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A beginner's guide to Timo Andres: 6 pieces you should know

Matthew Parsons

This past weekend, the closest thing that 20th-century art music has to a celebrity — Philip Glass — received the Glenn Gould Prize at the National Arts Centre. Suffice it to say that however deserving a recipient Glass was, the win is unlikely to make his name any more familiar than it already is.

However, every Glenn Gould Prize winner is entrusted to name a “protégé,” who is also given a prize. This secondary award has more potential to be a genuine signal boost than the big prize — even if it has occasionally gone to luminaries like Tan Dun, Wu Man and Gustavo Dudamel.

Glass’s chosen recipient for the Protégé award is the young American composer Timo Andres. Andres is by any reasonable metric a very successful composer. His work has been recorded by major contemporary music ensembles like Eighth Blackbird and yMusic, he’s been commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music.

But even the most successful of today’s young composers rarely attain the kind of brand recognition that Glass managed to secure in his youth. With that in mind, here’s a list of six works by Timo Andres that you should check out right away if you haven’t gotten to know him yet.

Safe Travels

This chamber piece written for the sextet yMusic — with their unorthodox instrumentation of violin, viola, cello, clarinet, flute and trumpet — is the perfect starting point with Andres. There are moments in this where you could imagine it was written by Glass. But within 15 seconds of your having thought that, it zooms off in another direction. Safe Travels is typical of Andres at his best: rousing without being overstated, methodical without being cold.


How Can I Live In Your World Of Ideas?

Andres states on his website that "I’ve never thought of myself as a capital-P Pianist. Playing the piano constitutes roughly half my job, though it seems to function mostly as a tool that helps me slowly become a better musician — by applying compositional ideas interpretively, and vice versa." Andres has written a lot of his most distinctive music for his own instrument, including a full album's worth of duets called Shy and Mighty. That set of pieces began life as a university thesis project and became his debut album.

How Can I Live In Your World Of Ideas? began life as a two-piano work intended for that album. But when he found himself in need of solo music to play at short notice, he adapted it for one piano. Its playful title comes from an inscrutable cartoon that Andres drew, in which a young penguin attends an art gallery with his parents. Fortunately, the music is a bit more direct than that.

Work Songs (‘To Whom It May Concern’)

Andres is one of a new cohort of acclaimed American composers, including his peers in the composers' collective Sleeping Giant as well as rising stars like Nico Muhly, Caroline Shaw, and Gabriel Kahane. Andres has collaborated extensively with Kahane, including a tour where they performed together at two pianos with Kahane singing. It's well worth checking out their performance of Benjamin Britten's folksong arrangements at Music on Main in Vancouver. Kahane's amplified, decidedly non-classical singing style suits this music better than any opera singer's ever could. (He says, relishing the subsequent cries of "heresy!")

Andres and Kahane released an album of the music they performed on that concert tour on Bandcamp. There's only one song by Andres, but it is a very likeable one from his suite called Work Songs. Andres calls them "a collection of thoughts on the creation of art." The one featured here, "To Whom It May Concern," is based on a poem by Andrea Cohen, and gives voice to the foremost dream of all American artists: moving to Norway.


I Found it by the Sea

Like virtually every composer his age, Andres cites influences from a wide range of pop musicians including Sigur Ros and Radiohead, but he's not afraid to wear his hardcore classical bona fides on his sleeve, either. I Found it by the Sea is a piano quartet inspired by Brahms's magisterial G minor quartet, which Andres calls his "benchmark for great chamber music." It isn't a straightforward set of variations on Brahms, but rather an exploration of the halfway coincidental similarity between one of Brahms's melodies and one from earlier in Andres' compositional career. "In the end of the piece, I set Brahms’s original theme as a 'trope' or echo of my own," Andres wrote. "This gesture was a way to 'work out' Brahms’s huge influence on me, by pretending that it was actually I who influenced Brahms." He's fooling nobody, but it is a really good piece.

Home Stretch

Andres's Pulitzer-shortlisted piece The Blind Banister for piano and orchestra is not yet available on record. But until then, we have this brief chamber concerto. Andres wrote it for his friend (and Shy and Mighty duet partner) David Kaplan to be paired with Mozart's 12th piano concerto. Andres has written that his two inspirations were the relatively small size of the Mozartean orchestra for which he was writing, and Kaplan's passion for fast cars. This is likely the only piece of music where those two reference points collide. But as Home Stretch gradually roars to life and speeds to a conclusion, you'll be glad that they did.


Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno

Home Stretch lent its title to Andres’s second album for Nonesuch. The other two pieces on the album find Andres playing around in musical sandboxes constructed by his idols. First, he offers an idiosyncratic completion of Mozart's unfinished Coronation Concerto. Then, he turns his attention a couple centuries later and brings us this ravishing orchestration of several themes by Brian Eno. Again, building on the work that Glass did in adapting David Bowie's music for orchestra (as well as the centuries-older tradition of orchestral paraphrases of music from famous operas), Andres displays Eno's music in a genuinely new light. His take on "Everything Merges With the Night" (at 3:15 in this live recording) is especially gorgeous.


If these six pieces have whetted your appetite, you should definitely check out Andres's two albums on Nonesuch: his two-piano record Shy and Mighty and also Home Stretch, which contains music for piano and chamber orchestra. You can find samples from both Shy and Mighty and Home Stretch on Soundcloud.

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