Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Interview with Alan Pierson

(photo by Michael Rubenstein/Redux Pictures)
Alan Pierson
Alarm Will Sound’s 1969
March 10, 2011
Zankel Hall, 7th Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets

Already known among smart music circles as one of the boldest artists of our time thanks to his role as artistic director and conductor of the new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound—which performs a tantalizing multimedia work titled 1969 at Zankel Hall on March 10—Alan Pierson will also take on a new role next season: artistic director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

The 36-year-old Pierson will oversee a new direction for the Brooklyn-based orchestra, connecting with local neighborhoods musically instead of simply holding concerts in one large hall—so the music will come to the borough instead of the borough coming to hear the music. It makes sense for the orchestra to tap Pierson for this position based on the creative and innovative work he and Alarm Will Sound have done for over a decade.

In 1969, an imagined meeting between German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and one of the Beatles is turned into an inspired collage of music, image and spoken word that takes its cue from the works of that era (along with Stockhausen and the Fab Four, there are snippets of Berio, Bernstein and even Oh! Calcutta) to present an imaginative, definitely magical mystery tour.

Pierson recently spoke about his plans for the Brooklyn Philharmonic and 1969 at his Hell’s Kitchen apartment.

Kevin Filipski: How were you chosen as the new Brooklyn Philharmonic artistic director?
Alan Pierson: They were looking for a new way to go forward that’s meaningful and essential to Brooklyn: they wanted to get back to doing orchestral concerts with a new mission to make the orchestra serve, reflect and contribute to the cultural diversity of Brooklyn. They came to me and we discussed how I could be involved.

KF: Can you talk about your plans for next season in Brooklyn?
AP: Orchestral concerts will start in the fall of 2011, and right now we’re planning what’s probably a four-concert season. Our idea is that each concert takes the orchestra to a different Brooklyn community and involves us connecting with artists and music from that community, and treating the orchestral repertoire as something that’s porous and open and allows us to have a dialogue with each neighborhood. It’s a new kind of programming. When asked what the standard repertoire and new music breakdown would be, I couldn’t answer: I want the music to be fresh and relevant to each place we’re playing. We hope to create something which will be of interest to everyone, those who know the classical music canon and those who are new to conertgoing. Fans of the Brooklyn Philharmonic who are used to going to BAM for concerts will, we hope, come to the new places. For me, it’s a new way to discover Brooklyn. We’re trying to not just show up, play, and then leave: we want to have an ongoing presence in each place we’re performing.

KF: You have relationships with many contemporary composers through Alarm Will Sound—will that continue in Brooklyn?
AP: Alarm Will Sound has a long list of composers that we love to work with, but none of them seem to me like stuff that should be happening in Brooklyn. Our mission is to do concerts in Brooklyn neighborhoods, not to bring Ligeti’s music to Bed Stuy, for example. I’m not thinking, “Here are composers I want, so let’s do them.” We’re talking with a couple of composers for next season in Brooklyn, but we’re letting the mission drive things. There’s actually a project that has the potential to involve both Alarm Will Sound and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, but for the most part they are totally separate organizations with totally separate missions that will be kept separate.

KF: Talk about the latest Alarm Will Sound show, 1969.
AP: This may be our most original show, a theater piece that tells a story centering on a meeting that was supposed to happen between the Beatles and Stockhausen, and uses that meeting to tell a larger story about the music and artists of that era. All the music except one finale piece is by the people who are characters in the show, and we hear their actual words as well as their music. Paul McCartney met Luciano Berio a couple years earlier and got the idea of tape loops from both Berio and Stockhausen, then got the other Beatles into it. We heard about this meeting from a Stockhausen biography, but there’s very little said about it there. Apparently, one of the Beatles was supposed to meet Stockhausen at Lukas Foss’ New York apartment on February 9, 1969, but there’s no other mention of it anywhere else. We tried to contact Stockhausen about it, but were told that he would be happy to talk to us after we read a list of books. Before I could read them all, he died.

KF: Which Beatles songs will you perform?
AP: We’re doing “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolution 9” and “A Day in the Life.” With “Revolution 9,” we try to be as literal as we can. Matt Marks, our horn player, did the arrangement: it’s really spectacular and has become a real showpiece which we’ve done a number of times. Matt was really fastidious in recreating it, and the sonic weirdness of the piece really benefits from having the resources of an orchestra, because there are so many different sounds at our disposal, from strings and winds to voices and sound effects, so it becomes a compelling piece of music performance.

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