Contemporary group revisits watershed year and Beatles classic in '1969'
March 19, 2009 4:00 AM
Alarm Will Sound will perform the multimedia piece "1969" in a program co-presented by The Andy Warhol Museum and Pitt's Music on the Edge series Friday at New Hazlett Theater.
By Andrew Druckenbrod Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Many bands cover Beatles songs, but "Revolution 9" isn't usually one of them.
It's not just that the experimental track from the "White Album" isn't in high demand by audiences -- certainly when compared to "Let It Be" or "Hey Jude." It's the daunting question of how one would even "perform" a work cromprising tape loops, sound effects and samples. It is more of a sound collage than a song.
But that's just the sort of challenge that excites members of Alarm Will Sound, a contemporary music group that formed in 2001 and that once transcribed the tricky electronic tunes of techno group Aphex Twin into acoustic works.
The 20-musician ensemble of former students of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., wanted not only to prove that it could perform "music that was originally played by a machine," says managing director Gavin Chuck, but that it could reveal different aspects of that music through live performance. That's part of the thinking behind the eight-year-old group's ambitious acoustic arrangement of "Revolution 9." But the group also wanted it to be a central part of the story of its new multimedia work, "1969."
The two-act show, with spoken text and video interspersed amid music of the time, tells the story of how musical figures, including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Lenny Bernstein and Luciano Berio, strove "for a new world and a new music in the tumultuous months surrounding the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon," says Chuck. "They felt that music and art could be at the center of social change and it was a time when social change felt imminent."
"1969" is not staged, but two actors will play Lennon and Stockhausen (the radical German composer who influenced The Beatles), while at various times Alarm Will Sound musicians recite quotes as part of the show's first-person narrative.
"The jumping-off point for the show was a planned meeting between Lennon and Stockhausen Feb. 9, 1969, in New York in Lucas Foss' apartment to discuss a joint concert," says Chuck. "There was a terrible blizzard and Stockhausen showed up, but Lennon never did. The meeting becomes a metaphor for a meeting of two worlds, even though it didn't happen."
"Revolution 9" fit into the picture so perfectly it had to be incorporated, no matter the difficulty. Released in 1969, the track used extensive avant-garde techniques and "was meant to capture the sense of revolution that was around at the time," says Chuck. "Our French hornist [Matt Marks] transcribed every sound, and we either play it, make noise or speak, re-creating all the tape loops. To most people it is just a recording, but when it comes through live people and not out of two speakers, it opens up new dimensions."
Other seminal works arranged for "1969" include Stockhausen's "Hymnen," Bernstein's "Mass," Berio's "Sinfonia" and "Oh! Calcutta!" -- all helping to build the context for the spirit of the times.
"A show like this wants to engage people with music, ideas and history," says Chuck. Alarm Will Sound premiered "1969" at Duke University in February under the direction of artistic director Alan Pierson. Its second performance comes Friday in the New Hazlett Theater, co-presented by The Andy Warhol Museum and Pitt's Music on the Edge series. (The group will repeat the concert Saturday night in Cleveland's Museum of Art. )
While many would say that most of the ideals expounded in the turbulent yet optimistic 1960s didn't come to pass socially, music has extended beyond the restrictive walls between genres and classifications that were prevalent earlier in the century.
"Today we live in a world in which the barriers between each type of music are more permutable than before," says Chuck. The Aphex Twin project is just one example of the now commonplace connection between contemporary classical and pop music that Lennon, and perhaps Stockhausen, wanted to explore years ago.
But today that connection still is admittedly more one between composers and performers than audiences, and the significance of a work like "1969" is that it can reach out to the baby boom demographic that has been slow to replace older generations in the concert halls. By exploring the relationship between the pop and art music of their youth, they might be inspired to hear more new stuff.
Sometimes, you need to cast a wide net by going beyond the music with a compelling topic and engaging performing approach.
"Every show we try turns on an idea," says Chuck. "We have always wanted to do performances that captured as much about the music as possible and are not just playing from behind the stands."