The Musical and Extramusical in Alarm Will Sound’s Performance of “Revolution 9”
Barry Shank (this is an excerpt from a paper to be presented at the 2011 meetings of the American Studies Association October 22 in Baltimore, MD) is a professor in the College of Humanities at Ohio State University and currently serves as president of IASPM-US. His book Silence, Noise, Beauty: The Political Agency of Music is forthcoming from Duke University Press.
The political agency of musical beauty turns on the relationship between music and the social, the musical and the extramusical. This relationship, absent indexical signification, must work through affect and subjectivity, as sounds entering through the ears transform into felt experiences of political community. Alarm Will Sound is a performance ensemble whose repertoire features several acoustic arrangements of pieces originally composed for machines, electronic instruments or even tape. Among these are acoustic versions of Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique, Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies, and an album of electronica from Aphex Twin. Their performance of these pieces heightens the audience’s attention to the question of what is music, provoking an intensity of musical listening that confronts the line between the musical and the extramusical. In so doing, they ask a vitally important question: what does musical listening do?
Central to the exploration of this question is horn player Matt Marks’s transcription of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” Originally a tape piece built from audio scraps found in the closets at Abbey Road, for decades, it has been the least listened to track from The Beatles (the “White Album”). John Lennon and Yoko Ono constructed the Beatles’ version on top of an extended coda that had been cut from the first version of “Revolution 1.” One hundred fifty-four samples taken from forty-five different sources were layered atop more than six minutes of guitars shifting from D major to A major. Lennon’s description of the piece changed from an initial claim that the track was “painting in sound a picture of revolution” to the counter claim that it was nothing but “anti-revolution.” [1. Walter Everett, The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press (1999) p. 174; MacDonald, p.288.] Akin to Lennon’s famous declaration of ambivalence in “Revolution 1,” (out/in), whatever overt political intentions might be behind “Revolution 9” are buried beneath what are clearly achieved musical goals. Rather than a random assortment of found sounds, “Revolution 9” displays a sensitivity to musical morphology that shapes its overt references to crowd behavior (football chants and popular dances), mass feeling (choral hymns and nearly hysterical laughter), and music’s ability to direct those actions and feelings toward a particular goal. Its concern with the shape of sound has much more in common with Stockhausen’s tape pieces than most heard at the time. “Revolution 9” shares with Stockhausen pieces like Hymnen a willingness to manipulate and transform found audible material—what Pierre Schaeffer called musique concrete—while retaining the associations of the original sounds in the new form. This suggests that an intensive investigation of musical transformation itself lies at the heart of “Revolution 9.” The question really is, what can musical listening do?
This focus on transformation centers Alarm Will Sound’s acoustic performance of the piece on the boundary between the musical and the extra-musical. The ensemble reconfigures backwards-taped guitars and orchestral crescendos, overlayered voices of crowds and individuals, an isolated crinkling sound and the gunshots and whoops from a western movie among other material into sounds produced by strings, percussion, piano, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flute, oboe and voices. Alarm Will Sound’s version of “Revolution 9” captures the thwarted ambition of Lennon and Ono’s desire to transcend politics in the unification of all the world’s people.
A video of Alarm Will Sound’s version of “Revolution 9” has been uploaded to Youtube. [2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WjfQSxcq0c Last accessed August 18, 2011. A different partial audience video is also available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1DYEOeCQwk] When you watch it, you will probably be struck first by the apparent incongruity of Alan Pierson standing before the ensemble and conducting this piece in a traditional fashion: beating time; marking out dynamic changes and signaling the entry of specific instruments at particular moments. You might even stop to consider the musicians dressed in traditional black, sitting in the standard formation, with their music stands and orchestral instruments before them. Just as you wonder, why do they look like this, the piece begins with a quiet piano layering beneath Gavin Chuck’s stolid intoning of the familiar phrase, “number nine, number nine.” Gradually the music builds, for music this irrefutably is. Before the first minute has passed, the winds have conspired with the strings to generate a tonal block that sounds like it is going backwards. The horns climb atop a rousing clash of percussion and Chuck’s reading of the vocal lines accelerates to a rapid peak that quickly fades down again to that backwards sound—which has instantly become iconic. That sound, the sound of taped music moving backwards performed on winds and strings, is the acoustic connection between the memories of the audience and its current experience. Together with the title phrase, that backwards sound functions like any icon, standing in for itself, locating you in relation to its history. That history leaps to life in a pattern of rising and falling waves of sound that grow a bit longer with each iteration as it incorporates a wider variety of sounds.
About half way through the performance, the musicians begin to play their bodies, either clapping hands or slapping thighs. More vocals enter. Women who earlier had laughed nervously now shout furiously. The horns repeat a two-note announcement that they had hinted at earlier, and the strings whirl behind them. During this crescendo, the musicians’ bodies materialize the music’s pulse. The violins’ fierce precision, the cello’s commanding certainty, the trombone’s liquid coil, all are buttressed by the movements of their players. Abruptly, this peak halts, replaced sharply with more clapping and shouting which, in turn, give way to the first football chant. “Hold that line” assumes a delicious ambiguity here. Yes, it is obviously a direct reference to crowds and the barely controlled violence of American football. But it also suggests the struggle between musical sounds and the physicality of the musicians. The line between the musical and extra-musical disappears in “Revolution 9” insofar as the extra-musical references of the piece have been integrated into its performance as part of the music.
The beauty and the power of Alarm will Sound’s “Revolution 9” derive precisely from its refusal to hold that line between the musical and the extra-musical. The dissolution of that line is thematized in the work, but it also invades the performers’ consciousness. Stefan Freund, cellist and composer for Alarm Will Sound told me, “‘Revolution 9’ is so exciting, dramatic, passionate, and riveting for the audience. I am so riveted in performing that piece that I can’t imagine the audience isn’t.” The word choice is important here. To be riveted is to be fixed in part of a structure, to be held still, incapable of movement. Yet Freund’s experience of being riveted materializes precisely as movement—movement in playing his instrument with passion and vigor, movement in gesturing at the wild climaxes. Still, riveted is the correct word. The riveting passion of the performance grounds the extravagant rush of feelings produced through this music, tightening its hold on the impossible to resolve question of the relationship between the music and what stands outside it. As the musicians are, so is the audience held in place, suspended between the opposing positions of music as an internal revolutionary force, demanding change only for its own forms, and music as an external drive, capable of commanding its auditors to shift the way we understand the world and our place in it. We lean in, wanting more. That is what musical listening can do. In the process, it provokes our longing for a sensuously meaningful political community.