For the last concert of its season the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) will showcase a style often described as post-minimalism—all of the composers are in their 30s. While BMOP is dedicated to performing new orchestral music, often by living composers, it is rare that its programs feature three composers whose aggregate ages hardly total 100. The evening will feature two New England premieres, Sea-Blue Circuitry (2011) by 35-year-old Mason Bates and Path of Echoes: Symphony No. 1 (2006) by 36-year-old Huang Ruo. This concert will also feature the world premiere of Play (2013) which marks the culmination of Andrew Norman’s two year tenure as composer-in-residence with BMOP.
Instantly affable with just a hint of shyness, Andrew Norman spoke to me over the phone from his apartment in Brooklyn, where he moved after spending a year in Berlin simply because all of his friends had relocated there during his year away. “I guess as a freelance composer I could’ve moved anywhere,” he explained, “but this was definitely the place.”
There were often long pauses before his answers, as if he were carefully planning his approach to the question posed. These pauses may have been attributed to a slight nervousness but they certainly were not due to a lack of ideas, as he carefully related his musical philosophies without sounding too academic or overwrought. Throughout our conversation, the 33-year-old, and finalist in last year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, expressed an interest in popular culture, an idea he likes to explore in his music. “In some ways my piece [Play] and my borrowing ideas from popular culture is a kind of critique on it” however he is careful not to seem too overtly critical, elaborating “I’d have no idea to say exactly what that is”.
While often including aleatoric elements, Norman’s compositions always balances a healthy dose of lyricism with careful strokes of dissonance. The ideas he explores through his music range from the simple and humorous to the profound, often within the same phrase. He is also fond of exploiting certain elements which are specific to the medium and performance space he is writing for, seeking to produce experiences which can only be recreated in a concert hall. Much like the avant-garde luminary, Morton Feldman, Norman has an interest in architecture and geometric shapes. Indeed at times, some of Norman’s music is reminiscent of Feldman’s indeterminate icy harmonies which are at once beautiful and hideous, though Norman’s music is relatively terse and more compressed than his New York School counterpart.
Andrew Norman and I talked about his upcoming premiere with BMOP and what it means to be a composer and a Generation X’er.
Nolan Eley: So, you’re currently the composer-in-residence at BMOP?
Norman: Yeah my tenure is ending this spring, so this piece is the big culmination of my residency there. Its a brand new piece and I’ve been working on it for my residency.
Have you had other works of yours performed by BMOP as part of your residency?
Yeah, last year they did a piece for theremin and strings that I wrote. And then [Play] is the only other piece they’re doing but it is really giant. It is for full orchestra, I’m not entirely sure how long it is, somewhere between 35 and 40 minutes so it is definitely the longest, biggest piece I’ve ever written.
Is Play programmatic in any way, or can you share any insight into the piece?
I wouldn’t say its overtly programmatic. For me, I was thinking about the word play and all the different meanings it has. The piece is really an exploration of the way people play their instruments. Often times it pushes into strange and new ways to play instruments or unusual ways to play the instruments. I also thought a lot about the orchestra as an instrument and how an orchestra is played and how it has all these interwoven parts that play with each other or against each other. I’m also very interested in this physical act of playing an instrument and what it looks like physically and how when we go to an orchestra concert it’s not only an auditory medium, it’s something we look at. So, I’m interested in what it looks like to me as much as the sound itself. Normally when we think of play it’s a very fun word and sort of whimsical but I was also thinking of these other more dark aspects of the word play. The idea of manipulation like someone played someone else, almost a kind of puppet and puppet master kind of way that someone is fooling someone else. Thinking about an orchestra there is a conductor who waves his arms and things happen, it’s very much along the lines of someone controlling someone else so I definitely wanted to play with those ideas. The percussionists in this piece often act as controllers or triggers almost as in a video game-like play where different instruments that they play act as triggers to change the course of what’s going on. It is like a pause button and a fast forward button in the percussion and whenever they hit these things different things happen. So they in a way are controlling everyone too and that becomes a sort of metaphor that goes through the whole piece. So there is definitely something in the piece about video games and video game culture. I don’t even know if I can articulate what it is especially since I haven’t heard the piece yet but I was definitely thinking about that as I was writing. That and the way that those of us who’ve grown up with video games, process narrative. In video games, like in Play, things are constantly looping back on themselves and reworking and you’re trying things over and over again.
When you talk about the triggers in the percussion, is that literal? I mean, are there electronics involved?
No, there are no electronics and it is all people doing things. It is mimicking the process of an electronic effect like one percussionist will hit a guiro, for example, and that does specific things to the rest of the orchestra in the way that an electronic trigger would. Sort of like an effects pedal, but you hear and see them doing this, so in a lot of ways it’s like mimicking the process of electronic music but with live people. Also the idea is that the piece is working itself up in real time as these percussionists are sort of changing and developing the idea with all the different things that they hit. That’s the kind of thing that hopefully will become more gradually apparent as the piece goes on, it might not be clear. As the piece progresses, this relationship of controller trigger and that which is triggered becomes more apparent.
The concert is being advertised as featuring Generation X composers which Gil Rose described as “right in between the Boomers’ minimalist movement and the Millenials’ Indie-garde movement.” I’m curious how you think this piece, or your music in general would fit with these labels or not.
I don’t know what defines my particular generation. I think that this concert will show that you pick three different composers that have three very different takes on what it is that we’re doing and different approaches to the orchestra. I would say that what we’re doing as younger composers, is that we don’t have any hang ups about high vs. low in our music in terms of borrowing from popular culture in whatever way we want through our own music. That’s something a lot of younger composers do pretty freely—mix from the classical tradition or from the avant-garde experimental tradition. We sort of mix and match. Certainly in my music, I wouldn’t relate directly to pop music but it certainly has its connections to pop culture and the way that we process ideas as a result of visual culture and the way that cinema and television and video games and all these things work. I’m interested in taking those ideas and applying them to concert music. That’s my personal thing and one would have to go to this concert and see if there’s a thread that runs through it that ties everything together. I think we’re all pretty different.
You mentioned borrowing from high and low culture and incorporating ideas of popular culture into this medium of concert music. I recently covered a new music conference at Harvard where a heavily discussed topic was the role of the modern composer. Do you have an opinion on what the role of a modern composer is?
I’m not about to say that the role of composer in society should be any one thing. I think that there are all sorts of legitimate ways to be a composer in society and certainly yes, critiquing society is a pretty powerful potential role for the composer but it’s not the only one. In some ways, my piece and my borrowing ideas from popular culture, constitutes a kind of a critique.. In the early stage of this piece I’d have no idea to say exactly what that is especially going into the piece having never heard it. The idea of being a critique on culture implies that you have some distance from it which I think can be a little bit of an illusion because we’re all immersed in it anyway. Composers over the last 100 years have often taken this stance of being apart from society and commenting on it from a distance and a lot of composers from my generation especially reject that and we know it’s more that we are a part of this, we are making things just like everyone else, we are not isolated and apart we are connected. I’m always a little bit suspicious of people who say that we composers are separate and our music is separate from broader culture and it is a comment on it. I’m much more interested in being more integrated and it can still comment on it without being totally separate from it.
Are there plans to record some of your pieces with BMOP?
Yeah, we’re going to record this big piece in June. It’s an interesting thing for me because a lot of my music is very much about live performance and the idea of what makes an orchestral performance unique live. I was talking about the physicality of making musical sounds on instruments and that to me its very important that. The piece has a lot going on that you’re not going to be able to catch unless you’re in the hall and sometimes they’re not making any sound at all but they’re moving and so for me to record that is obviously interesting but it’s also like, there’s so much more to this piece than the sounds that are being made. How we’re going to record that I have no idea but I just wanted to throw that out there that my music is really about the live experience and not just the sounds.
Is it going to be a CD of multiple pieces of yours or do you know if it’s going to be paired with other composers?
It will be an all me CD which is super exciting but it sort of depends on how this piece all shapes down. This piece might fill up a whole CD or we’re going to include other things. This is another thing, I feel like young people have a great respect for the album as a medium. And composers, our tradition, tend not to see it that way, an album is just like a random collection of pieces that we happen to have recorded but I’m sure I’m not going down that path. I would rather that an album of my music be a coherent thing in a way that we’re used to albums being. That’s one thing I’ve had to sort of negotiate and of course it’s always tricky with an orchestra. Because if I put it on an album, I would like it to be an album, not just five random pieces. So definitely I feel like that’s one aspect of me being part of my generation and thinking that way about it.
Do you see yourself at some point composing with an album in mind as the medium? Like a collection of pieces from David Lang of Nico Muhly who have albums where their compositions exist on that medium from conception.
I would love to do this but the problem is it doesn’t work with my career at the moment. I’m freelance and I work with all these different orchestras. I also think about them really more in terms of their live impact like I was saying. It would be really interesting for me to write an album as an album and this piece is a live piece we’re going to record. So yeah, it’s not the ideal album music but it’s still important that we record it so that there is a record for it. I definitely, view the recorded medium as inherently different from live performance. They are two different mediums in a way and we should be writing music that accentuates the uniqueness of each medium. Like things that are meant to be live should explore what it is performing things live and things on an album really should, instead of just being a documentation of a live performance should really take advantage of what the album has to offer in terms of the way we process that music. So yeah, ideally I would do that but in this case we’re going to record the entire piece and see what happens.