And up and down my street, the windows filled with the silhouettes of my neighbors, backlit by their living rooms. It looked like a vast grid of screens, each of us stuck at home in the same virtual space, craning our necks to the sky. Our sudden visibility felt like a language. Our fear felt social.
Sound has a way of binding those within its reach together. Months ago, this might have meant a concert in a hall. But lately, it’s the ugly new music of the everyday — the dull roar of circling helicopters, the peal of sirens, the echo of explosions. And, come morning, the eerie quiet of quarantine, the dominance of birdsong.
Alan Pierson, director and conductor of the New York-based new-music mainstay Alarm Will Sound, recalls clearly the strange silence that fell over his home in Brooklyn and the rest of the city with something that approaches nostalgia.
“These are loud, busy, bustling streets, and it was really amazing in those early days of the pandemic how it just stopped,” he says in a phone interview. “There was quiet in a way that I’ve never experienced here. I’m sure they were present before, but suddenly the air was filled with birdsongs in a way it never was before.”
In the midst of a terrifying and wrenching event, Pierson says, he felt something “special and magical” about the new proportions of the city’s sound. “But already,” he says, “it’s gone.”
That overwhelming quiet, the confines of quarantine and the creative restlessness, which afflicted every one of Alarm Will Sound’s 20 members, inspired Pierson to dream up a series of digital performances, the first of which is an at-home adaptation of composer John Luther Adams’s “Ten Thousand Birds,” a piece inspired by “particular birdsongs, captured in minute detail,” that AWS premiered in 2014.
Like many of Adams’s works, “Ten Thousand Birds” dissolves the usual strictures of orchestral playing, scattering the players across a given space, usually outdoors. Viewers are able to wander in and around the players, who use their instruments to approximate the songs of various birds and their instincts to guide them through the rhythms of a day.
“In this music, time is not measured,” Adams wrote in 2014. “Each page in the score will be its own self-contained world that occupies its own physical space and its own time.”
In this way, audience members become passive participants in the piece, conducting the music simply by moving through it and listening from wherever they are. The musicians play off of each other as well as the audience. Pierson has written that one of the great joys of performing the piece, which his group has done several times, is that he has “absolutely nothing to do.”
“We’re far apart,” he says. “There’s no pulse that we’re all feeling together. But that space, that distance, opens up a different kind of connection that’s really deep and beautiful. It’s all these players listening to each other and having dialogue with each other across space in a really spontaneous way. That is like what birds do in the wild.”
Rather than the freely distributed sound and spatially activated dynamics that typically characterize performances of “Ten Thousand Birds,” Pierson’s apartment-bound interpretation fixes the path of the listener through a manic, hall-pacing choreography. His roving handheld camera rushes from room to room, encountering screens (27 of them) scattered throughout his apartment, each running an individual band member’s recorded performance of their assigned birdsong. Pierson kept intact Adams’s intention to have the piece enact the cycle of a single day, but it’s compressed from its usual (but variable) duration of about 70 minutes into a lean six minutes — and shot in a single take.
A menagerie of devices peek out of cabinets and swing from the ceiling, smartphones balance on doorjambs, tablets languish in the sink and the dish rack, a laptop sits on the dining table hosting a small conference (or flock?) of players, and an old iPod perches on the fire escape.
It’s a technical feat (made possible over the course of some 300 hours with behind-the-scenes help from Pierson’s boyfriend, Paul Melnikow), and, truth be told, it has the feel of an elaborate Internet stunt. With so many Zoom-based performances and online experiments in music, this new take on “Ten Thousand Birds” could have easily felt like yet another hammy link to click on.
But after a few minutes, and then after a few watches, its loopy, slightly goofy approach gains a strange power. Like any bird brought inside, there’s a sense that it’s trapped. You can feel Pierson’s longing to push past the walls of his apartment.
Stripped of its freedom in time and space and fixed to a predetermined path rather than organically developing, you’d think the piece might lose its power or betray its identity. That was certainly Adams’s concern when Pierson ran the idea by him.
“Well, that’s a silly thing,” Adams says he recalls thinking. “What would you want to do that for?”
Adams, 67, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014 for his work “Become Ocean,” has devoted much of his musical practice over the past few years to the creation of outdoor works, which scatter the elements of the orchestra and dissolve the conventions of concert music, allowing him to explore what he calls “a new sense of polyphony, polyphony as a community of voices.”
A version of “Ten Thousand Birds” that would shrink it, fix it in time and space, rely on staged performances and take place in “the ultimate no-place” of the Internet seemed like a betrayal of everything that makes the work what it is. Then Adams watched it.
“I knew it was kind of a whimsical idea,” the composer says by phone from the Chihuahuan Desert near the Mexican border (where he moved after 40 years in Alaska). “But I wasn’t prepared for the way that it touched me. I found it really beautiful.”
Adams’s musical life began with birds. When he was 21 and working as a farmhand in Georgia, he’d spend each dawn and dusk walking through the woods, listening to thrushes and forming ideas that would shape his musical sensibilities for decades to come.
“There was this music, deeper in the woods,” he says. “This silvery, fluty, bell-like sonority that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once.” Birds, through both the sound of their song and their ubiquity in the trees, became “a reminder of our place within the larger, older, never-ending music of the Earth.”
Pierson’s approach to “Ten Thousand Birds” may fly in the face of Adams’s original vision, but it also trains listeners’ focus on its concern with community, connection and the power of music to transcend language.
“Everything gets lost in translation,” Adams says, “but something else gets discovered and gained. Which is just a delightful surprise.”
Oboist and longtime Alarm Will Sound member Christa Robinson — who has performed the parts of blue jays, woodpeckers and, for this performance, an owl — sees Pierson’s transformation of the piece not just as a way to connect with her bandmates, but also as a model for how the rest of us can move forward in a world that feels, and sounds, so different.
“Just as we’re noticing the subtle sounds in our environment, I think we’ll start to notice the sounds of our collective happiness, too,” she says by phone from Brooklyn. “It’ll be a struggle, for sure. But I think that when we get there, there will be joy attached as well. That’s what I’m holding on to anyway.”