18 Sep 2018

Tensions and dichotomies :: A look inside “Suspend”

By Andrew Norman

Andrew Norman is a Los Angeles-based composer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal music. His work draws on an eclectic mix of sounds and notational practices from both the avant-garde and classical traditions. He is the Utah Symphony’s Composer in Association for the 2018-19 season

“Suspend” is a 20-minute fantasy for piano and orchestra. It originally was conceived at the special request of piano legend Emanuel Ax, as an exploration of two melodic fragments that were significant to Johannes Brahms. The first is F-A-E (“Frei Aber Einsam” in German, or “free but lonely” in English) and the second is F-A-F (“Frei Aber Froh”, free but happy). From there it developed into an extended rumination on the ideas of freedom and solitude, a dream-like journey inspired by the creative, conflicted, lonely spirit of Brahms and the ever-present tensions in his (and my) life and music between spontaneity and control, sentiment and structure, indulgence and restraint.

Like many of its forbearers in the long tradition of keyboard fantasies, “Suspend” is intended to sound as if it is being made up on the spot, a single meandering but unbroken thread of thought spun out by the pianist from beginning to end.

The piece follows a simple scenario: the pianist—perhaps a solitary, Brahms-like figure—sits down at the keyboard and slowly begins to improvise. At first the sounds exist only in the pianist’s own mind, but little by little they become real to the rest of us. The pianist very gradually imagines an orchestra into existence, and over the course of many minutes that imaginary orchestra assumes its own voice and identity, transforming from a shadow, a resonance, an echo of the piano into a powerful and distinct musical entity that threatens, at the work’s climax, to swallow up the pianist. The piece ends with a coda in which the pianist freely meditates on the F-A-F motive and the orchestra, player by player, is released into a world of free, uncoordinated playing.

Most orchestras perform at least a few pieces by living composers every year. Having a Composer-in-Association takes this commitment to new music to the next level. Under Music Director Thierry Fischer’s guidance, the orchestra has made a commitment to commission a new work from a living composer for each season. Utah Symphony’s 2018-19 Composer-in-Association Andrew Norman will visit Salt Lake City during the two weeks when his works are being performed by the orchestra (September 10-15 and March 18-23), giving him the opportunity to help foster deeper understanding of his compositions among both the musicians of the orchestra and our audiences as well. He will also visit for one additional week, during which he will connect with the larger Salt Lake community through educational and outreach events.