Norman's Prize-Winning Play Plays on Record

Prepare for one of those wild, hold-on-to-your-horses rides that will send minds and sound systems spinning (and horses bolting). Andrew Norman's award-winning, 47-minute orchestral work Play (2013), plays with musician and listener expectations simultaneously while proceeding on a course barely predictable from its opening salvos. Somewhat reflective of the worlds of rock and jazz, with a language all its own and ideas far more developed, dense, and unpredictable than all but the most experimental and far out excursions, Play's visceral and cerebral appeal reaches far beyond the confines of genres and settings.

Commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which debuted and recorded it for hybrid SACD in 2013, Play was nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. (A few months back, it received the $100,000 Grawemeyer Award. Given all the attention, it's no surprise that Norman, who was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music, was named Musical America's 2017 Composer of the Year.

Stereophile first covered Norman's mind-blowing music in April, 2016, when we reviewed the now 39-year old, Los Angeles-based composer's Mine, Mime, Meme and Switch. Now we turn to the most-fêted composition by the still-young maverick, who has a penchant for bouncing far more than notes off the walls.

"Play is an exploration of the many ways that people in an orchestra can play with, against, or apart from one another," Norman writes in the liner notes." It tries to make the most of the innate physicality and theatricality of live instrument performance. [It also shares, with other pieces I've written] a wedge-shaped melodic line that became a bit of an idée fixe for me a couple of years ago. I obsessed with this wedge—a simple, logically predictable line that starts on C and unfolds outward in every-greater intervals . . . Ultimately, it is the story of the wedge—one might say the wedge's search for its true and complete self—that forms the basic plot of Play."

An audio recording may not show us Norman's intentionally scripted stage interactions among musicians, nor reveal the fact that the score contains numerous "chance" elements that allow for different choices amongst musicians and conductor each time the work is performed. Nonetheless, what we hear (and will never hear again in another performance of Play) is exceptionally vivid.

The work starts with a huge, crazed racket as sounds, percussive and otherwise, zing back and forth across the stage. That the soundstage is extremely spacious and resonant only adds to the fun. Just about the time you may feel ready to be hung out to dry, the second movement begins. Even when the music grows quiet and mysterious, there's always the lingering expectation that a windstorm to arise at any moment, I don't want to give anything aware here, but the piece's development, and Norman's utilization of silence, are not what you'd expect.

Play's third and final movement manages to maintain the sense of mystery while entering an entirely new dimension. As the music builds slowly, I hear faint echoes of the old classical tradition, including the music of Vivaldi and the far weightier monuments of Beethoven, Mahler, and the like. The end seems tremendously daring. And then . . .

The SACD ends with Try (2012), which Norman describes as a 14-minute "beta version of Play, a smaller-scaled test run for a few of the ideas that would be incorporated into Play's conceptual framework. [It is] a point of reference to show where my thinking started and how it developed in the construction of the larger symphonic work."

I'll let you try to find words to describe the differences between the two works. Frankly, after listening to Play, I was so exhilarated, and so spent, that I couldn't fully focus on the second piece. I'd love to learn how readers made their way through both Play and Try in a single sitting.

midfiguy's picture

Invigorating music to say the least! "Try" is a worthwhile piece in its own right, but I find "Play" to be kind of overwhelming - a tough act for "Try" to follow. "Play" is available on TIDAL for anyone who would like to take a test drive.

PeterMrozik's picture

Once again, I've read about a recording I would never have run across, but for my friends at Stereophile! I'll give this a listen via Tidal - it's just great that I can discover these gems and listen to them without buying a copy. This has both expanded my exploratory horizons and lowered my annual expense for acquiring physical media. Strangely, I wind up buying CDs of items I like for friends and family.

jporter's picture

Thanks...This piece is a lot of fun.

anomaly7's picture

This is an amazing piece of music. The composition demands that one sit and listen, although I suppose one could stand, the point is that the artistic arrangement of the notes as they form the "music" places the listeners focus on attention and up front due to the wide dynamic range and seemingly random time the score is written in. Definitely not boring!