The maverick spirit is central to American music: Many of America’s most influential voices have drawn on ideas outside the European music canon and have greatly expanded our sense of what music can be. John Cage, who celebrates his 100th birthday in 2012, is a quintessential American maverick. His work has influenced Alarm Will Sound’s own efforts at combining music and theater, and is featured today in a selection of short theatrical works. Conlon Nancarrow, who also turns 100 years old this year, has been another longtime inspiration: His 1940s groundbreaking player piano creations combined vernacular musical ideas with a level of rhythmic complexity beyond anything seen in the era’s most avant-garde music. This notion of treating ideas from the vernacular in highly complex ways has inspired much of Alarm Will Sound’s work.
While Edgard Varèse is the earliest composer on the program, his works (some of which are over 100 years old) still feel staggeringly original and fresh. One of Varèse’s great legacies is his emphasis on sound and color over the more conventional tools of melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Poème électronique was one of the first great works created for electronic tape, a medium used by Varèse to explore sonic possibilities beyond the range of traditional instruments. This work has inspired generations of composers to expand the range of music that can be produced using traditional instruments. Alarm Will Sound has taken on the challenge of performing Varèse’s originally electronic masterpiece on acoustic instruments in an arrangement by New York composer Evan Hause.
Generations of American mavericks like Cage, Nancarrow, and Varèse have opened up concert music with radical ideas. In the wide open 21st–century music world, it’s difficult to define what it means to be a maverick any more. But Alarm Will Sound is an ensemble of its time, and we wanted to program music by younger generations of American composers who are stirring up new ideas. For decades, Elliott Sharp has been creating highly original work that draws ideas from jazz, blues, noise, and free improvisation. Charlie Wilmoth, the youngest composer on this concert, is already shaping a unique musical voice that combines the rich harmonic and coloristic language of contemporary concert music with the driving rhythmic patterns of electronica.
—Alarm Will Sound