Norman, Andrew: Unstuck
BORN: October 31, 1979. Grand Rapids, MI. Resides in Los Angeles, CA
WORLD PREMIERE: September 9, 2008. Michael Sanderling led the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—At these performances
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet, 3rd doubling E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, vibraphone, tom-toms, tin cans, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, crotales, bass drum, cowbells, temple blocks, bongos, metal tins, washboard, ratchet, piano, and strings)
DURATION: About 10 mins
THE BACKSTORY “What makes an orchestra special for me is not actually the sounds that it makes but the fact that there are a hundred human beings doing that, right in front of me. In a way, it’s performance art,” Andrew Norman observed in a 2015 interview with the New York Times. By applying his own special mixture of imagination and craft to this collective, Norman has made himself into one of the most acclaimed and performed American composers under age forty.
Andrew Norman’s three-movement orchestral work Play (2013) has already earned recognition as a major contemporary achievement, winning the Grawemeyer Award in 2017—a distinction the composer shares with the likes of György Ligeti, Kaija Saariaho, and John Adams (a key advocate for Norman’s music)—as well as a Grammy Award nomination for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Other high-profile orchestral works include the percussion concerto Switch (2015) for Colin Currie and the Utah Symphony and two piano concertos: Suspend (2014), written for Emanuel Ax and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Split (2015), for Jeffrey Kahane and the New York Philharmonic.
This extraordinary young composer’s catalogue additionally includes chamber and vocal music. In March, the Los Angeles Philharmonic—where Norman recently directed the Composer Fellowship Program, interacting with aspiring composers of high school age—gave the stage debut of his first opera, A Trip to the Moon, following the concert version world premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle last June. Inspired by the pioneering silent sci-fi film of the same name from 1902 by Georges Méliès and conceived as a children’s opera with appeal for adults, A Trip to the Moon depicts a group of Jules Verne-era astronomers who team up with the lunar residents they encounter to help each other. Norman even concocted an imaginary language (“Moonish”) for the moon people to sing in a work he has described as drawing on his fascination with the “retro-futurist world of Verne and Wells and Méliès” that is “sympatico with my general aesthetic.” For this operatic project, Norman was also motivated by the prospect of a large community being involved in the process: “What appealed to me the most about this story was the fact that I could use it to explore how communities deal with the ‘other’ in their midst.”
Norman’s attraction to a sci-fi source is not surprising for someone who was first turned on to the idea of composing by wanting to emulate what entranced him in John Williams’s score for Star Wars, a favorite from his childhood. Though born in the Midwest, Norman grew up in Modesto, California, with a strict religious upbringing; his father served as the pastor for an evangelical congregation. As a teenager, he studied piano and viola, playing in a religious band and the youth orchestra. Like Prokofiev, he also started to compose early, inspired by the Romantic aesthetic, and had his pieces played by the Modesto Symphony before he headed on to the University of Southern California for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees; he returned there in 2013 to join the faculty. Further graduate studies took him to the Yale School of Music (under Aaron Jay Kernis and Martin Bresnick) and to the American Academy in Rome, which inspired the string trio The Companion Guide to Rome (2010), a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music. Norman’s rapidly developing career has included residencies in Europe and with Young Concert Artists, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (for which he wrote Play), Opera Philadelphia, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. In 2017 he was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year.
THE MUSIC Norman has developed an original voice by fusing his earliest musical inclinations, steeped in Romanticism, with an open-eared alertness to Modernist and postmodern idioms and techniques—all spiced with an engaging sense of whimsy and a highly imaginative approach to using the resources an orchestra provides. Along with the milestones of Romantic orchestral music and such contemporary models as John Adams, he has absorbed the musical language and listening habits of our era of digitalization and points to the influence of video game music and the YouTube culture, where users typically play and pause and then continue.
Unstuck dates from a period when Norman was already in demand internationally, receiving prestigious commissions and fellowships—in this case, from the Zurich-based Orpheum Foundation for the Advancement of Young Soloists. The composer recalls that he suddenly faced a daunting case of writer’s block: “I have never been more stuck than I was in the winter of 2008. My writing came to a grinding halt in January, and for a long time this piece languished on my desk, a mess of musical fragments that refused to cohere.”
During his college years at USC, Norman had faced a larger creative crisis regarding his identity as a composer. He even considered switching to architecture, another love, which has since provided inspiration for several musical compositions (such as Frank’s House, a nod to Frank Gehry’s home in Santa Monica, scored for two pianos and two percussionists). In the case of the block in 2008, he found his way out a few months later, when he chanced on a copy of the Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel from 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, which mingles science-fiction fantasy with the author’s experiences as an Allied soldier of the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. The novel’s hero, Billy Pilgrim escapes the linear flow of time and travels to the past and future. “I remembered one of its iconic sentences,” writes Norman, “[and] had a breakthrough realization. The sentence was this: ‘Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.’” He adds that this brought him an epiphany: “The realization was that the lack of coherence in my ideas was to be embraced and explored, not overcome.” In the score for Unstuck, Norman has inscribed this line from Slaughterhouse-Five: “It is just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”
That sense of moments that come back in unexpected ways is given vivid musical embodiment in this brief but densely packed composition; we hear moments that refuse to follow the classical structure of “beginning-middle-end” and instead mix and jumble with other ones. Norman continues: “I realized that my musical materials lent themselves to a narrative arc that, like Vonnegut’s character, comes ‘unstuck’ in time. Bits and pieces of the beginning, middle, and end of the music crop up in the wrong places like the flashbacks and flashforwards that define the structure and style of Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Unstuck doesn’t so much begin as explode into being with a Big Bang gesture—perhaps, like the opening of a Pandora’s Box of ideas that tug and pull in conflicting directions. Threads of “hope” in the form of grand, expansive gestures are suddenly snapped and later reassembled. The score calls for “recklessly fast” playing as the soundscape fractures at whiplash speed; cellular modules break off and reattach, luring the ear with Norman’s kaleidoscopic use of timbre and rhythmic detail.
Norman’s musical ideas extend to a visible theatricality. Although it’s left up to the conductor to decide, he suggests at one point having the musicians who are silent “freeze in playing position” so as “to match the auditory tension of this moment with as much visual tension as possible.” The composer explains another aspect of the title: “I also realized that the word ‘unstuck’ had resonances with the way that a few of the piece’s musical ideas get caught in repetitive loops. The orchestra, perhaps in some way dramatizing my own frustration with composing, spends a considerable amount of time and energy trying to free itself from these moments of stuckness.”
Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. He blogs about the arts at memeteria.com.
MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Andrew Gourlay conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (available on YouTube) | Andrew Norman’s Play with Gil Rose conducting the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP/sound) | The Law of Mosaics contains the string trio The Companion Guide to Rome with A Far Cry—Mr. Norman’s project with composer Ted Hearne (Crier)
Reading: Learn more about the composer at andrewnormanmusic.com