Dayton Hare: Andrew Norman and the propulsive intensity of ‘Play’

Thursday, November 8, 2018 - 2:18pm

The first time I heard the name Andrew Norman was the day I met him. It was the summer of 2014, and I was spending six weeks in rural New England studying composition at a music festival by the name of Walden. Sometime in the middle of the program, those of us students able to find the time in our schedules took a field trip away from our quaint Dublin campus to the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat located just outside of Peterborough, N. H. In a lovely, wooded location, MacDowell supports a range of artists — from writers to composers to architects — with a space for them to live in creative isolation, materially provided for and removed from the quotidian troubles that can distract from creative work. As part of our visit, the composers in residence at the time gave short presentations about their work and ideas, playing excerpts from pieces of theirs and answering questions.

Today Norman’s name is everywhere. But that summer was the first time I encountered either him or his music, and it changed the way that I listened, opened my ears to musical possibilities I had never considered before and still influence me today. A blond 30-something from California who seemed practically brimming over with exciting ideas, that summer Norman was standing on the threshold of the classical music stardom he would find himself thrust into in the intervening years between then and now. As far as I can tell, he was first quoted in The New York Times a few months later — by now he’s been profiled and reviewed and previewed in its pages more times than the vast majority of composers active today. Before all this, in 2012, his string trio “The Companion Guide to Rome” had been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music, but that was nothing compared to the acclaim that would be directed towards him following the wildly enthusiastic reception of his large-scale, rip-roaring orchestral composition “Play.”

This Friday and Saturday the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will take up “Play,” performing it on a program which also includes Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture” and Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” played by Emanuel Ax.

When I interviewed Norman over the phone this week, he talked about some of the ideas behind writing “Play,” which — at around 45 minutes — was his longest composition at the time of its writing, though by now he has been commissioned to write numerous concertos, an opera and a wide variety of large-scale projects.

“It’s kind of unusual because, most of the time, when we get a chance to write for orchestra it’s usually for a very limited amount of time, for a short piece,” Norman said. “Ten minutes, you know? Twelve minutes. And this was for a 45-minute-long thing.”

Norman wrote “Play” in 2013 while he was composer-in-residence for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, an ensemble founded and directed by Gil Rose in order to champion the work of contemporary composers and to explore the connections between their music and modern society. Having a professional ensemble of this sort — one dedicated to playing new music — was immensely liberating for Norman, as he could feel free to make use of a variety of non-conventional playing techniques which would give more traditional players pause. For his part, on a more conceptual level Norman was interested in the new ways that people think in our fast-paced, interconnected world, and about how he could reflect that through the medium of music.

“I was thinking a lot of the idea of rupture, and interruption, and how in my writing I could suggest that an idea has been cut short, that it has some future or potential that was not reached,” Norman said.

Often, this effect was achieved by Norman borrowing concepts from other types of media. From video games he appropriated the notion that an action can directly cause a response somewhere else — like pressing a button on a video game controller causes your character to act a certain way, Norman assigned specific gestures in the percussion section to certain musical reactions in the rest of the orchestra.

“I’ve also been thinking about systems of control, wherein instruments control other instruments, and instruments turn each other on and off,” Norman said. “The idea that a piece can be a system of rules and control, that the piece would be about the exploration of that system, almost like a game has rules a piece can have rules.”

More than just that, Norman lifted non-linear narrative from film and TV, embracing a kind of eclecticism of plot that gives the piece a freewheeling intensity, an edge-of-your-seat type of feeling.

“It’s a little bit like thinking of plotlines or narratives or stories that all have particular goals, and then chopping them up and arranging them, sort of collage-like,” Norman said. “But it only works in my mind if no one knows what the goal of each story is or where it’s headed and where it’s all trying to go.”

But when it works, it really works. Part of what makes “Play” such a fascinating piece is how it changes character on a dime, flashing between disparate musical scenes like the flipping of light switches to different rooms. At one moment ferocious chords bombard you with noise, the next is a tranquil stillness — a second later scratching glissandi in the strings run up and down at a breathtaking rate. Whole stretches of the piece careen from idea to idea, tripping over themselves, spinning head over heels as each successive moment is interrupted by the next in a chaotic display of fireworks. But it’s this off-kilter enjambment of identities that gives “Play” its sense of self. It’s a work that embraces both this ferocious complexity and, in later movements, gives voice to concentrated, passionate emotions, as long, straining brass lines seem to reach ever higher, yearning to break free from the gravity of the orchestra beneath them during the climax of the music.

But for a composer whose work tends to exhibit such rambunctious eclecticism, Norman also has a propensity to form years-long fixations on musical ideas. One of the most fascinating things about listening to “Play” is how you can hear the evolution of ideas from his previous work — traces of “The Companion Guide” or “Music in Circles” or “Try” (which Norman called a “beta version” of “Play”) are all to be found here. Unlike many contemporary composers, Norman doesn’t feel the need to reinvent his voice with each new piece, and is comfortable revising and recycling material in order to bring it closer to what he is really trying to say. And perhaps this is why he’s one of the most interesting musical voices heard today: It would be wrong to call it a clarity of vision, because it’s constantly being reassessed and reformed, but Norman has a rare dedication to his ideas. He follows his thoughts as far as they go, returning again and again until he has played them out to the end.