When I was studying music in college, the history course emphasized the evolution of harmonic language, from the dominance of the perfect fifth in the Middle Ages to the unresolved cadences of Richard Wagner.
Then in the 20th Century, the harmonic language broke down. Dissonance was in, and at the time, it seemed that history would be rebooted to chart the evolution of dissonance.
It’s ten years into a new century, and it’s too soon the determine what the 20th Century really contributed to that continuum. The general sense seems to indicate dissonance was a dead end. If the 20th Century rebooted anything, it was the approach to rhythm.
Alarm Will Sound understands this idea, and the ensemble dedicated an entire album exploring it. a/rhythmia sounds like a total mess, and yet, the musicianship required to navigate through its rhythmic right angles is supernatural.
Rhythm is the thread in 20th Century classical music. Dodecaphonists, serialists, minimalists, whatever-ists — these factions could quarrel to the ends of the earth about harmony, but rhythmic complexity brings them together.
The first two tracks of a/rhythmia serves as a microcosm. Benedict Mason’s "Jitterbug mécanique" from Animals and the Origins of Dance has the players stepping all over themselves, a clear beat seemingly lacking but enough of something there to keep it all from falling apart. The following track, David Lang’s Yo Shakespeare, is nearly mechanical with its interlocking, repetitive motifs.
Two different schools of thought but both challenges for a disciplined ensemble.
Alarm Will Sound doesn’t stop with classical music. Mochipet’s Dessert Search for Techno Baklava is a klezmer romp that sounds straight out of a Klezmatics outtake. Autechre’s "Cfern" fits well within the program.
The ensemble even reaches as far back as the Renaissance, including Johannes Circona’s canon La Ray Au Soleyl. These more tonal tracks break up the organized mayhem of the other tracks, which include pieces by Györgi Ligeti, Harrison Birtwistle and Conlon Nancarrow.
The concluding Player Piano Study 3A from Nancarrow summarizes the album the best — pop culture and art culture put in a blender and set at high spin. A 12-bar blues bass line serves as a kind of basso continuo to multiple layers of timing.
A human ensemble was never intended to perform this piece, as the title indicates. But Alarm Will Sound sought to prove Nancarrow wrong, and damn did they ever succeed.
a/rhythmia is not entry-level listening for people starting to explore classical music of the 20th Century. But anyone seeking the logical conclusion to Igor Stravinsky’s savage pulses on The Rite of Spring would do well to seek this thrilling, awesomely-performed album.