of pace and tonality in that snapshot moment.

Next, Alarm Will Sound performed Big Spinoff by Charles Wuorinen. A piece that grew out of Wuorinen’s 1983 work Spinoff, Big Spinoff was propelled forward by two sets of drums, an ever-shifting tempo. Never stopping, Alarm Will Sound concluded the first half with a flourish.

The second half of the concert was devoted to selections from Donnacha Dennehy’s music theater piece The Hunger. Inspired by the Great Irish Famine of 1845–52, Dennehy’s music aimed to paint a multi-dimensional picture of this depressive time period.

From start to finish, the piece felt like a decaying black-and-white film. The pianist played both the keyboard and the inside strings, creating a gritty sound that mimicked the old, crackling recordings of the sean nós tradition, the old-style tradition of unaccompanied singing in Irish musical culture. Combined with live performances by both Alarm Will Sound and Rachel Calloway (mezzo-soprano), the somber texts – which were a mix of traditional folks songs and excerpts from Asenath Nicholson’s accounts of the famine – were haunting. And although the prolonged melancholy was not to my taste that is not to say that the music was not incredibly rich – with its microtonal dimensions and layers of harmonic dissonance – and expertly performed.

Conducted by Alan Pierson, a tireless musician who should be commended for traversing boroughs and countries (Pierson is the Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Principal Conductor of the Dublin-based Crash Ensemble), the evening at Carnegie Hall was a whirlwind of energy and emotion. This mood can only be attributed to Alarm Will Sound, an ensemble truly dedicated to performing (and perhaps unearthing) challenging and engaging classical music of our generation.

***11