It needs some polishing, but the contemporary music group Alarm Will Sound has a tremendously powerful and musically tantalizing show on its hands in "1969." Friday night, the group performed at the New Hazlett co-sponsored by Pitt's Music on the Edge and The Andy Warhol Museum.
I call it a show because I think "multimedia event" is too pretentious and "concert" sells it short. With photos and video on a screen, two actors portraying John Lennon and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and musicians, who all do double-duty playing and speaking (with the "libretto" primarily taken from exact quotations), "1969" is a show. It wonderfully contextualizes how some key musical luminaries -- Leonard Bernstein and Luciano Berio also are central -- responded and participated in the politically and culturally turbulent time.
Music exists of its own accord and can (and should) mean different things to different listeners. But when its original context is laid out compellingly, music often blooms in a remarkable way. That is what happened in "1969." The crack ensemble of mostly former Eastman School of Music grads played only excerpts of pieces, such as from Bernstein's "Mass," but the context lent them new poignancy. For instant, with excerpts positioned after images of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and after a vignette about a group of Catholic priests who burned draft cards and were bailed out by Bernstein, "Mass" had a poignancy I had never felt before. Even the abstract works of Stockhausen worked for me, really for the first time ever (I have tried, trust me, I have tried). I left the show wanting to listen to all this music in toto as soon as I could.
The actors were dead-on as Lennon (John Walker) and Stockhausen (Christopher Evan Welch), and the performances of the pieces were stunning, but at times Alarm Will Sound just tried to do too much. There were too many minor characters and too much text. It was more a piece for people who already know the avant-garde '60s scene than a more general audience I think the show could pull in. Inside jokes abounded.
But this was only the second time the group performed '1969,' and they could use the experience to streamline it (and polish some of the non-musical elements, such as mics not on at the right time and the botching of some dialogue).
But it was so enlightening (and fun) to hear how these names -- because that is what composers tend to become over time -- were actually were thinking and doing during this time. Especially since this was expressed not just in their words but in some fascinating music. And after playing some excerpts of The Beatle's "Revolution 9" during the show, the group ended the night with an amazing transcription of the famous experimental track from "the White Album." Yes, they performed tape loops and all, in a totally live performance conducted expertly by Alan Pierson. It was stunning, and I think Alarm Will Sound has a bona fide hit on its hands with just a little tweaking.