Helter Skelter

Illustration by John Gall and Ned DrewPhoto: Paula Court

A French-horn player whimpered like a newborn into one microphone, as a violinist murmured through a trumpet mute into another mike so that her voice sounded watery and indistinct. A percussionist smashed and stirred a bagful of broken glass with a hammer, and a clarinetist blurted the tune to “There’s a place in France / Where the naked ladies dance.” A sober young man, unaccustomed to performing, wielded one of those old-fashioned squeezable car horns and in an impassive baritone kept repeating: “Number nine … number nine.” Yes, you got it: Welcome to the live, all-acoustic version of Lennon and McCartney’s foray into musique concrète, “Revolution 9,” as performed with irresistible panache by the twenty-member ensemble Alarm Will Sound.

Posted at an exit, the phrase ALARM WILL SOUND is a deterrent: Do not open this door. As the group’s name, it says the opposite: Walk on through, and be rewarded with alarming—or at least fresh, discombobulating, complex, piquant, and exciting—sounds. The original core of the ensemble came together in 2001 as students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, and the group has since staked out turf at the center of the fringe of New York’s musical life. Nonchalantly virtuosic and unburdened by conventional wisdom, the players in Alarm Will Sound invent challenges that some might regard as mystically pointless—Matthew Marks’s obsessively detailed transcription of “Revolution 9,” for instance. The payoff lies in performances that make complexity sound crystalline, that dismantle a piece’s purity but leave its energy intact.

The group’s programming decisions seem rooted in the players’ macho masochism and the belief that most music is as plastic and adaptable as they are. They play pieces that the twentieth-century composer Conlon Nancarrow wrote for player piano because he trusted a machine to execute rhythms of any complexity without complaining. They have performed from memory Edgar Varèse’s Intégrales, a calculated simulation of chaos. They have commandeered the lush sonic landscapes of Aphex Twin, the wizard of electronica, and recorded them on a sensational disc, aptly titled Acoustica.

Recently I witnessed the culmination of one long-term project and the start of another. Carnegie’s Zankel Hall was the endpoint of “a/rhythmia,” a program that featured complicated music derived from the simple idea that time can run at slightly different yet concurrent speeds. A video offered examples from daily life: turn signals blinking in stuttering chorus at a stoplight, washers at a laundromat cycling out of phase. Hunting for musical counterparts to this phenomenon, the group hopped from a Renaissance Mass by Josquin Desprez to the contemporary abstruse intricacies of Harrison Birtwistle to the spectacularly bad—or, by some reckonings, sublimely innovative—late-sixties family folk band the Shaggs. In the original recording of their “Philosophy of the World,” the beat shambled and staggered, the rhythm guitarist jerked the tempo in another direction, and the singer curdled the tune. I tend to think the Shaggs were genuinely hapless, but Gavin Chuck (the poker-faced number-niner) took them seriously and transcribed their masterpiece with almost lunatic exactitude. Conductor Alan Pierson kept it together like a man with multiple independent metronomes implanted in his brain. There is something beautiful about transfiguring randomness into virtuosity, but it takes a lot of work.

A few weeks later, Alarm Will Sound reconvened at the Kitchen for its next undertaking: “1969,” which provided the impetus for orchestrating “Revolution 9.” The evolving conceit centers on the intersection of popular music and the avant-garde, in a literal meeting between McCartney and the Italian composer Luciano Berio and in an aborted one when the cosmic modernist Karlheinz Stockhausen sat out a blizzard in a New York apartment waiting for the Beatles to show up. That year’s music scene deserves a better vehicle than that historical footnote, and maybe the group will find a way to include a few minutes of music each by Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, and John Cage. Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” in the still-subversive solo-cello version by Matt Haimovitz, would go nicely with the video of Nam June Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture, featuring Charlotte Moorman playing cello, wearing a pair of television sets affixed to her otherwise naked chest.

Revolution 9
Alarm Will Sound.
Bang on a Can Marathon at the World Financial Center. May 31.

Helter Skelter