Alan Pierson, conductor and artistic director of the new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, was not thinking small when he conceived a piece called 1969. Charged with the cultural resonance of the year for which it's named, it's actually built around a planned meeting between avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Beatles - which, thanks to a snowstorm, never happened. They had hoped to plan a joint concert that would unite the rock 'n' roll audience with that of the avant-garde.
Pierson says 1969 is a kind of music-theatrical essay that struggles with questions about the essence of music and its place and power in society. It's assembled from passages by 20th-century composers - including Stockhausen, Lennon, McCartney, Berio, Bernstein and Stravinsky - plus spoken commentary by actors and members of the ensemble representing those composers.
"You see all these artists trying to embrace a wider spectrum of the world through the music they are creating," says Pierson. "Bernstein does it through this wild eclecticism. Stockhausen does it by sampling all different kinds of sounds. The Beatles did by taking tape recordings and making something new in 'Revolution 9.' All of it comes from this impulse to break apart the essence of what music is."
The project grew as Pierson worked on it. He hired Andy Kupfer to write the script, a couple of stage actors to handle spoken material and Nigel Maister to direct. Projected footage makes it a multimedia event. Onstage, the composers whose works are played emerge as characters who, says Pierson, were responding to musical and social turmoil of the time.
The first act reaches a dramatic climax just before intermission, which is the piece's only pause. "It's all about the kind of anger people are feeling after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King," says Pierson. "That drives to a pinnacle of anger at the end of act one, and the question left hanging in the air is, Is burning it all down really the answer?"
That may create the anticipation of some resolution, but Pierson says there is none. "How could there be? The things they are trying to do are still things we are struggling with. It's not a show about answers."