Still from Ten Thousand Birds / Ten Thousand Screens
I first met Alan Pierson in 1996 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. I was a freshman voice major, and Alan was a first-year graduate student in composition. We got to know each other through music: Alan signed up as my pianist for lessons and recitals, and we have remained very close friends ever since. During the end of his time at Eastman (he would eventually, in 2006, earn his D.M.A. in conducting), Alan founded the sixteen-player new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, which quickly established itself as a vital part of the new music scene in New York. Over the past two decades, AWS has premiered pieces by John Adams, Steve Reich, Wolfgang Rihm, and Meredith Monk, and has produced a wide-ranging discography, including music by Donnacha Dennehy, David Lang, and Aphex Twin. In addition to his work with AWS, Alan is principal conductor of Dublin’s Crash Ensemble, codirects the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Northwestern University, and is a frequent guest conductor for ensembles including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the London Sinfonietta, among many others.
In 2014, AWS premiered John Luther Adams’s piece Ten Thousand Birds as an immersive outdoor musical experience. On June 3 of this year, Alan and AWS released a new video, Ten Thousand Birds / Ten Thousand Screens, for which Alan and his boyfriend, Paul Melnikow, reimagined the piece using twenty-six phones, tablets, laptops, PDAs, and iPods carefully arranged around their Brooklyn apartment. The result is a strangely beautiful, moving, charmingly wacky experience. On May 26, I spoke with Alan via Zoom about this project, Alarm Will Sound, and his vision for music-making in an age of social distancing.
I wanted to begin by asking you about your history as a conductor and how Alarm Will Sound was founded.
I didn’t become a conductor because I wanted to conduct. It was always about bringing communities together to make music. I cofounded a new music student group at Eastman, Ossia, and we did some really amazing stuff there. We did big orchestra concerts, we did outdoor events, we did theatrical work. We had guest composers come in, like Steve Reich, which was really exciting. But as I was getting through my degree program and looking toward heading out into the world, I was sad that I couldn’t take this community that I helped develop and nurture with me. And then, in 2001, we got an opportunity to bring a concert of two big Steve Reich pieces, Tehillim and The Desert Music, to New York’s Miller Theatre. That concert was the impetus to start asking whether we could take this community with us. That’s how Alarm Will Sound began.
I know that many members of AWS are people you’ve worked with since Eastman, and I’ve always been struck by the fact that the ensemble still feels like a group of friends getting together. There’s a kind of social element that’s fairly uncommon in professional ensembles. Do the social bonds you have within Alarm Will Sound affect the way that you make music together?
Yeah, even though we get together about once a month, there’s still something of a college-reunion feel about rehearsals, or maybe a high-school-reunion feel. It’s an important part of what makes the group what it is. It’s also a little unruly. When I guest conduct an orchestra, I’m usually the only person talking most of the time. That is not the case in AWS. And that’s our great strength—that people are full of energy and ideas. Ease of management is not the goal when leading a group of artists. I really value that Alarm Will Sound is a community of deeply engaged, energetic, creative musical thinkers who are bringing all of themselves to the work that we do together. The way we are together is very relaxed. Everyone is very at ease. I think everyone feels like they can be themselves, and that creates a space for vulnerability and for risk taking. That’s important when we’re trying to push ourselves to go outside of our comfort zones artistically.
Members of the ensemble often have to play in nontraditional ways or invent new techniques, and they also often take on different roles—they play different instruments or sing or perform in other ways.
Many of the unconventional things that we do put us in situations that may not be the most flattering for our playing. In a lot of professional situations, there’s a sense that you can’t risk not sounding good. I think that can squash a certain amount of freedom and exploration and creativity. Being able to make a beautiful sound together is important, but it’s not always the most important thing—it’s not always what the art is about. There are times you may want to make ugly sounds, or risk making ugly sounds, to try something that could be really exciting.
Tell me a little bit about John Luther Adams and Ten Thousand Birds.
John’s music has always been connected to the natural world. Some of his work is music you can play as part of a traditional concert on a conventional stage. But he also creates these pieces that are more like installations, meant for the outdoors and intended to be adapted uniquely to each performance environment to create a special event. His percussion piece, Inuksuit, is the most famous piece of that sort he’s done. Ten Thousand Birds is in that tradition.
John has always loved birdsong. On his first visits to Alaska in the seventies—he eventually ended up living there for decades—he started transcribing bird songs and using them as the basis for compositions. So he’s been doing this for a long time. With Ten Thousand Birds in 2014, John created a kind of catalog of these birdsong-inspired songs for instruments. And not just birdsongs, he uses other sounds from the natural world, too, like wind and frogs.
When John first sent me the music for Ten Thousand Birds, I was initially a little freaked out. Usually a composer gives me a score with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and usually that score tells everybody what to play when. My job is just to conduct what’s on the page. But Ten Thousand Birds doesn’t make things so simple. There isn’t even a score in a conventional sense. It’s a book of songs. John doesn’t specify how the different songs should relate to one another—who should play what when—and there’s no conductor. My job is to create a structure for each performance, picking which songs each player will play and, since we don’t play the piece in a conventional formation, figuring out how the players will move. The score asks a lot more of me, and it leaves a lot more for me to figure out than most do. That was intimidating at first, but the music and the creativity it demanded drew me in. Really, the experience took me back to what music-making was about before I became a professional conductor—bringing together a community of musicians to create a special experience.
Every performance is different. We create the piece, like an installation, for each space we perform it in. And space is really important in John’s music. He’s talked a lot about finding comfort and wonder in the immensity of the world. I love to do this piece in large spaces, and to make the audience feel surrounded and immersed.
I also try to create a feeling of wonder and surprise. I want the audience to discover sounds in the way you do in nature. Like how you might hear the sound of a bird in the trees, and have to look up to search for it. So at the premiere, for instance, we had players hiding in bushes, running through the audience, even standing on the roofs of nearby buildings. It was a magical night. And because there’s no conductor, I got to enjoy it with the audience, which I never get to do with shows I make.
The piece was written specifically for AWS, right?
That’s right. We gave the premiere in 2014, at the Public Media Commons in St. Louis.
What about this piece made you turn to it during lockdown?
Ten Thousand Birds creates a kind of connection, a kind of togetherness, that’s different from anything else we play. We’re playing much farther away from each other than we usually do, and we’re not playing in time in the usual way. There’s no common beat we’re all feeling together. But that opens up space for a deeper kind of connection. We’re really singing to each other, in dialogue with each other. Like birds. What one of us does on one side of the space affects what someone else does on the other side. We’re connected in a way that feels deep and beautiful. That kind of connection was something I was longing for during lockdown. To suddenly not be seeing my AWS friends, many of them people I’ve been playing with for decades, left a big hole for me. So I got excited about trying to bring that connective experience of Ten Thousand Birds here into my apartment, where I was spending all my time.
I was also thinking a lot about birds, because when the pandemic struck, I could suddenly hear birds at home in a way I never could before. Brooklyn is usually so noisy, and suddenly in the pandemic, it was quiet. And there were all these birdsongs.
How did you translate the experience of an hour-long, outdoor piece into a five-minute video you made in your apartment?
When I was crafting the shape of our first performance, John suggested organizing the songs into a kind of twenty-four-hour cycle. We begin with morning sounds, the wind rustling the trees, and then out of that we begin to hear the first calls of early-morning birds. Then we move to midday and afternoon bird songs, then into evening, and then night. Night is less about birdsongs and more the sounds of nocturnal frogs. After that we return to morning again, so that the piece has the sense of a cycle. We end where we begin.
In imagining the piece for my apartment, I wanted to keep the twenty-four-hour structure, but condensed to about five minutes, which seemed a good length for an internet video. So I assigned each room of my apartment to a particular time of day. Then I had to choose, out of all of the songs John composed, what felt like the essential musical material to me. In a live performance, we might spend ten or twelve minutes experiencing, say, afternoon or evening songs. But here, that section had to be condensed into just thirty seconds or a minute. So for this video, each player is only playing a tiny fraction of their material.
Once I’d worked out what each player would play, they all filmed themselves at home playing those songs. And then I gathered all of the screens I could find or borrow—computers and phones and old MP3 players, anything that could play a video.
How many devices are there?
Twenty-six, I think. We did a lot of takes, and the devices changed some. My boyfriend Paul’s old iPod died during the process.
To clarify quickly, you arranged these devices in your apartment to create an installation that would allow you to approximate the experience of wandering through a performance?
Right. I had to imagine how to place each song around the apartment, and that meant a lot of choices. I treated it as I would composing a piece of electronic music. I took the recordings that each player had made at home, and made a multitrack composition out of them. I had to arrange the parts to create that sense of dialogue between players created in a live performance.
Then, after working out the timing of all of the parts, I needed to envision where to place everyone, imagining my path as the cameraperson through the apartment. A live performance of Ten Thousand Birds is a kind of choose your own adventure experience—the music is happening all around you, and you as an audience member navigate your own path through the players and through the space. My idea was to set up that kind of experience in my apartment, with me as a kind of audience member, surrounded by these surprising sounds, and exploring a path through them.
Surrounding myself with all of my friends on those screens was a kind of fantasy, a fantasy of getting together to play again. The end of the video is also a kind of fantasy, of leaving the apartment and ascending, during this time when I wasn’t really going outside at all. Fantasy is a big part of the piece.
There’s something very mysterious about the film, and there’s also a kind of wonderfully manic and inventive DIY aesthetic. It put me in the mind of childhood—of art-making as a way of playing around with your friends. There’s something very charming about it. How did you manage the logistics of placing and coordinating the devices?
It was very much a DIY experience. It took me back to college or grad school, really, to the experience of having some idea, not really knowing how to make it happen, and needing to figure it out largely on your own. There were a lot of steps. Even just recording the individual parts at home required creative problem solving. Chris Thompson, one of our percussionists, had a bongo part to play, but he didn’t have any bongos at home. So he made something by placing an upside-down bowl inside another bowl filled with water. They’re not bongos, of course, but they make these wonderful sounds. I think I’d like to use those whenever we play the piece now.
Then there was a really hard process of actually getting the devices set up to play the right music at the right time. There’s some really old gear in this, and we had to figure out how to play video on all of it. My boyfriend, Paul, is a software developer, but he also has a background in theater tech, and he was a big help here. Then we had to control when each device was going to be started, and work out exactly how much silence was needed at the start of each video so that if we started each device at the right time, the songs would all line up exactly as I’d planned. There was a big spreadsheet for all of this. We developed and rehearsed this carefully timed protocol of running around the apartment and starting each device in sequence and on cue.
What really made the project nightmarish, though, was that it all had to be done in one take. That was essential to having the film feel like a person’s experience of exploring the space and the music. I remember the first time I told Paul about this idea, he said, “But I’d like to actually see you sometime in the next two weeks.” But then Paul really threw himself into making this with me, and it became a collaboration. We ended up spending a ton of time together those two weeks. It was joyful, even when the project was exasperating, and I can’t imagine doing this without him.
Having done this first quarantine project, what’s your vision for the near future of AWS and how to sustain music making in a time of social distancing?
We have another video coming out shortly, which, like this one, is made out of an existing piece of music that we’re hoping to transform in an interesting way into a remote experience. But what I’m really excited about now is developing work made to be played remotely, and exploring how the constraints of not being able to be together in person might catalyze creative thought about new ways of making music. I hope that can challenge us and invigorate our imaginations, and provoke a constructive kind of artistic growth. We’re in the process of working with a number of composers on a series of pieces that we’re calling Video Chat Variations, music that is actually made for the video chat medium. We’ll be announcing those in the next few weeks. It’s my hope that this will lead us to interesting new ways of making art together, and that it will also invigorate the work we do when we actually get to make music together again in person.
Garth Greenwell is the author of Cleanness and What Belongs to You. A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, he lives in Iowa City.
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