In the first days of January, 2005 when the news was dominated by the tsunami that had devastated a portion of Thailand, I was holed up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania at “The Farmhouse” and Dickinson College with Alarm Will Sound, as we all worked out what would become their breakout CD, Acoustica, comprised of acoustic arrangements of Aphex Twin’s music. Alarm Will Sound was founded at Eastman and was comprised of young Eastman grads (now older Eastman grads), which I was not. So how did I come to be a part of this ensemble at that time, record electric guitar and percussion on that CD, and contribute my arrangement of Omygyjya Switch 7? The simple answer is that I had some connection via my friendship with two of its members, but that would be skipping over the most delicious part of the story that brought me into contact with AWS at a particular moment.
On Friday, April 2, 2004 I was driving home in my 1982 Chevy Van from Concordia College in Bronxville, NY to Monitor Street In Greenpoint, Brooklyn. At the time I was an adjunct professor of music theory at Concordia and went there three times a week. My van by this time had had both its speakers and radio ripped off so I had no tunes but for a $5 Radio Shack transistor radio that stood on the console to keep me company. I still have it.
I was at a standstill in traffic a few blocks from home, on the Long Island City side of the Greenpoint Avenue bridge. The ferry bridge was open, or had recently been open, and cars and trucks glutted in to the three lanes from all sides, looking like an intersection in Rome. As I pumped the clutch of my 3-on-the-tree manual, I was rapt by what I was hearing on the trusty blue transistor – WKCR from Columbia University and contemporary music impressario George Steel speaking to someone about the next evening’s concert at Miller Theatre. It sounded fascinating: Benedict Mason, a composer I had never heard of, and his multi-tempo music performed spatially and theatrically by a group called Alarm Will Sound. The description of Mason’s music and the sample pieces aired sounded most intriguing. Steel said that he would be giving away two free tickets to the concert to a lucky caller. (Ah, the good old days!) While I usually didn’t bother with such things, this seemed like such a rarified event that I began to hope that the traffic would clear and I would get home into my apartment and give a call – yet I knew from the automotive melee that this was definitely not going to happen. (Let’s get this out of the way: I never owned a cell phone until 2010.)
Then, like Gandalf riding on his white horse, my wife pulls up beside me in her car and begins honking. She was bringing her good friend, Elinor Freer (coincidentally an Eastman pianist), to our apartment from La Guardia Airport. They both were laughing at the coincidence that we would all be crammed into this traffic jam next to each other. At the same instant, George Steel began to announce the call-in phone number for the free tickets. I yelled out the driver-side window from my elevated height, to Elinor, who was closest in the passenger-side window of my wife’s car, “Hey, does Maureen have her cell phone?!” Yes, was the answer. “Dial this number!” “Why?” “Tell you after you dial it!” As Steel recited the number on the radio I yelled the digits out the window to Elinor, who relayed them to Maureen. Then I told them in so many words that they were calling a radio station and might win free tickets to a concert. Less than a minute later they both erupted and said, “We won!” Incredulous laughs were had, followed by “What did we win?” The drawbridge went down, traffic cleared, and we headed to Monitor Street and back home and I explained.
The concert itself blew me away. I had seen performers such as Eighth Blackbird play music from memory and move around with their instruments at the same time on a small scale, but what Alarm Will Sound did on April 3, 2004 at Miller was miles beyond. I also realized at this concert that two of my old friends from Michigan were in the ensemble, percussionist Payton MacDonald and flutist Jessica Johnson. After the concert I found them and greeted them. I also met Alan Pierson, as (if I’m not mistaken) I had sent him a score of mine with the year previous but we had never met.
A few weeks later they contacted me about doing an Aphex Twin arrangement. Everyone in their ensemble was doing one and there was still room for a few more. (Myself and Jonathan Newman were the non-members that came to be involved.) Payton sent me a pool of selections to choose from that were not yet spoken for, and that the ensemble had liked, and I ended up choosing the most busiest, fastest one that I heard. One of the reasons I gravitated toward Omgyjya Switch 7 was that I heard the possibility of twin drumsets, and I had a good ability to transcribe and, more importantly, notate drumset parts. The other reason was that it is a beautiful track, rich with sounds and expressive gestures.
The rest is history. What amazes me in retrospect is that none of my involvement with Alarm Will Sound would have happened if I had not won those tickets, shouting digits heard from my blue $5 transistor radio out my van window to my magically-materializing wife through her passenger. All links in the chain were necessary. I am quite sure I would not have gone to Miller Theatre without the freebie – judge me as you may. One could certainly see from this that good things come from going out!