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Alarm Will Sound brings '1969' to the Touhill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Alarm Will Sound, a large ensemble that focuses on performances of new music by emerging composers, had its genesis at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.,  in the early 2000s. Since officially taking on the name of Alarm Will Sound in 2001 (Managing Director Gavin Chuck happened to see those words on an emergency exit while working out at his gym), the group has played concerts around the world, released six recordings – and garnered considerable critical praise in the process.

These days, Alarm Will Sound balances performances at Carnegie Hall and Poland with a concert series based here in St. Louis. After performing at the Sheldon Concert Hall this past March and earlier in October 2012, the ensemble completes its St. Louis season with a concert Friday April 26 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center’s Lee Theater at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

Friday’s concert will feature “1969,” a multi-media creation that mixes the music of the Beatles, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Leonard Bernstein. In addition to using lives actors, “1969” projects visuals on three screens around the stage that evoke the political and cultural turmoil of the late 1960s – with a focus on the year 1969.

Why 1969? According to Alan Pierson, artistic director and conductor of AWS, it started with an assignment for a conducting workshop – and an apocryphal anecdote about a meeting between German electronic composer Stockhausen and the Beatles.

“About six years ago, I was in a conducting workshop with the National Symphony in Washington D.C.,” Pierson says during a recent phone interview. “One of our assignments was to put together a season schedule of performances. I was already working with Alarm Will Sound, and one of the goals of that group was to work with a wide range of music – but to also try to find a holistic unity to bring it all together. So I thought about using a moment in time as a cohesive theme to present different styles of music.”

After the workshop ended, the concept of using a time frame for a combination of musical styles stuck with Pierson – and he began discussing it as a possibility for Alarm Will Sound.

“We started talking about it, and looking at years that were both interesting musically – as well as eventful -- and workable for storytelling to pull it all together,” explains Pierson. “And I remembered reading an anecdote in a biography of Stockhausen about a supposed meeting with the Beatles in New York in February 1969 to discuss playing a concert together. That meeting never happened, but just the thought of Stockhausen and the Beatles working together was very intriguing. And that was the start.”

Although Alarm Will Sound had used video and staging in previous works to augment the music, “1969” took the use of multi-media to a whole different level.

“I worked with Nigel Maister, our staging director, and together we also collaborated with writer Andy Kupfer in putting the piece together,” Pierson says. “It was definitely a major step in terms of anything we had previously attempted.”

That creative investment in “1969” certainly paid off for AWS. In a review of an early production of “1969,” a “New York Times” critic called the piece “...a swirling, heady meditation on the intersection of experimental and commercial spheres, and of social and aesthetic agendas ... a consistent wonder.”

Now, after several performances over the past few years, Pierson sees “1969” coming into a final focus – and thinks the performance in St. Louis this week may be the last step in the evolution of the piece.

“The first performance of the piece happened in March 2008 at The Kitchen in New York. And that original version was not nearly as theatrical as the piece became. It’s continued to evolve over the years. And this version we’ll be doing in St. Louis is a little different than the performances we’ve done before. But we’re hoping that this version will become the final evolution of the piece.”

And much more is happening in the world of Alarm Will Sound aside from “1969.” The schedule for the rest of 2013 includes several performances in New York, a tour of Europe – and a return to Missouri.

We’ve got a bunch of things happening in New York in June,” says Pierson, “Including playing at the Guggenheim Museum with Steve Reich to perform ‘Radio Rewrite,’ a piece he wrote for us that was inspired by music by Radiohead. And this fall we’ll be going to Poland and Germany for concerts. But we’ll be back at the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival in Columbia in July for the fourth straight year. And we’re already working on our concert season in St. Louis this fall and into 2014.”

AWS’s initial St. Louis season evolved from the group’s role as the resident ensemble at the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival in Columbia every year since 2010. The Mizzou Festival’s sponsors, Jeanne Sinquefield and the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, agreed to sponsor a series of performances in St. Louis  - and that commitment will continue for the 2013-14 concert season. (For additional Beacon coverage of the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, see Mizzou New Music Festival set for its second summer,” and “Century old hall welcomes brand new music.”

“It’s been great for us to have a home for a series of concerts,” says Pierson. “And it’s also been interesting for us all to think in terms of putting together a season. It’s a way to think on a bigger scale.”

For more information about Alarm Will Sound, go to www.alarmwillsound.com/

Editor's note: The Sinquefields are contributors to the St. Louis Beacon.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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