Some of my most satisfying work in recent years has been the reviewing of new music CDs for Fanfare magazine. Every six months, I'm including a review of a disc which has really excited me. And because Fanfare has a roughly 4 month cycle from assignment to publication, you may even be seeing this before it comes out. I'd like to add that I've found Fanfare to be an usually good source of information on new music, independent of my role in it. The critics have a great deal of freedom to develop their thoughts at leisure, so often a review can become an essay which touches on a wider range of issues.

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NORMAN Play. Try — Gil Rose, cond.; Boston Modern O Project — BMOP SOUND 1040 (60:07)

         I first heard a work of Andrew Norman (b.1979) at Tanglewood a few years back. Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Shatter Splash (yes that is the title) was a constant overturn of extravagantly imaginative (and very funny) moments. Norman strikes me as a composer who never throws anything way he sketches; it’s always at hand for any purpose, even if (like Seinfeld) about making a piece about failing to write a piece!


I need to pull back for a moment. Norman is on a roll, having won several major awards, now teaching at USC, and receiving performances from the A-list of performers and orchestras. The grand news is that he deserves it. A mentioned above, his music can have on the surface a sense of crazed improvisation, a cartoony slapdash quality that’s exhilarating in its risk-taking. If only that, though, it would be ultimately superficial. The remarkable thing is that it cannily masks a deep and thorough musicality and artistry. What follows are several aspects thereof.


There’s real form and organization underneath the chaotic surface. This is particularly evident in the main event of this release, Play (2013). In the first movement a gesture emerges first in the background, something Norman calls “the wedge”: a symmetrical motive of pitches alternating above and below a starting note, with wider and wider intervals. It’s sequential-sounding, vaguely tonal, and immediately recognizable. In the remaining two movements, it always makes its appearance, it’s the idée fixe of the piece.


The composer wants to enfold all the developments of recent music into his own. In Play there is a lot of theatricality, i.e. musicians embodying different performative personas, freezing in mid-note, tossing ideas to one another like a game of catch (I get this from Norman’s note that suggests all the things one misses without a video version). There is also a lot of highly gestural, improvisatory outburst. And a lot of “pure-sound” composition, using sounds once called “noise” in a highly precise and structured way. And then there are moments of pure atonal modernist explosions, but also postmodern, postminimalist ecstatic growth à la John Adams (third movement especially). In short, Norman has an Ivesian/Joycean desire to embrace everything, yet he doesn’t fall into easy pastiche, the work is synthesized and integrated into a seamless whole.


There’s a willingness to go spare and simple. For all the activity, simultaneously creating great, open, serene space is essential to this music. Try (2011), which the composer suggests is a sort of “beta-version” of Play, begins with a little piano riff that’s immediately interrupted by a storm of sound, like an abusive guest barging into a sedate party. Only past the midpoint of the craziness do things calm down, and the piano returns, now playing a simple little descending line over and over, pensively pondering its meaning. The whole piece seems to be about trying to make a piece, falling on one’s face, then getting up again until the initial idea proves to be correct, and we can settle down to the serious and poignant. The whole second movement of Play is also made up of textures just on the verge of audibility, fragile breathy sounds periodically interrupted by slashing sonic jolts (and there’s a great visual/verbal pun embodied in an epic battle of slapsticks at its climax).


Tradition is not denied.  Play in another era would be titled Symphony No.1. It lasts over 40 minutes, is in three movements (fast-slow-moderately fast) that have distinct characters like their historical antecedents, and fulfills the requirements of the ”symphonic argument” by exploring the development of the “wedge” motive. But even with these nods to the tradition, Norman slyly titles the movements Level 1-Level 2-Level 3 and puts us into the world of gaming instead. The composer is obviously secure enough to accept the gifts given by the past and also to gently and affectionately mock them.


There’s something very encouraging going on here. I’ve recently heard three pieces by composers all on the younger side of their 30’s--Play, Caroline Shaw’s Partita, and Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities. All three are fresh, imaginatively and technically voracious, unaffected in their broad synthesis of styles and techniques…in short profoundly musical in a way that speaks immediately to any but the most hidebound listener. There’s hope.


But back to Norman. He was composer-in-residence for BMOP, and this is the fruit, proof of an extremely productive and successful tenure. Gil Rose and his fantastic band must be saluted both for their quality of performance and curation. With Norman, we have a composer, still just charging up, who knows very much what he’s doing. To paraphrase in current lingo another composer-critic from about 2 centuries back:


[Hipster] hats off, folks!  Robert Carl