Alarm Will Sound: Acoustica

Some tribute albums perplex, the conceptually well-intentioned Reich Remixed, released by Nonesuch in 1999 and featuring interpretations of the American composers' work by artists like Nobukazu Takemura and Ken Ishii, a case in point. Though the very idea of interpretation should never be discouraged, giving Music For 18 Musicians a techno overhaul seems fundamentally misguided.

Acoustica might at first appear to be jinxed by a similar problem but Alarm Will Sound approaches its handling of Aphex Twin's material in wiser manner. By performing new arrangements, the 22-member chamber orchestra of voices, strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussionists presents a striking new way to hear Richard D. James's music. The group, directed by Alan Pierson, previously issued a debut album featuring readings of Reich's Tehillim and a newly-revised The Desert Music, and thus suggests an American analogue to the English ensemble Icebreaker, itself devoted to the music of contemporary composers like Louis Andriessen and David Lang.

Acoustica turns out to be an album of many surprises. First of all, it draws almost entirely upon Drukqs with only a few songs coming from The Richard D. James Album. Secondly, the album explores a range that extends beyond the familiar high-energy Aphex style. “Fingerbib,” for example, exudes a joyful spirit much like James's original while “Jynweythek Ylow” appears in a delicate arrangement of pizzicato strings and woodwinds; similarly, rustic string tones in “Blue Calix” highlight the placid side of James's music. Thirdly, the group refrains from saturating the songs' arrangements with an overbearing arsenal of instrumentation, though credit for that should be extended more to the ten arrangers. The ponderous “Gwely Mernans,” for instance, largely unfolds from a minimal arrangement of piano, strings, and woodwinds while “Cliffs” is presented in a lovely meditative setting of strings, marimbas, and horns. The group's version of “Logon Rock Witch,” complete with percussive sounds of coffee-cans, Jew's harp, and slide whistles, is charming and, though similar in arrangement to James's own stark piano treatment on Drukqs, “Avril 14th” sounds pretty here too.

At the same time, the group executes “Cock/Ver 10,” “Mt. Saint Michel,” and “Omgyjya Switch 7” impressively enough but the original compositions hardly seem exceptional enough to warrant such painstaking, even mind-boggling, re-creative effort. Including drums to replicate the original's patterns in James's “4” makes for an overly literal approach and, though they bring a funkier electronic character to the album, Dennis DeSantis's concluding tracks “Prep Gwarlek 3B Remix” and “Cliffs Remix” seem unnecessary; the 68-minute album would be fine enough without them.

Hearing Aphex's intricate compositions clothed in orchestral garb suggests his music wouldn't sound out of place in a concert programme featuring pieces by, say, Steve Martland; in fact, the group's orchestral transcription of the gleeful “Fingerbib” sounds much like Martland's own band. In the end, Acoustica largely succeeds as a credible chamber approach to James's work, though the group's versions hardly supplant the originals. Still, Alarm Will Sound amply demonstrates that James's music holds up better than one might have imagined when broached in such formal manner.

July 2005