Alarm Will Sound coming Tuesday

12:12 PM, Feb 17, 2013

The production of 1969 was inspired by the thought of what might have happened had classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Lennon collaborated. (Carl Sander Socolow)/

Written By Anna Reguero

A back story discovered

Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Lennon’s fictional meeting was the starting point for Alarm Will Sound’s 1969, but scriptwriter Andrew Kupfer needed more to create a cohesive storyline. He uncovered historical connections between the two protagonists and conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Kupfer also had a photograph of Paul McCartney and Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio, one of the major masters of electronic music composition in the 1960s. But he needed more information if Berio was going to be a major character in the program.
Kupfer contacted Tiffany Kuo, a scholar at Yale University whose research found an interesting back story to a chamber piece the Library of Congress had commissioned Berio to write in the 1960s.
Teaching in California at the time, Berio was highly influenced by America’s racial politics. Rather than writing within the parameters the Library of Congress gave him, Berio wrote a one-act opera about race relations that was both obscene and polemical. Included was a black chorus with half of their faces painted white. “It was really a tale about racial confrontation and violence,” says Kupfer.
The Library of Congress responded, unsurprisingly, that the work couldn’t be performed. Berio did a full rewrite to get paid for his work, but never got the original score back. The work was thought lost, until Kuo uncovered it in the Library of Congress.
It provided the needed political context for Berio’s inclusion in the plot of 1969.
Though 1969 is about the idealistic hopes of composers in the ’60s, Kupfer didn’t shy away from the political undertones that fueled their ideas in the program.

GO DEEPER ON DIGITALScan this QR code or click on this story at to see an excerpt of Alarm Will Sound’s 1969.

If you go

What: Alarm Will Sound’s 1969.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Cost: $15 to $25.
For tickets: (585) 454-2100 or
At 8 p.m. Saturday, Tim Piper will perform a multimedia show called Just Imagine, a tribute to John Lennon. Tickets are $45 to $60. Go to Read Jeff Spevak’s interview with Piper in Weekend magazine on Thursday.

On the famous cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a number of cultural icons — celebrities, writers, comedians, musicians and others — nestle in a bizarre, incongruous group mug shot.

The prerequisites for being featured on the cover are unclear, but there were some highly unusual picks. One of the oddest is avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, the only classical composer included.

What if John Lennon and Stockhausen did meet? Alarm Will Sound — a new-music ensemble born at the Eastman School of Music — imagines what would happen through a dramatic multimedia program called 1969, which the group will perform Tuesday at Eastman Theatre.

The story

Stockhausen was a leader of the Darmstadt School, a culture-building initiative in post-World War II Germany. Avant-garde and electronic music composition flourished in Europe under the auspices of the school, and the experimentations there resonated globally for classical music.

Clearly, it reached even farther when Stockhausen landed on a Beatles cover.

Possible real connections between The Beatles and Stockhausen have surfaced; Paul McCartney spoke in interviews of Stockhausen’s composition “Gesang der Junglinge.” And scholars have drawn connections between The Beatle’s raucous “Revolution 9” and and Stockhausen and Edgard Varese’s “concrete,” electronic composition that sampled live sounds then patched together in a musical collage — particularly Stockhausen’s “Hymnen.”

Yet the inspiration for Alarm Will Sound comes from a meeting that Stockhausen biographer Michael Kurtz says John Lennon and Stockhausen planned for Feb. 9, 1969.

Kurtz says they didn’t connect because of a snowstorm. Others say the meeting was never planned, and there is no evidence that a future meeting ever took place.

But it remains a delicious idea: two of the 20th century’s greatest musical minds, one from pop and the other from modernist classical music, collaborating.

Alarm Will Sound’s 1969 uses the fictional meeting, which would have had cultural significance for the arts, as a jumping-off point into the dramatic program. The cast of characters includes Stockhausen, Lennon, the Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio and even the legendary American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who aimed to build an audience for the kind of projects Stockhausen, Lennon and Berio might have created.

The (meeting) is the centerpiece of the story,” says Alan Pierson, Alarm Will Sound’s artistic director, who earned a doctorate in conducting from Eastman in 2005 and also is the artistic director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. “It seemed to represent the spirit of the times, this idea of trying to bring the whole musical world together in a way that would be really revolutionary.”

The Eastman connection

Alarm Will Sound is the successful offshoot of Ossia, the Eastman’s student-run contemporary music ensemble. A group of Eastman students involved in Ossia in the late ’90s and early 2000s took the plunge in New York City as a 20-member professional chamber ensemble.

The group joined a growing trend for mid-sized ensembles that have enough instrumentation to perform diverse works but remain small enough to perform in a variety of venues. Alarm Will Sound also has embraced a multimedia and theatrical aesthetic for performances and popular music alongside classical repertoire (they have an album of Aphex Twin arrangements).

Along the way, the group has earned a reputation that has sold out Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on more than one occasion.

I’m always interested in ways of bringing together really different kinds of music and some kind of coherent event,” Pierson says.

The idea to turn angular and dissonant classical music into an event started back when Alarm Will Sound members were still students in Rochester. Ossia students were interested in erecting John Cage’s Song Books — but they needed theatrical expertise to pull off the vision.

They looked to Nigel Maister, director of the International Theatre Program at the University of Rochester. The collaboration was so successful that Maister became a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, helping build communicative, theatrical elements into their performances from their start as a professional ensemble.

Maister, who studied piano for 12 years but is not a professional musician, doesn’t consider the Alarm Will Sound programs theater. Rather, he thinks of the staging as a way to help audiences engage with music that is otherwise extremely challenging.

People have visions or ideas of what new music sounds like, which is impenetrable, atonal, unfamiliar,” he says. “Some of it, of course, is all of those things, but the vast majority is not. Even the stuff that is somewhat impenetrable, or somewhat atonal, or somewhat forbidding, is actually — once you watch it, once you’re actually in the hall watching the musicians play — extremely engaging. That’s where Alarm Will Sound’s interest in performing new music comes in.”

A new kind of performing

Alarm Will Sound’s forays into staging have required members to step outside of the mostly insular stage habits of professional musicians. They’ve learned to maneuver around a stage or concert hall, memorize complex scores and put their instruments aside to speak text and embody characters. But 1969 goes further than anything they’ve previously done.

In 1969, the musicians are both voices and characters who speak, sing and play instruments. Professional actors play the characters of Stockhausen, Lennon and Berio. Bernstein is performed by Alarm Will Sound member Michael Harley, a bassoonist with a doctorate from Eastman.

In addition to the ensemble and actors, the piece also incorporates a video element to help give a sense of time and place. The script was written by Andrew Kupfer, a friend of the ensemble and a professional journalist who uncovered a number of historical interviews, writings and political connections on which to base the show’s characters and dialogue.

Alarm Will Sound’s concert is part of a three-day residency. Members will also lead a workshop with students on creative concert programming. Eastman, says Pierson, was where the ensemble cut their teeth as professionals and created friendships that help them endure.

The relationships we all developed at Eastman have been essential,” says Pierson. “There’s a trust that comes from all knowing each other really well for a long time. We’re all comfortable taking risks, being honest with each other. There’s a whole perspective of what we’re aiming for, in terms of the event we want to create, that comes out of our experiences.”