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Composer Explores Video Games, Attention Span In Grawemeyer Winner


The annual Grawemeyer Awards program at the University of Louisville pays tribute to the power of creative ideas, emphasizing the impact a single idea can have on the world. This year, Andrew Norman’s orchestral piece “Play” is the winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

The music of Norman, a Los Angeles-based composer, has been performed by leading ensembles worldwide, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw and the Orchestre National de France. He recently was named Musical America’s 2017 Composer of the Year.

In three movements, “Play” explores the relationship of choice and chance, free will and control. It investigates the ways musicians in an orchestra can play with, against, or apart from one another; and maps concepts from the world of video gaming onto traditional symphonic structures.

I spoke with Norman about the format of the composition, how decreased audience attention spans informs his work, and the importance of the work of modern composers. Listen to our conversation in the player above. 

On how “Play” is informed by video games:

"In any sort of game world, there are rules that govern how things happen, and there are also goals players of the game are trying to achieve. So I thought of constructing a symphony that sort of functions like a very complex game. And basically what happens in this piece is the percussionists at the back of the orchestra discover that each one of their instruments controls other people in the orchestra -- all in very specific, predetermined ways."

On how “Play” operates as a commentary on our decreased attention spans:

"A lot of this music is very fast-paced. There’s a lot of information going by, and in some ways when I was writing “Play” I was actually thinking about this idea of our attention spans being so minimized now in the internet age, in the age of social media. Everything is becoming smaller and smaller and faster and faster. So “Play” is an incredibly long piece, but a lot of it is made up of tiny, short events. I think of them as fragments of other pieces of music smooshed up next to each other."

On the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which commissioned "Play":

"It is their mission to promote the creation of new orchestral music, and also to perform and champion and record lesser-known or forgotten works over the last 50 years. This is incredibly important work they are doing because mainstream orchestras in America don’t often play contemporary music."