If you believe the mythology of British techno artist Aphex Twin, then you believe Richard D. James started recording commercial music at age 13-14, given the title of his 1992 debut album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Even if you don’t, you still know he released the album at only 21 – and kept a youthful excitement and often-frenetic energy in his music for years to come.
That’s what first drew Alan Pierson to Aphex Twin’s music. Shortly after he graduated with his doctorate, the ensemble he started conducting, Alarm Will Sound, decided to record Acoustica, an album of tracks largely off the divisive 2001 album Drukqs.
“When we were working on these, we were all in our 20s, and it’s a time when – I don't know, I think as you get older it’s harder to bring a group of people together with that kind of energy and obsessive attention,” Pierson tells me. “I have a lot of nostalgia for that time in life, when these 20 people that were involved in making this album brought that kind of attention and concern and intensity to the whole project.”
This Friday, over 15 years later, Pierson conducts the Contemporary Music Ensemble in renditions of some of these same songs: Cock ver. 10, Gwely Mernans and Omgyjya Switch. It’s a varied collection of hyperactive and layered electronic music that shouldn’t translate to a contemporary ensemble. Yet it does – alongside songs by minimalist composers Philip Glass and Giacinto Scelsi on this program, at that.
And Pierson finds himself conducting a group of students at a time in their lives similar to when he first performed Aphex Twin. “It’s cool for me to share with them and work with them on what was for me the product of that time in my life,” he continues. “The music comes from the kind of group intensity that I think is – I want to believe that we can all have that throughout our lives, but I do think it’s something that is easier to create in a community of 20-something kids.”
How did performing Aphex Twin music in an ensemble come to be?
It was shortly after we graduated, and we were planning stuff that Alarm Will Sound would be doing. It’s a group that’s made up of a bunch of really voracious, omnivorous listeners, and people just loved this music.
At the time, I think the idea of a contemporary music ensemble playing Aphex Twin felt like a real statement, in a way that it doesn’t so much anymore. I think the world has changed and opened up. It felt a real statement that said that there’s really interesting, complicated, deep music being done all over the world and in all different kinds of music-making.
So why bring that to Northwestern in 2019?
Well in some way, for the same reasons. I see it as part of the music of our time, which is what this ensemble is all about, but I think also there are specific challenges that the music brings up, which are really great for students to tackle. All those challenges emerge from the nature of Richard D. James’ imagination and the fact that he was writing this music directly into a computer. It’s music that doesn't take into account how fast you can play, or what sounds are idiomatic or natural on the instruments. Something that this music really encourages us to do is to stretch our imaginations to see what we can do – which we should bring to all of our music, but having this original Aphex Twin recording and starting from the point of, “How do I make my instrument sound more like that?” is just a really great stimulation and challenge.
You brought up one of my big fascinations when listening to the music that you are going to be performing, which is the speed of some of the songs. How does that adaptation work?
It works! There’s a tradeoff of speed for precision. It gets harder as the tempo gets faster to get every 16th note in just the right place. That cleanness and that precision is part of what gives the original tracks their character – and we certainly strive for it, but in a live performance it’s never going to be quite as clean and precise. I think the tradeoff is worth it because the tempo is part of the character of the tracks. The precision is too, but I’m an idealist, and I want to try to fight for getting both.
As far as the rest of the concert goes, how did you decide what music to complement this music with?
Part of what we’re doing in CME is giving the students the broadest experience we can of all of the music that’s out there being created in the world now. So there’s always this tension between wanting to make a show that is coherent and wanting to give students a really broad pedagogical experience.
You know, Glass also has a connection to electronics, to a feeling of mechanicalness around these very simple musical ideas that are just repeated and repeated and repeated, and that are built on in kind of algorithmic ways. And then Scelsi relates to the Glass in being also in this minimalist world, but the aesthetic is so different. The way that Scelsi goes inside of a sound and pulls it apart and looks at it under a microscope is both connected to the minimalistic impulse in Glass and also expressive in a really different way.
Are there artists or types of music that you’d like to see this contemporary ensemble perform in the future?
I think we’re doing it. I think this is really a statement about that – when there’s exciting music out there or kinds of music-making, trying to find ways to bring it in here. Something I would love to do in CME that we haven't done yet is improvisation. I look at like the kind of work that someone like [drummer] Tyshawn Sorey does, where he’s improvising with an ensemble, and drawing on jazz in some ways but really just on this tradition of conduction and free improvisation.
Also there’s, I think, really great artists doing theatrical work for instruments – music where it is written for an ensemble like this but much more about theater than it is about music. Or where the theater is sort of comes first and the music emerges from the theater. That kind of music calls upon the players to really be performers in that way.
You talked earlier a bit about the radicalness in 2002, 2003 of an ensemble performing this music that – it’s not pop, but I guess in the classical-versus-pop dichotomy of it, it is. In the conservatory music school environment, do you think that we’re moving past those divides now?
I think so. Those divides feel way less hard and real than they did when I was growing up and going to music school. I recall there being much more of a sense of, sort of identity and division. And I see a lot less of that now. I think we’re living in a much more open musical world.
It feels like there’s a sort of rising fascination in the more classical or new music world from these artists more in the pop sphere, thinking about someone like Thom Yorke from Radiohead.
Absolutely, and like Kanye West working with [Pulitzer-winning composer] Caroline Shaw. I think there’s just a ton more connection between different kinds of composers and different kinds of music-making now than there was when I was going to school.
Also, electronic music is sort of everywhere in a way that it wasn’t then. When we were doing Acoustica, electronica was really a thing. There were people who were making electronic music, and there was this whole genre of what was then called IDM, intelligent dance music. I think those boundaries too feel much more porous, like so many artists in popular music are incorporating electronic music into their work. Electronic music is everywhere.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
See the Contemporary Music Ensemble perform Aphex Twin and more on May 24 at 7:30 p.m. in Galvin Hall. Tickets are $4 for students.