July 26, 2005
A Workout for New Music by a Group With No Holds Barred
By ALLAN KOZINN
Alarm Will Sound has, in only a few years, become one of this country's liveliest new-music ensembles. One thing it has going for it is that its virtuosic players, most not long out of college, are both knowledgeable and fond of certain corners of pop music.
Lately the orchestra has been puzzling over the music of Richard D. James, the British techno composer who works under various names, most notably Aphex Twin. On its new recording, ''Acoustica'' (Canteloupe) Alarm Will Sound offers 13 of Mr. James's concise electronic tone poems in arrangements for an orchestra fortified with electric guitar and bass and a handful of exotic instruments. On Sunday evening, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, the group performed its arrangements in the Allen Room of Rose Hall.
There is a degree to which the medium is the message in Mr. James's music. His recordings use a large palette of timbres that often morph in surprising ways. Some are entirely electronic; others are sampled acoustic instruments, though even those are often manipulated, distorted, speed-shifted or set within a distinctive electronic ambience. His selection, juxtaposition, balancing and stereo placement of these sounds are compositional decisions, but instead of a printed score his efforts yield a recording that is in effect the piece.
Or maybe not. Alarm Will Sound's view is that Mr. James's quirky, often wistfully melodic works transcend their original timbres and textures. The players could justifiably argue as well that in Mr. James's world, great value is placed on inventive remixing -- even to the point where the original is barely recognizable -- and that their arrangements are essentially deferential remixes. (Oddly, they abandoned this argument by calling their concert ''Unremixed.'')
The performance, conducted by Alan Pierson, did not fully resolve this debate, but even though a listener inevitably made piece by piece comparisons, the ingenuity of the rescoring and the vigor of the performance were seductive. In ''Mont St. Michel,'' for example, Alarm Will Sound replaced tightly focused electronic beats of the Aphex Twin version with a hefty percussion sound -- a very different sensibility, but it created its own powerful resonance. In ''Cock/Ver 10,'' the ensemble gave up on Mr. James's synthetic splashes and reproduced his rhythms and riffs with the energy of a hot jazz band.
In some cases the job was easy: Aphex Twin's ''Avril 14'' is a sweet piano solo, and the Alarm Will Sound version added nuance and warmth that pointed up its Parisian hues. And in some cases the group's arrangements are still evolving. On its recording of ''Logon Rock Witch,'' the ensemble replaced Aphex Twin's low-pitched repeating electronic tone with a male voice. In concert, the group used a jaw harp, which better approximates the original sound.
The Aphex Twin pieces were punctuated by imaginative and involving electronic improvisations (billed as remixes) by Richard Devine, and ended with Stefan Freund's ''Unremixed,'' a work that begins as a Philip Glass-style essay in repetitive transformation and quickly grows into a big, ferocious score with jazzy rhythms and rich, brassy textures.
©2005 by the New York Times Company