Composer Insight—Andrew Norman
There is always risk in live music. We listen to our favorite pieces live not just because we want to hear the tunes we love again, but because those tunes we love come out different every time, and in that silent moment before the music begins we really have no idea what is going to happen. This is, for me, a big part of what makes live performance so powerful. And it was also my first thought in the long process of writing a piece for Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
The piece I ended up writing for Orpheus will never sound the same way twice; I ask the players to make decisions on stage that change the shape and pacing and texture of the experience. At times they deliberately break apart from each other, playing in their own sense of time. At times they layer up in chance textures like the splatters on a Jackson Pollack canvas, and at a few key moments they come together and play with the unanimity of purpose and expression we associate with the best communal music making.
The members of Orpheus have spent the last 40 years interacting in the most vital and intimate ways musicians can. Without a conductor to dictate an artistic vision, they decide on one democratically. They are remarkably sensitive to each other—both in rehearsal and on stage. To honor that legacy, I wanted to explore—and to push the boundaries of—how classical musicians communicate and make music together.
I also wanted to honor Orpheus’ spirit of sonic adventure, so I wrote a piece that uses some of the strange, noise-based sounds that acoustic instruments can make. As a violist myself, I love these scratchy, quasi-electronic sounds; not only are they fun to play, but they also provide a context in which the more familiar, more traditionally “beautiful” sounds of the orchestra can sound fresh and expressively significant once again.
Finding new and personal ways to get an orchestra to speak is largely what my work is about. And speaking, if only for a few minutes, with you through the musicians of Orpheus in this storied concert hall is a privilege that makes months of solitary work worthwhile. I hope that my piece speaks honestly, and that it provides an experience—emotional, transient, and a little risky—that we can all share together.
This piece is dedicated to my parents, Jeff and Kathie Norman, who, like Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, are celebrating 40 years of togetherness.
Orpheus Insight—Gabriel Kahane
Music Alive Composer-in-Residence
Broadly speaking, composers these days tend to fall into two categories. First, there are those trained in the academy who bring to their music a rigorous understanding of extended techniques borne of the avant-garde (e.g., playing with the bow of the violin upside down or strumming the inside of the piano instead of playing the keys), and with such techniques create sometimes arresting sonic landscapes. Second, there are those whose music grows more slowly out of the tradition of the last several centuries, still focused on harmony, counterpoint, and melody, while (in the best instances) pushing those elements into the new century.
What I find so rare and appealing about Andrew’s music is that its fits neatly into neither camp. He is an absolute master of the orchestra, and meticulous in the level of detail which he prescribes in his scores. This is often necessary, as he asks for techniques of the string players that he’s often invented. To look at an orchestral score of Andrew’s is to gaze upon little aphoristic love notes to the players scattered throughout the pages, instructing them both with purely technical remarks as well as those that verge on the irreverent and lyrical—e.g., before a gripping new piano sonority, the expressive marking: “finally getting it right.”
And yet in tandem with Andrew’s quest to push the facility of his interpreters to new realms is his gloriously astute ear, keeping the music grounded at every step. Andrew’s sense of harmony springs as much from Schubert as it does from Xenakis, giving his music a firm foundation in tradition, albeit one that is seldom palpable to the listener on first contact. It is as if Mr. Norman is straddling two centuries—not the 20th and 21st, but perhaps the 19th and 22nd. Emotional and sonic worlds collide, producing an exotic sound world that will no doubt this evening offer up musical and spiritual sustenance for us all.Gabriel Kahane is the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Music Alive is a national residency program of the League of American Orchestras and Meet The Composer.