Ramon Ricker  

Alarm Will Sound—More of a Band Than an Orchestra

Ramon Ricker
October 20, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

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.

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