Andrew Norman's stunning new work A Trip to the Moon is "an opera for all ages." The work was co-commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I got a sneak peak at the score and the chance to talk to Andrew about the work while researching/writing the program note for the UK Premiere (July 9, 2017 at the Barbican Centre). Read the full notes below, or download the notes and Andrew's synopsis.
I wrote about Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Aeriality for Music & Literature.
In anticipation of the New York Philharmonic performing Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Aeriality this week, this profile of Thorvaldsdottir discusses her inspirations from nature and her compositional process, and gives an in-depth listening guide to Aeriality.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music is powerful and visceral. Merely saying that it represents nature does not express the depth of her compositional process. Many composers are inspired by the natural world, but what makes Thorvaldsdottir’s works unique is her imaginative rendering of nature—her ability to create the affect of tangible, physical landscapes through sound. She is enthralled by large-scale ensembles, and writes detailed orchestral scores that draw the listener in with layers of sonic perspectives. Read on
Experience Aeriality live with the New York Philharmonic May 19, 20, and 23 at David Geffen Hall.
I wrote a profile of Andrew Norman for Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that is in the February 2017 issue. The publisher has generously allowed me to share a PDF of the English version of the article. Here's an excerpt:
Try. Split. Suspend. Switch. Play. Many of the titles for Andrew Norman’s recent works are both a window into formal devices used in the piece and an invitation for the audience to engage in active listening. Often, Norman presents a complex texture at the beginning of a work that is slowly untangled through actions in the orchestra—actions which sometimes contradict each other as the orchestra tries to resolve the formal puzzle of non-linear narratives. Processing these contradictions in a meaningful way requires both the calm ability to recognize them, and the empathy to take on different perspectives. Contemporary music requires one to confront pre-conceived notions of sound, and challenges the listener to process these contradictions in real time. Therefore, although listening to a classical music concert is often considered a passive activity, Norman is asking the audience to make it an active one by questioning their aesthetic assumptions and being open to problem-solving. Read on
You may access the German version (translation by Friedrich Heinrich Kern) here: "Architektur der Gesellschaft: Der US-Amerikanische Komponist Andrew Norman."
I got another chance to play with these incredible obsidian sounding stones by Isamu Noguchi! Although they are normally not displayed publicly, The Noguchi Museum staff has been very generously allowing me to improvise on them and record the sounds to workshop a new piece I'm writing for the stones, strings and voice. The premiere of my piece will be part of a concert at The Noguchi Museum on Sunday, February 5, 2017 at 3pm. The concert is free with museum admission. Here are a couple videos from last month when I was experimenting with different ways of playing the stones:
UPDATE: Here is the archival footage of the premiere of birth, death filmed on location at The Noguchi Museum.
This work was written in honor of the exhibition of Isamu Noguchi’s two sculptures Birth (1934) and Death (1934) being displayed together in the same gallery for the first time. The two obsidian sound sculptures used in birth, death—Untitled (1978) & Sounding Stone (1981)—were created by Noguchi to be played as instruments. The string players should tune 1/6th tone flat to match the pitch of the stones, and in general all pitches should be tuned to the overtones of the stones. birth, death may be performed on other stone, metal, or glass objects with the fundamental of E and/or G for the first movement, and C-sharp for the second movement. The work is dedicated to Anne Grilk King.
Premiered February 5, 2017 at The Noguchi Museum, Long Island City, New York. Many thanks to The Noguchi Museum’s incredible staff for facilitating rehearsals and access to these unique sculptures.
Download the score.
“...the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Do you know this building?” Andrew Norman has suddenly switched subjects to architecture—his voice lights up. “Where the entire structure, all the innards of the building are on the outside—all the pipes, and all the vents, and all the support structure—you see everything, none of that is buried.”
My mind flashes to the escalator of the Centre Pompidou, riding up the outside of the building slowly as Paris reveals itself in layers of rooftops, threads of pedestrians. I happened to be in Paris this summer during Fête de la musique, an annual festival of music outdoors that feels more like an Ivesian maze of drum circles and Indie rock bands. Needing a respite from the chaotic buzz of the streets, a friend and I went to the opening of an exhibit at the Centre Pompidou on the Beat Generation. Entering the dimly lit exhibit, we found each artifact a treasure: the long single scrolled manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road from 1951 almost filled the length of the main room sprawled out in a long glass case.
Adventure and storytelling, noise and a mess of sounds that only reveal themselves through focused engagement with the narrative: all evoked in a moment with the image of the Centre Pompidou. Norman continues—“and that’s, I think, maybe a good metaphor for what I’m trying to do in music, because I want you, the audience, to see and hear everything that I’m doing. I want the music to wear its structure on the surface.”
The audience will have a chance to see what Norman is doing live on October 28 when the Los Angeles Philharmonic premieres the revised version of Play, his celebrated first symphony. Structured in three movements—or “Levels,” as they are titled—it is an intricately planned work dealing with themes of control, free will, hidden messages, and of course, playfulness. The key elements of Play are the things that inspire me in Norman’s music: physicality, the use of form to create narrative, and an interest in the experience of live performance.
Read the entire article here, and experience Play live with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic:
Friday, October 28, 2016 at 8PM
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Monday, October 31, 2016 at 8PM
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Update — November 29, 2016: Heartfelt congratulations to Andrew on being awarded the 2017 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for Play! In this interview with NPR, Andrew talks about the honor of receiving the award and also uses it as a chance to advocate for diversity.
For additional reading, check out William Robin's profile of Norman in the New York Times and Alex Ross's piece on Norman in celebration of him being named Musical America's 2017 Composer of the Year.
Viola Spaces is published by Schott and The new two viola versions can be found here.
Walking through the streets of Florence surrounded by the glowing orange light of sunset and bright green shutters, it is still stunning every time one comes to a cross street where the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore suddenly comes into view. For musicians, this structure is of particular importance in relation to one of the major Renaissance works we study, Guillaume Dufay's motet Nuper rosarum flores, because the piece was written for the consecration of the dome in 1436. This particular motet is studied for its intricate use of proportions in the form, proportions that some scholars say were written based on those of the cathedral below.
Studying the work and reading Charles Warren's article, “Brunelleschi’s Dome and Dufay’s Motet,” in graduate school, I was intrigued to visit the cathedral and listen/see for myself how the proportions and the music felt in the space. Although Craig Wright’s “Dufay’s Nuper rosarum flores, King Solomon’s Temple, and the Veneration of the Virgin” outlines other possible explanations for the proportions of the piece—that it is not based on the proportions of the Florence Cathedral at all, and rather is based on the dimensions for the Temple of Solomon and symbolic number representation for the Virgin from a biblical passage—I am personally more intrigued and convinced by the architectural proportions as hypothesized in Warren’s article.
Returning to Florence this week, I was struck by the incredible feat of building the dome itself. The cathedral had been under construction for years, and it was only because there was a model of what the church might look like when completed with a large dome that the problem arose in the first place. Someone had a vision that the church would have an enormous octagonal dome even though it was clear for over fifty years that no one in Italy knew how to actually build it. The mystery of the dome was put forth as a competition, and goldsmith and clockmaker Filippo Brunelleschi rose to the challenge. In the process of building the dome, Brunelleschi solved countless problems and invented various machines over the years, taking risks, having incredible failures, all for the sake of problem solving and following through with a vision (Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome goes into great detail and is fantastic further reading for those interested). Through these banalities, failures, and innovations, Brunelleschi was able to create a structure that still inspires and creates wonderment today.
Finally sitting down to process an incredible couple of days in Cyprus at the Continuum2016 conference on the Continuum in Music and Architecture hosted by the Centre Iannis Xenakis and the University of Cyprus Department of Architecture. It was a wonderful chance to meet scholars from all over the world and gather ideas, inspiration, and various wonderful teaching resources:
Keynote performer Peter Sheppard Skærved's speech set the tone by emphasizing the importance of making space for reflection—in one's craft as an artist, in the depth of one's knowledge and therefore ability to make a difference as a scholar, and finally in being aware of communities—the importance of continuum as self-awareness and global awareness.
Sharon Kanach presented a lecture on Scelsi's compositional process (and his influence on Xenakis's music), full of rich information and history from her experience working with both composers personally. Keynote speaker Athanassios Economou shared several interactive tools such as GRAPE from SWAP Plus, the online research and development department of SWAP Architects. GRAPE, a parametric shape grammar interpreter, allows the user to visualize various manipulations/transformations of geometric shapes given various restrictions/rules.
Others presented research in progress, including Konstantina Kalfa's presentation on Villa Mache (continuum in the architecture and use of light in Xenakis's designs). Composers presented their own work, including Nicoleta Chatzopoulou, who talked about using silence as a landscape in musical composition. I presented a paper on Andrew Norman's The Companion Guide to Rome: Influence of Architecture and Visual Art on Composition, using Xenakis’s ideas about structure-in-time as a framework to analyze Norman’s music that is inspired by architectural forms.
It was inspiring to be around both young and established scholars who value critical thought, feedback, and making time for both rigorous academic focus and reflection. The arts allow us to perceive nuances in continuum if we have patience: in music, learning to support others' voices; in visual art, to literally be able to create/have perspective; in dance, to learn to support the weight of another human being. Gatherings such as these allow for that optimism and critique to find its place in the ongoing struggle for relevance and reflection in the arts/academia.
This week in our Extended Techniques for Strings class, the subject of different types of waveforms and timbre as harmonic spectrum came up. Posting these diagrams here for ease of reference (scroll down for a summary of basic terms):
Sine waves contain only the fundamental. Square waves (a form of pulse waves) and triangle waves contain only odd harmonics (with distinct amplitudes), giving them their individual sounds. Sawtooth waves have all partials present, but they decrease exponentially in relation to the ratio of the partial to the fundamental.
Some other terms that came up were:
frequency: pitch, measured in hertz (Hz) or cycles per second
timbre: tone color, determined by the set of harmonics or overtones in the sound
duration: how long the sound lasts (is audible)
envelope: overall shape of the amplitude of the sound over time including the attack, sustain, and decay of the sound
In memory of Pierre Boulez (1925–2016). This article was originally published in the September 2009 online version of MUSO Magazine.
"No, no, no, no, no." Pierre Boulez stops us again and asks for the bass section to check the tuning of their harmonics at the beginning of one of the movements of "Notations." In a piece that's so complex and detailed, it's a wonder that each of us is keeping track of our individual parts, but Boulez has been keeping track of all of us. He hears everything.
Although my father is not a musician, he knows who Boulez is, and thinks that the Lucerne Festival Academy is an amazing opportunity for young musicians to work with someone who is already a well respected master in the field. Between listening to recordings of John Adams and Boulez (and various other composer names I throw at him), my dad spends a lot of his free time playing tennis. As a good amateur player, being at a festival like this he said would be like him getting to play a set with Nadal, and then get tips from him on his serve. A fitting metaphor this week, since we just started working on Debussy's Jeux—a piece about three young people in the woods looking for a tennis ball.
Rehearsing with Boulez on these pieces is interesting because he unfolds the layers of the music, making each one pristine and clear so that when the layers are put together again, we are able to play better together and hear more ourselves. I must admit that our first reading of "Jeux" sounded more like the bounces and whimpers emerging from the court of a beginner tennis player trapped defending himself from an out‐of‐control ball machine. However, through the patience of our coaches from the Ensemble Intercontemporain (EIC) and Boulez's insistence for detail and clarity, it's starting to come together.
The amount of detail and precision that we are putting into these pieces is partially about having respect for the composer and what is written, but it is also about personal respect for demanding a high quality product and a higher standard than is usually requested in a educational orchestral setting. My father always said that you have to have pride in everything you do, whether it's sweeping the floor, ironing a shirt, or writing a novel. No matter how small the task, one must have the personal pride and respect to do it well. So why do we sometimes accept less from ourselves when we are rehearsing or performing?
Working with Boulez and the EIC at the Lucerne Festival Academy, it is clear that they always demand the highest standard from themselves. The EIC premieres pieces that other players might refuse to learn because they contain techniques that no one else has figured out how to do, or because they don't make sense at a first glance. Working with mentors that live daily with such a standard for themselves and the music is incredibly inspiring. There is so much more energy that comes from a performance of this quality. When each of us takes the time and has the personal pride to really play our best at all times, the result is astonishing.
In these moments, even if normal ears could not tell you specifically what was happening, they would know that there was a spark and an energy in the orchestra that would move them. And I think Boulez can hear each one of us when this happens.