By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: March 4, 2011
WHATEVER else it may accomplish, "1969," the latest thematic project
of the contemporary-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, proves that you
can build something substantial a historically astute program that
makes solid, provocative points around a notion thoroughly lacking
The show, which the group will perform at Zankel Hall on Thursday
evening, is a tightly scripted, continuously morphing collage of
music, dialogue and visual images that explores the compositional and
political currents that swirled in the late 1960s and continue to
resonate. Yet its conceptual starting point was a vague report, noted
in Michael Kurtz's biography of the iconoclastic German avant-garde
composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, that Stockhausen had arranged to meet
with one of the Beatles at the composer Lukas Foss's New York
apartment on Feb. 9, 1969, to discuss a joint concert. Stockhausen
waited, the story goes, but a blizzard prevented the Beatle John
Lennon, Alarm Will Sound has decided for musical and dramatic reasons
The prospect is tantalizing, not least because there were points of
contact between Stockhausen and the Beatles. Paul McCartney
occasionally mentioned his fascination with Stockhausen's "Gesang der
Jünglinge" in interviews in 1967, and the Beatles included him in the
crowd montage on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
that year. Lennon's "Revolution 9" the long musique concrète
soundscape on the "White Album" seems at least partly inspired by
Stockhausen's "Hymnen." And in Mr. Kurtz's book (and the script of
"1969") Stockhausen is quoted calling Lennon "the most important
mediator between popular and serious music in this century."
But the story is unlikely. Though Lennon and Yoko Ono, his wife and
creative partner, moved to New York in 1971, none of the Beatles were
in the city in early February 1969. In mid-January, George Harrison
quit the band during the recording and filming sessions for "Let It
Be," a project that was originally to have concluded with a public
performance. He returned only after the others agreed to his terms,
which included a demand that all talk of concerts cease immediately.
Ms. Ono, asked in a e-mail about planned meetings or concerts with
Stockhausen, responded quickly and unequivocally.
"No," Ms. Ono wrote, "there is not an iota of truth to that story.
I'm sorry to disappoint you."
Nevertheless the tale gave "1969" its dramatic heart Stockhausen
and Lennon discuss a meeting, and Stockhausen waits in vain as well
as the start of a set list. Part of "Hymnen" is included. So are
impressively accurate orchestrations, by Matt Marks, of "Revolution
9" and an earlier Beatles foray into electronic sound, "Tomorrow
Never Knows." Luciano Berio, another of Mr. McCartney's avant-garde
heroes, is a central figure too, represented not only by his own
music excerpts from "Sinfonia" and a virtually unknown civil-rights
opera, "Traces" but also by his arrangement of the Beatles'
"Michelle." Leonard Bernstein, who argued in the 1960s that
developments in pop were as important as those in classical music, is
represented by fragments from his genre-crossing "Mass."
In its finished form "1969" is more a giant mash-up than a concert
program. The music is mostly excerpted, sometimes with new scores by
Alarm's resident composers overlaid on vintage electronic works.
Actors play the principal roles (Jon Patrick Walker as Lennon, Robert
Stanton as Stockhausen and David Chandler as Berio), using quotations
from interviews, writings and lectures to develop their characters'
artistic and political positions. Musicians from the ensemble play
about 20 more historical figures, and do some singing as well.
Fitting all this together has taken four years of tweaking.
"When we began discussing this, it was totally different," Alan
Pierson, Alarm Will Sound's artistic director, said in a recent
interview at his apartment in Hell's Kitchen. "Our first impulse was
to do a concert around a year, and 1969 seemed like a good year to
choose because of the music and everything that was happening
politically. And then when I read about this possible meeting, that
was so interesting that I felt, and I think we all felt, that we had
to build our concert around it. Once we had that, it was pretty clear
that we were going to do something that would bring together music,
text and video in some way, but it was a long process of working out
exactly what it would be."
In a way the program's evolution followed broader developments in
Alarm's work. One was its changing approach to programming. The group
began as a student new-music ensemble at the Eastman School of Music
in Rochester and essentially declared its independence with a
performance of Steve Reich's "Desert Music" and "Tehillim" at the
Miller Theater in 2001. For a while Mr. Pierson and company explored
single-composer programs devoted to Ligeti, Varèse, Augusta Read
Thomas, Benedict Mason and others. But they soon hit a wall.
"Part of the issue," Mr. Pierson said, "was that we have a set
instrumentation, and we felt we'd run out of composers who had
written enough music for our instrumentation that we could make into
programs we were really excited about playing."
Commissioning new works was one solution. Another was to have
ensemble members make arrangements of music that fascinated them,
including electronica by Richard D. James, a British composer better
known as Aphex Twin. They also began toying with thematic notions,
exploring clashing rhythms, for example, in "A/rhythmia," a program
that included more electronica orchestrations (by Mochipet and
Autechre) as well as Renaissance works and songs by a 1960s cult
band, the Shaggs.
Staging added another arrow to Alarm's quiver. Early on, Mr. Pierson
teamed up with the director Nigel Maister, who runs the theater
program at the University of Rochester. After staging a performance
of John Cage's "Songbooks" for the group, Mr. Maister began
choreographing other pieces as well. One, a performance of Mr.
Mason's music that had the ensemble running through the Miller
Theater and, at the end, boarding a bus and heading up Broadway,
showed the degree to which these players were willing to move and act
while also playing their instruments.
"Alan had strong feelings, as did I," Mr. Maister said from
Rochester, "that one of the things that can help new music, for the
uninitiated listener, was the element of actually watching the music
being performed. It clarifies it, or makes it more approachable, and
often adds immeasurably to the piece. And the idea was that somehow
heightened performative elements would be one of the things Alarm
Will Sound did."
But by 2006 both Mr. Pierson and Mr. Maister had grown frustrated
with staging individual pieces, and they began discussing, as Mr.
Pierson put it, "developing something from the ground up,"
specifically "1969." Mr. Maister planned to write the script himself,
but he quickly bowed out, handing that task to Andrew Kupfer, a
journalist and playwright who, at 57, was the only one on the
creative team old enough to remember the era.
Mr. Kupfer agreed that the Lennon-Stockhausen meeting was the perfect
peg: "a metaphor for this sort of idealistic genre-pushing
sometimes sweet, sometimes loopy way people thought about the world
in the 1960s," he said, "when they believed that the forces of the
establishment would be swept away and new, wonderful things would
come in their place."
His goal, he added, was to write dialogue drawn almost entirely from
actual statements by the composers and other historical figures. And
he wanted to present it in a way that elucidated not only the
interplay between rock and avant-garde musicians but also the ways
composers on both sides were affected by the cultural turmoil of the time.
"In a way," Mr. Kupfer said, "each of these composers found religion
during this period. For Stockhausen it was his utopian 'One World'
ideas, which extended out into the cosmos. For Bernstein it was his
political activism. For Lennon it was being an advocate for peace and
his willingness to make himself, as he said, 'a clown for peace' if
need be. All this fed into their creative output. And for one reason
or another they were all pilloried in public for these things."
Berio, at first, was the odd man out, his musical comments far
outnumbering his documented political ideas. But the team was able to
round out that side of him after Tiffany Kuo, a musicologist at Yale,
pointed Mr. Kupfer to Berio's unperformed opera "Traces," a
confrontational 1963 work about the politics of race.
"In different ways," Mr. Pierson said, "all the composers in the show
were dealing in their music with political issues, with utopianism,
with imagining. They believed that the world would be better, and
that musicians would be a part of making it better.
"That utopian world didn't come about. But at the same time they were
all also envisioning a future for music where boundaries didn't
exist, where you could have a cross-fertilization between the
avant-garde, classical music and pop. That did happen, and because of
the kind of ensemble we are, that really resonates for us. We are now
making music in a world that these composers helped create, and
that's what gives this story a happy ending. But figuring out how to
tell it has taken some time. I hope we got it right."