The significance of Radio Rewrite cannot be overstated. The greatest living composer structured the piece on the music of the greatest living rock band, and the greatest active new-music ensemble will perform it for only the third time ever at the Sheldon Concert Hall on March 20 — a mere fifteen days after its world debut.
The aforementioned "greatest living composer" is Steve Reich, who celebrated his 75th birthday in 2010 with a three-day festival in Krakow featuring myriad musicians performing his life's works. One such musician was Jonny Greenwood of the "greatest living rock band," Radiohead. Reich had never heard Radiohead, but he dug into the band's music after witnessing Greenwood's performance of the all-guitar composition Electric Counterpoint. A few months later Reich began to compose Radio Rewrite, which features elements of the Radiohead songs "Everything in Its Right Place" and "Jigsaw Falling into Place."
The third element of this Radio Rewrite love triangle is Alarm Will Sound, the "greatest active new-music ensemble." The New York group developed a relationship with Steve Reich early in its career. "Our very first concert as Alarm Will Sound was the music of Steve Reich," says Gavin Chuck, the group's resident arranger. "Steve has been important to us from the beginning, and he has been very supportive of us."
Alarm Will Sound's first two albums were exclusively Steve Reich compositions, and the group's rendition of his masterwork, Music for a Large Ensemble, appeared on Reich's 2001 album, Triple Quartet. Radio Rewrite is the first piece written by the composer specifically for the group. "From the very beginning, we've been approaching him to write a piece for us," Chuck explains. "He was working on something for us, but he scrapped it when he met Jonny Greenwood and started over."
Steve Reich has referred to Alarm Will Sound very fittingly as "the orchestra of the 21st century." There are similar groups with smaller formats, such as New York's Bang on a Can and Chicago's Eighth Blackbird. But with twenty members, Alarm Will Sound is the largest of its kind. Impressively, the ensemble keeps its membership constant.
"Back in 2000 there were groups of gigging musicians that would get together and play around New York, but there was no large ensemble dedicated to contemporary classical music that toured the country," Chuck says. "Meanwhile, every European country has a large chamber orchestra dedicated to new music, and they all tour. We thought America could have one too, and if we always performed as a big group, that could be our identity. A lot of the calls I get ask if we'll show up as a string quartet or some smaller version, and the answer is no. Our identity as a band is a large ensemble."
"This kind of group it is, is called a sinfonietta," Chuck explains. "There is at least one of every orchestral instrument. If you went to see the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, they might have eighteen first violins and eighteen second violins. We have one of each. That allows us to play music with all the colors that an orchestra can get in a smaller format. We can also play very rhythmic music. When you have 80 people onstage, it's harder to play rhythmic music."
Alarm Will Sound proved its ability to play rhythmic music on its breakthrough album Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin. While other orchestral cross-genre explorations tend toward easy listening (e.g., Vitamin String Quartet Performs Green Day's American Idiot), Alarm Will Sound treated the music of the greatest living electronic musician with the same respect it grants Reich's. Aphex Twin's electronic squalls morph into Stravinsky-esque shards, and the group's team of percussionists faithfully, accurately and awesomely re-create the mechanical drumming of tracks like "4" and "Fingerbib."
"When the Aphex Twin idea was first brought up to the group there was immediate factions and divisions," Chuck says. "I was one of the people who was like, 'No fucking way.' One of our percussionists said electronica is meant for machines, not people. With a machine you can be precise down to the millisecond. The sound is on, and then it's off. No human can produce that kind of control, and we will look like fools."
Chuck continues, "I am glad I was outnumbered because it ended up being a great project. It's interesting because it has a problem at its core: It's machine music played by humans. Once you start playing it, you transcend that problem because humans just want to make music. I don't want to be stupid enough to say there's no such thing as genres and labels, but I think it's interesting when those boundaries are crossed. Whether it's a 20th-century technology like a computer, or a 17th-century technology like a violin, when you come across great music, you want to play it."
Radio Rewrite continues the boundary-crossing Alarm Will Sound does so well, with one foot in the familiarity of Steve Reich's music and another in the yet-to-be-discovered possibilities of Radiohead's. When RFT spoke to Gavin Chuck, the group had not even rehearsed the piece. "Our conductor Alan Pierson just received the score," he says. "I asked him how recognizable the Radiohead elements were, and he said it will only be obvious to people who really know the tunes. A lot of it is buried in the background."
And considering Steve Reich himself wrote, "It was not my intention to make anything like 'variations' on these songs, but rather to draw on their harmonies and sometimes melodic fragments and work them into my own piece," there are no major spoiler alerts to speak of.
Alarm Will Sound performs the U.S. debut of Radio Rewrite during an all-Reich program in Palo Alto, California. The ensemble's second performance of the piece takes place here. The Sheldon bill also includes Journeyman by composer (and Alarm Will Sound founding member/current professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois) John Orfe; a new work from The Hunger by NPR-approved Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy; and Meltphace 6 by Aphex Twin.
Though it's a less than obvious place for such a high-profile performance, Alarm Will Sound has an affinity for St. Louis. The group appeared at the American Arts Experience festival in October and will stop by the Touhill Performing Arts Center on April 26 to perform 1969, a multimedia experience based on a hypothetical collaboration between the Beatles, Leonard Bernstein, Yoko Ono and electronic-music pioneer Karl Stockhausen.
This season is just the beginning of Alarm Will Sound's relationship with the city. The ensemble plans to perform at least three local concerts annually, and it hopes to integrate even further with the St. Louis music community.
"So much attention is given to the coasts," Gavin Chuck says. "St. Louis appealed to us in the exact same way that the initial concept of Alarm Will Sound appealed to us. There seem to be so many cool things happening in St. Louis, so much excitement, that it is just where we want to be. Outside of where we all actually live, we can be a part of something more intently and more intensely in St. Louis right now than anywhere else."