An Interview with Alan Pierson
In September, conductor and Alarm Will Sound artistic director Alan Pierson managed a bureaucratic feat of Olympian proportions: traveling, with COVID-19 restrictions in effect, from the United States to Germany. His essential business: conducting the rehearsals, premiere, and later performances of Hans Thomalla’s new opera “Dark Spring” at the Nationaltheater Mannheim. In early October, Pierson came to Berlin, where we met over his new favorite drink, the German Eiskaffee—less an iced coffee than an elaborate ice cream sundae in a glass.
VAN: How complicated was it for you to get into Germany to conduct the performance of “Dark Spring”?
Alan Pierson: Oh my God, it was so complicated. [The premiere] was originally going to run in May and June and then, of course, that got cancelled. So [the Nationaltheater] said, “OK, we’re going to try to redo it in September and we want to bring you over for rehearsals in July.” So many things had been planned and then cancelled that I didn’t take it all that seriously. I didn’t study, I didn’t look at the score.
I was honestly a little ambivalent about it. I was actually really enjoying the time at home. It was the most time I’d ever had at home, the most time I’d ever had with my partner non-stop. It was nice. It’s weird to say that about a horrible, incredibly destructive situation, but it was nice.
The Nationaltheater got me a plane ticket. They sent me paperwork that they said would get me on the flight. I went to the airport and they said, “No.” I had a team of United Airlines people around me arguing.
We changed my ticket. The theater got a letter from German border police. I went back four days later after that was done and tried to get on the plane and this time made it further: I got through security to the gate and the gate agent looked at my paperwork and said, “Oh, no, your passport number has to be on this document.”
I was sent over to traveler assistance, otherwise known as the dunce corner. Three hours later, it was determined that actually, my paperwork was sufficient, and I should have been allowed on the plane, which was now gone.
The artistic director of the Nationaltheater Mannheim wrote the whole company and said, “Alan’s going to try one more time.” The whole process of doing this really focused me: Actually, I want to go, which I hadn’t felt before. The process of trying to go and getting denied and preparing myself and then it not happening made me very clear that I really was determined to do this.
At what point did you start preparing for the rehearsals?
When I got on the plane. I was like, “Shit, I better go study the score.” [Laughs]
What was it like once you got to the Nationaltheater Mannheim?
It was very strict. There was a sign in every room in the rehearsal space which said how many people were allowed inside. There were lines showing you where you could and couldn’t be.
A few conductors told me that it takes more work to get the musicians to play together when they are sitting further apart. They’re doing traditional repertoire—presumably you were conducting more rhythmically complex music?
I think it intensifies the thing that you always have to push for with orchestral musicians doing contemporary music: You have to listen. It’s not just about following me, you have to know how what you’re doing relates to what other people are doing. Have your ears out. With a group like Alarm Will Sound, they just do that.
Anytime I do a gig with more orchestral musicians, it’s something that we’re rehearsing. That’s even more true when the players are far across the space.
What are the other differences between working with a new music group like Alarm Will Sound and a more traditional orchestra?
I guess there are two main areas on which I end up having to push when I do something with more orchestral players who are not specifically new music people. One is the listening thing, making sure that people are aware of how the parts relate; that they’re hearing what they need to hear and [that they’re] paying attention.
Another is time: With a group like Alarm Will Sound, it’s in everyone’s DNA that the default is: We’re going to play in a steady pulse. If I want to screw with that in a way that’s not written in the music, we need to have a conversation.
That’s not necessarily the ground that people walk on in the orchestral world. With Alarm Will Sound, if we’re struggling with time, we put on a metronome and it just fixes things. If it’s music with a changing meter, we make a click track. That can be a really touchy topic with orchestra musicians. I certainly would not do it in a big orchestra rehearsal.
Why do you think metronomes are such a touchy topic for orchestral musicians?
I don’t entirely know. I’m guessing it’s the sense that it’s not how music works—music shouldn’t be metronomic. It shouldn’t necessarily be, but it’s often a good place to start. Let’s get rid of the unintentional tempo fluctuations, and then we can choose to make some. I think the other reason is that there’s this assumption, “Of course we can play in time. The metronome is for people who can’t play in time. Are you saying we can’t play in time?” Which is not true.
Time is an infinitely complex, never-ending topic, especially with rhythmically hard music. It’s something you need to work on.
I was listening to a bunch of Alarm Will Sound albums. They are very wide-ranging in style. Do you see an aesthetic throughline in the music that interests you?
Yes: adventurousness; music that is exploratory in some way and imaginative, but also, music that has a directness to it. György Ligeti is someone whom I think of as epitomizing that. There is a sense of curiosity and exploration in his music. It’s so fresh and imaginative, but it’s also very direct.
It’s a kind of simplicity. Take a Ligeti piece like the “Chamber Concerto,” which we’ve played a bunch. There is a level on which it’s extremely complicated and extremely detailed. There’s also a level on which it’s very simple. The whole first two minutes of that piece: It starts with a very small cluster. It’s like a dot of ink in water and it expands out gradually. It hits this maximum point and then suddenly, it jumps out to these octaves, a single note in four octaves at the top and bottom end of the ensemble. It’s a super simple idea, and that gives the music a kind of directness. The experience of it is direct and impactful despite the richness and complexity of how he fills in the details.
It seems to me that another part of the group’s aesthetic is a rhythmic vitality and energy.
Absolutely. I think one reason I didn’t say that is: that’s “our thing.” We’ve made a point to try to broaden out, and not just do music that is super rhythmic. It was where I gravitated to as a young conductor; I’m obsessed with rhythm. Interesting rhythms are so much what excites me in music.
But it wasn’t necessarily something we were good at in the beginning. When I listen to live recordings of us from 2000 to 2002: Man, our rhythm sucked. Personally I really struggled with tempo, with figuring out how to solve rhythmic problems. It was something I wanted to be great at because I loved rhythmically-intricate music; but it was hard for me. By 2010 or so, it became something that Alarm Will Sound really found.
Then we started making more of a point to also pay more attention to the other sides of both our repertoire and our own music-making, and to try to work more on things like sound, style, and color. But it is totally a throughline for us and a deep part of who we are.
When you say an interesting rhythm, what does that mean exactly?
For me, it means something where there is a sense of pulse but what’s being done with it is not what you would expect; it’s not straightforward. It’s that idea of curiosity: Your ear is pulled in by a pulse and then you go, “Whoa, what’s happening? I want to pay more attention to this.”
When Alarm Will Sound started at Eastman, did your aesthetic position feel rebellious? A lot of new music still doesn’t have much of a perceptible pulse.
At the time it felt like a big statement to be a group that wanted to do all different kinds of music. When we formed, groups tended to define themselves around the kind of music they played. For us to stake out a territory that included [Steve Reich] as well as Aphex Twin and say, “No, we think this is all good music and we want to play all of it”—that felt really bold in 2001 when Alarm Will Sound was formed. Now it doesn’t.
Your friend, the gay writer Garth Greenwell, recently interviewed you for The Paris Review. I want to talk a little bit about queerness and music-making. I often have the feeling when I bring up the topic with people in classical music or in new music that they often say, “That doesn’t inform my art, that’s just a different side of me.” Do you think being gay informs your aesthetic?
I think it informs my aesthetic. It’s such a deep part of who I am; it’s hard to disentangle it from my aesthetic. It’s also hard for me to isolate something in my aesthetic and say, Oh yes, that’s because I’m queer.
I do think that the experience of feeling “other” is really deep. Growing up and feeling like I am not like any of these people; I don’t get them, they don’t get me… I think that sense of otherness is a big part of my musical identity.
I gravitated to music because it’s what I liked. Being queer helped me be comfortable doing something that was outside of the mainstream even in this tiny musical world, and that was not what everyone else necessarily thought was cool or worthwhile.
I came to music already comfortable with the idea that it was OK to be different. But as a queer person, I worked through all of the feelings of adolescence and early adulthood later than my straight friends. Things that they worked out about sexuality, and desire, and intimacy, that they started working on when they were 16, I was starting to work on when I was 22.
Music to me was always a big part of how I would work that stuff out, the feelings I was struggling with. Music was a place I went in order to come to peace with what I was feeling. I don’t know exactly how that informs my aesthetic, but it’s a big part of how I connect to the music I love. Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians”—I had a really hard period in my 20s trying to figure out what my place was in the world, and what I was going to do before I knew I was going to be a conductor. Struggling with feeling lonely and not knowing how to meet people or fall in love, and feeling like the years were passing me by.
As you do in your early 20s.
Right, you think you’re getting so old. [Laughs]
What was it about “Music for 18 Musicians” in particular that appealed to you?
It is very calm. It doesn’t tell you what to feel. It’s music that creates depth around feelings without telling you what to feel at every moment.
How have things changed at The Alarm Will Sound since Matt Marks, the group’s hornist and a composer, died in May 2018?
It’s been a real loss of innocence for us as a group. Alarm Will Sound has always had a college reunion vibe to it: We were all friends at school, and then we went our separate ways and we live all over the country, and so we’d come back together and play music. The vibe was always work hard, play hard. Every night people were out to all hours drinking and doing stupid shit, and Matt was the king of doing stupid shit. Matt was so full of life and creativity. He was always the person with the right joke at the right time at rehearsal.
Also, he was someone who had a real wisdom to him. When Matt said something, people listened. He was someone who knew how to talk to everybody in the room, could stand up passionately for an idea, and could bring people together—always with humor and real love for everybody. I think there’s a way in which we all feel a little less like kids after Matt’s been gone.
I think the group feels strong and is going forward. We went through a period right after when we did a lot of his compositions. We did a memorial concert; we did a big concert in St. Louis of an unfinished piece that he’d written for us.
[After that] we decided to take some time away. I think people found it hard to be playing it. It was emotionally draining. I hope we can start doing that again, because he’s a huge part of who we are. I expect that his music is going to have a life. It certainly should have a life. He’s a really unique voice.
There are people in the group who’ve been really hurting. It has felt like a real wound. It’s been two years now, which is hard to imagine. Each of us individually, and the group as a whole, have worked through this, both together and apart. It’s definitely been a trauma for every single one of us and for the group.
How do you work through something like that as an ensemble when you see each other mostly to rehearse and work hard, play hard? How do you find space for those feelings in your ensemble work?
We made the space. Within a week or so we all gathered for an online talk. A number of us went to the funeral and we organized a gathering of the group online for us to process together. We also continued to do that in real life, and when we would gather for a gig after Matt’s death. We also set aside time to talk. We had a facilitator come in who was used to dealing with grief counseling, and helped us talk through it. We needed to deal with it together and in a really deliberate way.
I believe we’ve come out the other side...I guess I can’t say that. I don’t know that we’re ever going to be out the other side. But I’ve seen the group grow stronger in the time as we’ve been working through these issues, as we’re working through the trauma. It’s a trauma that remains. ¶