For Andrew Norman, the acts of playing music and composing music have always been intimately linked - at least since he was 6, which is when a piano arrived in his family's house, their first musical instrument.
"I was always making up things," said Norman by phone during a recent call from London, where he was having a piece performed. "No one in my family was musical, so I was able to fool my parents into thinking I was practicing."
Perhaps it's that early bond between creative and re-creative acts that has made Norman one of the most important young composers in America. Unusually for a 32-year-old, he has a sure grasp of musical structure and dazzling facility when it comes to orchestral writing.
And he is the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's new composer-in-residence, the group's first since Lisa Bielawa ended her tenure in 2009. Tonight's concert marks the first appearance of Norman's music on a BMOP program: He'll be represented by "Air," a concerto for theremin and strings, premiered last year in Heidelberg.
Norman's BMOP stint runs through the 2012-13 season. This fall, he will also begin a three-year residency with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, giving him the chance to make long-term connections with two proficient and adventurous ensembles. It's a break he does not take lightly.
"Being a freelance composer, your career is never a sure thing," he said. "You never know where the next opportunities are going to come from. So the fact that I have these gigs that are going out multiple years into the future - that's remarkable. It allows me the sense of being able to think about my own artistic trajectory with a little more sense of where can I take my own work in the next few years."
Norman was raised in central California and holds music degrees from the University of Southern California and Yale. He initially leaned toward becoming an architect - some of his compositions take their inspiration directly from the space, proportions, and feel of buildings - but decided on music in his late teens.
He hasn't always been sure of his chosen vocation.
"There were periods where I stopped composing for a long time," he said. "I guess it's taken me a while to pinpoint what exactly I like about this art form and what I find interesting about it."
One thing that Norman decided was meaningful is perhaps classical music's most basic element: the act of writing something down for other people to play. This may seem such an obvious part of the art form that it hardly needs to be thought about. But it bears reminding that the explosive growth of technology in music has brought computer-generated sounds and sampling into the classical tradition, and in some quarters the idea of musicians physically creating sounds in a concert hall has become what Norman calls "this kind of arcane way of making music."
Coming to terms with this trend, he emerged with a philosophy you might call old school idealism. "It's the creation of a written text that is interpreted and reinterpreted and reinterpreted. . . . The only reason I would write something down is because I'm interested in what someone else would have to say about it.
"I'm also interested in the fact that this kind of music is always performed live," he continued, "and is therefore different every single time. There's something special about what I would call communal listening: This isn't music made for an iPod but for a group of people - 20 or 200 or 2,000 - to experience together."
This way of thinking has an influence on Norman's fluent, colorful writing for orchestra, as does his refusal to marshal computers or pre-recorded sounds in his works.
"I'm forced to do all the interesting things with acoustic instruments," said Norman, who calls himself "a complete ditz" when it comes to computers. "I try to treat the orchestra with a bit of flair instead of melding it with a layer of electronics. A lot of the sounds that I'm evoking do actually come from me listening to electronic music and trying to reproduce those sounds acoustically."
During his time in Boston, Norman will be looking to get acquainted with the city's music community and figure out where BMOP fits in.
BMOP music director Gil Rose calls Norman one of the most talented young composers around. "He can make an orchestra sound, he's very meticulous in his writing, but at the same time his music sounds fresh and immediate," said Rose. "And he has a great personality for communicating and outreach. He has the 'composer'; it just turns out that he has the 'in residence,' too."
Norman is looking forward to putting both parts of the role into action - exploring ways to help BMOP increase its role in the community while also writing a lengthy, substantial piece for the orchestra, to premiere at the end of his residency in 2013.
"It's hardly ever that a composer of my age gets paid to basically write whatever I want, and the more I think about it the more excited I get by what I could do with that orchestra in that amount of time. It’s a good deal."