Alan PiersonJune 15, 2013
Praised by the New York Times as “a dynamic conductor and musical visionary,” Alan Pierson (ESM DMA ’06) works as the artistic director of Alarm Will Sound and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. From starting Alarm Will Sound to reenvisioning the identity of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Pierson embodies leadership and entrepreneurship in the 21st century.” As a doctoral student at Eastman, Pierson was involved in creating the student-run new music organization, Ossia. When Ossia members left Eastman, they decided to take the group to NYC and formed Alarm Will Sound. Described by the London Financial Times as, “equal parts exuberance, nonchalance, and virtuosity,” AWS performances often involve choreographers, visual artists, designers, and directors. A core element of AWS is the specific combination and camaraderie of the individual members; thus, they never break off into smaller ensembles. Pierson believes this joint commitment to AWS’s artistic approach unifies the group and heightens the quality of performances. In 2011, Pierson joined the Brooklyn Philharmonic and set out to make the ensemble Brooklyn’s orchestra. He noted, “The nature of really connecting the orchestra to its community is NOT to go in and say well, this is what an orchestra does so this is what we’re going to do here.” Instead of imposing a traditional concert series on Brooklyn residents, Pierson picked three of Brooklyn’s culturally diverse neighborhoods and designed programs that embody and reflect the culture of the given communities. Through Pierson’s bold efforts, the Brooklyn Phil is possibly forging a new direction for symphony orchestras. Composer David T. Little has said, “Alan’s vision and the direction the Brooklyn Phil is taking now—it’s really reconsidering what an orchestra concert can be.”
In what way(s) was your time at Eastman a formative experience?
In a concrete sense, the experience of putting Ossia together set the course for my whole career because it introduced me to all the people who made up Alarm Will Sound and helped me get Alarm Will Sound started. I can’t imagine how my career and life would’ve unfolded differently because I also discovered my passion for conducting at Eastman. More generally, Eastman gave us a kind of laboratory environment that brought all these really wonderful and enthusiastic musicians together and supported us to make something like Ossia happen. It created the place and the ingredients for people like me and others at AWS to experiment. It gave us the chance to figure out what we could do, how to work with other people, and how to make music together. That opportunity to learn these skills in such a terrific, safe, and nurturing environment made possible a lot of what I’ve been able to do.
What skills have you had to develop to be successful in your various roles as a performer, conductor, and artistic director?
It’s funny, I think the laboratory of Eastman and Ossia facilitated the development of the interpersonal skills, like how to lead a group and how to balance being a leader with a collaborator. That’s a big part of what I do. And of course the other side is the musical side of it; how to be a good conductor, how to run a rehearsal, how to give the musicians the specific information they need to play well. I learned some of that at Eastman and some after. And also, the collaborative atmosphere in Ossia, at Eastman, and in Alarm Will Sound let me learn from creative peers, which has been really essential to my development.
How has entrepreneurship played a role in your work with Alarm Will Sound and the Brooklyn Philharmonic?
I feel like entrepreneurship is the skill of making your own opportunities and of working with people in a way to bring those opportunities to fruition. I think it’s been very important to my career because I had a really unconventional path. When I left Eastman, I wanted to go into the professional conducting world, but I wasn’t getting calls. I wasn’t really in a place to get the kind of opportunities that are already made for a conductor at my stage of development. I wasn’t competitive for the big conducting jobs. And those also didn’t feel right to me. So what does a 22-year-old conductor who doesn’t want to go the route of being a conductor do? And really, what worked for me was being able to make opportunities for myself. In a way, the Brooklyn Phil is a departure from that in that I was appointed through a standard orchestra interview process. However, they were looking for someone who would do really creative things and try new ways to make an orchestra work. And that fit with my entrepreneurial background and the other things I was doing.
What advice do you have for students who are looking to form their own professional ensembles?
The broadest and most creative advice I can give is to think a lot about human relationships. Realize the people that you are connecting with now in school, if you’re in a great community like Eastman, are the people you will be having lifelong relationships with. They’re a great source of creative energy and opportunity. Also, think about ways to innovate that are not just for you but involve a larger group of people. I think entrepreneurship as a sort of individual, selfish endeavor is a lot harder than working with other people with similar interests towards a common goal.