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Alarm Will Sound—More of a Band Than an Orchestra

alarm-will-sound2 Editor's Abstract

Alarm Will Sound is an ensemble of twenty members that presents innovative performances and recordings of today’s music, ranging from Aphex Twin to Edgard Varese. The group is making an impact on the contemporary music scene. Perhaps I’m just sensitized to it, because it was formed at the music school where I teach, but I often see them featured or mentioned in the New York Times. Their story is an interesting one and chronicles one ensemble’s journey to “success.” I decided to tell it in my recent book, Lessons From a Street-Wise Professor: What You Won’t Learn at Most Music Schools. Here is an excerpt from that book.

Ramon Ricker

Alarm Will Sound (AWS) was established in 2001, and its first concert was in May of that year at the Miller Theatre in New York City. But there is a pre-history to be told. Around 1996 and while they were still students at the Eastman School of Music, Alan Pierson, Gavin Chuck and four other Eastman students created Ossia. It wasn’t really a new music ensemble, but rather more of a production company. They saw a need and wanted to present concerts that would feature large ensemble works of student composers as well as some minimalist composers whose music they felt was underperformed at the school. For them it was also an opportunity to learn concert production through practical experience. At that same time, the Eastman faculty and administration was rethinking its curriculum, and a series of courses designed to bridge the gap between the “ivory tower” and the real world were taking shape—the Arts Leadership Program. Ossia’s idea of artistic excellence and real world experience was a perfect fit for the Eastman culture of the time, and they found immediate support from the school’s administration.

The experience of forming Ossia and putting on concerts helped several of its members to discover other heretofore unknown talents. Gavin Chuck, for example, whose doctoral study was in composition and theory, found that he liked and had a knack for organization and artistic administration. Alan Pierson came to Eastman as a composition major but through Ossia became passionate about conducting and switched to that major for his doctoral work.

Ossia was very much a group effort. Built into its mission was the thought that they would solicit ideas for programs and repertoire. They wanted to keep their ears close to the ground and program what their audience (read: their peers) actually wanted to hear. But the college years go by quickly, and soon Ossia’s members found themselves about to step into the real world. They decided to take the momentum that they had created with Ossia and carry it forward. They created Alarm Will Sound.

Where Ossia was a quasi-production company, Alarm Will Sound is an ensemble. It works differently but still makes use of many of the fundamental lessons learned from the school group. Gavin Chuck credits much of the success AWS has achieved to the fact that the AWS musicians more or less grew up musically together. They were all students at the same time. They had common interests. They were friends. Together they were learning about both the managerial side and the performance side of music. Basically there have been very few personnel changes since its beginning in 2001. These personal relationships have been the glue of the group, and the members of AWS think of themselves as more of a band than an orchestra.

To them a band is more about personal commitment to one another, and these bonds allow them to push each other artistically. Consequently, they do more interesting things than what a typical pickup ensemble might do. In the real world, large ensembles that play new music are essentially made up of freelancers whose commitment to each other is basically just for that gig. They may play very well, but what AWS brings to the table is a more adventurous concert experience, which is a direct result of the friendship and trust within the group.

Collaboration surrounds the planning of each concert, when the players bring repertoire and program ideas forward for discussion. When the idea was proposed to arrange some of the music of Aphex Twin for the group, it was met with mixed support. About half the room was not convinced that this was a good idea, but because they were friends they heard each other out and eventually went with the idea. This music resulted in their concert and CD, Acoustica, which was a hit and successful on many levels. This kind of risk taking is definitely found more with bands than orchestras.

Consensus building and discussion also contributes to group ownership. Anyone who has been a leader of just about anything has experienced the feeling of responsibility for the success or failure the project. With AWS the members are free to contribute and discuss artistic as well as administrative decisions, and each individual feels a responsibility for the group. There is buy-in. Each time they get together for a performance or series of performances they have a group meeting where organizational and artistic issues are discussed. They confer and brainstorm. It’s not a democracy as such, since with the exception of bringing in new members to the group and selecting the winner of their composition contest, they don’t usually take votes. But with the group’s input, Alan and Gavin are trusted and empowered to make most final decisions. To permit a balance of flexibility with commitment to the group, substitutes are allowed; but there is a policy that no member can miss more than one third of the productions in a single year. In addition, one-year leaves of absence are also allowed without forfeiture of position in the group.

When they formed in 2001 they were excited knowing that they would fill a niche. There was no new music group of their size (18 players) touring nationally that had the reputation of Ensemble Intercontemporain, for example. On the other hand, they knew that one of the reasons that an opportunity existed was because of the expense involved. So they agreed at the outset to pay themselves a nominal fee of $50 each per concert and to contribute the rest to startup costs. Only as owners could they do this. The fee was low, but at least it was something. As with most performing musicians their income stems from many different sources so no one in the group is reliant on AWS concerts for their sole support. Their real payment comes from the joy they get from playing music they love, and are committed to, with friends. Fortunately, as their reputation has grown so has their fee.

Once they realized that their musical and organizational concept worked, they briefly considered making AWS a full-time gig for everyone, but the idea didn’t go very far. The musicians had already begun to establish their own paths, and it was obvious that a big change in personnel would probably have to take place. There was also the economic reality. With a group this size there is a limited number of venues and markets that can support it. Their decision was to do eight to ten productions a year, basically getting together once a month. This work schedule has proven to be positive rather than negative. The players look forward to getting together, they remain fresh and interested in the music, and the time between gigs allows for creative headspace to imagine and develop new productions. Because they are a large group, there is always the pressure from venues—wanting the AWS name but not the AWS cost—to attempt to negotiate for a concert with fewer musicians. But early on AWS decided that from a brand perspective they would not break up into smaller units. AWS means a large group of musicians—the same musicians each time, playing new music, and often in unique and unexpected ways.

The administrative staff is extremely lean. It is structured with an artistic director, Alan Pierson, and a managing director, Gavin Chuck. There is a production manager, Jason Varvaro, who is in charge of logistics, and he makes sure all the musicians and equipment show up when and where they are supposed to. From the outset the group wanted to perform in a way that clearly engaged the music and the audience. As a result they have a staging director, Nigel Maister. Not all of the pieces they play are staged, but when they feel that an extra performance element is called for, they call on Nigel. A small stipend is set aside for development work with donors and friends of the organization. In-kind gifts are appreciated and often received from individuals or organizations that want to donate rehearsal space or equipment.

The name Alarm Will Sound has an interesting story. As Eastman students, Alan and Gavin would work out together at a local gym. One day they were both on exercise machines, which were directly in front of the emergency exit door. You guessed it. The sign on the door was Alarm Will Sound. A light bulb went off in Gavin’s head. He liked it because the phrase captured some of the things they were talking about with their new group—a sense of adventure, something unpredictable or even dangerous. It was somewhat unusual so journalists might be able to do clever things with it, and it had the word sound in it; but one disadvantage was that it didn’t tell anything about the makeup of the group. Gavin became the advocate for it. It was put in the mix of possible names, and in perhaps the only time the group ever voted on anything, Alarm Will Sound barely squeaked by and was chosen as the ensemble’s name.

The group has no publicist or booking management. Their philosophy is that if they put together interesting concerts and present them at the highest possible musical level, the concerts/productions, themselves, will generate a buzz and attention. The programming and repertoire do the work of a publicist. So far it has worked. Their concerts have a coherent idea behind them. Acoustica features music originally written for electronic instruments arranged for acoustic instruments. The central theme of “a/rhythmia” is music with rhythmic complexity and includes an orchestration of a player-piano piece that is impossible to be performed by human hands. They created a multi-media event with 1969, which tells the story of composers and performers in the year 1969 responding to the spirit of the times. Interesting concerts like these grab the attention of the press, because they are not simply one nice piece followed by another nice piece, followed by another nice . . . This is how AWS describes 1969 on their website. http://www.alarmwillsound.com/events/current.html.

February 1969, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen planned to meet The Beatles in New York City. Their aim was to develop a joint concert, one which would have transformed the cultural landscape, uniting the popular and concert music worlds as never before. But a blizzard shut down the city, and while Stockhausen reached the meeting point, The Beatles never arrived. Alarm Will Sound’s 1969 is a unique multimedia event that tells the story of great musicians—Stockhausen, Lennon, McCartney, Berio, Bernstein and Stravinsky—striving for a new world and a new music in the tumultuous months surrounding the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon. With the contagious we-can-remake-the-world optimism of 1969 now a distant memory, Alarm Will Sound’s 1969 offers a relevant evening of entertainment.

Once a program is developed it becomes part of their repertoire and is performed at multiple venues. This cuts down on rehearsal time for programs in their “standard repertoire” and also allows them to work on new programs. In the beginning AWS established themselves in New York City, often playing at the Miller Theatre. Their goal has always been to tour nationally and internationally, and each year their reach has increased to include other U.S. cities and international festivals.

As they look into the future they want to continue to envision themselves as performers in the fullest sense and to challenge themselves with more complex productions. To date, 1969 is their most multifarious production. Its staging, acting, use of video, choreography in the loosest sense of the word, singing and of course playing in a scripted, concert length story make it unquestionably complex, but they fully expect that when looked at in their rear-view mirror 10 or 20 years from now, it will seem just one step along their evolutionary road.

From an organization standpoint they want to increase their fundraising capacity. Ticket sales pay for about 75 percent of their operating expense, which is good for a group of their size, but a larger donor base would allow them to be paid better. It would also allow for the hiring of a full-time administrative staff. Their advice to young groups wanting to remain together in the professional world is to use ideas that make sense with the music to create compelling concerts. Don’t just slap together programs of pieces you like. Go beyond that to engage both yourselves and your audience, and use your education to stimulate imaginative thinking. The second thing is to recognize that music is a performing art. Just the notes are not enough. Properly executing the pitches and the rhythms do not equal a performance. They are important but cannot be the end. And third, in terms of forming and maintaining ensembles, it’s not arts management, but people management. Creative people come in different shapes and sizes, and their leaders must be socially aware. AWS doesn’t view the musicians as interchangeable. When you get AWS you don’t just get a clarinetist, cellist or percussionist, etc. You get Bill, Stefan and Payton. Their success has largely been built on its members and the bond and chemistry that has been established. Alarm Will Sound is unquestionably more of a band than an orchestra.

The Alarm Will Sound story represents one path to “success” in music. In my mind it represents an entrepreneurial spirit and offers good life lessons for all of us.

So–what are the lessons learned here?

1. In musical groups the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. 2. You may not know it now, but many of the people you meet in school will be working with you for the rest of your career. Keep the networks going. 3. Make your performances events. 4. The notes aren’t enough. 5. Don’t be afraid to do something that hasn’t been done before. 6. All members of a group should be stakeholders. 7. Protect your brand. Don’t dilute it. 8. Go cheap at the outset. 9. Have goals. 10. Think big. 11. Be the best at what you do.

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