As the long-awaited follow-up to their acclaimed all-Steve Reich debut, Alarm Will Sound's Acoustica is the 22-piece new music band's take on the music of twisted techno master Aphex Twin.
Lauded by the New York Times as "the future of classical music," Alarm Will Sound deploys a cadre of ten arrangers to painstakingly recreate and rethink Aphex Twin's legendary electronic work for an all-acoustic ensemble. By using creative new transcription ideas, non-standard "classical music" instruments, and keeping all four drummers busy with Aphex Twin's unimaginably intricate beats, AWS realizes a sonic result that's unusual, unprecedented and otherwordly. The CD also features bonus remixes by the Berlin-based techno prodigy Dennis DeSantis.
As AWS managing director Gavin Chuck describes Acoustica:
The way the whole band eventually took to this project, you might assume we all thought it was a great idea from the start. Not long after we had done some remixing on one of our concerts, Caleb Burhans suggested taking the process one step further. "Unremixing" was what we called this idea of making arrangements of electronica tracks which were themselves compositions based on sampled music. Something about adding one more layer, one more dimension to the practice appealed intuitively to most of us.
But not to all of us. Somebody asked ominously, "Could this end up being like The New York Philharmonic Plays the Bee Gees?" That was dealt with pretty quickly once we started discussing which electronica would be the most interesting source material for our arrangements. Unanimous: Aphex Twin. That music was complex and moving and imaginative and unique and intelligent - like all the music we love as performers - so we knew we could play it and be ourselves.
Then Dennis pointed out that even playing this music - no matter how authentically we did it - was a tricky proposition to begin with. Remixing is done on computers that can be precise down to the digitally manipulated sound wave flawlessly placed at this or that millisecond. There is a kind of pleasure in listening to the precision that only machines can deliver and that would be, by design, missing from our project. We definitely did not want the project to become a dumbed-down Man vs. Machine contest in which only virtuosity counts. So we were conflicted about whether to make the leap from Aphex Twin's originals - masterpieces for the digital medium - to our arrangements for live musicians.
In the end, we never fully resolved that tension, which actually turned out to be a good thing. The push and pull between machine precision and human performance, between electronic and acoustic sound, between sampling and arranging became the productive tension that drove the project. We fought over whether to recreate the tracks as faithfully as possible or to treat the arrangements like covers in which we would explore the music more freely.
Alan Pierson came down on the side of sticking as close to the originals as possible. So we listened to the tracks over and over again trying to transcribe every sampled sound into notation. We hit the aisles of Wal-Mart and scoured the crammed shelves of Larry's Trading Post in Carlisle, PA, looking for objects that would make the strange sounds we heard on the tunes. We pushed our instruments to do things they were never intended to do. And we stretched our imaginations.
The difficulty of capturing the original Aphex Twin tracks on acoustic instruments called for a kind of forceful dedication, sure. But it also made us ask: why are we forcing ourselves to copy the originals and not allowing ourselves to be more open: Sometimes, we couldn't even agree on what the rhythm of a track was; or what pitch a sound had; or whether an electric guitar is an acoustic instrument. Even level-headed Payton was getting angry. The unanimity we had in choosing to arrange Aphex Twin's music seemed distant from the various conflicting takes on what an arrangement should be. At that point - while still making the arrangements - the tension didn't feel very productive. It was just plain old tension.
Once we began to play, though - that's when it was transformed. Instinctively we treated the arrangements as real pieces of music, not replicas, realizing in the first rehearsal that machine precision and human performance are not opposite: they are expressions of the same urge to make even the smallest musical detail matter in a big way. That's what we heard in Aphex Twin when we first came up with the idea, and that's what we had ended up committing ourselves to through all the work and frustration. By choosing to remain faithful to the originals, we opened new ways to hear the Aphex Twin tracks; we also found that interpretive nuance of performing creates the freedom to re-imagine digital sound. We discovered that the dimension we add by playing electronica on acoustic instruments turns out to be not just sonic; it is imaginative.