Performer Picks: Alan Pierson’s Top Boosey Works
Part of our “Performer Picks” series of interviews with world-renowned artists about their favorite works in the B&H catalog. Read other “Performer Picks” interviews with Marin Alsop, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and Hilary Hahn.
Conductor Alan Pierson is a musical visionary and a powerful force in the contemporary classical music scene, having premiered numerous Boosey & Hawkes works and recorded acclaimed albums by Reich, Adams, and Little. He explains how his relationship with B&H music goes back as far as childhood:
“When I was a kid, Boosey was synonymous for me with important music. I spent so much time poring over Boosey scores. Copland, Stravinsky, Bartok, Bernstein—that’s what I ate and drank when I was growing up. There was this feeling that in those Hawkes Pocket Scores, that was where great music lived. Anytime I went to a used bookstore and happened upon one of those scores, I’d think, ‘Oh my god, what’s in here? This must be really important music!’”
Today, Pierson leads his ensemble Alarm Will Sound in creating captivating audience experiences through adventurous new music programming. When asked what music he is personally drawn to, Pierson responds: “It’s a kind of experience that draws me. The music I love most are works that captivate you upon first encounter and then draw you in to learn more. I’ll have a powerful initial listening experience and then think, ‘I have to get my hands on that score to understand what’s going on.’”
Read on about some of Alan Pierson's favorite works in the Boosey & Hawkes catalog, and listen to Pierson's "Performer Picks" playlist on Spotify.
1. Steve Reich, Tehillim
I first heard Reich’s music while in a summer program for high school students at Northwestern University. I was studying composition with Michael Pisaro, a brilliant composer and teacher, whose job it was to give us students an overview of what is happening in music right now. One class, he played Reich’s Tehillim. I was totally mesmerized and sat there, mouth agape, completely taken in by this music that was unlike anything I had ever heard before. After class, I went right out to the CD store in Evanston and bought the ECM recording. I went to college at MIT that fall and listened to that album again and again. MIT’s music library had the score, and I sat there, cross-legged in the stacks poring over it, day after day. I had to understand, what is happening in this piece? How is this composer making this experience happen?
What appealed to me about Tehillim is this wonderful combination of algorithmic process and this feeling of ecstasy. The score is driven by these very basic processes: Each movement has a theme that comes out of the Hebrew Psalm and then a process—in the first movement, it’s canons; second movement, augmentation; third movement, it’s a kind of call and response; and in the fourth movement, he puts it all together and builds to this incredible ecstatic finish, with the chorus of hallelujahs. Because of the process that underpins everything, you can understand exactly what’s happening and how Reich is guiding those processes to create this ecstatic experience.
I think the most fundamental thing that draws us to Steve’s music is its incredible rhythmic energy. The rhythmic ideas that were extraordinarily fresh when Reich was first developing them in the ’70s and ’80s have held up and are still fresh today. The other thing is his embrace of beauty. At the time he was developing his idiom, it was a revolutionary idea to say, ‘We can make art that is beautiful, and that has something meaningful and substantial to say.’ That keeps us coming back to his music again and again.
> Listen to Pierson's recording of Tehillim
2. David T. Little, Dog Days
Back in 2008, I was the conductor for these Carnegie Hall workshops that Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov used to run that paired a group of young composers with a group of young singers. David was part of the program, and he and librettist Royce Vavrek wound up creating several scenes from Dog Days for five singers: the father, the mother, three kids, plus chamber ensemble.
I remember looking at that score and being blown away by what he had created. The Carnegie Hall workshop performance featured the opening scene, when the family sees this strange dog-man arrive and each person reacts in their own way. What’s remarkable in that score is the rhythms—it feels like a scene from a movie or a play that’s been staged, directed, and performed, and David just wrote out the rhythms of their speech and then turned it into music. It’s so natural. The theatrical drama of these characters reacting to the strange foreign presence of the dog-man is all there in the rhythms of the music. If you perform it right, the drama just happens.
When I saw this score, I thought, "This is a composer who needs to finish this piece." I reached out to Jed Wheeler at Montclair’s PEAK Performances, and said, "Jed, you need to check this out." I was thrilled when Jed said, "Let’s do it." David then brought in Beth Morrison, and together we all made it happen. The rest is history.
> Listen to Pierson's recording of Dog Days
3. Oscar Bettison, Livre des Sauvages
There are so many things that draw me to Oscar’s music. One is his sense of musical drama. It’s so powerful. In Livre, the first piece of his that we did, there are two violinists on opposite sides of the stage marshalling their forces in opposition of each other, propelling the piece forward. It is really magical.
Oscar’s rhythms are also so captivating. He has this knack for creating rhythms through these complex mathematical processes. At first you look at them and go, “Oh my god, what is this? How do I feel this?” They look complicated, but actually they’re creating these very human, organic effects. Eventually you get to the point where you can feel all these quirky, wonky, interesting rhythms in your body, and have this off-kilter, catchy groove together.
His sounds do the same thing. The very first thing you hear in Livre is percussion followed by four instruments that hold a note, but the tuning is purposedly weird. You get this intense interference between these slightly out of tune notes, and the effect is this carefully imagined, unusual sonorities that produce these magical effects. That’s in so much of his music. His sense of sound, combined with his rhythm and his drama—those are the three things that bring me back to Oscar’s music again and again.
4. John Adams, Chamber Symphony
A very dear friend of mine, Eddie Kohler—a brilliant musician and thinker who is now a Harvard computer science professor—came to me and said, ‘Oh my god, you have to come over and hear this new John Adams album, Chamber Symphony.’ So I came over to listen, and I was astonished. This wild, frenetic energy that all over the place—I wasn’t into it. I thought, “What is this piece doing? I don’t get this.” Harmonically, it wasn’t making sense to me at the time. That was my first exposure to Chamber Symphony.
Then when I was at Eastman studying with Brad Lubman, John Adams came. I was Brad’s assistant in the New Music Ensemble at Eastman, and we were doing two pieces of his, Shaker Loops and Chamber Symphony. Shaker Loops was a piece I enjoyed, its connection to American minimalism made sense to me. John was coaching a rehearsal, and said, "Hey, can I come conduct this for a minute?" I remember watching the way he threw his body into conducting Shaker Loops, and I had this total “Ah ha” moment: "‘Oh, this is not minimalism." There is this full-bodied visceral-ness to this music that John is after. That demonstration transformed the performance, it went to this other place of energy.
After some time, I came back to Chamber Symphony as a conductor. What had initially confused me when I first encountered it was the density of it, which is very much what it’s about. John has compared the piece to a kids party where there are all these kids everywhere, going nuts and being wild. What I came to appreciate is that there is an important role for the conductor to sculpt this chaos. You’re in this crazy party scene, and you’re the cinematographer: You’re going to move the camera around, zoom in on that kid and then pull away to that kid. There are ways to subtly shape and balance the performance so there’s always something in the foreground.
That, for me, was the way into this piece, and it’s since become among my favorite pieces to perform. It’s always cool to craft that cinematographic scene with a new group of performers and then see the impact it has on the audience.
> Listen to Pierson's podcast discussion and recording of Chamber Symphony
Photo: Cory Weaver