Andrew Norman: Empowering Performance

For composer Andrew Norman, the process of composing feels like a tug-of-war between opposing forces. From start to finish, he is constantly questioning, and pushing back on his own ideas in his efforts to create meaningful musical experiences for performers and for audiences. He revels in the visceral experiences of music making, and thoughtfully challenges performers to bring their own ideas to the interpretation of his music.

Written By

Alexandra Gardner

At the home of visual artist Charlotte Corini, Brooklyn, NY
December 12, 2013—1 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation and text condensed and edited by Alexandra Gardner

For composer Andrew Norman, the process of composing feels like a tug-of-war between opposing forces. From start to finish, he is constantly questioning, and pushing back on his own ideas in his efforts to create meaningful musical experiences for performers and for audiences. Norman talks animatedly about the different personalities that whisper as he works—the “little Modernist guy,” the more laid-back, John Cage-y voice, and even the latent film composer, all of whom fight it out during the creation of a score. That sense of conflict can definitely be heard in the music: skittering, complex textures are slowly engulfed by gigantic, lush, chord progressions; or brash percussion chops off one lyrical phrase after another, never allowing a full melody to emerge. Despite these internal struggles with creativity, which he says have at different times in his life stopped him in his tracks, he also possesses a keen sense of playfulness, reveling in the visceral experiences of music making, and thoughtfully challenges performers to bring their own ideas to their interpretation of his music.

Norman, who calls his career “kind of old school” in that he writes primarily for orchestra and serves as Assistant Professor at University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, claims he loves writing music that sounds a little bit “sloppy,” and that is organized in unusual ways. Non-linear forms such as those encountered in video games serve as important sources of inspiration, and often he will embed an idea within multiple compositions, working it out in different contexts until he feels like it has developed completely enough for use in a large-scale work.

While Norman’s catalog might look a bit traditional at first glance, his attitudes towards orchestras and working with musicians are anything but. He views the orchestra as a community of musicians, rather than as a singular sound-making machine that must be controlled. Often he prefers independent, soloistic behaviors for musicians; he asks them to not fit together, which is quite the opposite of standard orchestra musician behavior. The secret to accomplishing such tasks effectively, he says, is all about the notation on the page, and about how musicians are asked to perform. His descriptions of the kinds of information he shares on the written page sound more like he is facilitating a large group discussion rather than a musical experience (“If you want a musician to make an ugly sound, you have to provide a satisfying reason for why it’s there…”), but the resulting music is energetic and sonically dazzling, as in his large-scale orchestra work Play. Learning to express as clearly as possible his musical ideas in a score, he says, is a lifelong journey, and it’s the motivation that keeps bringing him back to composing for orchestral forces.


Alexandra Gardner: Something that you said in our email communications was that musically speaking, you’re all about people. Your current primary interest is in performers, and specifically in their interactions with other performers, as well as methods of communication that take place between players and audiences. While it’s not a new thing for you, it hasn’t been addressed in interviews as much as your interest in architecture, for instance. So let’s talk about people.
Andrew Norman: Well certainly humans communicating with humans is not new in the history of music. I think there’s something about the ways in which music is made now—this sort of vast field of making music on computers, and making music electronically, and making music without people—that has entirely reframed what it means to make music with people.
I think a lot about what it means to write for people playing instruments, or people using their voices as opposed to the methods we have for making electronic music. With that the creator sculpts the sound himself, and it ends up being exactly the sound that she or he wants and what’s of course missing there is this level of interpretation. I’m not a very computer-oriented person; technology in some ways is still very foreign to me. I’m very slow with all of that stuff.In my 20s I was listening to a lot of electronic music and questioning what there was for someone like me to do, who is not oriented that way.
I even felt a certain amount of guilt in the fact that I wasn’t an electronic music composer, or that it wasn’t an element of my work. How can my work be new and fresh without that? I finally came to this idea that what is most interesting to me about the classical tradition is the idea of the written score, and this idea that composers don’t make the sounds themselves. They write down instructions for making sounds and then other people interpret those instructions. Really exploring that process is where my work has been going for the last several years. Also making sure there’s enough space in that written score for multiple interpretations. To me the heart and soul of written music is about creating something with enough depthand complexity, but also enough openness in it to allow for many different realizations. So that’s where I’ve been going. And that has also led me into really exploring this idea of human interaction in music. How can I open up that space on the written page for human beings to be human beings when they play music?
I think there’s a long tradition in our field of this super, specified score. And I think this also comes from a time when electronic music was coming into being and composers could then really start to think about the very particulars of sound, and be able to sculpt every single aspect of it themselves. That ended up as part of our notated tradition. Which is really great at times, but that sometimes leaves behind an element of what it is to be a musician. I was trained as a pianist in college, and aside from technical issues, what we talked about all the time in my lessons were ideas; how to have an idea about a written score, and then project it in your performance. And sometimes the way music is notated these days, it leaves no room for ideas. That’s sort of my frame these days; the creation of a score that leaves open that realm.
Of course then as the creator, I have to be O.K., with whatever comes out! There’s this whole lifelong process of learning what I need to specify, and what I don’t. What I’m O.K. with people changing, and what I’m not. In some pieces, for instance, the pitch doesn’t matter to me. For certain gestures, any set of pitches will do. And in that case, I don’t specify the pitches, or I allow people a certain amount of choice. And some cases it’s the rhythm; like this rhythm can be free and flexible. I feel like I’ve had a lot of good results from this. When you give good musicians the choice, they choose something good. And I really like that. It’s about giving people a framework in which they can have a very personal take on the music that I’ve written.
AG: It’s empowering to the performer.
AN: Yes, it’s very much about performer empowerment. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years thinking about what it is that I love about live performance. And what it comes it down to is that I really love seeing people make choices and taking risks on stage. I think there’s something very powerful about that. And that’s sort of what I’m trying to do in my own music: give someone the ability to make a choice on stage—to take a risk, to have a definite idea about the interpretation of a piece. If there’s any way I can get someone to do something slightly risky, or slightly spontaneous within the framework of a piece, I will always go for that. To me it’s interesting what a live human being can do that no amount of electronic sound and speakers and technology can do. Risk is something I’ve been trying to push myself toward. It’s also something that is slightly tricky with classical musicians, especially orchestras because they are highly risk averse. It’s just something in the field, this need to be totally polished and professional. So sometimes I find myself having to really encourage players to take the risks and do something that might fail on stage. It reveals a certain amount of humanity when you do that. And then the orchestra is no longer this perfectly polished, well-functioning machine, but it becomes more about this community of people.
AG: I like the idea of the orchestra as a community a lot. But when you’re working with an orchestra of 70, 80, or 90 people, how does communication work in that case? You can’t really have a conversation with every member of the orchestra.
AN: Working with orchestra is incredibly complicated, and it’s something that I am continually learning. I feel like it’s this life-long trajectory for me. I write for orchestras, and I’m continually trying to figure out how to elicit from them the kind of music making that I find interesting. A lot of it for me has to do with how you ask. That has everything to do with what’s on the printed page. For a long time, I was starting to feel like I had this real tension with writing orchestra music, like maybe it really wasn’t for me. In part that’s because I do like this kind of more spontaneous, more visceral, and even sloppy sort of music making. I also really value collaborative environments where you get to try to things out; you get to really bring out people’s personalities and figure how to make work in that way. And orchestra music is just sometimes so uncollaborative. It can be kind of a downer sometimes. But I finally figured out that what I love about orchestra music is that it’s really all about notation. And it’s about communicating ideas as clearly as you possibly can on the written page. I have to somehow communicate in the music that, for instance, here is the time to be sloppy. Or here’s the time to let go. Or this is what matters now. Orchestra musicians are incredible at grasping the context of what they’re supposed to do, and they’re very fast at assimilating things and knowing how to fit together, and they fall apart a little bit when you ask then to not fit together, which is sort of a lot of what I do.
So how to—within the context of the notation—get them to feel the freedom to do that is something I think about a lot. What it comes down to is about how the gestures are framed on the page; what words I use. I work a lot with string players to find non-standard sounds. It’s interesting that a lot of the time I’m asking for sounds that are very standard in the new music community. When I’m working with new music players, it’s like, “Oh sure, I’ll make that crazy sound. I’ll do whatever you want!” And then you work with orchestra players, and for some of them, this is not a skill set that they have. They’ve never made sounds like this. And there’s no time to work with like 40 string players individually.
So, it’s all about very clear language in the parts about how exactly to place that bow., how exactly to make that sound. And then you also have to convince them that there’s an intuitive reason for what they’re doing, that this sound is special and that it will matter. That to me is the trick with orchestra players: getting them to do these things, which are sometimes counter to the entirety of their training and skill set. You know, violinists have trained for years and years to make the most beautiful sound. How do you get them to make an ugly sound? And not just any ugly sound, but the ugly sound you want. It’s just this long learning process for me, and sometimes I fail. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes it ends up miraculous, but that journey is one that I am super invested in at this point.
AG: Usually, an orchestra is viewed as a single machine that must be controlled. As much as the community aspect is obvious, I don’t think most people, or most composers, think of it that way.
AN: I have this theory that there’s a whole long tradition in our field of treating the orchestra like a sound making machine which comes out of the 19th century. If you wanted to make sounds in the 19th century, you had to get people together to make those sounds. And that progressed over a trajectory of 150 years, and led to viewing the orchestra as the world’s ultimate sound-making machine.
But the interesting thing is that doesn’t take into account the humanness of an orchestra. Especially nowadays, you can get way more spectacular sounds out of a computer.You can put an array of speakers around a room, and get sounds to dance in three dimensions. You do anything you want with sound out of a computer. The orchestra has definitely been surpassed as the sound-making machine par excellence. But what hasn’t been surpassed about the orchestra is the amazing human potential it has. I mean, there are 100 people on a stage—how often do we get that many people making some collective statement? I think my approach to orchestration has changed a lot in the last several years, because it’s no longer about utilizing this vast color-making machine. It’s about thinking about line, and thinking about the interaction between people on the stage. I’ve talked to many, many orchestra players, and the trajectory of what they say is very similar. It’s always like, well, my instrument makes this cool sound and that cool sound. And there’s also this fun thing I can do on this instrument, but what I love to do is I love to sing. They all say that! Finally it occurred to me that there’s something very human about giving people a line. Give people some sort of thing that makes sense for them on their page, not just a pointillistic array of colors that they’re making but material that they can make musical sense out of, and that utilizes their personal, vocal singing qualities. It is definitely something I think about.
AG: That kind of interaction is a major factor in your piece Play, which was commissioned by BMOP.
AN: Yeah. I wrote this piece Play, which is a huge, giant, 47-minute long orchestra piece that is kind of a distillation of a lot of these ideas. One of the things I often think about is the big why of concert music. Often, when I’m beginning a piece, I get overwhelmed by these various why questions which just get bigger and bigger. And one of them is: why are these people on a stage, and why is this other person waving his arms and making things happen? That was one of the basic ideas I had about this orchestra piece. It’s exploring the idea that there is actually one person up there who is controlling everyone else; he waves his hands, and something else happens. Then taking a step back further, I was thinking about the composer kind of doing the same thing. The composer has actually written this thing down, which is causing this person to wave his arms in a particular way, which is causing the orchestra to do certain things on stage, which is then causing the audience to feel certain things, and do certain things. There’s this whole chain of cause and effect, and I kept backing up and thinking about the interplay between these various groups of people.
I came up early on with the word “play”, which I like. It has many meanings, one of which has to do with the interaction of various human beings playing with each other; playing their instruments in a very literal sense. But also playing as kids play. And then you could potentially extrapolate a slightly darker meaning out of play, which is that someone is controlling someone else, as in, you got played. Like that sense of a puppeteer who’s controlling a marionette, which can go very dark, very quickly. I love watching people play, and I’m very interested in the physicality of playing. How people look and move when they play is also a big part of this piece. This piece got recorded by BMOP, this fantastic orchestra that commissioned the piece. I’m a little bit sad that some people are only going to know it from this recording, because so much of this piece is all about live performance, about what is it to both watch and listen to an orchestra.
There are things you will only realize when you see it, about how different sounds emerge from different parts of the orchestra. Things about how people are moving when they play. Since I was a little kid I’ve been mesmerized by the movement of the string players in an orchestra, and I like to play with the choreography of bows within a string section. That took on a sort of level of meaning, which became very important to this piece. Play also for me has this reference to video games. I’m not a huge gamer, but there is something about the way games are structured and the way narratives are structured in a game which is very appealing to me as I think about form and music. Oftentimes there’s a non-linear way through a game. How to convey a story arc, or a general narrative over a span of time, but one that can loop back on itself, and that can take a circuitous route through the material. We’re very adept at processing these things from the ways we watch movies and TV these days. I mean, non-linear story telling seems to be almost a cliché in some of our other time-based mediums; the whole flash back, or flash forward, or cut to a parallel universe kind of thing. Why not in orchestra music?

Reproduced courtesy of Schott Music Corporation & European American Music Dist. Co. © 2013 Schott Music Corporation, New York (ASCAP)

A page from Play
Reproduced courtesy of Schott Music Corporation & European American Music Dist. Co.
© 2013 Schott Music Corporation, New York (ASCAP)

How do you suggest in a piece of music that the next thing that happens doesn’t belong there? And then furthermore, how can you possibly suggest, over the course of a long time span that maybe this thing actually belongs somewhere else, as part of a different story? Or to hear something random happen, and then 30 minutes later recognize that it has come back in a different context? I feel like this is really part of symphonic form. Beethoven does this all the time. Like the random event that has nothing to do with what’s going on right here, and then way later in the form, you get it. That whole idea of planting the non sequitur that is actually going to formally do something in the end is very old in classical music, but has for me elements of this whole non-linear narrative thing. So, that’s an aspect of Play as well.
AG: I love Level 3 of Play especially.
AN: Level 3 is supposed to be the piece without percussionists monkeying it up. Because the percussionists are the ones who are kind of controlling everyone else; turning things on, and turning them off. But Level 3 is supposed to be the orchestra locked in this moment of suspense, and then they gradually form the thing themselves, that they had been trying in all these various ways to get to before. And so finally, here’s a moment that is un-monkeyed. That was my goal with Level 3. So, finally we made it out.

Play hints page

The “hints” page from Play
Reproduced courtesy of Schott Music Corporation & European American Music Dist. Co.
© 2013 Schott Music Corporation, New York (ASCAP)

AG: In terms of structure then, do you work things out ahead of time, or do you wing it as you go?
AN: Oh man, that’s a tricky question. Generally speaking, I do two things with form. One is transformation. I love watching one thing transform into some other thing. I use cinematic metaphors all the time. It’s probably because I’m a failed, wannabe film composer. The idea of watching something happen within a single take is really magical. And then of course there’s the exact opposite, which is like the jump cut; having ideas cut off each other, and juxtaposing different materials to see how they can reframe each other. Those seem to be my two modes of operation. That’s enough to deal with for a long time. But generally speaking, because I’m also a very strongly narrative composer making long form instrumental music, I want there to be a sense of journey. There’s always a point here. I’m trying to say something, or make an argument. There is something that I want to have happen with the material.
So generally speaking, I come up with the “what is happening” moment—what I want to have happen first—and then it’s this process of backing up from that which is totally non-linear. I almost think like a playwright, or a novelist even. When are you introducing ideas, how do those ideas unfold, and how are they all pointing toward something? I’m sometimes worried that I’m so goal driven. It’s a very traditional way of making music; it’s very Beethoven symphony-like. We’re all pointing towards this. Here’s where we’re going. But that’s the way I think. Of course, what’s also interesting to me is when you take a wrong turn. A lot of my music is about taking those wrong turns and watching ideas form in the music itself. So it’s not like the music is this finished product of here’s my idea. The music is about the journey of getting to the idea.
My piece of music Try is all about one idea. I had that idea when I was writing the piece. That was my very first idea. It’s like oh, here’s the thing. And then it was like well, how do we get there? And then the piece itself became the journey toward that idea. Typically I know where I’m going. I often know where I’m starting, too, and there’s usually this moment in the first quarter of the piece which is always the last thing to come together. It’s usually that moment of the exposition; here’s the world. Here’s the material I’m working with, and I don’t know what that is supposed to accomplish until other pieces are in place. So it’s also very typical for me to have a mess of sketches on the floor. I’ll have a mess of material until like the very last second, right before the piece is due, and then all of a sudden it will go voop and it becomes a piece in like a day or two. And I’m like, how did that happen? Of course, I’ll go back and revise it all later. But really, I sit there with material in this non-linear web for a really long time. And then one day something magical happens that I don’t fully understand, and it starts to fall in place. Those days are so rare for me, but I kind of live for them because it’s just like: oh, finally, this piece is making sense.
AG: You’ve mentioned that a lot of your chamber compositions end up being sketches for bigger works. Was Try a sketch for Play? There are definitely similarities between the two pieces.
AN: For sure. I do this thing now where some pieces end up being sketches for bigger pieces, Sometimes I don’t even realize it! I think it stems from the fact that—this is going to sound stupid—I have a hard time coming up with material. It just doesn’t flow out of me. I feel like I don’t have—again this is going to sound bad—that many good ideas. So when I get a good one, I want to hold onto it and make sure I don’t screw it up. This actually was a huge issue for me in my 20s—not wanting to screw up pieces. I’ve had so many fabulous opportunities in my life, more than I deserve, and I just don’t want to screw anything up.
The desire to not fail was actually hugely inhibiting. I couldn’t write anything down because, you know, an idea changes when you write it. It loses something. It gains immeasurably in other ways, but it loses something. That process was really scary for me. Sometimes it’s really difficult just putting an idea down on paper. And I also have a lot of conflicting energies, you might say. Conflicting ideas. Sometimes, I feel like I inhabit a lot of strong opposites that are always telling me, oh no, don’t do that. You should do the opposite. Or, this is not good. You need to be this. It’s long and complicated, but to actually get an idea out is sometimes a huge struggle for me. All of this is to say, when I actually have ideas, and I’ve gotten them on paper, I sometimes like to work through them in multiple ways, because I can see multiple directions these things could go. And sometimes I’m too into my material and there is this sense of sadness that I’ve picked one way for it and not another. Three or four years ago I gave myself the permission to allow pieces to fail, which is huge.
It’s O.K. to write a piece that doesn’t work. It’s also O.K. to take that same material and try to find another context in which it might work. It’s a very common way for visual artists to work. But somehow in our field, we have this idea that every piece has to be a unique and totally self-contained world. I just don’t work that way. Play is a giant piece. It ends with this unfolding of one idea, this kind of melodic wedge that’s expanding out from a single note. I was obsessed with this wedge for like a year. I wrote this wedge into every piece that I wrote for a year. Every piece was slightly different in the way that it unfolded, and the pacing, and the instrumentation, and the effect of this wedge.
So finally by the time it came to putting it in an orchestra piece, I feel like I turned it upside down. I had played with it enough in my head that I was O.K. with the direction I wanted to go in this orchestra piece. The question then is: are the other pieces studies, or are they real pieces? I go back and forth on that one. And much to my publisher’s chagrin, I do withdraw a lot of pieces. I feel like my catalog is actually shrinking the older I get because, for whatever reason, sometimes the pieces need to be revised. And also sometimes, I think, well, I actually worked through that idea in this other piece, and I like that one better. But I’m working in series more than I used to. And I do like that.
AG: I feel like that the sense of conflicting energies definitely comes out in your music, but in a very specific and personal way. There’s a lot of beautiful, simple musical content rising up and enveloping very complex and more thorny material.
AN: Yeah, I was saying a little bit earlier that I feel like sometimes I get stuck in these very conflicting energies, or have very conflicting impulses. Part of this came out when I first got to college. Before then I was writing some big-boned, romantic, lush, long melodies. Kind of Samuel Barber, Rachmaninoff, big gestures like that. And then I was hit by a bunch of different strains of modernism, as many people are.
I’ve often felt that I’m totally torn in this respect. I have this strong lyrical or neoromantic tendency. I’m a huge fan of sweep. I like big things that are kind of epic and melodies that soar along and sweep us up, and also probably have that sort of film score-y elements that I like. But I like the exact opposite of that, too! Very austere and restrained modernism is powerful too. I feel like there’s this little modernist guy inside of me who’s like, the power of music is what you’re willing to deny your audience. I have a hard time just letting those two sides of myself co-exist. They are always fighting. And there’s kind of an outlier inside too. It’s like this little experimental Andrew. Like American experimental, kind of John Cage-y. He’s in there too, a little bit more laid back. But how do they all relate? When it doesn’t work, it’s like one or the other of these forces will shut me down. And that’s when the ideas don’t come out because one or the other has vetoed them. And this is sounding insane! But when it works, it’s really interesting, because I feel like then what happens is a tension in the actual music between these various forces.
I’ve come to recognize that this is actually part of what my music is about; different forces battling it out in the music. My music is somehow never O.K. with itself. It’s always battling. These tensions are very real for me and when the work actually makes it onto paper, they’re there. One of the things about my generation that I love, but also don’t quite understand, is that a lot of people are so good at being O.K. with everything. This has never been natural or easy for me. I have to work through these things. They’re very real sources of tension; like am I going to be Lachenmann or am I going to be David Lang, or am I going to be Leonard Bernstein? I get freaked out by those questions, and most of my peers are like, well sure, be all three. For whatever reason, I can’t do that.
AG: So the conflicting influences are not yet friends. It sounds like they may never be!
AN: No. No. Occasionally they are, but it’s just in my nature to see them like this and not let everything be.
AG: That must be useful for your teaching, to be able to tap into very different compositional energies, and also to perceive such things going on with your students.
AN: I do teach now, and these young kids are dealing with exactly the same issues. A lot of them have these very interesting voices, but they’ve never encountered the canon of 20th century music, and they’re all wondering how to deal with it. And that was exactly me. So sometimes our lessons are a little comical, because a kid has these big existential issues, and I’m like: great, so do I! We try to work through it together and it’s fascinating. Some people are very good at getting music down, and getting their ideas out. And some people are like me—a mess inside their heads, and getting things on paper is the most difficult thing. I appreciate the challenges of working with all these different people. When I was a student, I treated all my teachers like therapists. I was basically like: I’m a wreck. And they were very kind and gentle and understanding with me in trying to figure things out. And here I am, the therapist who still has all these issues! It’s trying to help these kids express themselves. Figure out what it is they want to say, and also how does that fit in with the world, and that’s tricky. Because for these kids who have been creating their whole lives, often that spark doesn’t change, but what changes when they’re in school is suddenly how that relates to the bigger world.
For some people, that doesn’t matter, but for some people, like me, that’s huge. But I’m hyper-sensitive to it in my own work, and I hope that I’m sensitive to it in the work of my students too. I’ll say one more thing about this, which is that composition in the university, or even in the conservatory has meant a very specific thing. It has some very specific values. When teachers teach, they impart their values to other generations. And then that becomes institutionalized and now that I’ve become part of this system, I am even more aware of what values I am representing.
Am I forcing my values on these kids? In a way that is unnatural. There are good things about the university system and in training composers this way, and the values and the skills that it preserves. But there are not good things too. I guess trying to recognize what is good, what is lasting, and what is valuable about this training is important, but also what needs to be changed. What needs to be perhaps opened up from the inside is something I think a lot about. And it is definitely more real to me now that I’m seeing these kids and shaping—even saying that words like freaks me out. I hope I’m not shaping them, but rather, trying to open them up.
I recognize that in a lot of ways, I have a very traditional career. It’s kind of old school, and I’m an orchestral composer. My music has sifted its way up through various forms of institutional judgment which, by the way, is something that I actually lost a huge amount of sleep over in the last decade—this whole idea that my music seemed to do well within the institution. It’s always made me, if anything, question what it is that I’m doing. Like am I really just writing music that is parroting back to the institution the values they’ve had for a long time? And maybe there’s actually something quite wrong with my approach if so many of the big old institutions seem to like it. You know what I’m saying? I do feel that very personally. I do spend a lot of time asking myself if I am being risky enough, if I am being transgressive enough.
I’ve certainly benefited from these systems in a way that a lot of composers in my generation have not, and that a lot of composers seem to regard with a large degree of suspicion. Gradually I’m in the process of making peace with this idea of what my career is. Yes, I have this kind of old school insider’s career. I’m working with big orchestras and classical music institutions that sometimes lack the adventuresome spirit, or the adventuresome audience of more small grass roots things that happen in our field. Finally it occurred to me that I could use this position to influence the system from the inside. To give a gentle nudge every once in awhile to the things that I think are important. Writing a Lachenmannian orchestra piece for some symphony in Iowa is maybe not the best way to go about it, but there is a way to get in there and say: hey, these are some other ideas that are kind of interesting and cool.
AG: What kinds of things would you like to see changed within an institutional setting?
AN: Well, in our generation, we talk so much about genre crossing, and all of this stuff, and trying to open up our field to other forms of music making. And, that conversation is—at this point—very familiar. I lived in Brooklyn for three years immediately previous to this, and now I’m in Los Angeles, teaching at the University of Southern California. The Brooklyn thing became so familiar to me—its values and conversation—that I kind of forgot that there are other branches of our field that continue to go on and propagate their own values. There are these things like complex pitch combinations. For some people this is like a thing. As in, good music has complex pitch combinations, and bad music doesn’t. The same could be said for rhythm or form. This idea of what is good in our field—that kind of took me by surprise this last fall. There are some more old school values—and I don’t want to say old school in a bad way—that are just different. They’re not the things I had been thinking about for a long time.
Personally, I see a couple different trends coming out of the conservatory and university training of composers. One is music that is incredibly polished. It just works super well. It’s all about a kind of slick professionalism when it comes to materials. Then I see more experimental, wild and crazy things, which are often a little bit rougher, and that seem to partake in maybe slightly bigger ideas. I kind of find something lacking in both. Where is the music that’s both really professional, with a really of high level of craft, but also is going to wow me with some big idea or some super creative way of thinking about notation, or music, or whatever, that I’ve never heard before? Where is the fusion? There are lots of different camps. We all know this. There are a lot of different ideas about what music is, and about what we should be doing. There’s got to be some combination, some way of training composers who are both wildly creative, and totally wacky and off the wall. Things that we’ve never heard before that are also accomplished to the highest standards of craft in our field. That’s what I want to see. Sometimes I think there’s too much of an emphasis on polishing and crafting, and sometimes there’s not enough. Maybe this is too dangerous for NewMusicBox. I feel like I’m going to piss people off. But…
AG: Oh, a lot of people would agree with what you’re saying.
AN: I feel like in the world of orchestra music, and new chamber music, people end up writing music like their teachers. And people end up writing music like the music that’s already out there. Where are the big ideas in our field? Where are the really creative original voices? I know with orchestras, there’s such a high level of information you need, and a high level of practical skills you need to even get an orchestra to speak. You just need so much training, and there’s so much to know, that we tend to just stop there, and ask, is this person a proficient orchestral composer? But we aren’t even asking, if they have that proficiency, what are they going to say with it? What original thing are they going to bring to it? It’s like we sometimes stop at: this is a good orchestra piece. They’ve successfully made the orchestra do what orchestras do. And I’m like: no, you have to take that level of technique and actually blow our minds with something that is new. Something that is original, and that’s what I find lacking in my end of the field. Of course, then you go into other aspects of new music, and you’re like: whoa, that’s such an amazing idea. That’s so unbelievably creative, where in the world does this come from? Often times when those kinds of people write for the orchestra, they fall on their faces because you need to know the range of a bass clarinet, and stupid things like that. I don’t know. It’s a balance.
Sometimes my heart hurts a little bit for the orchestra world, because I do feel like mind-blowingly creative people just aren’t writing for orchestra these days. And there’s a huge, huge list of reasons why that is. But it’s one of the things that I want to help fix. The field needs some really crazy innovators, and they’re out there. I know they’re out there. We just have to find them.
AG: Definitely, and that’s an important task. How does thinking about these issues mesh with your own personal musical goals?
AN: Right now, my goals have more to do with process than they do with product. I mentioned earlier that I have this very convoluted and emotionally intense process, and it’s kind of destructive in a way. It’s hard for me to get music on paper. I find it sort of personally devastating when I go through the process of those conflicting forces duking it out. So my goal right now is try to find a way to write in which there isn’t quite so much of that personal pummeling. To sit down and write in a way that is just a little bit more fluid, and a little bit more accepting.
It’s a very internal, very personal thing, figuring out how to get this process to be a little bit more fluid. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and some of them say, well maybe this whole conflict thing is just who you are. This is part of your process. And I’ve come to accept that too, that this is probably going to be an aspect of how I make work for a really long time. But I do think there’s room for me to improve in just getting stuff out. Most of the time, I’m a rotten failure. I just am. Like nine days out of ten, I’m just a wreck about writing music. If I can get that ratio up—maybe two out of ten are great days, or three out of ten—that is how I measure my progress as composer. And it comes and goes in waves; sometimes I feel like I’m empowered, and I’m liking what I’m doing, and I’m into it. That’s amazing, and then I’ll go through long, long stretches where I’m not. It’s been tricky for me to deal with that as I get further along on the commission track of very slick professional orchestras and big names, and big opportunities. You don’t want to fail in front of, you know, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their audience. It’s not a place where one wants to fail. But at the same time, I have to give myself the permission to fail, or nothing will ever come out. I have to also realize that those failures are on the road to some other thing. I’m getting slowly better at this idea that each piece I write is one stepping stone on a very long trajectory to exploring the issues that are interesting to me. It’s very, very important to me to create the best experience I possibly can for that audience, and for those players—to create a meaningful span of time for everyone involved. That experience I’m creating is only one out of many that are adding up to a life of creative work.
AG: It’s refreshing that you are so honest and open about the fact that writing music for you is an enormous struggle. I think a lot of younger composers especially are under the impression that if a composer’s career is going fantastically well, that he or she doesn’t struggle. In fact, the struggle can be much greater as the stakes get higher, just like you said.
AN: Yeah! I feel like there is something in our field, especially when you’re young, that you have to present yourself as being totally put together, totally 100 percent sure of yourself and your ideas, and that you like the music that you write.
It’s been wonderful to see what’s happened in the last several years with ideas of self-promotion, grass roots movements, and getting your work out there, and making it happen for yourself. If you don’t like the way the institutions are structured, make your own. And go find your own audience. I think this is fabulous for our field, the new bottom-up sort of approach.
But I do think that there needs to be a space where we don’t always know what we’re doing. I certainly don’t. Sometimes I feel like I have a strong coherent story that I can tell about my work, and sometimes I don’t. I think it’s an important message for everyone, that it’s O.K. to struggle and fail. It’s also O.K. to take a step back. I’ve done that many times in my brief career, of being like: I can’t be out in the world right now promoting my stuff. I need to be thinking about my stuff. I need to be thinking about what it is that I want. And I need to go through that internal process of re-evaluation, to work through my issues, and then eventually someday I’m going to be O.K. enough to broadcast that to the world. But what’s important right now is the thinking through the trajectory of my work without having to worry about how I broadcast that, and how it plays in the world.
I’m very much like a cave composer. Like I go in, and every once in awhile I come out with a piece, and every once in awhile, the piece is actually coherent and good. Then I go back, and… it’s a little bit old school for sure. It’s not this model of a composer being out in the world constantly. But it’s the only way that I can make work, so that’s what I do.
AG: It’s true, you are a quiet one! Everybody’s being pummeled all the time with: you have to do Twitter, you have to do this, you have to promote your work and so on. I’m curious what would you would say to a younger composer, like a 20-year old you who is being blasted by all that.
AN: I would say, if that’s your thing, and if you do that naturally, go for it. There’s so much you can do. But if that’s not your thing, don’t. And spend the time to really figure out what your thing is. I feel like there’s so much emphasis on promoting your thing that people forget to actually come up with the thing! Yes, selling your story is so important, but you need to have a good story to sell. You need to have an original story, and you need to go through that process of finding it. I would want to give young composers the permission to think, and to leave the world a little bit—to really inhabit a very personal space of making work. I also think there are lots of people out there who really are hungry for original work. We sometimes forget it when we look at all of the buzzy things in our field, and we look at who wins what prizes, and we look at who’s getting reviewed in what papers. We see who’s got the buzz, and who doesn’t. I think we do forget that there are a lot of people who are genuinely looking for that original voice out there. And those voices will be found.
If you’ve got something original to say, people will sit up and take notice. And I think that that has nothing to do with your presence on Twitter or any of those things. There’s a kind of rat race of competitions and stuff like that out there. But if you develop later, that’s fine. If you didn’t win an ASCAP award in your 20s, there’s hope for you in the future! The world definitely works differently now. Everything is shifting, and the old guard of power structures in our field is certainly changing. Maybe I’m an example of someone who is not out there in the world constantly, but people seem to know and value my work. I’m incredibly grateful for that.
AG: It’s not because of Twitter.
AN: It’s definitely not because of Twitter.