A rambunctious 45-minute orchestral piece called Play, by American composer Andrew Norman, has been named the winner of the 2017 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The prize, which includes $100,000, was announced this evening by the University of Louisville, which sponsors the award. Former winners include Pierre Boulez, John Adams, Kaija Saariaho and Thomas Adès.
Norman, 37, wrote Play for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, an ensemble led by Gil Rose, which premiered the work in 2013 and released a critically acclaimed recording last year. The work has had subsequent performances by three other orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October. In 2012, the young composer's string trio The Companion Guide to Rome was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Grawemeyer Award Director Marc Satterwhite, who is also a composer, praised Play in a media statement for its brilliant orchestration, calling it "wildly inventive and idiomatic." In an age of shortened attention spans, he noted how well the piece, divided into three "levels," held the listener's interest. "It ranges effortlessly from brash to intimate, and all points in between," Satterwhite said.
From his home in Los Angeles, Norman took time to talk about Play, his strategies as a composer and his hopes for more diversity in the commissioning process.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom Huizenga: Play has been described as your most ambitious piece. Is that a fair call?
Andrew Norman: It's a piece I've been writing and rewriting for four or five years now. It's taken up a substantial chunk of my creative life. It's also opened up a lot of ideas for me that I feel like I'm going to explore in many more pieces to come. It's hugely ambitious in that it's so long and there are a lot of little moving parts to it and it's very complicated music. I'm still trying to make sure that it works in the best possible way, which is one of the reasons why I keep rewriting it.
Tell us about the title. It's a single, common word but you've said there are multiple meanings behind it.
It has to do, on a very physical level, with how we play instruments. It also explores how the orchestra, as an instrument, is played — thinking about it as this kind of machine with all these different moving parts that can play with or against each other. I was thinking also about the idea of childlike play, of watching toddlers and the kind of exuberance and imagination that comes with that.
And then two different ideas, one coming from the world of video games: the idea of playing which is actually like controlling some other universe, and that when you enter a game you're controlling a narrative yourself. There's a metaphor for the compositional process, because I am creating my own universe and playing in it. And then also the idea of the marionette and a puppeteer, that someone is outside of this whole thing controlling actions and decisions.
Many parts of Play sound, at least on the surface, quite chaotic and experimental. But there's structure to it. Without getting too technical, how is the piece set up?
I think a lot about narratives. One of my favorite narrative techniques is starting with an abundance of things, a craziness of things, and gradually over the course of the piece having that world sort itself out into some form of order. That's also the overarching narrative of Play — that it starts in a hugely chaotic place. And in the opening of the piece I throw every single idea out at the audience. They're all crowded in on each other like tiny little fragments of puzzle pieces.
I have this image of taking this complete picture and then chopping it up in little itty bitty pieces and throwing them up in the air. Buried in all the chaos is essentially this idea that I'm planting little ideas early on in the piece — that might make no sense where they are — but gradually as the piece goes on they all find their right place.
Play was commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), but after you received the commission, what was your inspiration once you got down to writing?
I had been struggling a little bit with how my voice and my creative interests might map onto the orchestra world. That side of our field can be very conservative — very much tied to the 19th century canon. I kind of viewed this opportunity with BMOP as my chance to really explore as many sounds as I could, to push as far as I wanted into making extended techniques. My first impulse was, "OK, finally I have an orchestra that I can really push to the limits and know that they will go there with me." It's like I had a safe space, you might say, to explore.
Did you write it from beginning to end?
I actually wrote it backwards. I'm very interested in how narratives work. There's so much narrative scrambling going on in the way we tell stories now that we just sort of take it for granted that movies aren't going to be in chronological order any more. They flash forward, they flash back. They give you things that don't belong, and it's up to the viewer/listener to piece this all together. That's very satisfying to me and I've been asking questions like: Is that possible in symphonic music, to suggest these same kinds of narrative things?
You've been composing since you were a kid. Did you ever think back then, while writing those pieces for your junior high orchestra, that you'd one day be winning prestigious awards like this?
No, it never occurred to me. I wrote music when I was younger because it was an act of community. I was in school orchestra and it just seemed to make sense that I would write for my friends. Even now, I feel that my most satisfying musical experiences are always writing something for my friends, and being able to share music that way is what this is about.
Does an award like this change your career?
I don't know. I can tell you that to be given this award, to be written into a list of composers that includes so many of my heroes and mentors, is deeply humbling. I will work for the rest of my creative life to try to be worthy of the honor. But quite honestly, sometimes the recognition is actually bad for me. In my head it's tricky because now there's yet another layer of expectation even beyond what I might put on myself. It's like, "Oh, now I've got to have my act together."
The pressure's on, right?
Yes. I've always had this strong feeling that I'm a work in progress. I've got a lot to try and a lot to explore, and I'm going to fail and fail miserably in public — a lot. But that is part of my journey. And when I win a prize it's like, "Oh, no! Do I have to be formed now? Is this it?" So the idea of a prize being some sort of a stamp of approval is actually something I don't particularly like.
On a practical level, I suppose it could send more commissions your way.
If I get more commissions, great, but maybe I can use this moment to talk about things that are important to me. Like to call attention to the fact that there are problems. For instance, this award has been given to three women out of its 30-year history. And to me that's kind of an issue.
And in all honesty, I'm a white man and I get lots of commissions and there are systemic reasons for that, reasons we should all be talking about. There are so many talented composers out there. Rather than giving me another commission, why aren't we giving those people a commission?
The canon is so overwhelmingly white and male, but we can use new music to fix that problem. There are so many voices who should be heard in the concert hall today, of people whose music reflects a wide variety of experiences. That, to me, is the most important issue right now for contemporary classical music and classical music generally — how to get what happens in the concert hall to reflect the diverse society that we are.
I think that orchestras have such an opportunity, especially now in this really conflicted, contentious moment, to say something powerful and meaningful about our own time, with the all of the voices of our own time.
The next scheduled performance of Andrew Norman's Play is Jan. 13 by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Norman is currently working on A Trip to the Moon, a children's opera for the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, to premiere in summer 2017. The story, based on the classic 1902 film of the same name by Georges Méliès, concerns earthlings traveling to the moon.