Performance Saturday, April 6, 2013 | 9 PM

Alarm Will Sound

Zankel Hall
Committed to innovative performances and recordings of today’s music, Alarm Will Sound has a reputation for performing demanding music with energetic skill. This wildly inventive group, hailed as “the future of classical music” (The New York Times), premieres new works by former Battles singer and guitarist Tyondai Braxton, Dublin-based Crash Ensemble founder Donnacha Dennehy, and AWS founding member John Orfe, as well as compositions by David Lang and Charles Wuorinen.

This concert is part of Late Nights at Zankel Hall and My Time, My Music.
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The Program


About the Composer

For decades after the piano (and its direct predecessors) came into being, nearly all the great composers—Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and the like—were also virtuoso pianists, often first rising to fame as performers. As a result of evolving musical trends and technological aids, this tendency has vanished of late. But not so in the case of John Orfe, whose dexterity on the instrument—on display whether he is breezing through Ligeti's Etudes or playing with Alarm Will Sound itself—matches his dazzling compositions. His music often explodes into whirlwinds of energy, but, always knowing its roots, consciously grows out of the classical tradition.

In the Composer's Own Words

Journeyman takes inspiration from the human desires to renew and improve, as well as in the promise of new beginnings. A strong threefold statement opens the work, as though announcing the embarkation of a voyage. The music courses through much of its five minutes in a post-diatonic yet accessible harmonic language, culminating in a celebratory conclusion. The "journeyman" of the title is an archetype, representing presently held professional competence and skill, but striving ever onward toward true mastery and attainment.


About the Composer

David Lang rose to prominence a quarter-century ago as a sort of enfant terrible, staging overnight concerts with his ensemble Bang on a Can, writing raucous percussive works, freely incorporating references to popular music, and generally continuing the revolutionary spirit of his minimalist predecessors. But his output also contains a notable contemplative strain, and his aesthetic approach has more accurately been described as "totalist," integrating a myriad of styles in a non-doctrinaire manner. In any case, the musical establishment has caught up with Lang by following the trails he has blazed; his recent array of prominent awards—perhaps chief among them the 2008 Pulitzer Prize—attest to the fact that he is now revered one of today's greatest living composers.

About the Music

increase was written for an infant Alarm Will Sound in 2002 (the group's first concert took place the previous year). Its title, Lang has explained, came out of an earlier discussion with his wife in which they had considered giving their children old Puritan names, including that of Cotton Mather's brother Increase. "We really liked it," writes Lang. "It's full of determination and optimism. It's what you wish for as a future for a child, for a community, or, for that matter, for a new performing ensemble."

The work can be parsed into three large sections. It opens with two elements that form the backbone of the whole work: The vibraphone repeats a single pitch in a varied rhythm, and the flute presents a rising line (a line that "increases" in pitch). As the music unfolds via the mathematical patterns that are vital to so much of Lang's oeuvre, the other instruments in the ensemble overtake, morph, and interlock with the flute and vibraphone material. The second large section of increase retains the framework of the original flute melody, supplementing it with vigorous accents in the drums and low brass. After these accents accumulate and drive towards a climax, the opening material briefly returns. The dramatic final section ensues, superimposing new melodic material on the original motives and ultimately drawing the work to an abrupt close.

—Jacob Cooper

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Fly By Wire

About the Composer

Fans of "popular" music know Tyondai Braxton as the former front man for the critically acclaimed group Battles. Fans of "experimental" music know him as an underground artist who a decade ago earned a following for yelling into a microphone over a bed of guitar effects. And fans of "contemporary classical" music know him as the creator of quirky, loop-based, and innovatively orchestrated compositions. He is, of course, all of these things, and his artistry lies in the fact that he effortlessly straddles boundaries, while maintaining a highly individual style. Embodying a musical milieu increasingly defined by cross-pollination, Braxton helps us listen as fans of "music" rather than as partisans of particular genres or styles.

In the Composer's Own Words

Fly By Wire is 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. Stabilization through turbulence is something of an apropos description in composing music. For me, it's always a balancing act with the elements I'm working with—not too much, not too little (usually too much) ... having the piece be this, but not this ... wouldn't it be amazing if this happened in order ... shatter this … all without the piece doing a barrel roll. For instance, there's a sort of mariachi-like section in the middle. Maybe I should counter that with flourished romanticism in the strings later on, paired with some Varèse-ish percussion. Mayday! Mayday! Also: I'm terrified of flying. 

Big Spinoff

About the Composer

Charles Wuorinen holds the honor of being the senior composer on tonight's program. With a prolific (and ongoing) career that has spanned more than half a century thus far, Wuorinen has produced nearly 300 works, covering all contemporary genres many times over. His early works are defined by the serialism and atonality of the post-war era, while his later works are freer in their stylistic association without abandoning a certain rigor and complexity. Deeply versed in the modernist tradition, Wuorinen has noted that he considers his work to be more "evolutionary" than "revolutionary."

About the Music

Big Spinoff, co-commissioned by Alarm Will Sound and premiered in 2011, grows out of Wuorinen's 1983 work Spinoff for violin, bass, and congas. (One might therefore be tempted to refer to tonight's piece as a "spinoff of Spinoff.") Two sets of drums—placed on opposite sides of the stage—take over the role of the congas and propel the ensemble through six minutes of moto perpetuo activity. Amid the relentlessly brisk tempo and constantly shifting meter, the instruments interweave carefully calculated melodic lines, ultimately creating music that seems to spin out of control in the most fastidious way possible.

—Jacob Cooper

Scenes from The Hunger 

About the Composer

The works of Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy are guided by an American post-minimalist sensibility, yet they do not shun dissonance or classical structures, and they often expertly integrate Irish vernacular music. His interest in microtonality symbolizes the diversity of his influences, as he has noted it owes a debt to both spectralism (a musical practice inspired by computer analyses of sound spectra) and the "accidental microtonality" of Irish pub singers. Dennehy founded the Crash Ensemble in 1997, a group which has been likened to Bang on a Can for its emphasis on post-minimalist, amplified, and multimedia works, and has been praised for introducing significant new repertoire to Ireland.

In the Composer's Own Words

The Hunger concerns itself with a big topic, the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852, which transformed Irish society irrevocably. The main narrative voice in the piece is provided by the astonishing accounts of the famine by the American non-conformist Asenath Nicholson (sung today by Rachel Calloway). Mrs. Nicholson spent two years traveling around Ireland, often on foot, helping those dying from starvation and writing about her experiences of the unfolding famine. Mrs. Nicholson's account stands outside the norm because of her transgressive sympathy; she directly quotes from the peasants and actually stayed in their cabins, something that no other commentator did. Nevertheless, it is still for the most part an outside, apparently objective viewpoint.

One tragedy of our understanding of the famine is that precious little is available from those who directly suffered. There is no published account from the Gaelic-speaking majority that experienced the most. Musical culture almost shut down entirely through the period. As 19th-century song collector George Petrie commented, "There was a great unwonted silence." Only one song from the sean nós ("old style") tradition of unaccompanied singing deals directly with the topic, and that is "Na Prátaí Dubha" ("Black Potatoes"). That features in The Hunger in the form of a recording made in the 1950s by the great sean nós singer Nioclás Tóibín, from which I extract samples that are both weaved into the musical texture and inform its development. Indeed, it is to the sean nós tradition that I turn in seeking out—or maybe even inventing—an indigenous Irish thread in this multi-dimensional narrative. Dotted throughout the piece are actual recordings made of ordinary people singing songs from this tradition. Some of these recordings—such as the one that opens the piece, "The Blackthorn Bush"—date from the 1920s; they are crackly and unreliable, but they are the earliest that were ever made, and therefore the closest in time and context to the period of the famine. All of the songs that I use, with the exception of "Na Prátaí Dubha," existed before the onset of the famine, so one can imagine their being in the air then. And some even came about in reaction to previous, less destructive famines.

Just as the traditional Irish sean nós songs convey tragic emotions invariably in a major key, I wish to approach this topic not in a hysterical way, but with a dose of stoicism. At times, there is humor, even in Mrs. Nicholson's account. Of course, really, the alliance between sadness and minor sonorities is as much cultural as anything, and in fact many of these beautiful, radiant, yet at the same time gritty sean nós songs with all their microtonal inflections capture an ambivalence and depth of emotion that is just as profound and maybe more authentic (if not easy to describe). Similarly, I sought to convey the power and heft of the seemingly unstoppable force of the famine using a bright palette informed by the sean nós tradition, but inflected by an effective use of duration and proportion, and a spectral treatment of harmony and texture based on the overtone series. These other approaches are informed by exaggerating elements within sean nós. Indeed, as I discovered when working on Grá agus Bás (2007), the first piece of mine to deal with the sean nós tradition, many of the inflections in sean nós can be construed in a spectral context. In working on this piece, I analyzed these songs using a piece of software called Melodyne that allows one to understand even the minutest deviations in tuning. A more spectrally inclined instrumental context allows the shades of the subtle emotions to shine in sharper contrast than a purely equal-tempered context does, thus the vacillation between both the equal-tempered and spectral harmonic world in this piece.

The Hunger will ultimately be an evening-length music theater piece for Alarm Will Sound, mezzo-soprano Dawn Upshaw, and the Irish sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. These scenes from the first part of the work-in-progress make up a kind of musical suite, involving both old sean nós recordings woven into the musical texture and mezzo-soprano soloist Rachel Calloway.

I am very grateful to the Royal Irish Academy for allowing me to use recordings from their Doegen archive, and MóC for the permission to use the recording of "Na Prátaí Dubha" by Nioclás Tóibín from the CD Rinn na nGael. The recording of the woman keening for her dead child was made by Alan Lomax in the west of Ireland in the 1950s. It is part of the Alan Lomax Collection in the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center, and is used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

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The Fast Forward series of concerts is sponsored by Ernst & Young LLP
Lead support for Carnegie Hall commissions is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This performance is part of Fast Forward.

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