Michael Norris (b.1973)
Heavy Traffic (2006)
Performers: Hamish McKeich (contrabassoon), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Judd (conductor)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
21 May 2006
Introduced by Kenneth Young
Ah, the contrabassoon. One of the true characters of the modern symphony orchestra. You've just heard the first notes from the soloist in tonight's featured work, Heavy Traffic by Michael Norris. However, what precedes this initial utterance is over one and a half minutes of rather frenetic, scherzo like orchestral writing - a wonderfully ironic foil for the soloist’s grand entrance.
Michael Norris is a Wellington-based composer, software developer and music theorist. He's currently Senior Lecturer in Composition at the New Zealand School of Music, where he teaches composition, sonic art and post-tonal music theory.
As one of the leading composers of instrumental composition in New Zealand, Michael enjoys an international presence, with particular links to Austria, Germany and the Asia Pacific region. He was recently featured in the 2010 Donaueschingen Festival in Germany.
As a software developer, he’s best known for SoundMagic Spectral, a suite of plugins which have been used widely both in academia and the industry, including on a number of feature film soundtracks, and by artists such as Aphex Twin and Brian Eno.
As a music theorist, Michael is interested in post-tonal chromatic theories, especially derivatives of pitch class set theory (such as tone-clock theory), microtonality, Neo-Riemannian theory, and scalar constraints theory. Michael has written a number of articles relating these concepts of harmonic theory to works from New Zealand, especially those by Jenny McLeod, Jack Body and Douglas Lilburn.
He's been both Composer-in-Residence with the Southern Sinfonia and the University of Otago Mozart Fellow. In 2003, Michael won the Douglas Lilburn Prize, a nationwide competition for orchestral composers. He is also co-founder and co-director of the new music ensemble Stroma.
In 2006 Michael Norris was invited by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to contribute to their wonderful series of mini-concertos for each instrument of the orchestra. He was presented with a short-list of instruments he could select from and immediately chose the contrabassoon.
He would have had in mind the chance to ironically juxtapose a supposedly ponderous instrument with the flight and fancy of an orchestra travelling at a brisk pace. However, he doesn’t rely on this one gag and indeed there the solo instrument has plenty to do as it takes the orchestra on at its own game. In short, Heavy Traffic is a virtuoso work requiring great technical ability.
In the middle of the work, quick movement gives way to the contrabassoon's more lyrical and reflective side.
The work soon returns to what William Dart described as its "darting, pointillist frenzy", along the way introducing multiphonics, fluttertongueing, percussionists and trumpeters furiously blowing referees' whistles and, to top it off, a splendid duet between the soloist and orchestral tuba, the only instrument in the orchestra capable of playing as low as the contrabassoon.
One of the many things I admire about this piece is Norris's deft orchestration. It would have been very easy for the solo instrument to be submerged, excuse the pun, beneath the sometimes riotous orchestral colour. However the contrabassoon has different characteristics in different registers, and the composer has recognised not only where he needs to back off orchestrally but also when he can lay it on a bit thicker. Clever stuff.