Concert highlights works by Hungarian Jewish composer

Alarm Will Sound performs Feb. 12 at The Sheldon. Photo: Carl Socolow

By Barry Gilbert, Special to the Jewish Light

Classical music composer György Ligeti, a Romanian-born Jew, escaped oppression twice during the first 40 years of his life, leaving him acutely distrustful of groups, clubs and systems. 

That experience, conductor Alan Pierson says, plays out in Ligeti’s work, which will be presented via music, text and imagery when Pierson’s chamber group, Alarm Will Sound, returns to the Sheldon Concert Hall Friday, Feb. 12. 

Ligeti (pronounced LIG-IT-TEE with equal emphasis), who has been called one of the most important avant-garde composers of the late 20th century, was born in Romania in 1923 and grew up in Hungary. He survived Nazi occupation and time in a work camp; many members of his family were not so fortunate. 

When the Soviet Red Army liberated Hungary, Ligeti began to think of himself as a socialist, says Pierson, 41, a Chicago-born Jew who lives with his partner in New York City. 

“Initially, he really bought in to what the communists were doing,” Pierson says. “As Stalinism settled in, he began to see how really disturbing it was. He began as a radical socialist and wanted to believe that Soviet Communism was the way to go, and then a few years later he came to really despise it.”

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Because of the Iron Curtain, Ligeti was cut off from what was happening musically in the West, and it had a huge effect on him, Pierson says. After immigrating to Austria and the West in his 40s, he rejected rigid schools of music and “was always doing his own thing.”

“And you see that in his work, this interest in creating a system and then destroying it … which is something we’ll be talking about in the show,” Pierson says. “What we’re putting together is not just a concert. We’re going to tell a story about Ligeti’s life and the way that it connects with his music.

Alarm Will Sound is an uncommon group of 16 players many of whom are also composers and singers plus Pierson, the conductor. The group has a wide range of influences and repertoire.

“We’re all people who grew up playing classical music,” Pierson says. “But we also grew up listening to rock music, or we played jazz or Indian music. So have many of the composers who work with us. So the range of music that we play is really broad and, I think, really rich.”

Alarm Will Sound’s name was taken from the common sign found on security doors, a suggestion made by Pierson’s friend Gavin Chuck, managing director of AWS. 

“I wasn’t immediately sold, but we put it into consideration among the many names the group was considering and it won,” Pierson says. “I like that it reuses a phrase people see every day, and that it conveys a sense of danger and the unknown. Which I think fits AWS’ spirit.”

Alarm Will Sound has roots in Missouri. It has played the Sheldon several times since 2012, and it counts as one of its patrons Jeanne Sinquefield and the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation. It is also the resident ensemble at the Mizzou International Composers Festival held each July in Columbia. 

“The festival became this really amazing summer home for us, where we were developing new repertoire with all of these great composers, both young and more established composers,” Pierson says. “When that became such an important place for us, we started looking at ways to expand what we were doing in the region.”

And that search brought Alarm Will Sound to St. Louis, home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and its history of doing contemporary music, and of organizations such as the New Music Circle. Pierson said he was gratified to find an audience that would support Alarm Will Sound.

“Part of the idea of having a home in St. Louis is to build family and develop roots there,” Pierson says. “So Jeremy Kannapell (a St. Louis electronic musician who performs as Ghost Ice) is collaborating with us on the Ligeti show. We’re always looking to cultivate relationships with other artists who are doing really interesting things.”

Pierson’s interest in music was sparked initially by his parents, who always had music playing in the house. “My dad was always a pretty serious horn player, not a professional, but he’s played his whole life and still plays every day,” Pierson says. 

Pierson graduated from MIT with dual degrees in mathematics and music, and he earned a doctorate in conducting from the Eastman School of Music. 

Growing up, he played in the school orchestra, studied piano and attended the People’s Music School in Chicago. He believes that his physics and math background “affects the kind of music that I’m drawn to,” as does his being Jewish.

“I’m certainly drawn to Jewish music,” he says. “Some of the first places that I really experienced music and felt a real joy for music were in Jewish situations — going to youth group, being at Jewish summer camp. I learned to play the guitar there. Some of my first composing was writing Jewish music.”

Pierson says he’s forgotten most of what he learned in physics classes but still enjoys math and thinks mathematically. 

And Ligeti’s music has “a tremendous amount of logical mathematical complexity. Yet there’s something very free in his music,” drawing as it does from Hungarian and African folk music as well as from the American minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass that he was eventually exposed to.

Chuck, AWS’ managing director, describes Ligeti’s music as having melodies that “intertwine to form dense webs, conflicting rhythms (that) tick like a roomful of clocks gone awry, and the tiny spaces between notes are packed with charged activity.” 

Many people are familiar with some of Ligeti’s music, even if they’re not aware of it: Three of Ligeti’s pieces were central to the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001.” 

“Atmosphères” is used during the long “evolution of man” opening sequence, and the eerie – spiritual? – “Requiem” is heard during encounters with the monolith. “Lux Aeterna,” a piece for 16 solo singers, is also used in the movie.

The film “changed his life,” Pierson says of the composer, who died in 2006. “It also changed that movie. It’s really hard to imagine ‘2001’ without that score. That’s how I got to know the music of Ligeti. I still can’t hear pieces like ‘Requiem’ without seeing ‘2001.’ ”