Contemporary Music Review

Alarms Goin' Off Everywhere

January 28, 2006 - Durham, NC:

It was a good weekend for new music – and a sad one, too, given the death on January 27 of the great UNC-based composer Roger Hannay, whose works – and whose teaching and advocacy – launched (as it were) a thousand ships that sailed – and still sail – on behalf of art. There'll be more on Hannay in the weeks to come; the UNCSO will premiere one of his orchestral works on February 28 (see our calendar) and, as noted in the obituary, his music will be included among a series of scores by NC composers being presented as part of the NC Symphony's 75th anniversary season starting next fall.

It would surely have pleased Hannay, whom I number among my most important mentors, that the extraordinary new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, currently based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, at Dickinson College, was in town as he took departure. AWS, a group of string, wind, brass, percussion, and keyboard players, appeared as a result of a joint effort involving Duke Performances and the Gothic Rockpile's new music series, "Encounters... with the music of our time." The 20 (or so) member group, directed by Alan Pierson, spent several days at Duke, doing what Hannay himself did so much and so well, at UNC, when he ran Whiskey Hill's contemporary music groups – playing music by superior students (on the afternoon of January 27) and giving a stellar concert of mostly new works, although truth to tell the evening's most spectacular offering was by Edgard Varèse, who passed from the scene 40 years ago, and whose work heard in Baldwin Auditorium dated from 1924-25 – five years before Hannay was hatched! This work was "Intégrales," one of the master's masterworks and one long celebrated and admired – with "Ionisation" and "Density 21.5" (which is the density of platinum, in case you're curious), "Intégrales" is key to understanding Varèse. Most people know it – if at all – from recordings, so AWS' performance, given with musicians scattered throughout the hall, and given, too, largely from memory, was something to write home about (or, if you prefer, "...about which to write home"). It stood out as the absolute highlight of a generous (perhaps overly generous) evening of contemporary music by many creators, including some bits by AWS' own multi-talented members.

Did we say that AWS played Varèse's "Intégrales"?

The concert began with a walk-in performance of Frank Zappa's "Dog Breath Variations" and "Uncle Meat" – a very attractive bit of programming, given Zappa's fascination with Varèse*. (The program was full of pairings and cross-linkings, some obscure, some not.) These tasty morsels may be heard in "original" versions (on CD) and have turned up in various guises, here and there, so there was some sort-of familiar fare at the outset. It sounded a bit like a mariachi band on acid, but there was nothing off-putting about it, nor was there anything at all strange in Bernard Woma's "Gyil Mambo," given in an arrangement by David Rogers, which suggested a Latin ensemble that had spent a bit too much time with rum in the hot sun. (Been there, done that....) Between these things – and after the opening number of the second half – there were two classic pieces by John Cage: 0'00" (subtitled 4'33" no. 2) and Variations III. Although highlighted in one brief moment by the striking profile of trombonist Katherine White, these were far and away the program's weakest offerings since they came across as under-rehearsed, poorly balanced, and plagued far too often by some truly wicked lapses in ensemble and intonation. They clearly needed greater, more careful preparation and execution. (On the other hand, it may have been the cold medicine I've been taking that torpedoed these ambient-noise works for me....)

Derek Bermel's "Three Rivers" brought the relatively short first half of the program to a close. It sounded somewhat like Rolf Liebermann's Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra, recorded by the great hep-cat Fritz Reiner, during his Chicago days. This just goes to prove that there's really not much new under the musical sun, I suppose.

A word about AWS might be in order here. Its members are, as noted, multi-talented. We won't list the personnel – for that information, see their website (although it's somewhat out of date) – but must say that most of 'em play more than one instrument, and along the way they sing (sort of) and act (sort of) and serve as stage hands. They put on quite a show, as their moderately good-sized audience observed at Duke. They've made a batch of recordings – what groups haven't, nowadays? – and they were hawking them in the Baldwin lobby. It would appear that most of what they performed is available on CDs. (Members of the ensemble met at the Eastman School of Music. What would Hanson think?)

Did we say that AWS played Varèse's "Intégrales"?

Selections from Kiss (1963), by John Cale (arr. Dennis DeSantis) came after the Varèse and Cage's Variations III. It was a challenge to tell where the Cage left off and the Cale began, but soon it dawned on us that we were into mock Irish or Celtic fare – and very successful it was, indeed. (I am reminded of Orion, one of Philip Glass's recent world-music fusions, since so much of what AWS offered seemed to stem from all over the planet.)

The concert ended with a three-part group consisting of two realizations of music by Aphex Twin (a.k.a. Richard D. James) and an original, similar score by Stefan Freund, an AWSer. The first two are exercises in what, for want of a better term, is called "electronica," but what was interesting about the performances was that they were basically acoustic renditions – Freund and John Orfe (he's with AWS too) had figured out how to perform them in pure, unadulterated forms, in concert – a neat trick that, if the Beatles had been able to do likewise at the end of their careers, might have given us many more years of Liverpudlian madness and mania.

Did we say that AWS played Varèse's "Intégrales"?

When all was said and done, there was probably a tad too much of a whole bunch of good things on this concert, which had a seriously out-of-balance second half that lasted about 75 minutes. People got restless, despite the radiant splendor of the performances and the endlessly fascinating music. We've addressed this challenge in other reviews of "new music" but it's worth repeating – if listeners are really paying attention and working at getting into the music, as opposed to treating it like so much sonic wallpaper, then 90 minutes or so of active involvement is probably enough, before fatigue sets in. Varèse knew this – most of his pieces are fairly short. Otherwise, there are no complaints. AWS is one spectacular outfit, offering new music in a way that makes it basically user-friendly and highly accessible. We need more groups like 'em. Don't miss 'em the next time.

Did we say that AWS played Varèse's "Intégrales"? It alone would have made the occasion worthwhile. And Roger Hannay – bless him – would surely have loved it.

*For more on the Zappa-Varèse connection, see Richard S. Ginell's "Uneasy Listening" in the LA Times, at,0,3589253.story?coll=cl-music [inactive 3/06].