Last month I did something I did a lot before the pandemic: I watched a sample. This time, however, it wasn't about sitting in a concert hall and watching a group at work on stage.
Sixteen instrumentalists from the contemporary music ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, were distributed across states and four makeshift home offices and professional studios, working with Tyshawn Sorey on his "auto diasms". In order to synchronize everyone's efforts, each “pod” was logged into two different internet conferencing applications by musicians at the same time.
One web browser tool, LiveLab, used the rectangular talking head format that Zoom has known for months. However, since video conferences experience delays in the audio signals, not to mention the excellent quality, the musicians' microphones in the Jamulus audio program were fed separately to a mixer with higher fidelity.
Participants muted themselves on LiveLab and played (or asked questions) over Jamulus. Alarm Will Sound's technical team has been fixing connectivity issues on the fly. It was an ingenious, if at times inconvenient, way of securely bringing this high-profile ensemble together – without sacrificing too much audio quality.
Before Mr. Sorey's first downbeat became visible in LiveLab, signs and signals could be seen scribbling on index cards instead. "Autoschediasms" (pronounced auto-SKED-ee-AZ-ums) are in fact not even a discrete work, but refer to his idiosyncratic process of spontaneous, interdependent group composition. (Before the pandemic, he used whiteboards to convey instructions.)
The abbreviations and coded signals on Mr. Sorey's index cards formed a performance that was realized through improvisational means, but was limited by the composer's quick-reacting ear. Mr. Sorey may show a collection of signals for all four pods or just one. While instructing a group to repeat spontaneous material that they just heard and liked, he can then instruct another group to play contrasting new material. (Mr. Sorey cites guidance systems developed by Butch Morris and Anthony Braxton as influencing his own process.)
I had seen ensembles work with Mr. Sorey in this way. But the music that he and Alarm Will Sound achieved with his patchwork of technical tools manipulated by the jury was alternately rough and peaceful – sometimes a reference to his work as a small ensemble in jazz clubs as a drummer and band leader, but always controlled.
Perhaps too controlled for Mr. Sorey's liking. During a feedback session between rehearsals, Mr. Sorey invited the musicians to challenge him. "It's okay to play something super loud and let something rip or whatever," he said. "Because I could enjoy it." When they came back for the next shot, the sound of "Autoschediasms" was even more varied and scorching.
A subsequent filmed 24-minute performance, available on Alarm Will Sound's YouTube account as the latest version of the group's video chat variation series, has some clearly identifiable dramatic pivotal points. At the beginning delicate arrows of an oboe are placed on strongly booming strings. Clarinet and bass clarinet multiphon effects gradually increase density. In the seventh minute, spiral patterns from the piano help encourage a move away from the thick, cloud-covered timbral environment to a new melodic approach. After a piano cluster chord detonates near the center point, there is a brief twist towards jazzy suavity, including pizzicato bass and an excellent muted trumpet. After a high point of dynamism, the group relaxes in the last few minutes into more meditative, minimalist moods.
The performance stands alongside Alan Pierson, the group's regular conductor. But along with Executive Director Gavin Chuck, Mr. Pierson was the one who ran the group's technical operations for a period of quarantine. And his interest in improvisation first brought Mr. Sorey to the Alarm Will Sound repertoire last year.
"He throws all these signs at people," said Pierson, "and every time someone misinterprets a sign, he's on it."
"I was so impressed with the brilliance with which Tyshawn gave ideas to people," said Pierson, adding, "He receives information just as he gives information."
In the ensemble's released version of "Autoschediasms", the dimly lit cameras make things seem a little more melancholy than what I saw during rehearsals. Not many smiles are visible. The camaraderie of the employees was also evident in interviews after the September rehearsal.
"One thing I really like about Tyshawn's method is that it creates a level playing field," said Erin Lesser, a flautist. “It demands that every player step in and be brave. So we are all beginners and experts in what we bring. And I love that he doesn't have any preconceived notions like "this person plays jazz" and "this person is more classical". He doesn't know about it and doesn't care. "
The crisp videography and editing conveys how Mr. Sorey directs all of these activities. It also retains some puzzles as many of its glyphs and codes are slightly off the frame or overexposed.
That could be intentional. Mr. Sorey and his music tend to avoid detailed explanations and encourage a sense of exploration. In a short interview he described his role in "Autoschediasms" as both "composer and co-composer". He wants the group to take responsibility for creating each performance – an ambiguity that can sound almost like a challenge to the traditional structures and hierarchies of classical music.
"Musicians make mistakes sometimes," he said. "When something is done, it's a challenge for me to make something musical out of it. The question is not how you got there. This is how you get out of there."
It is not that Mr Sorey is against a more typical division of roles or division of labor. Two major orchestras are preparing his works for livestream premieres in November – a violin concerto in Detroit and a cello concerto in Seattle – and he is slated to contribute to the Philadelphia Opera digital season early next year. Alarm Will Sound also worked on a socially distant studio recording of the fully notated Sorey score "For George Lewis".
This cultivation of multiple working methods – for both performers and listeners – is, however, an essential part of his art. With that in mind, you can get closer to this latest version of the video. On a first run, you can watch "Auto Diasms" to appreciate the creativity of Mr. Sorey's conducting, the work of each player and the excellent technical coordination of the Alarm Will Sound production team. However, the second time you hit play, you can close your eyes and just listen.