Arranging “Poème électronique” for Alarm Will Sound

On Friday (4/29/16), Alarm Will Sound dropped their latest CD, “Modernists,” on Cantaloupe Records/bandcamp. It is quickly picking up great reviews. It dawned on me that is now exactly 10 years since I first began working on this arrangement, which began to take living form at the end of 2006.


At some point in early 2005 I had the insane idea of making an acoustic version of Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique. Well, the idea was not out entirely of the blue, as it was only a month after recording sessions for the splashy and successful CD of Alarm Will Sound’s Acoustica CD (released in July, 2005), to which I had the great pleasure of contributing an arrangement (Aphex Twin’s Omgyjya Switch 7), and on which I played guitar and percussion.


There was no indication at the time that AWS planned to continue on the intriguing path of “acousticizing” entirely electronic works. Even so, upon revisiting the scratchy old Columbia LP of Poème it seemed to me that it could make for a very cool acoustic arrangement for AWS, if they were going to go in this direction again. Of course, I would only want to make such an arrangement if they were – it was them or nobody. After all, Omygyjya had just taken me over half a year to nail down (June, 2004-January, 2005), and the experience of fleshing it out with them in rehearsal was fabulous. It was their commitment and vision to the project that made it fly. Thankfully, as time has shown, they did continue to work in this genre.


The reason Poème spoke to me in terms of an acoustic arrangement was multi-fold: 1) it has silent, resonant space (unlike Omygyjya), being, in a way, a “mellow” piece of electronic music; 2) it has an almost Romantic expressive quality, owing both to the presence of the human voice and a “peak and valley” dramatic structure; 3) it uses recordings of actual acoustic instruments (from the percussion family). As a percussionist myself, this was particularly interesting, as it seemed an acoustic arrangement could reverse-tie Poème into his earlier music; works like Ionisation. Finally, it was AWS’s skill and approach to recording and performance that was the ultimate license for me to think that the arrangement could work at all. It had been seeing them perform the highly spatial concert of Benedict Mason’s work at Miller Theater (4/3/04) that introduced me to them in the first place – and Poème had an abundance of spatial qualities to explore. What I really dreamed of was an arrangement that could be given the “Benedict Mason treatment” in Miller Theater or elsewhere. I brought the idea to Alan Pierson backstage after their next Miller Concert in February, 2005.


At some point during the ensuing year AWS was engaged to do a Varèse portrait at Miller Theater, and I was excited when Alan asked me to move ahead on the arrangement for that concert. When I heard and saw them perform their now-famous spatial treatment of Varèse’s Intégrales at Zankel Hall (2/16/06), I was even more excited. While I knew that it was a lot to hope for a similarly-intensive, staged, memorized, mobile, spatial performance of Poème électronique, a guy can dream. The piece certainly would sound great if it were done this way. As I worked on the arrangement over the coming year, I would incorporate notes and instructions for spatial presentation, whether or not they would be able to be used.  Antiphonal lion roars in the balconies, soprano moving across the stage to the open piano while singing, backstage timpani, crinkling plastic bags while walking amongst the audience, playing an oboe passage while turning in place, and more (all inspired by AWS’s incredible rendition of Mason the first time I saw them). It has not been done this way yet, but a few “light” ideas have been put into play – see the Heginbotham dancer with the 2-headed drum walk away from the group while playing in this amazing video, which I think is a fabulous presentation of the arrangement at the MET Museum on 2/20/14. [click on video and begin at 24:50] Here is my original chart demonstrating not only instrument locations, but offstage placements in a spatial version, in this case for Miller Theater. Poeme plot


I first tackled transcribing all of the sonic moments individually. Having worked in an analog tape studio myself, also combining synthesized tones with musique concrète artifacts, I knew that this would have to have been the way that Varèse constructed his Poème, one moment at a time. Here is a page from my notes in that process. Poeme notes pg3  I worked now not from the scratchy LP but from the published CD recording (!) as it was important to me, as is seen from the use of microtones in the notes, to deal with pitches as strictly as I could within the confines of practicality. I adhered roughly to third- and quarter- tones in instances where microtones were called for, foregoing the more precise treatment of (micro)tones by Ben Johnston, one of my heroes and mentors.


Once these discrete moments were mounted, I had to deal with the new element (“new” in that Varèse was not bound by it) of executing the moments in conducted time. It was clearly not acceptable to attempt to mount this sonic collage on a single tempo, or even a dozen of them. While possible, the mere visual nature of  a conductor beating a single tempo for a multitude of gestures in performance detracts from the individuality of those gestures. This is not necessarily taboo, and there are lengthy passages in a single tempo here, but is certainly more of an issue with music whose nature is very clearly a mosaic of gestures from different “tempos.” A static tone, a frantic percussive passage, an “allegretto” rhythmic passage, a cadenza-like vocal passage, not to mention those gestures that speed up or slow down, as per the tape manipulation that the studio offers.


One of my methods for deciding upon a given metronomic marking/time signature pairing for the ensemble to read was to measure strictly the time spans between important “pillars” within a passage and choose between various metric/speed options to employ. Option A might place 2 major sounds on downbeats, but leave 8 sounds beginning on more irrational subdivisions of the beat, whereas option B might place 6 sounds on simple, regular divisions of the beat and only 4 irrational subdivisions. And it was not only the beginnings of gestures that affected this, but the lengths of sustained tones, or the rhythmic follow-through of the gesture. The saving grace was always that AWS could play anything, so I could take a step back and coalesce a menu of options into one version making the most musical sense. Musical performance had to be the final, determining factor, and it was.


It was nigh unavoidable to have many instances of direct, volte face tempo changes. These are generally more difficult to perform, yet are achieved by an internalization of the metronomic speeds developed in rehearsal, or, in some cases, with the developed or natural ability to automatically play a metronome marking perfectly (“perfect time” as counterpart to “perfect pitch”) on cue. However it is achieved, I made and followed a rule in the printed notation of this score to place a double bar at direct, unrelated tempo changes, merely as a heads up.  Poeme score pg21  In this passage the previous tempo was quarter=60, and there is a direct tempo change to 8-clicks faster.


I am proud that my labor of bringing the arrangement into score form has turned out to be playable and adaptable. No change to my metric interpretation has ever been needed. It allows for AWS or any group to move on to the business of performance, and make elaborations thereupon. One thing that I have always encouraged is that each performer identify in Varèse’s original the sound they are making at any given point and let the original recording guide their imitation – either in the use of a traditional instrument or the selection of a special percussion instrument. Though I have specifically written how the sounds are to be made and played, one can still find their sound in the original and allow it to lead their shadings.


Alarm Will Sound workshopped and gave the arrangement a trial performance at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA in December, 2006. The Miller Theater performance took place to great fanfare on January 20, 2007. I was interviewed by George Steele on WKCR prior to that premiere, which can be heard here. These two initial performances were in-and-of-themselves different from each other, as have been other ones since. The reasons have to do with available percussionists or personnel (sometimes more, sometimes fewer auxiliary performers), percussion instruments, and space requirements. Over the years AWS have adapted it for road use with such constraints in mind, and have employed a modicum of movements (as seen in the video). In addition to dreaming of the spatial performance, I also hope to have the opportunity to develop the arrangement for the chamber orchestra with a percussion ensemble, with the latter group providing a possibility to extract many of the percussion parts and place them throughout the concert hall in a spatial, if not mobile-spatial (I still think of the Benedict Mason tour de force!), rendering.


The studio recording is now (as of 4/29/16) available on the CD “Modernists.” Check it out!

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