Andrew Norman’s Try

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OpusNovus: Fascinating Sounds and Rhythms
Saturday, 9 November 2019 @ 7:30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Concert Hall


Contributed by Ilysia Tan (BMUS3, YST)

The composers program note from the score reads thus:

“I never get things right on the first try. I am a trial-and-error composer, an incurable reviser. And this is a problem when it comes to high profile commissions from world-class ensembles in spectacular concert halls, because in these rare cases one gets exactly one try to get it right, and one really, really wants to get it right. Disney Hall and the LA Philharmonic have meant so much to me over the years that the overwhelming desire to write for them the perfect piece was enough to stop me dead in my creative tracks. It took me many months to realize the obvious: my piece was never going to be perfect no matter how hard I tried, and perfection was not even the right target on which to set my sights. The best thing I could do to honor the adventurous spirit of the Philharmonic and Disney Hall was to try as many new things as I could, to embrace the risk and failure and serendipitous discovery implicit in the word “try.” The piece I ended up writing is a lot like me. It’s messy, and fragmented, and it certainly doesn’t get things right on the first try. It does things over and over, trying them out in as many different ways as it can. It circles back on itself again and again in search of any idea that will stick, that will lead it forward to something new. And, at long last, after ten minutes of increasingly frantic trying, it finds one small, unlikely bit of musical material it likes enough to repeat and polish and hone until it finally (fingers crossed) gets it right.” – Andrew Norman

Try was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and premiered in Disney Hall in May 2011, conducted by John Adams.

Andrew Norman (b. 1979) is an American composer of classical contemporary music. He is currently an associate professor of composition at University of Southern California Thornton. His compositions are shaped by influences of forms and textures drawn from the visual world. His lifelong love for architecture definitely informs his thought process when composing. This extra awareness and propensity for extramusical inspiration extends to his passion for putting into music the events and happenings surrounding him. About his recent piece Sustain, Norman states that “it’s been a very chaotic and contentious time in our country”. This chaos, which can also be heard in Try, seems to be a persistent trend among his pieces. Perhaps this is a response to political or social turmoil. Prior to composing, he trained as a pianist and violist. The sounds and performance practices that he incorporates into his works are rather unique and eclectic, possibly as a result of his developed sensitivity to sound.

Try starts out with a gentle twinkle on the piano but immediately departs from the tranquil opening, spiralling into a kaleidoscope of motives and rhythms, the musical material jumping quickly between instrumental families, cutting the motives up into fragments. The driving rhythms and piercing timbres knit together to form a patchwork quilt of disorienting and blinding colours. The quick glissandos of the strings lends an unsteady, off-kilter gait to the piece. The musical material whirls and shifts so frantically that one cannot find a foothold. Immediately the onus is on the listener to engage, to hang on as the piece careens further into madness. A moment of solace quickly capsizes once again, throwing itself into further intensities. The grand pause at the 1-minute mark makes space for the guiro entrance, when suddenly we are back at the start hearing the same frenetic music over again. Listeners are left to wonder if perhaps it will make sense this time?

As the piece continues, the opening makes a detour as compared to the first run-through. The string glissandos grow noticeably in length, the rhythmic pulses and multiphonics in woodwinds repeat, giving emphasis to the motives. Each section of the quilt becomes clearer, like an oasis in a desert of madness. A sustained note, held in the strings, is latched on to. It grows into a melody, ebbing and flowing between the instruments. The music sighs and breathes in this serene state. Finally there is a space where the listeners can take a momentary rest, away from the hyperactivity. The threatening motivic onslaught slowly creeps back in, disrupting the peace. This time the energetic motives sound more contained as Norman introduces a subdued version of them. Stretched and pulled apart, the music is slowly revealed to the listener, we are finally able to see what each motive is made of. Despite the relaxed pace, the intensity festers beneath the silence.

As the piece progresses, it grows more and more adventurous, morphing and disfiguring each component of the piece into nearly unrecognizable states, yet retaining a glimmer of familiarity. The peaks and valleys of this piece paint a vivid picture in sound, and can only be experienced by listening to it.

Categories Compositions

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