Alarm Will Sound

Wine always tastes better when the winemaker who guides us overflows with descriptions that connect our senses to the history of the soil, the wineries, the particular gastronomy. As a result, it is extremely boring to uncork without knowledge, to swallow without tasting the complexity or understanding the cultural context of a wine. The same applies to music, even (and perhaps even more) in genres that avoid academic tradition. Two years ago, I heard the group Alarm Will Sound at Duke University in the United States in a program entitled 1969 – a year of great musical fodder on all fronts, including that of Vietnam, which produced the machine-gun blues of Hendrix and the inspiration for various rebellions that would come to be reflected on the staves of new-music composers.

The young New York ensemble uncorked several sublime bottles that had been maturing since the summer of Woodstock, including an abbreviated version of Luciano Berio’s revolutionary Symphony (1968) with texts by Lévi-Strauss and Beckett recited between fragments of strange music. Interspersed among the works, they played and sang beautifully – especially the beautiful violin-soprano – fragments of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, premiered in 1971 but presumably composed at the end of the ’60s, with Latin texts and the anti-war poems of Paul Simon. As the work of a leftist (and homosexual) artist, the premiere in Washington did not help President Nixon. The ensemble also performed the celebrated Hymnen by Karlheinz Stockhausen – a collage of national anthems that emphasizes the narrowness of nationalism, revealing the “hymnorance” underlying nations and armies.

Stockhausen, an essential postwar German composer who specialized in electronic music, had arranged a meeting in New York with The Beatles in 1969 for an avant-garde concert at the height of The White Album. They never met. Forty years later, out of that failed meeting was born this exciting program, whose masterpiece for chamber orchestra, singers and performers is the live version of Revolution 9, the most enigmatic of anything The Beatles produced – arranged here by Matt Marks and John Orfe. This tour de force is one of the most remarkable works I’ve heard in any contemporary concert. The famous musique concrète collage, created by Lennon and his Japanese girlfriend in the style of Stockhausen, created a vessel of communication between the prickliest and most unpopular avant-garde and the biggest-selling pop music of all time. Its realization in concert, without pre-recorded audio, sound by sound and scream by scream, reveals a 20th-century pièce de résistance.

The magnitude of the live Revolution 9 lies in its masterful transposition, its tremendous virtuosity. But understanding Lennon in this context – next to Berio, Bernstein, and Lennon’s German electronic guru – is the fruit of the expert enologist in those great bottles of the last summer of the decade of revolutions: Alarm Will Sound.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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