Penn Live Arts Blog

5 Questions with Alarm Will Sound's Alan Pierson

Posted March 27, 2024

The “reliably exhilarating new-music ensemble” (The New York Times) Alarm Will Sound returns with an evening of music by “our greatest living composer,” Steve Reich on Apr 14. Alarm Will Sound’s artistic director and conductor, Alan Pierson, connected with us for today’s 5 Questions feature, sharing insight on his journey into a career in music and his connection to Steve Reich.

1) What first got you into music?
The first music I remember really being passionate about was “The MTA Song” by the Kingston Trio. My dad put it on a tape that I would listen to over and over again. Then, in middle school, I became obsessed with film scores – John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith were my heroes. In freshman year of high school, I started an orchestra at my school and was excited to play the theme to Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Jerry Goldsmith.

The first time I got excited about art music was in chorus when my choral conductor, Bart Wolgamot, taught us Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. I was so drawn in by these strange meters, melodies and harmonic progressions. I went up to Mr. Wolgamot after rehearsal one day and asked, “I love this. What other music should I learn about?” He directed me to Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and I completely fell in love with that piece too. That was really the beginning of my journey in art music, and it's significant for me that my journey started with the 20th century music.

2) What is your earliest memory of conducting?
In the third grade, I led a group of classmates in a performance of the children's musical The Runaway Snowman, which I was very passionate about at the time. My fellow third graders had a hard time singing along, so I remember running back and forth between singing in the choir and conducting depending on how close things were to falling apart.

My first serious conducting experience actually really came out of Steve Reich’s music. When I got to MIT in 1992, I had just come from a summer program at Northwestern University, where my composition teacher, Michael Pisaro, introduced me to Reich’s Tehillim, which I immediately fell in love with. I found the score in the MIT music library and spent hours staring at it, fascinated by the music and how it worked. I wondered, “would it be possible to perform this music here?” So, with no conducting training at that point, I got a group of friends together to do it. I desperately wanted that music to happen, and conducting was the way to accomplish that.

3) What themes do you pursue in your work?
My work with Alarm Will Sound focuses on collaboration and working with a wide range of artists. What excites me is making other artists’ dreams come true, supporting projects that they're passionate about and that will also help push their work forward in meaningful ways. Another theme is connecting audiences to ideas beneath the surface of the music that I love. I pursue that element in the way that I create concerts and frame composers’ work. For instance, Alarm Will Sound just presented a show at Carnegie Hall called Heard, which features seven diverse composers working in America today, connecting their music to their personal stories. There's also a series I do with Alarm Will Sound called Soundbites, which dives into different aspects of a composer's music.

4) Any artists you love that everyone should check out?
In thinking of artists that might be outside what is considered my musical sphere, there's a band, Dawn of Midi, which released an album called Dysnomia, that I think is one of the most brilliant works of the last few decades. It sounds nothing like what you'd expect from a jazz trio. In fact, it reminds me very deeply of the music of Steve Reich, I think in part because of the shared lineage to African music.

Another group that I have gotten obsessed with recently is Lankum, which I would call an avant-garde, traditional Irish band. The group does work that's steeped in traditional Irish music, and its use of sound and dissonance is extraordinary and beautiful. Their song “Go Dig My Grave” cuts right through me.

5) Which of your past collaborations or partnerships were the most memorable and why?
I feel extraordinarily lucky to have worked with so many of the greatest composers of our time. The performance I mentioned of Steve Reich’s Tehillim when I was 19 laid the groundwork for getting to work with him in person when he came to MIT the following year. Playing that piece for Steve in college was totally a mind-blowing moment. And then, in my early professional years, I did a workshop with Yo-Yo Ma that led to my conducting an album with him. He was incredibly supportive and generous. He just fills the room with his presence and spirit, while also making ample room for everyone else. He’s one of those people who makes everyone he interacts with feel that, for the time of that interaction, they’re the most important person in the world to him.

The last I'll mention is Taylor Mac, a performance artist, drag performer and playwright who created a show in 2016 called A 24-Decade History of American Popular Music, which was a 24-hour long performance that I attended. That show was a mind-blowing experience. I met my future partner, Paul, at that performance. Not long after that, I had the chance to work with Taylor on an orchestral version of that material. I adore Taylor’s outlook on what he wants his work to do in the world, and working with him has been a major inspiration.

Bonus question: What do you do to clear your head when you need to?
My partner and I both are adventurers, so getting out into the world and going hiking in the mountains, being in places that are really removed from civilization helps. Nothing clears my head the way that time in the mountains does. I also am a big napper. Anyone who does shows with me knows that at some point in the rehearsal process, they will find me backstage just lying on a sofa or even the floor with a blinder over my head, taking a nap.

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