Music For Writers: Playful Andrew Norman

iStockphoto / Zeffss1
iStockphoto / Zeffss1

 ‘Every Now And Then, I Just Want To Throw A Wrench In’

Imagine the orchestra as this sort of complicated 19th-century futurist machine, all moving parts and cogs and gears, and little people. I find that sort of fascinating. But every now and then, I just want to throw a wrench in and see what will happen.

Andrew Norman. Image: BMOP Sound
Andrew Norman. Image: BMOP Sound

Andrew Norman is ready to show you — at least through sound — just what happens when he tosses a wrench or two onto the concert stage.

Consider the title of his sprawling, brawling new work, released by BMOP Sound. It’s called Play. Thanks to our colleagues at New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music 24/7 contemporary classical stream Q2 Music, you can learn more, too, as part of the Q2 Music Album of the Week series.

And the first thing you’re going to ask yourself when you hear this music start is whether there’s a single one of those “little people” in the orchestra who’s not playing his or her head off. This is nobody’s lullaby.

So let’s think about that title. You can:

  • Play a game. And yeah, Norman’s three movements are titled Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. Game on.
  • Stage a play. I’ll give you a sense for how Norman sees that, um, playing out, shortly.
  • Play with things. Or people. In Level 2, his instructions to orchestra members include points at which he wants them to freeze after playing their parts.
  • Play that music, of course. And in Norman’s terrific Meet the Composer program for Q2 Music — Better Living Through Architecture — he’s heard asking host and violist Nadia Sirota to “hand me that viola” so he can demonstrate some of the unusual sounds he likes to get out of stringed instruments by playing them the “wrong” way.

I was honored to voice the credits at the end of that particular edition of Meet the Composer, and I’d heard Norman talking with Sirota about modernism — “Oh, dude…I didn’t mean to say dude…Oh, dear, modernism!” Amid a lot of great giggles, what you learn here is that this guy has been composing since he was 10. But getting to the University of Southern California (where he teaches now) exposed him to the dissonant phantasms of leading mid-twentieth century modernism.

“Why couldn’t I just sound like beautiful Danish furniture?” he asks Sirota.

But no, when he thinks of modernism and things architectural, Norman tells me, his Play “sort of wears its structure on the surface. In fact, it reminds me a little of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This idea of a building that’s wearing all its nuts and bolts on the outside. And that becomes the subject of the piece.

“How Play is put together is what it’s all about. If that makes any sense.”

It does. Just listen. Architecture, while once a helpful point of clarification in his development as a composer, he says, “isn’t foregrounded” nowadays in what he’s doing. “But it’s just how my brain works.”

The Narrative Mr. Norman

BMOP1041-NormanOne of the reasons that writers have so much to learn from Norman’s work is that in putting together such a ranging, frequently bombastic work as Play, he’s writing (“and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting”) something that to him works very much like a story.

One of our most eloquent composers working today, his liner notes for the album tell us: “I definitely thought of and planned Play in terms of story arc and narrative and characters and conflicts (in short, many of the attributes that might make for an effective, um, play).”

And this is how he puts it to me during our interview for Thought Catalog:

In my mind, there’s an over-arching story line or narrative… I think a lot about the long-term trajectory of a musical idea or motive. To me, that’s what I mean by “characters.” I tend to think of my motives as characters, as having a personality or life, and I want to know what they’re going to do over the long haul.

So, for instance, in Play, the first trumpet is like a character for me. It introduces a main idea in the first movement when everything calms down and the trumpet has huge, soaring intervals. The trumpet playing those intervals unfolds the trajectory going across the entire three movements of the piece…Those intervals get gradually smaller until at the end of Level 1, they’ve made it down to the note C.

Level 2 starts with that C, the trumpet repeating that C over and over and over again. Playing that one little note spreads that C out over the entire movement, it comes back at ever greater intervals, reminding us that it’s still there.

And then that trumpet comes back in the third movement, still on that C, and gradually in the third movement it starts to unfold the intervals that had collapsed in the first movement, going out and getting bigger and bigger. So finally in that third movement, the trumpet makes it back…I’ve thought of the trumpet as a character who’s on a journey that lasts the entire piece.

You may not discern the specific interplay of the first trumpet and the “wedge” musical figure that Norman deploys — what Daniel Stephen Johnson in his liner notes describes as “intersecting scales, one climbing up and one descending, simultaneously, so that we can hear the music struggling uphill, being pulled gradually downward, or being tugged in both directions at once.”

No problem. If the “architecture” and narrative lines aren’t the easiest way for you to enter this music, just listen.

What you hear is boisterous power. Norman, now in his mid-30s, may be producing some of the most aggressively gymnastic music being written today. In fact, he’s thinking of bodies, the players’ bodies. There is, he says, a choreography in what occurs on a concert stage, and he’s an unabashed aficionado of “the human energy of orchestra playing.”

Play sounds like it’s producing enough energy to run Massachusetts for a few days.

Under the determinedly adventurous Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s (BMOP) conductor Gil Rose — who commissioned Play — you hear woodwinds cutting flips above sonorously agitated brass and string sections. The first two movements, “levels,” are all but chased around the stage by a triple percussion section, the whole event bounding through time, fresh, invigorating, challenging, fun.

“I’m trying to find my way to a human expression in my music, which right now involves me asking musicians to perhaps make a decision about how this thing is going to go.”
Andrew Norman

Just like its laughing, talkative composer, this music is somehow not only thrilling to hear but thrilled to be heard. That may sound like a crazy thing to say, but remember that Norman has told us that it’s a piece about how it’s put together.

At this stage of his singular career, Norman is generating something that sounds like sonic consciousness. Self-aware and working to outwit itself, a Norman creation of this magnitude — like the people who play it — is thoroughly, eagerly in the present, in your face, on a joyous, deliberate mission.

In chatting with me, Norman talks about “that disinterested body language going on” among musicians in some instrumental work, especially of the more familiar canon. Not in his. Nobody gets away from this man’s work without being engaged.

Sit down in that Arne Jacobsen Egg and just listen to what it took Norman almost a year to create.

“For me it’s like the orchestra’s being controlled by the percussionists who are doing crazy things,” he tells me, “turning [the other musicians] on and off. Wreaking havoc on everything.”

Once the percussion is “exhausted,” as he puts it, “the orchestra is left in Level 3 to assemble itself without the intervention of the percussionists, and find the thing they had been looking for the entire time.”

Norman does a good bit of looking for it, too.

“I sketch and ruminate for a really, really long time,” he tells me, as part of his typical process in writing music.

In fact, the work only comes together, frequently, “at the very last second.” This guy knows deadlines in a way that can make a writer weep. Imagine a symphony orchestra waiting for your score.

“Definitely a lot of stress.” The BMOP was “remarkably chill about it.”

Andrew Norman and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with music director Gil Rose at the New England Conservatory of Music for the recording of "Play." Image: BMOP Sound
Andrew Norman, on podium, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with music director Gil Rose at the New England Conservatory of Music for the recording of “Play.” Image: BMOP Sound

‘Putting Sensors On Them That Would Cue Lighting Changes’

Before we’re done talking, I find myself wondering aloud if Norman might not team up with composer Paola Prestini’s VisionIntoArt company, which specializes at times in coupling visual presentations with musical.

The first line Norman writes for the notes on his new album is: “I wish you could all see Play performed live.”

Me, too. I’m hoping to see it performed, and the sooner the better.

“I think a lot about the choreography of how people move…making the orchestra itself the visual, making that interesting to watch.”
Andrew Norman

“Another aspect of this,” Norman tells me — and something he expects to figure prominently in his next few works, he says — “is how classical music comes with this whole long tradition of practice, the interpretation of notation.”

He goes on:

It’s not just about what’s written on the page. It’s about adding yourself into the process [as a musician], and I’m very interested in how musicians go about doing that and what is added, what makes music beyond what’s on the written page — and how do I, as a composer, interface with that?

Ultimately, that’s what’s interesting to me about watching a human being play a piece of instrumental music. If we go hear them play Bach, we’re interested in their ideas about Bach or their interpretation. It’s not just about Bach, it’s about them, too. Ideally, I’d like my music to have a little of that: Yes, it’s about my vision but it’s also about their vision.

I’m trying to find my way to a human expression in my music, which right now involves me asking them to perhaps make a decision about how this thing is going to go. Or them reacting to each other, that’s one of my favorite things now. The idea that a certain instrumentalist will cue another one. So it’s not that people are just blindly following the conductor and doing whatever the conductor wants.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project's Gil Rose, left, and Andrew Norman going over the score for "Play." Image: BMOP Sound
Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Gil Rose, left, and Andrew Norman going over the score for “Play.” Image: BMOP Sound

Norman, while sounding mildly — playfully? — disruptive here, also comments on how ironic it is that in a symphonic effort, “the most important person in the room,” the conductor, “is the one not making any sound.”

It’s all about the musicians listening to each other and making decisions, creatively and collectively making something. That’s what I’m trying to do. And, you know, sometimes I fail and it might devolve into chaos.

But the bottom line of all this is that I view the resource of my work as not necessarily just sound but as people making that sound. What does it mean to bring out the human-ness of all this?

He’s especially fond of percussionists, he tells me, “because they have a built-in thing about, ‘If I hit this thing with that thing, what kind of sound will it make?”

There’s things about this art form that you can only experience live. I think a lot about the choreography of how people move…making the orchestra itself the visual, making that interesting to watch.

And the performance of Play we all want to see?

Just a couple of days ago, I had this idea for the next performance of Play, wherever that happens, for some of the percussion — especially the slapstick — of putting sensors on them that would cue lighting changes. So that the actual instruments themselves are creating a kind of light environment.

Something intrinsically connected to the act of playing the instrument.

And amplifying that.

I think that could be really interesting.

So do I. Let’s hope to see it as well as hear it, the next time a symphonic ensemble hits Andrew Norman’s Play. TC mark

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