My first thought in writing Sustain was to imagine the audience that will sit in Disney Hall 100 years from now, during the 200th season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. What will it mean to gather as a community and listen to an orchestra in 2118? How will the ears and minds of those people be different from ours? How will they be the same? How will their notions of time and space and sound and history be shaped by the world around them, and what will that world outside Disney Hall look like? What place will the art of live symphonic performance have in such a society?
These are broad and bottomless questions which led me in many directions, but gradually they coalesced around a pair of subjects. The first is time. Perhaps, 100 years from now, the act of sitting quietly and listening to a symphonic argument unfold over 45 minutes will mean even more than it does today. Perhaps, in a time when humans will be bombarded with increasingly atomized bits of information, when over-stimulation, fragmentation, and isolation will be the given norms of experience and discourse, perhaps then communal listening to a single, long unbroken musical thought will carry a kind of significance, sacrifice, and otherness we can’t yet really imagine.
I realized, as I was trying to conceptualize Sustain as a one long unbroken musical thought, that I was attempting to access and understand spans of time that were much bigger than my own, that I was trying to move from times with which I was familiar—that of a tweet, or a work day, or a year—to things I could never personally experience, like the rise and fall of species, the movement of tectonic plates, the birth and death of stars.
Structurally speaking, Sustain is cast in the form of a contracting spiral. It repeats the same music ten times in a row, each repetition being roughly three times faster than the time before. What takes many minutes to unfold at the beginning flies by in a few seconds toward the work's center.
All this thinking about time and proportion brought me around to what is perhaps at the heart this piece: the natural world. Midway through writing Sustain I discovered that I was really writing a piece about the earth, and my—and our—relationship to it. All the work I was doing with long spans of musical time and geologically-unfolding sonic processes was in many ways my attempt to place us, the listeners in Disney Hall, in relation to things in nature which are unfathomably bigger and longer than we are. And if there is a sense of sadness or loss that permeates this music, it comes from the knowledge that we, at this critical moment in our history, are not doing enough to sustain the planet that sustains us, that we are not preparing our home for those who will inhabit it in the next hundred, thousand, or million years.
– Andrew Norman