Alarm Will Sound, the 21-piece chamber orchestra led by Alan Pierson, brings its full power to bear on Alarm Will Sound Presents Modernists (Cantaloupe Music). These six tracks act as a key for anyone new to modern classical music, unlocking what made it in the first place and an antidote to the popular opinion that anything that came before minimalism was bland, dry, and brittle.
Modernists is bookended by two pieces that served as gateway drugs for generations. The Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” arranged by Matthew Marks, feels like having a fog burned off. Electric distortion is replaced by acoustic tonalities that don’t sand down the disjunctions, but accentuate them. The original’s quoting of “Kradoutja” (the snake charmer’s song) is given a shaky, unpredictable quality, drenched in refreshing atonality and raw play. Evan Hause’s vibrant new arrangement of Varèse’s “Poeme Electronique,” which closes the record, sharpens the spikes that jut out of this classic piece. It also underscores what made Varèse’s work irresistible to edgy rock & rollers and jazzers teasing the bleeding edges of their genres. AWS plays with a sensuality as well as a rock-hard sense of leaned-into riffs, most often on low brass, that grind into the listener’s brain, punctuated with crashing cymbal hits and head-nodding grooves.
The four pieces in the middle are an exquisite sampling of styles with life breathed into each. Charles Wuorinen’s “Will Sound” is the clearest example of the sensual beauty of things smashed together and the dizzy joy of whiplash. Its rhythm bobs and weaves as woodwinds and marimba stitch together high strings and guttural brass into a tetherball orbit. At times it’s given an almost baroque ornamentation that averts sappiness by submitting to an intricate system.
Possibly the most intriguing track is August Read Thomas’ “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” Based on the eponymous Wallace Stevens poem, the burst of strings hard on the heels of the first line, “Light the first light of evening,” grabs the listener by the throat. Clattering percussion and delightful, taunting vocal performances by contralto Kirsten Sollek and violinist Caleb Burhans lead the listener through a rumination on the existence of God and the value of one’s internal life amidst an exemplified push-pull between inner and outer. Sollek’s long, firery lines and the best reed-writing on the album make for one of the most thrilling moments on record so far this year.
Throughout Modernists, Alarm Will Sound reinforce the beauty and playfulness of this music. They confirm that complicated things can get at emotion in ways simpler, more direct music doesn’t. This record is both a primer on 20th century trends —and where those paths are leading today—and a reminder that serialism doesn’t have to be dogmatic or academic.