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Electronic musician brings new flavor to Alarm Will Sound

Alarm Will Sound rehearses "Unfair for the Common Man" Ryan Mcneely
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Alarm Will Sound rehearses "Unfair for the Common Man"

While studying music at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, Ryan Mcneely presented one professor with a part-classical part-jazz composition. According to Mcneely, his professor reacted with a sneering question and dismissed the work.

“Why are you even here?”

The professor’s disdain for Mcneely’s piece and the student’s continued dislike of the program led to his departure from school after only three semesters.

Tonight Mcneely debuts his work “Unfair for the Common Man,” a play on Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," with noted classical music innovators Alarm Will Sound at the Sheldon Concert Hall. 

“It’s really exciting, but also terrifying and awkward because I’m used to just working with a computer where I can completely tweak and automate everything,” said Mcneely.

That electronic approach to composition is exactly what attracted Alarm Will Sound to Mcneely’s work according to Managing Director Gavin Chuck. 

“We looked around St. Louis, and really around the world, for people who we thought were making interesting music but were just one step away from what we normally would do,” said Chuck.

Ryan Mcneely and Gavin Chuck
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Mcneely and Chuck listened and discussed the execution of different movements throughout the rehearsal

The collaboration is part of the group’s program Alarm System, which began this year. The new program aims to push Alarm Will Sound’s already expansive boundaries and includes collaborations with acclaimed musicians and festival mainstays Medeski Martin & Wood as well as Bjork, Fiest, and Sam Amidon collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson.  Mcneely is the youngest of this group as well as the only St. Louis native included in the program.   

“It’s very inventive, it’s got a sense of humor, and it’s made in a way that most classical musicians are not used to making music,” said Chuck about the work. “The result of that is really imaginative and compelling music.”

Mcneely comes from a family of classically trained musicians and began playing violin at 8, clarinet at 10, and guitar at 12. Incidentally, that was the age he first began to toy with electronic music. According to the musician, his grandfather Dr. M. Gene Henderson first introduced him to a Casio keyboard and a computer, and he’s been working in digital noise ever since. He plays locally as Adult Fur.

The collaboration forced Mcneely to examine his own compositional practice. Instead of exercising full control of the music through digital manipulation and programming, Mcneely is working with the limitations of the human body and their instruments. The musician said his writing process was affected, he began to think of the individual performers and their parts instead of the music.

“I think I was battling with my own influences when trying to compose this piece because I was thinking of the group instead of just letting go and writing music.”

Mcneely stressed that he enjoys collaboration and the hurdles it brings to the table. 

“It’s really interesting watching them interact with my composition. It breathes new life into the thing,” he said.

Their collaboration will play for the first time tonight at the Sheldon Concert Hall.

Where: Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd.

When: 8 p.m. May 28

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