Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (vibraphone [with bow], 4 bongos, 5 temple blocks, 3 splash cymbals, 5 tin cans, kick drum [muffled with blanket], brake drum, washboard; crotales, 5 log drums, 4 opera gongs, 4 small tom-toms, kick drum [muffled with blanket], spring coil, triangle, guiro, tam-tam [large], slapstick; xylophone, 4 wood blocks, 5 temple blocks, 5 cowbells, kick drum [muffled with blanket], ratchet, slapstick, bass drum), piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance (Level 1 only): February 25, 2016, Gustavo Dudamel conducting
It is difficult for me to write about Play. Play is a cycle of pieces, a body of work that I have been writing and rewriting for almost five years. Play explores many different ideas – ideas about choice, chance, free will, and control, about how technology has rewired our brains and changed the ways we express ourselves, about the blurring boundaries of reality in the internet age, the murky grounds where video games and drone warfare meet, for instance, or where cyber-bullying and real world violence converge. Play touches on the corrupting influence of power and the collapse and rebirth of social orders, but it also explores the physicality and joy of instrumental playing, as well as the many potential meanings of coordinated human activity – how the display of massed human synchronicity can represent both the communal best and coercive worst of our race. It is difficult for me to try to cogently offer all this up in a program note. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Tchaikovsky, who wrote a highly specific narrative for his Fourth Symphony, I thought I’d give you one of the stories that coalesced as I wrote Play. It is by no means the only plotline that weaves through the work, but it might provide a useful guide into this dense and sprawling music:
We flip the switch on a crazy, topsy-turvy world where the percussionists discover that their instruments have all sorts of powers over the rest of the orchestra. They have the power to turn other players on and off, to make them play forwards or backwards, louder or softer, faster or slower, to trade them out one for another or make them rewind and retry ideas again and again until they are gotten right.
The percussionists spend much of Level 1 running around like kids in a candy shop, making and remaking the music around them with gleeful abandon.
In Level 2, the pace slows and the mood darkens. The percussionists become more selective with their interventions, but also more manipulative, even sadistic in the increasingly unwieldy paces through which they put the rest of the band.
Level 2 ends with an epic battle between the percussionists, as they open and slam shut doors onto different worlds, frantically trying to find a way out of the musical labyrinth of their own creation, and in Level 2’s final seconds they whack themselves into oblivion, leaving the orchestra suspended in a silent, frozen state.
Level 3 begins in that frozen silence as the orchestral musicians, for the first time free of the percussionists and their oppressive systems of control, must decide for themselves if and when and what and why and how to play. The musicians come to life slowly, and gradually form the music, the first truly communal expression in the entire piece, that they had been trying to find all along.
— Andrew Norman