Alarm Will Sound’s “1969” Show at Zankel Hall

For several years the innovative contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound has been refining a program that puts a spotlight on the musical developments of the late 1960s.  Perhaps the program is best explained through the brief note included in the program for last night's performance at Zankel Hall (the chamber music performance space at Carnegie Hall):  "Just over 40 years ago, the Beatles and composer Karlheinz Stockhausen arranged to meet in New York City to plan a joint concert.  No such performance would ever take place.  But its tantalizing promise is the departure point for Alarm Will Sound's 1969.  Told through their own words, music, and images, 1969 is the story of great musicians — John Lennon, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Paul McCartney, Luciano Berio, Yoko Ono, and Leonard Bernstein — striving for a new music and a new world amidst the turmoil of the late 1960s."

Although presented in a concert hall, 1969 is not really a concert, but more of a theater piece with music.  Actors impersonate Lennon, Berio, and Stockhausen, a member of the ensemble impersonates Bernstein, and other members of the ensemble recite lines attributable to such other characters of the time as NY Times music critic Harold Schonberg, Father Daniel Berrigan, Stephen Sondheim, Igor Stravinsky… and so forth.  Three screens were used to project still photographs and motion pictures of events of the era related to the musical developments, as well as art and color light patterns.  Taped sounds are interspersed with live music.  Among the events re-enacted are significant performances of segments from an unpublished opera by Berio as well as his Sinfonia, Bernstein's Mass, various Stockhausen works — most notably Hymnen, his collage made up of bits and pieces of national anthems — some Beatles songs, and the infamous rock guitar performance of The Star Spangled Banner by Jimi Hendrix.

This was presented over the course of 3 hours with a brief intermission.  Taking into account that only three of the impersonators on stage were really professional actors (Robert Stanton, John Patrick Walker, and David Chandler), and that some of the singing was being done by instrumentalists who are not primarily vocalists, the show was very effective in making its points and holding the audience's attention. 

This has been a work in progress for a long time — I was privileged to attend an early tryout of some of the material at The Kitchen — and I suspect it may continue to evolve if the group has more opportunities to present it in different venues, as it has had prior exposures in various forms.  My reaction to last night's performance was tempered by the feeling that some momentum was lost in the second half — perhaps the material would be even more effective if cut a bit and merged into a single uninterrupted theater piece without intermission — but my level of fascination was high throughout.

This was not a presentation to make the audience feel safe and comfortable.  Rather, it was intended to challenge the audience with the late 1960s effusions of inventive and "on the edge" creative figures, whose works were intended to stimulate rather than soothe.  My regular concert companion expressed some discomfort as we were leaving, having found some of the dissonances jarring and the music lacking in "beauty."  There are different kinds of beauty – poetic truth can be at once ugly and beautiful for its very depth and truthfulness – and I heard beauty last night as well as turmoil, violence (referring to the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy), and some of the strange sounds emanating from the electronic music experiments of Stockhausen and Lennon & Ono. 

I lived through those years as a teenager, and I remember the incredible impact that Bernstein's Mass, which I first encountered then in the composer's recording (which I reviewed for the Cornell Daily Sun), and Berio's Sinfonia, which I first heard in Bernstein's NY Philharmonic recording with the Swingle Singers, had on me.  I listened to both of those compulsively in those days.  I also remember vividly visiting a pavilion at the Montreal World's Fair where one sat on floor pillows in a large dark space while selections from Berio's Sinfonia were played over a multi-speaker system placing the instrumentalists and vocalists all around you while a colored light show played out coordinated with the music.  (Does anybody else recall that incredible experience??)  Sitting through last night's performance evoked such memories for me, while providing new insights from "behind the scenes" as excerpts from the writings of these composers were interspersed with the musical performance.

One of the things that made this all so fascinating was that the creative team of Andrew Kupfer, Nigel Maister and AWS artistic director and conductor Alan Pierson (who originally conceived the project) came up with quite a bit of unpublished or rarely heard material – including an opera written by Berio on commission for the Library of Congress that was rejected for performance due to its provocative and occasionally "dirty" text – and gave us a rare chance to hear it.  I have gone to many concerts after which I could have gone home and replayed the entire evening's program using commercial recordings in my collection.  Not possible from last night, since we heard plenty of material that's not commercially available.

This is the best kind of concert, I think: one that challenges the audience to stretch, to think about the different approaches of these innovative composers and to experience their sounds and words in counterpoint.  It would be fantastic if more groups took up this approach, and doubly fantastic if Alarm Will Sound picks another critical point in musical history to illustrate using a similar approach.

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