Having written something that pleases one doesn’t give one instructions on how to do it again.
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. . . .
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
I said petals from an appletree.
Williams didn’t toss the crumpled paper, though, for we have the poem.
In 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.
Norman 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.
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.
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 here. The 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.