Growing the Grass Roots: Some thoughts on devised music and pedagogy

In the fall of 1996, composer Gavin Chuck and conductor Alan Pierson were students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. They met at a party and began to talk about the contemporary music scene at the school. Chuck voiced his frustrations about the difficulties student composers faced in getting work for large ensemble performed, whether in school-sanctioned readings with the full orchestra, or in performances with hastily-rehearsed pickup groups. Pierson noted that among all of the contemporary music concerts at the school, none featured music by minimalist composers. Their conversation soon ballooned to include more friends, setting in motion a sequence of events that led to the creation of Eastman’s first student-run contemporary music group, Ossia, as well as the acclaimed and influential contemporary orchestra, Alarm Will Sound, which had its first performance under the baton of Mr. Pierson in May 2001.[1]

At the time of its founding, Alarm Will Sound was a rare bird in the contemporary music world. Many of its members were both composers and performers, and the group rehearsed collaboratively—a setup that put them in league with the social world of downtown minimalism. However, the members also all studied at one of the United States’ august conservatories and many of their early gigs were at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, performing the work of academic modernists like György Ligeti, Harrison Birtwistle, and Augusta Read Thomas. This combination of intense, traditional conservatory training and a democratic, collaborative mindset to rehearsing and repertoire is reflected in the variety and creativity of their recorded projects, which not only feature works by composers as diverse Steve Reich, Conlon Nancarrow, and Charles Wuorinen, but also arrangements of music from outside the concert music world, including the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” and the work of Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin.

What’s most surprising about the group and their repertoire isn’t that classically-trained musicians can be interested in a huge range of music (just think of Gunther Schuller’s engagement with jazz, or Milton Babbit’s encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater). The real surprise is how influential Alarm Will Sound’s approach has become throughout the contemporary music scene around the United States. Groups like Ensemble Signal in New York, Contemporaneous (founded by students at Bard College), and wildUp in Los Angeles not only feature similar sizes/instrumentations as Alarm Will Sound, but also variety of repertoire. Other groups like Wet Ink feature composer-performers who both write for the group as a whole and perform their peers’ work. The piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire—another regular at the Miller Theatre Composers’ Portrait series—has premiered work by composers as diverse as Tristan Murail, orchestrally-minded singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, and the experimental electronic musician Pete Swanson.

This proliferation of groups who create their own repertoire through some combination of collaborative composition, improvisation, and commissioning marks a sea change in how contemporary concert music gets made in the United States. Top-down institutions like universities, conservatories, and large arts organizations like symphony orchestras have lost profound influence as tastemakers and producers to these grass-roots ensembles. In this new world, academic music institutions are faced with a particular quandary—how can they simultaneously preserve the rigorous traditions of classical training while simultaneously preparing students to become creative and collaborative musicians in this wide-open, self-directed contemporary music scene? By looking into how and why ensembles like Alarm Will Sound make music in a particular way, these academic institutions can learn how to adapt their teaching for the music scene’s next generation of multi-faceted music-makers.

A good place to start in this discussion of music and pedagogy is to define what groups like Alarm Will Sound do. The kind of collaborative music-making that powers Alarm Will Sound has an analog in the theatre world—devised theatre. In a work of devised theatre, a script is created collaboratively by a group of actors, many times through improvisation, or short prepared excerpts known as etudes. In this way, the writing and rehearsal processes of the theatre piece are the same, rather than split between different people and places. Using the concept of devised theatre as a jumping-off point, devised music is a form of music-making where the performers have a greater degree of control over the music they perform than in a typical classical situation. In a traditional classical model, the performers interpret a work of music through performance, but do not have the agency to change the notes written on the page—they can affect how a piece sounds, but less of what sounds in a piece. Groups that make devised music can determine the what of a piece in addition to the how in three major ways:

  1. They can collaboratively compose music through group improvisation. These typically include groups with strong connections to the jazz tradition, like Anthony Braxton’s or John Zorn’s ensembles.
  2. Different performer-composers in a group write or arrange music for the group to play, with other performer-composers having some degree of editorial input. These include groups like Alarm Will Sound and Wet Ink.
  3. A group can curate its unique repertoire by commissioning an outside composer to write a piece, yet also have editorial control over the work via a collaborative process. Groups like So Percussion and Yarn/Wire, among many others, frequently work in this way.

Now that we have a working definition of what devised music is, we can look into an example of successful devised music and explore how its devised nature affects its result—how the process leads to its product—and the various source materials that go into the work, whether from within the traditions of western concert music or without. The example I’d like to explore here is Alarm Will Sound’s 2005 record Acoustica, featuring arrangements by group members of pieces by the electronic music artist Aphex Twin.

The original pitch for making acoustic arrangements of electronic music came from group violinist-vocalist-composer Caleb Burhans. While many members of Alarm Will Sound were intrigued by the notion by adding another layer of human input to a form of music that was already based on samplings of preexisting sounds, others were worried. Gavin Chuck notes that one member questioned whether the project would “…end up being like The New York Philharmonic Plays the Bee Gees.”[2] The group decided that the music of Aphex Twin would yield the meatiest results, with its breakneck tempos, rich soundworld, and dramatic jump cuts.

While each arrangement from the record is credited to a single group member, the pieces were workshopped extensively. There were disagreements about how close the arrangements should hew to the source material, or what a certain note or rhythm was within a dense texture. Alarm Will Sound explored their instruments collectively, finding out the best ways to mimic electronic sound through acoustic means. Their catalog of extended techniques and nonstandard percussion instruments purchased from hardware stores could be used throughout all of the arrangements, creating a unified soundworld. In this way, the results of the Acoustica project are profoundly impacted by the collaborative creative process. From conception to execution, the physical music was shaped as much, if not more, in the rehearsal hall than in an individual’s composition studio. One can imagine what a less collaborative Acoustica project would have sounded like. Composers would have offered arrangements that only scratched the surface of possibilities in terms of what acoustic instruments could achieve when imitating electronic sounds. Some composers might try to reproduce tracks exactly, while others may have hit walls in trying to mimic Aphex Twin’s complex sounds and opted for safer, more cover-oriented material.[3] In the end, this version of Acoustica would have been a curious experiment, a bit of let’s-be-hip crossover, rather than a deeply considered and holistically-constructed work. Instead, Acoustica as conceived and produced by Alarm Will Sound shows the exciting possibilities of collaborative devised music.

The fact that Acoustica was produced in a collaborative environment isn’t its only defining feature. It’s also important to note how the project arose from various musical sources, both within and without Alarm Will Sound’s classical training. It is not enough to note that Acoustica is a work of classically-trained musicians performing vernacular music. If that was all it was, its interest would be no greater than the aforementioned “New York Philharmonic plays The Bee-Gees.” What is interesting about the project is how the musicians both leverage and expand their conservatory training to execute the non-idiomatic difficulties found in the music of Aphex Twin. On a surface level, the performances on the album showcase the players’ command of their respective instruments. The clarity of fast runs reflect study of virtuosic showpieces, while the range of extended techniques used reflect deep experience with post-World War II concert music. From an arrangement standpoint, the writers use their ear training to figure out complex rhythms and melodic contours, as well as the components of multi-faceted textures.

While traditional conservatory training is a necessary part of Acoustica’s performance practice, it is not sufficient. The kind of rhythmic accuracy needed to convincingly perform Aphex Twin’s music, particularly in regards to syncopation, is usually overlooked in classical training, as it is not a significant part of western concert music (certain works of minimalism excepted). In particular, percussionist Jason Treuting is a virtuosic drum set player with enough experience playing rock, funk, and jazz to give Aphex Twin’s frenetic breakbeats the right rhythmic feel—a skill that isn’t formally taught in a typical conservatory percussion course of study. In order to play the music on Acoustica effectively, the players of Alarm Will Sound had to expand on their training and learn new, non-classical performance practices in a self-directed way.

Alarm Will Sound’s arrangement and performance of Aphex Twin on Acoustica is an effective work of devised music because of three main ingredients:

  1. A strong concept regarding the nature of control in different kinds of music, motivating the combination of vernacular electronic music and acoustic classical instruments
  2. A collaborative creative process that opened up a unified soundworld and quality of performance across the varied arrangements
  3. The players’ ability to both leverage their classical training and expand upon it to accurately convey the nuances of the non-classical source material

With these characteristics in mind, let’s return to the discussion of how to teach devised music in a conservatory environment, in order to better prepare students for today’s wide-open, grass-roots contemporary music world and inspire strong new work like Acoustica. The essential ingredients of Acoustica’s success have implications in the teaching of critical and creative thinking, collaborative rehearsal, and technical training at American conservatories. With the expressed goal of fostering effective devised music in the conservatory and the greater contemporary music scene, I have the following recommendations:

Strong devised music projects have a deeply-considered underlying concept that motivates the particular combination of repertoire, performance practice, and creative rehearsal process. These strong concepts require musicians to think critically and creatively about the music they listen to and perform. In order to inspire this kind of thinking, conservatories should better emphasize study in music history and liberal arts among performers and composers. This does not necessarily mean adding additional coursework. Instead, courses should move away from tired and simple surveys, instead taking a more interdisciplinary approach. An effective music history course could focus on the influence of electronic sound on acoustic music across different genres (looking at the work of Ligeti, Acoustica, and the bluegrass band Punch Brothers, to name a few). These academic courses should stimulate independent thinking and create opportunities for individualized projects based on students’ interests, rather than ticking off arbitrary requirements.


In order to foster a spirit of creative collaboration in students, conservatories should follow Eastman’s lead and create student-run contemporary music ensembles, or at least give students significant governing power in a departmental contemporary music ensemble. Beyond this, faculty should reevaluate how they teach chamber music. Instead of coaching groups from outside the performance or via conducting, teachers can embed themselves in groups, teaching the necessary skills of chamber music in a constructivist fashion through example. Many of the groups that I’ve mentioned in this article take this approach at the summer festivals they run, including Yarn/Wire and So Percussion (it is telling that three successful percussion groups have come out the inaugural class of the So Percussion Summer Institute in 2009).


Instrumental and musicianship training at the conservatory should reflect a broader range of music from outside the classical tradition. Conservatories should mandate a course in improvisation (Stony Brook University’s improvisation class led by trombonist Ray Anderson is a good example) and change the musicianship curriculum to encompass more diverse music (i.e. transcribing jazz solos or Indian classical music, or learning fiddle tunes by ear). In lessons and chamber music, students should be required to perform pieces that require non-classical performance practices, like string quartet pieces from the Brooklyn Rider Almanac, for example.

Individually, these recommendations can better prepare conservatory students for today’s contemporary music world, but collectively, they build on each other to inspire thoughtful and creative musicianship, rather than just good musicianship. For instance, a violin student may enjoy transcribing a James Brown vocal line in musicianship class, which could lead her to the Brown-inspired string quartet piece Dig The Say by Vijay Iyer that she’ll put together with a group of friends for chamber music class, which could then motivate a larger project that interfaces with vernacular dance traditions. With studio work and narrowly-focused institutional (i.e. orchestra) jobs fewer and farther between, academic music training in the United States must adjust to this new reality. These changes are not mere practical realism, however. More importantly, they effectively foster the creation of exciting and relevant new work for the concert hall and beyond.


[1] This story is adapted from Gavin Chuck’s short history of Alarm Will Sound,


[3] An apt analog to this non-collaborative bizzaro-world version of Acoustica is a series of arrangements of traditional Irish songs for singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Some composers effectively got inside the songs, while others seemed to just add their stylistic flourishes to the surface. For more information, seeós-made-new-for-iarla-ó-lionáird-1.1518742

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