Originally formed in the late 1990s by two students from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, Alarm Will Sound is a 20 piece chamber orchestra dedicated to the performance of newly composed contemporary classical music.

Ever since their initial formation in 1991, jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW) has been synonym with groove. Either as an acoustic or an electric combo, John Medeski (keyboards), Billy Martin (drums) and Chris Wood (bass) have blended experimental and jazz aesthetics with fusion, hip hop, funk and contemporary avant-garde influences.

Underpinned by a shared artistic vision and drawing from an eclectic repertoire of covers and original compositions, Alarm Will Sound and MMW assembled, rehearsed and recorded live a fluid seven-track programme at The Newman Center in Denver, Colorado in February 2015. A unique project at the intersection of chamber music and jazz, Omnisphere is the resulting recording which was released on 14 September 2018 last on MMW’s own label Indirecto Records.

Medeski Martin & Wood with Alarm Will Sound - Omnisphere (2018) - Artwork ©Billy Martin
Medeski Martin & Wood with Alarm Will Sound – Omnisphere (2018) – Artwork ©Billy Martin

While still in college, Alan Pierson and Gavin Chuck (now conductor/artistic director and managing director of the ensemble respectively) acknowledged the difficulties faced by emerging and established composers to get their music heard and performed.

Both musicians set about to assemble a cast of like-minded musicians into a national ensemble that would exclusively play and record new music. Since their first official concert as Alarm Will Sound in May 2001, the collective has performed or premiered music by Steve Reich, György Ligeti, David Lang, John Adams, Nico Muhly or Donnacha Dennehy among many others.

Alarm Will Sound have also tackled more challenging projects like recreating the music of legendary electronic musician Aphex Twin for acoustic instruments in Acoustica (2005), or rearranging modern pieces like The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” or Edgar Varèse’s “Poème Electronique” in Alarm Will Sound presents Modernists (2016).

The collective also includes several composers in its ranks such as Miles Brown or Caleb Burhans (also a member of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) who all contribute to the wide-ranging repertoire.

A jam band par excellence, MMW are best captured during their always adventurous live sets where Chris Wood often alternates between acoustic and electric bass and John Medeski surrounds himself with a wide array of keyboard instruments, from grand piano to Hammond organ, Mellotron, Wurlitzer piano, Moog synthesiser or ARP Solina String Ensemble. As for Billy Martin, he introduced very early on “a pots and pans approach” to live drumming.

To date, the trio has collaborated extensively with jazz guitarists John Scolfield, Marc Ribot or Nels Cline and have recorded either for Blue Note or for their own label Indirecto Records which was set up in 1997.

Alarm System is our initiative to find artists who make fascinating music — period — whatever they call themselves, and whatever style they work in. Alarm Will Sound

Initiated in 2014 by Alarm Will Sound, Alarm System is a new project aimed at attracting artists and musicians from diverse backgrounds to create new music. For their inaugural year, the collective got in contact with several artists including the MMW trio. “We’ve talked about MMW with orchestra for years” says Chris Wood, acknowledging from the outset that the trio was also eager to venture into new sonic territories. Embarking on the creative journey as sound explorers, both combos found a common ground through a hybrid contemporary classical music / big band approach. As well as that, in the spirit of most jazz recordings and in keeping with the experimental risk-taking urgency of Alarm Will Sound, all musicians involved worked towards a live performance of the programme, as opposed to a recording session in a studio.

Opening with a commissioned piece from percussionist and founding member of the ensemble Payton MacDonald, “Kid Tao Mammal (Unwordliness Weirdo)” more or less sets the pace of the project – MMW’s trademark “avant-grooves” and daring experimentation for drum, bass and keyboards pitched against an acoustic and contemporary tapestry of sounds.

The album features “Anonymous Skulls” and “End of the World Party (Just in Case)” two reprises from MMW which originally appeared on their 2004 record End of the World Party. Both pieces were rearranged for orchestra by Courtney Orlando and Stefan Freund, both violinist and cellist respectively with the classical ensemble.

“Northern Lights” and “Oh Ye of Little Faith” are both new compositions by Miles Brown (cello) and Caleb Burhans (violin) respectively while Billy Martin and John Medeski both contribute to new pieces as well with “Coral Sea” and “Eye of Ra”, skilfully navigating between 20th century avant-garde and relentless pulse.