"Modernism scares people. Is it because it’s new? That can’t be the whole explanation, because everybody likes to discover new things, right? Maybe it's the amount of newness. While discovery always involves a degree of unfamiliarity, modernism can drive really far into unfamiliar territory, becoming distant from any known landmarks. So much unfamiliarity can be scary.
It can even be alienating. The unpopularity of Revolution 9 (by one of the world’s most popular bands) is the evidence that the Beatles' experimentation with found sound, tape loops, and studio technology pushed their fans away. Revolution 9 is modernist because it is a song that’s not a song, something so unfamiliar that it not only breaks with the past, but also breaks its own category.
Varèse’s Poème électronique must have also seemed like a categorical contradiction: poetry created on machines?! The piece—no less than its title—expresses his modernist zeal through never-had-a-past electronic sounds. 'The world is changing, and we change with it. The more we allow our minds the romantic luxury of treasuring the past in memory, the less able we become to face the future and determine the new values in it.'"
As scary a prospect as it might seem, postmodern classical music has always been a breeding ground for some of the most thrilling creative leaps in recorded sound — which is probably why composers like Cage, Oliveros, Reich, Riley, Subotnick, Varèse and many more are known just as widely for their genre-busting experiments in the studio as they are for their written scores.
Alarm Will Sound tests the limits of the canon with an adventurous foray into the outer reaches of propriety on the ensemble’s long-awaited Modernists project. Negotiating the perilous extremes between Edgard Varèse’s “Poème électronique” and the Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” conductor Alan Pierson leads AWS on a lively, loopy journey into the incidental, the grandiose and the unexpected.
Besides the acknowledged staples by the Beatles and Varèse, the 23-piece ensemble tackles more recent work by Wolfgang Rihm, Charles Wuorinen, AWS pianist John Orfe, and Augusta Read Thomas (whose “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” features guest vocal performances by Kirsten Sollek and Caleb Burhans). As the Chicago Reader noted ahead of a 2014 performance, Alarm Will Sound “hasn’t just blurred the lines between neoclassical polyphony and contemporary pop; it’s obliterated them.” The Modernists recording, in all its otherworldly and unwieldy glory, only adds to the mystique.