Try, Try Again (or what do poet William Carlos Williams and composer Andrew Norman have in common?)

Composer Andrew Norman

Composer Andrew Norman

Having written something that pleases one doesn’t give one instructions on how to do it again.
—John Ashbery

William Carlos Williams’ Portrait of a Lady is a peculiar thing, stuttering along as it does. It begins:

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? . . .

Williams brings in Watteau, then Fragonard, in each case more non-sequitur than sense:

. . . Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
—As if that answered
anything. . . .

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

The poem slips into a fractured lyricism, cuts off, and veers back again, the imagery snarling into a mess. At the end, it’s as if Williams crumpled the paper on which he was writing in complete disgust.

Which shore? Which shore?
—the petals from some hidden
appletree—Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

Williams didn’t toss the crumpled paper, though, for we have the poem.

Make It New 41PRMhZM2KL._SL500__edited-1In those early Modernist days, the Big Question seemed to be how to break from the past and “MAKE IT NEW.” Big Question or not, how to “make it new”—or simply how to make it next—must surely preoccupy anyone involved in creating new work. What I particularly admire about Williams’ Portrait of a Lady is the guts it took to let his stammering and stuttering process itself become the poem.

Now, it’s one thing to try this out in words—but imagine trying it out in sounds. That’s what composer Andrew Norman does in Try.

Companion Guide to Rome Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 4.22.19 PMNorman is no slouch when it comes to composing. His work, The Companion Guide to Rome, a sonic guide to his favorite Roman churches, was named a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. He’s had works commissioned and premiered by, among others, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich.

Try was the result of a joint commission by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. John Adams conducted its premiere, in 2011, in Disney Hall. Norman wrote of Try:

I never get things right on the first try. I am a trial-and-error composer, an incurable reviser. And this is a problem when it comes to high profile commissions. . . . Disney Hall and the LA Philharmonic have meant so much to me over the years that the overwhelming desire to write for them the perfect piece was enough to stop me dead in my creative tracks. It took me many months to realize the obvious: my piece was never going to be perfect no matter how hard I tried, and perfection was not even the right target on which to set my sights.

Of the premiere, Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed had this to say:

“Try” tries, and usually succeeds, to change direction every few seconds, and when it intentionally doesn’t succeed, it is all the more amusing. There is no end to the odd sounds Norman entices from a fairly conventional chamber ensemble. Strings buzzed like insects. Winds burst in with pinpoint dabs of color. Frequently the action stopped and the piano hit a single note or two, a Chaplinesque stunt.

I heard Try live when Contemporaneous performed it at Bard. I think William Carlos Williams would have loved it. I sure did.


Listening List

William Carlos Williams

>To hear William Carlos Williams read Portrait of a Lady, click here.
>For a complete text of the poem, click here.
>More audios of Williams may be found on PennSound here.

Andrew Norman

The Companion Guide to Rome (I-VIII) [w/ score] (2010)

Here is an excerpt from Norman about the piece:

Like many of the buildings in Rome, this piece is the product of a long gestation marked by numerous renovations, accretions, and ground-up reconstructions. What has emerged is a collection of portraits—nine in all—of my favorite Roman churches.

The Great Swiftness (excerpt) (2010)

Hear Norman talk about The Great Swiftness

Gran Turismo (2004)

Click here to hear excerpts from Try (2011) and other works on Andrew Norman’s website.

Click here to see a playlist Norman compiled “from the pieces that have knocked my socks off on first listening.” (A mock-up of the playlist may be heard on Spotify here.)


Credits: “Try, try again” apparently had its first appearance in Thomas Palmer’s The Teacher’s Manual: Being an Exposition of an Efficient and Economical System of Education, Suited to the Wants of a Free People (1840). The quotation from John Ashbery may be found at PennSound here. (quotation at ~9:10). The quotations from Portrait of a Lady may be found here. The quotations from Norman and Swed about Try may be found here and hereThe quotation from Norman about The Companion Guide to Rome may be found here. The image at the head of the post is a screen shot from The Great Swiftness commentary video above; the image of a page of The Companion Guide to Rome score is a screen shot from The Companion Guide to Rome video above. The image of William Carlos Williams may be found here and that of Make It New here.

18 thoughts on “Try, Try Again (or what do poet William Carlos Williams and composer Andrew Norman have in common?)

  1. peculiaritiesandreticences

    Thanks, Susan- this is just what I needed, when I’m trying to write a composition for class through a road block. “My piece was never going to be perfect no matter how hard I tried, and perfection was not even the right target on which to set my sights.” That’s what I needed to hear. And I had forgotten about “Portrait of a Lady.”

    I owe ya one.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark S.: Good luck! What did you think of Norman’s pieces (hard to get a real sense of Try from the short excerpt, but the others are either complete or long excerpts).

  2. angela

    See, now this is why I reloaded Spotify…thank you, now listening as I catch up on WP. Your posts makes me wistful for a bit of Al Filries. In all seriousness (this question) is it more “make it new” or “make it Mine”…?

    1. angela

      Clarification ~ I was not referring to any one artist with the “make it Mine” – I have oft wondered about the statement ‘make it new’ in regards to the art and artist’s objective. Norman certainly is resurrecting the bones of his discipline, which I so admire since any classic art has been flooded with Greats, making it that more challenging. I am stopping to offer a link that I believe you and MK will enjoy reading, cheers, ~ a

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        Angela: Your comment, “Norman certainly is resurrecting the bones of his discipline,” is wonderful. As for make it new, I like your alternative, “make it mine.” Certainly the Chapter Nine poets, or at least some of them, would say you can’t make it new, anymore, so that can’t possibly be the goal. And thank you several times over for the Ashbery link!

  3. David N

    ‘How to “make it new”—or simply how to make it next’: I love that. As I do what I’ve been able to hear of Andrew Norman’s music (and it looks as if I ought to have heard some of it already, but I haven’t). The start of the Roman Churches pieces is up there with Respighi’s Pines of Rome for a brilliant opener. When my machine runs more smoothly, I look forward to hearing/seeing much more.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I recalled your wonderful Rome posts as I was listening to Norman’s Roman Churches piece, thinking that of course you would know the churches he names. Norman is certainly a composer to watch out for, isn’t he? There’s very little available, nothing recorded other than on YouTube, that I know of. I hope that will change sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, we do have these few things, including that fine performance of Gran Turismo by students at the Boulder College of Music. Reminds me of the wonderful performance of Lembit Beecher’s And Then I Remember by U. Michigan students. I feel so lucky to have Bard near enough by to get up there for Contemporaneous concerts and, from time to time, student recitals. Along with standout performances, for me, the pleasure is heightened by the joy of discovering not only great new compositions, but also great young musicians.

  4. czandramostly

    Thanks for all the music/sound. I need this just now, when people in Montreal are plying poets with workshops entitled: limitations bring freedom. I myself am torn and tiraillée between crumpling everything or smoothing it out. The balance seems to depend on whether you start with something crumpled (subject, language or both) or whether you start with something smooth. The obvious is to do the opposite to it – crumple the smooth and smooth the crumpled. The reactions are to crumple the crumpled unto psychosis, or to smooth the smooth to obsession. This music sounds like sanity.

    Best wishes.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Czandra: What a delight to see you here, and with such priceless observations. Your way with words, crumpled or smooth, is marvelous. Of course, I immediately wondered, what would a collaboration between Andrew Norman and Czandra Mostly look like? Like sanity, I suspect.

  5. Mark Kerstetter

    Reminds me of the Dali quote: “Don’t fear perfection, you’ll never reach it” -this coming from a painter known for details in work he himself described as “hand photography”. Or letting so-called accidents happen, rolling with it – it’s a whole approach to work.

    It’s interesting how Norman is inspired by structures in space, like walking around the Calder. It’s true, one can only take such a thing in through time and space, by walking around it – so the whole thing moves, like a visual dance. Beautiful to give such a thing music. Listening to the Rome piece now – very rich. Thanks once again Susan, for the introduction to an incredible young composer.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark K: I, too, was struck by Norman finding inspiration in structures. I love your observation, “the whole thing moves, like a visual dance,” and so agree about the beauty of finding a way to express the experience in music. It might be fun to put together a playlist of compositions inspired by art and architecture (taking note of David’s mention of Respighi–a very different work, of course, but one I also thoroughly enjoy). I’m delighted, most of all, to share enjoyment of Norman’s music with you.

  6. shoreacres

    I tried “Try”, but found it trying. My lack no doubt – I’ve never been one to limit myself to the tried and true, but this new music is hard for me. I’ll go back and sample the others tomorrow – it’s a bit too late for patient listening now.

    On the other hand, I understand a good bit about the creative process, and delight in finding correspondences among artists in various disciplines. I particularly appreciated Norman’s remark that “this piece is the product of a long gestation marked by numerous renovations, accretions, and ground-up reconstructions.” That’s a process I recognize, one that often continues on unabated on the dock, in bed at night, at waking. Even when it slips below the surface of consciousness, it continues. When I wake in the morning with a word or phrase I couldn’t catch the night before firmly in mind, I like to say “my mind was working the night shift”. I think Norman would understand that perfectly.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Though in the end it may simply not appeal to you, bear in mind that there’s probably too little of Try available to get a real sense. What made this piece so remarkable for me was Norman’s uncanny ability to evoke in music the process of composing/creating. At the concert, Mattingly and Bloom said to think of the piano as Norman, the composer. That gave me a fruitful route for listening to the progression of the piece. I was, as I note, immediately put in mind of the Williams’ poem, and particularly his reading of it at the link I provide. That germ of an idea, the false starts, persistence, frustration, and the halting emergence of the piece’s final, yet never final, form, are present in both.

  7. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    words, metaphors – here they are not doing what the poet wants. “”The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false. Its imposition is due to lack of imagination, to an easy lateral sliding”, Williams wrote.
    I have the impression he is more than slightly parodic in this poem – and I find it quite funny. Especially as I “see” the pictures he is painting – “the sand clings to my lips — Which shore?” – he is trying so hard, and maybe the images just work like a gust of snow against losing himself speechless?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: Nice one, Britta! I actually am only at the beginning of getting to know Williams (aside from that red wheel barrow), so of course had to see if I could find that quote. From Kora in Hell: Improvisations, it looks like, and in the bargain, he goes on to take on Wallace Stevens. I love your last point, too: “he is trying so hard, and maybe the images just work like a gust of snow against losing himself speechless?” What’s a poor poet to do?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Nice spotting, and so it is, except not Watteau, as it turns out, but Fragonard, so the plot thickens . . . Here’s a bit of commentary you spurred me to find out: “The painting which portrays a lady’s slipper suspended in the air in front of the lady on a swing is incorrectly attributed to Watteau by one of Williams’ speakers. The painting is “La Balancoire” (“The Swing”) by Fragonard.” The commentator goes on to speculate what that signifies in the poem–I won’t hazard a guess, but here’s the link for anyone interested (Mordecai Marcus entry):

Comments are closed.