Saturday, March 22, 2008

Alarm Will Sound: The Revolution Will Be Classicized

Like any young, impressionable Beatles fan, I grew up hating "Revolution #9" and I definitely wasn't alone. In a late '70's Village Voice poll, it was voted the worst Fabs song ever. Even stacked up with the boys' other experiments, it just seemed too bizarre to be taken seriously. Later when I heard Stockhausen, I began to at least appreciate what Lennon was trying to do but I never thought that I'd really 'like' the song.

That was until I heard genre-bending classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound do a version of it as part of their 1969 program at the Kitchen. Going Kronos Quartet one better, AWS dived further into the pop music world with a satisfying CD based on Aphex Twin songs. This time around, they were looking to engage "people, history and ideas," basing their latest collection of pieces on a 1966 meeting between Paul McCartney and composer Luciano Berio. The bassist attended a Berio lecture and heard the wonderfully mad, theatrical piece "Laborintus 2" and chatted up Berio afterwards. McCartney supposed bore down on making his own tape pieces after that while Berio re-arranged Lennon/McCartney songs into his own "Beatles Songs." AWS also noted a supposed NYC collaboration between the Beatles and Stockhausen which was arranged for early 1969 but never happened (thanks to a blizzard). During their intro for the show, they do display the Sgt. Pepper's cover with Stocky's dour visage circled, just to make the connection obvious. As such, if there's any ensemble that's going to coral the avant classical world into the realm of the Fabs without making it Boston Pops material, it's AWS.

They explained that they picked '69 because of its pivotal nature, being the year of the moon landing, Nixon's first inaugural address, the moon landing, the Czech invasion, the Cambodian bombing, the Manson murders, Woodstock, Altamount, important early works by Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson and Phillip Glass done then, Walmart's opening, the Brady Bunch starting, Star Trek ending and other cultural milestones. They plan to fine tune the piece, add more multi-media and take out the explanations of the pieces but for now, they provided a satisfying rough draft.

Their program starts and finishes with excerpts from Stockhausen's Aus den sieben Tagen. They began with Part 4, "Meeting Point" where AWS slowly approaches the stage as their instructions flash on a screen.

Everyone plays the same tone

Lead the tone wherever your thoughts
lead you
Do not leave it, stay with it
Always return
to the same place

From there, AWS played Berio's "Beatles Songs." Here, "Ticket To Ride" is just too damn awkward- imaging a simmering beat song as an ornate ensemble piece is kind of ridiculous and the crowd did kind of snicker at the end. "Michelle" worked much better as it's a much easier bridge between McCartney's sweet, plaintive tune and Berio's small ensemble arrangement. Much more successful were Berio's "O King" (for Martin Luther King) and Leonard Bernstein's (another highbrow/lowbrow straddler) grandiose but moving "Epistle: The Word of the Lord," whose anti-war sentiment was investigated by the FBI.

After the intermission, AWS pianist premiered his "Chamber Symphony" piece, a swirling dissonant composition (also reminiscent of Berio's "Labornitus") that got a well deserved ovation. After another piece to honor MLK, Stravinsky's "Herr, was tragt der Boden hier," came the improbable cover of the least coverable Beatles tune. AWS horn player Matt Marks arrangement was stunning not just because it showed for certain how dynamic and lively "Revolution #9" really is but also how funny it is too and even melodic in places. Using bike horns, megaphones and horn mutes to recreate the sinister, strange music that makes up the piece, AWS also filled in the blanks with Marks and others recreating the taped voices, chants and cheers also heard in the song. "I am for peaceful revolution," a AWS member said quoting Lennon before the song was played and afterwards, they made you feel that he was, if not advocating for a sonic one that Stockhausen, Berio and others had already arrived at. Among these other composers, the song finally had its context and made sense. The crowd seemed to appreciate that too, awarding them with rousing applause.

To complete the cycle, AWS ended with part 10 of Aus den sieben Tagen, "Set Sail for the Sun" as the ensemble slowly drifted off the stage while following the screen instructions.

Play a tone for so long
until you hear its individual vibrations

Hold the tone
and listen to the tones of the others
- to all of them together, not to individual ones –
and slowly move your tone
until you arrive at complete harmony
and the whole sound turns to gold
to pure, gently shimmering fire


Anonymous James said...

Probably not on the same level, Robyn Hitchcock "and his heavy friends" once performed all of the White Album for a show in France. Yes, including "Revolution #9," done a capella. The entire show is floating around the Internet on mp3, and their version is quite striking.

12:09 PM  

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