Alarm Scores as a Master Of Rhythm and Genres

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Alarm Will Sound's Tuesday evening concert at the Library of Congress was akin to visiting a kooky professor who, to back up some offbeat notion, might reach for a recent article, an age-old book or a dusty manuscript. In the same way, this contemporary music group from Rochester, N.Y., ripped with glee into music from many genres to highlight their wild idea. The almost two dozen musicians, led by conductor Alan Pierson, brought precision and urgency to classical, rock and baroque fare, leaving you dazed but thoroughly enlightened and energized.

This fusion of young musicians, combining qualities of an alternative band and an avant-garde chamber ensemble, put rhythm under the spotlight. They showed what happens when regular pulse is thrown off-kilter. The grab-bag program was designed less to underscore that irregular rhythms are somehow freakish, but that music's beauty and energy can flow directly from such peculiarities.

Three rearranged piano rolls of Conlon Nancarrow were the program's pillars. In Study 2A, part of the ensemble repeated figures, while others played the theme at different tempos. Providing visual cues to the sound layers, the players moved around stage to form impromptu groups and concentrate the sound.

The calibrated moments came in the surrounding works, including pieces by modernist masters Harrison Birtwistle and Gyorgy Ligeti. In Birtwistle's "Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum," varying note groups rarely come in agreement amid swirling harmonies. The third movement of Ligeti's Chamber Concerto emerged with plucky brass textures and hushed, string-filled sequences. Along with a nutty but fascinating mixture of arrangements of music of Josquin des Prez, Aphex Twin, Mochipet and Johannes Ciconia, the group reveled in Michael Gordon's "Yo Shakespeare." Electric guitar and electronic keyboards conjured chunky sound blocks that suddenly shrank into quiet duets. An orchestration of "Philosophy of the World" by the Shaggs, frequently dubbed the worst rock band ever, went down in flames as banging drums obliterated helpless violins and woodwinds. That the players seemed so enthralled with this experiment-gone-wrong underscored the edgy, daring style of Alarm Will Sound.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

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