Q&A with Alan Pierson, conductor for Wall to Wall Steve Reich

Alan Pierson has been praised as “a dynamic conductor and musical visionary” by The New York Times, “a young conductor of monstrous skill” by Newsday, “gifted and electrifying” by The Boston Globe, and “one of the most exciting figures in new music today” by Fanfare. He is the Artistic Director and conductor of the acclaimed ensemble Alarm Will Sound and served as Artistic Director and conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic for three years. He is Principal Conductor of the Dublin-based Crash Ensemble, co-director of the Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble, and has appeared as guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the London Sinfonietta, the Steve Reich Ensemble, and The Silk Road Project, among many other ensembles.

On April 30, 2017, Alan will lead the American Composers Orchestra in Steve Reich’s The Desert Music. The performance is part of Symphony Space’s free marathon event Wall to Wall Steve Reich, featuring Steve Reich himself in conversation, as well as a program spanning more than four decades of his work, culminating in ACO’s performance.

Alan was kind enough to speak with us about The Desert Music and his upcoming performance with ACO.

Conductor Alan Pierson. Photo by Michael Rubenstein

American Composers Orchestra: The first album by Alarm Will Sound – “the vital, omnivorous” (The New York Times) chamber group you co-founded and for which you are artistic director – is Steve Reich, featuring his Tehillim and The Desert Music. It’s considered one of the best recordings of these pieces by many (and by Steve himself!). What drew you to tackle these works for your first AWS album?

Alan Pierson: Tehillim was the first piece of contemporary music that I fell in love with. I have a visceral memory of hearing it in in a class (led by Michael Pisaro) at a Northwestern University summer program when I was 18, and then dashing out to the nearest record store to buy the CD. (I’ve since gotten rid of nearly all of my CDs, but I’ve kept that one even though it’s scratched well beyond any possibility of actually playing.) The following fall, I found the Tehillim score in the MIT music library and became obsessed with the idea of performing it. Tehillim was one of the first pieces I conducted. It was well beyond my abilities at the time, but I loved the music so much that I had to do it anyway. I had developed a vision for how Tehillim should go that I felt very strongly about and that was very different from either of the recordings that existed, so I really wanted to get it out there. Then in 1999, when I was grad student at Eastman, Steve came to hear me conduct Tehillim. He came away very enthusiastic about the performance, and that helped open doors to make the album happen. So Tehillim is a piece that’s I’m very deeply connected to.

I came to The Desert Music in a very different way. I had listened to the Nonesuch recording (which is of the original full orchestra version) after falling in love with Tehillim, but never really got into the piece. I knew that it was building on the same sorts of musical ideas that I’d loved in other works of Steve’s, but The Desert Music wasn’t doing it for me. Then when I came down to New York City in 1999 to watch my teacher (Brad Lubman) conduct Reich’s The Cave as part of a series of Reich concerts that Lincoln Center Festival was doing that summer, I happened also to catch a performance of the smaller chamber version of The Desert Music. And suddenly I glimpsed what the piece could be. I’ve always felt that Reich was more a composer of chamber music than orchestral music; and reimagined as a massive chamber piece, I saw all kinds of possibilities for The Desert Music that I hadn’t envisioned before. With just one player on a part, the piece suddenly felt much closer to those earlier works of Steve’s that I’d fallen in love with—pieces like Music for 18 Musicians and Tehillim. One of the orchestra members had given me a score for The Desert Music to follow along with during rehearsals, and I poured over that score all summer and began imagining what I wanted to do with the piece. I started envisioning a realization of the piece that would be very different from the Nonesuch recording, and that I really wanted the world to hear. So that was it. I knew that that had to be the album.

ACO: And what did it take, from you and the ensemble, to capture a great recording of The Desert Music?

AP: It was a huge process! We spent over 30 hours rehearsing The Desert Music, and while we had absolutely no skill at the time with recording or working in a studio, we had an obsession about making the recording absolutely what we wanted. And we didn’t let up. Gavin Chuck (now Alarm Will Sound’s managing director) and I hid out under the desk in the Eastman School’s computer music lab after hours so that we could spend every possible hour editing and mixing that album. I was 26 at the time and most of the singers and players were probably even younger. It was the kind of process I could only imagine happening at that point in life.

ACO: You and the ACO will perform the 2001 version of Steve Reich’s The Desert Music, for 10 amplified voices and reduced orchestra, with your brass arrangement. Can you talk about what it was like working with Steve on this version? Besides reducing the size of the ensemble, what goals did you have for the new arrangement?

AP: Well, I didn’t work with him as much as persuade him. I was thrilled by the possibilities that the chamber version of The Desert Music offered, but I really missed one thing from the orchestral version: the brass. Reich had replaced all of the brass with synthesizers for his chamber version, and I felt that this robbed the piece of one of its crucial colors. I knew the original 12-piece orchestral brass section would overwhelm such a small ensemble, but I pitched Steve the idea of a reduced brass orchestration that would mix live players with synthesizers in order to cover all the thick brass harmonies and give the flavor of acoustic brass without having so many players. He was very skeptical! So I got a bunch of students together who volunteered to play through my imagined brass orchestration. We recorded the session and sent it to Steve. Once he heard it, he was sold, and that was it. That became the official way to do the piece.

The smaller instrumentation really transforms The Desert Music in a brilliant way. There’s much greater rhythmic clarity, which is so crucial for Reich’s music. Tempos can be faster. And those thick, juicy jazz harmonies that he wrote speak much more clearly. 

ACO: We hope you don’t mind us quoting Twitter, but you recently said, if you’re going to listen to just one track of The Desert Music, it has to be the middle movement. Is this your favorite movement? Or do you say this because, given that the piece is structured in an arc form A-B-C-B-A, the middle movement is best suited to stand alone?

AP: Yeah, I think that central movement is where it’s at. Steve is a canon guy, and that middle movement has the only vocal canons in the whole piece, and they’re fantastic. And in between the canon sections, he does this other thing (another technique he’s developed over decades) where he takes a theme and stretches it out, making it longer and longer. And while he’s doing this, he’s got the harmonies restlessly beneath the tunes. It’s some of my favorite of Reich’s vocal writing. His typical vocal instrumentation is four voices, and there’s no other piece where he writes vocal harmonies as thick as in The Desert Music. And in this section as he’s stretching out those melodies, there are these fantastically crunchy tight jazz harmonies. Plus, the whole sections just barrels. It’s got tremendous energy. I love it. I have other favorite spots—the luminescent first vocal entrance in movement V, the hockets in movements II and IV, the flute solos, etc…—but if you’re gonna listen to one movement, the central one is where to go.

ACO: What new perspectives do you hope the marathon can offer on Steve Reich’s incredible body of work? And what are you looking forward to about the marathon and your performance of The Desert Music with ACO? Why is it important that the marathon includes that piece? 

AP: I’ve gotten more joy from Steve’s music than from anyone else’s. Performing his music is pretty much always a joyful experience for me, and I hope to give some of that experience to the audience. And I’ve never before performed so many of his pieces on a single show, so it’s really exciting to be a part of a performance that brings so broad an encounter with his music. The Desert Music is a marvelous piece of Reich’s that’s so seldom heard—I don’t think it’s been performed in New York since I conducted it here 16 years ago. For me personally, there’s something special about revisiting a piece that was so important to the beginning of my life in music and that I haven’t conducted since I was a student. So this is a particularly meaningful performance to me. And even after having Steve in my life for years, it continually amazes me that someone who’s music has meant so much to so many of us is a an actual human being who’s in the world and who you can relate to. So having Steve at this show and on stage talking with me is a very special thing.

Learn more about Wall to Wall Steve Reich, a free marathon event at Symphony Space on April 30, 2017.

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