Both implicit and explicit in the music featured at the Ecstatic Music Festival is the invaluable influence of its forebears. I recently sat down with two members of the contemporary music band Alarm Will Sound -- Artistic Director Alan Pierson and horn player/composer Matt Marks -- to discuss the group's upcoming January 30, 2 p.m. concert at Merkin Concert Hall with Face the Music, the Kaufman Center's teen new music ensemble. Talk inevitably turned to one such important forebear -- composer Steve Reich, and his seminal 1981 composition Tehillim, which is featured on the program.
Daniel J. Kushner: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that of all the composers whose music you play, Steve Reich might be the most well-represented, at least on recording.
Alan Pierson: Right and it's very interesting actually, because on recording we really come off as a very Reich-connected ensemble. And Reich is on our board -- he's been a very good friend to us over the years. In reality, we haven't played anything of Steve's for...
Matt Marks: ... This will be the first time we're playing Reich since...
AP: ... 2004. It's been a long time. And the reason is that... Reich isn't really right for us. And there's a very basic reason for that, which is that Reich, I believe without exception -- I know someone will think of an exception for this -- writes for things in pairs. Reich does not write for one clarinet. Reich writes for two clarinets. That's a bad example, because we have two clarinets. But except for clarinets and percussion, Alarm Will Sound is a one of everything ensemble -- and violins. Clarinets, percussion and violins.
DK: So what is it about Tehillim?
AP: Alarm Will Sound's ticket to New York City and to greater popular awareness was that album we did of Tehillim and The Desert Music that came out in 2002. And that was performed at a concert we did here in New York -- our very first concert in New York -- in May of 2001, which we're approaching the tenth anniversary of. And we haven't played that music since then, and so working now with Face the Music has given us a chance to revisit that repertoire, and Tehillim in particular, for its tenth anniversary.
DK: Does it feel like you've come full circle in a way?
MM: It's kind of a nice way to celebrate 10 years, by doing Tehillim, basically near our tenth anniversary in New York, which like you [Alan] said was our first ever concert. First ever concert or first ever concert outside of Rochester?
AP: It was our first concert as Alarm Will Sound. One thing that I think makes it, for me at least, particularly poignant is that Tehillim was a favorite piece of mine... I was a kid when I did Tehillim for the first time -- I was what, like 19, probably. And now, it's like 17 years later, and I've lost track how many times I've done the piece, with other groups as well as with Alarm Will Sound. So it's a piece that I've been coming back to at different points in my life, and so for me personally it's very poignant to now be working on it with these kids. And these are kids -- I think the youngest person in Face the Music may be 10 or 11. It's really crazy, and it's exceptionally challenging music. I hope they don't figure that out. It's really hard.
MM: I think what's also so fascinating and fantastic about Face the Music is that you can really see this cultural divide. I mean, I think currently Face the Music is an anomaly in that it's still highly irregular to have middle schoolers and high schoolers playing Steve Reich, but when we were doing it at Eastman in the '90s, it was completely unheard of. I think if somebody would have said, "Yeah, I'm gonna do Tehillim with high schoolers," people like us would have been like, "What are you talking about? That's ridiculous."
AP: We did have that reaction when we first discussed this last year.
MM: Yeah, but I think what they've done, Face the Music -- they've proved themselves, and they've done some really challenging stuff. And I think Jenny's [co-founder Jenny Undercofler] done a great job of completely blowing people's expectations out of the water. And I'm hoping -- as I expect that she is and her supporters -- that this will kind of pave the way for children all around. If I would have been able to participate in a Steve Reich performance when I was in high school, I think it would have completely changed my life.
AP: Tehillim is a piece that predates the whole connection of popular music and classical music that the Ecstatic Music festival is exploring, although I think that Reich is a big part of what made that possible... I sense there's an argument to be made that Minimalism is the beginning, created a sort of language that allowed these musics to talk to each other... Reich's presence on this program is because he laid the groundwork, in a way, for the whole sort of ecosystem that I think the festival occupies. That's a pretty grand statement, but I think it's pretty true.
Kushner's first interview in this series can be viewed here.
For more information on Alarm Will Sound's January 30 concert with Face the Music, visit click here.
Follow Daniel J. Kushner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danieljkushner