I recalled Mahler’s words while listening to Andrew Norman’s Play, a 47-minute piece in three movements, which creates a holistic symphonic world that embraces everything. Play wrings the maximum possibilities out of the orchestra. Written for a standard 19th-century size orchestra with the addition of a big percussion section, it calls for extended special playing techniques, from “machine gun stutter” sounds in the strings, through flipping the mouthpiece around to create a buzzing sound in the brass, to swiping a credit card against the strings of the piano. The use of unusual playing techniques and extra musical accessories are not unfamiliar ingredients in contemporary music. However, Norman’s precision in employing these ingredients and the new combinations he makes with them create innovative and delicious tastes. Like an obsessive compulsive cleaner, the composer’s indications are extremely clear and accurate. I can only imagine the amount of time Norman invested in putting down each instruction in order to achieve the realization of his imagination. He even instructs individual players when to turn their page.
And the orchestra sounds like never before. Bold, impulsive, fresh. I have already dedicated a post to one of Norman’s earlier orchestral pieces, Sacred Geometry. However, listening to Play was such a striking experience—like visiting a foreign country for the first time—that I had to share it too.
Norman derives inspiration from the different meanings of the word “play”: music playing, theatrical play, playing a game, as well as the negative connotation of playing someone. The titles of the three movements of the piece—which can each stand on its own and be performed separately—are Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3, like in a video game.
The opening of the piece sounds like a scratched record that is being played backwards by a possessed DJ. The music is frenzied, repeats itself, goes back and forth and starts over from different places of different passages. Before too long, the main motif of the piece appears: scales that are moving in different directions at the same time.
The coda, which comprises the last two and a half minutes of Level 1, is breathtaking. We don’t get the final product immediately, but rather watch it being created in front of our eyes. Different spices are tossed into the pot. Fragments of earlier parts of the piece, like shards of a memory, are added one by one. At first, you feel puzzled and unsure about the result. But slowly, the fragrances begin to intoxicate you. Individual brass instruments make a fast crescendo on a single note until it’s abruptly stopped, like someone suddenly yanked the cord out of the outlet. Brisk string arpeggios flicker capriciously. The main motif of the piece (scales going up and down) returns. A new rhythm—dotted and unstable—materializes, perhaps an homage to John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. An epic melody in the brass emerges, reminiscent of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The effect is mesmerizing. It feels as though everything has fallen back into place, as though you are looking back on your own life, contemplating your successes, failures, achievements, and disappointments, and you suddenly realize why they had to happen.
The first half of Level 2 unfolds soft chords played in harmonics by the strings. They appear and disappear over and over again, like the musical equivalent of breathing. A most touching moment occurs when the harmonics (the overtones that are produced by lightly touching the string rather than pressing it down) become real tones. It’s a feeling of relief, of coming back to life.
The second half of Level 2 is a duet between two percussionists playing slapsticks and bass drums. The effect is startling. I was listening to the piece at 2 am and jumped in my seat when the first blast occurred.
The piece ends with a theatrical display of page turning. Each stand of the string section is instructed when to turn the page, followed by the winds and percussion. American composer John Cage has a famous piece called 4’33, named after the length of the piece. A pianist sits at the piano and doesn’t play a single note for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The idea is that everything is music: the sound of breathing, an audience member clearing his throat, the squeaking of a chair, the hiss of the air conditioner. Norman pays clear tribute to Cage by making the trivial act of turning the pages an essential part of the music.
“I wish you all could see Play performed live,” writes Norman in the booklet of the CD, referring to the theatrical meaning of the word “Play” that he implements in his piece.
When I was a kid, my friend and I used to play a game where we would choose two random words and transform one to the other by repeating one of them many times, while slightly altering it with each time. To make things challenging, the two words had to be very different in sound and length. For example, a long word like “encyclopedia” had to be converted into the one-syllable word, “fish.” We would repeat the word “encyclopedia” numerous times, while gradually and unnoticeably distort our pronunciation until, surprisingly, the word smoothly mutated into “fish.” Looking back on this somewhat peculiar game, I’d like to say that, as aspiring young musicians, we were fascinated by sounds—including the sounds of words. But I think the truth is that we were simply a bit bored, and for some reason this game made us laugh.
In any event, Level 3 of Play is kind of like this game. It begins with the trombone player blowing air into the instrument with no sound. It is followed by quick, restless answers from the strings. Like an improvisation game, the different groups of the orchestra are having a lighthearted musical chat. Hesitant in the beginning, the music slowly gains confidence, rhythms and harmonies are formed and phrases are created. As time passes by, the different musical elements change their appearance and character, slowly morphing from “encyclopedia” to “fish.”
Play “embraces the world” because it’s full of contradictions, and yet it makes sense. It’s eclectic, drawing ideas from the great pieces and composers of the past, but has its own unique voice. It encompasses sounds, noises, and theatrical gestures, but for Norman, it’s really about the people who are making them, the musicians of the orchestra.
To listen to the piece, go to this link, and hit Play.