A “Meme’s Eye View”: Alarm Will Sound presents a philosophical conversation

On the evening of Friday, Apr. 5, a crowd gathered in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel to watch the 20-member new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound give their Lawrence Artist Series concert. Out of those 20 musicians, three are Lawrence Conservatory professors: Associate Professors of Music Erin Lesser and Nora Lewis on flute and oboe, respectively, and Visiting Assistant Professor Michael Clayville, a trombonist who also leads our own LU New Music Ensemble. The group consists of classically trained musicians, all committed to innovative performances and recordings of today’s music. This manifests in taking on music from a wide variety of styles, from arch-modernist to pop-influenced and performing all with incredible technical skill and energy. Many members are also composers of new music works which allows a unique crossover in skills and brings a deeper understanding of the music they are trying to convey. Alarm Will Sound has performed at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Library of Congress to name a few, and have also travelled internationally to play in Holland and Russia. It was an honor and privilege to have them perform at Lawrence on Friday. 

The ensemble made sure to tailor the concert to their audience, mentioning that both composers of the two works they performed were Wisconsin-born and raised. The first piece, “Escape Wisconsin” by Caleb Burhans, fit with that theme. Originally a solo saxophone work, the piece is ultimately a play on Wisconsin’s tourism slogan “Escape to Wisconsin.” The work used frequent repetition which turned quickly into cacophonies of instruments layering on top of each other, coming together in a lively and precise performance. 

The second piece, “Mind Out of Matter” composed by Scott Johnson, is an eight-movement work based on melodies and rhythms Johnson picked up from a voice recording of noted philosopher and winner of the 2012 Erasmus Prize, Daniel C. Dennett. In this recording, Dennett explained his musings on the Darwinian life of ideas. Both the composer and philosopher were in attendance on Friday night to give a post-performance introduction and explain some of the less familiar techniques used in the piece. One of them Johnson described as “speech music,” in which he uses “the melodies of spoken words as the basis for an accompanying instrumental score.” This accompaniment, inspired by Johnson’s curiosity and Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” became a rock, pop, samba, classical avant-garde and hip hop-inspired blend of sounds and pitches that mimicked Dennett’s own engaging speech patterns. 

Dennett spoke to the Darwinian principles and extended them in readings of his book and interviews with the composer. These recordings were then played back and modified to create a sort of melody line for each movement which included titles such as “Cow Design,” “Invisible Agents,” “Winners” and “Awe,” to name a few. Each movement built on the principles that came before it, starting at the concept of how humans have redesigned and redefined the natural world, and eventually linking these ideas to our domestication of religion. In “Invisible Agents,” Dennett explains the mammal’s instinct to ask “who’s there” when they are frightened or attacked. The music tells this narrative through the electric guitar strums and hip hop style band mimicking the philosopher’s voice, which repeats and changes pace so much it seems he is rapping along occasionally.  

Movement three, “Winners,” became a samba section as musicians picked up different instruments and the percussionists raced back and forth on the stage to get to theirs on time. Dennett moved on in his lecture to the human creations of “the creatures of superstitionland,” who in his explanation “are the ancestors of the gods of religion.” He also introduced the power of memes, which in psychology are images or concepts that can be easily picked up and replicated by the masses, parallel to songs or jingles that we refer to as “earworms.” The composition in this portion picked up and repeated the word “copied” until it was a bleating drone accompanying the groove and ultimately representing the meme of this piece itself. Johnson explained that this concept of ideas, traditions and technologies which all seem to be “competing for space in their natural ecosystems of human minds” create a “meme’s eye view.” This removed position can potentially create much-needed clarity in the slew of competing genres, traditions and styles in the world of music and musicians. 

Dennett ended on a positive note, explaining that while religion has created memes of ideas to die and to potentially kill for, there are many ideas that do deserve this title, namely freedom. Ultimately, anything that appears in human cultures, whether that be religion, trade, tradition or music, has more to say about the human condition itself than those specific cultures themselves. With a swelling in the horns and strings and rolling patterns in the woodwinds, the piece ended, leaving the audience in a state of deep contemplation and hope for the future of humanity.