Composers: Nick Norton

Nick Norton, another fellow Twitter friend of mine (known as “@NickWritesMusic”) is a composer, has 2 indie rock bands, writes material for his website, is a Vice President for a musical therapy organization called Music To Heal, and is also the Music Director of PR firm Pavement Press. Aside from the seemingly-hectic lifestyle he has, Mr. Norton’s studies have taken him all the way to Europe and back again earning him several awards and grants, and has had his works performed and workshopped by various orchestras and ensembles. Thank goodness there was some spare time to do a Q&A!

CM: Nick, after studying guitar you played in punk rock bands before you went to university both in your native California and then Paris to study composition. Were you always thinking of that even during the punk years or did you get swayed by classical music later in life?

NN: I think I discovered what we might call formal composition by accident. I was very, very involved in political and social activism in high school, as was a lot of the music I was listening to and playing. I figured for college I would double major in music and political science, and then either write well-informed sociopolitical music to effect change, or go into politics and be a voice for the underrepresented…I think the interest in that in particular came from seeing punk music as sort of underrepresented and misunderstood by mainstream culture.

I’d always had an interest in classical music, and enjoyed going to hear orchestras, but I think that came from an interest in the arts in general. Going to class in college, early on, I found a lot of the theory and music history boring. I still find the large majority of baroque music that I hear totally boring, and a good bit of the standard canonical repertoire too. It sounds extremely pretentious, but I felt like my (and most of today’s listeners) ears had evolved to listen for color and rhythm and texture, not so much how a theme is developed and modulated in the kind of Germanic tradition. By this time I had moved away from punk a little bit, and into more esoteric types of rock…noise rock, glitch, post-rock, stuff like that. I didn’t find the palette of sounds that traditional classical music used to be capable of holding my attention, since I’d grown up with the complete range of audible sound available to be used musically.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that I suddenly became interested in the whole “classical” world. I took an introduction to composition class with Harvey Sollberger, and our first assignment was to write a piece for flute using only five pitches. Harvey was an incredible flutist, and said he would play our pieces in class the next week. I was kind of always into science and math and engineering and stuff like that, so exploring the permutations and structures of what one could do within a set of parameters like that was really interesting to me. I went home and ended up writing six or seven minutes of music for solo flute. I wasn’t really expecting much when I took it into class the next week, but about twenty seconds into his performance I was on cloud nine. I was like “this is amazing! Those black dots I wrote down on paper are generating actual sound and human activity! I want to do this forever!” And I haven’t really looked back. I didn’t see much of a future in politics, after having studied it, and writing music was a lot more fun, so I applied to some grad schools, got into a summer program in Paris and then King’s College London for my masters, and here I am.

On a side note, that’s right when my music history classes were getting up to the twentieth century, and the leap from the esoteric popular music I was listening to to classical modernism was an easy one from there. Then I just started studying the canon in kind of reverse chronological order. I feel like I’ve still got a lot to learn.

CM: What would you say was the moment your creativity had reached its maturity/breakthrough?

NN: I know the exact moment on that one as well. I was very into coming up with really elaborate structures and arguments for how to write music, after reading some of Boulez’s early essays and his correspondences with John Cage, and hearing about the ideological battles going on in places like Darmstadt. Being a hot-blooded post-teen pseudo-punk-hipster-intellectual, I was like “I can get on board with that! Screw the past! The only music that matters has to invent something at every second! I need total control as a composer!” I think my professors nurtured my passion, but it created some very drab music. I still think what I wrote then was important, because it was indeed inventing new sounds for me, but I was both fifty years late and totally out of touch with most listeners. Most of my friends didn’t like it too much, but were supportive, and said things like “well I don’t get it, but you know what you’re talking about, and maybe you’re just 100 years ahead of us”.

Nick Norton: On The Beach

Before I started in Paris I had a talk with who would be my professor in London, a composer named Rob Keeley (who just released a CD, by the way). I was talking about all of the systems in place in a piece I’d just written, and how important they were, and he said “well that’s all well and good, but what does it sound like?” That hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d kind of forgotten about that, and about the fact that whether it’s illuminating some dark aspect of the human psyche or just giving you a beat to dance to, music and art must in some sense be enjoyed by those who are perceiving it. So in Paris, I tried writing a piece with no system, just picking the notes I thought sounded good. It was scary…I think I almost passed out in the spot right after the music stops before the audience claps at the premiere…but the crowd absolutely loved it, and that piece has been performed a whole bunch now. I didn’t feel like I was pandering, because I was writing the music that I wanted to write. And that was the aha moment. I realized that absolutely nothing is off-limits as a composer, and that I could do whatever I damn well please. I still want to create new sounds and move our art forward, but if listeners have no way of connecting with it at all, then it won’t affect them and the whole effort may as well have been in vain. So since then, my guiding principal has more or less been to ask myself “Does this sound good? What do I want to hear?”. I’ve had a lot more success since then than ever before, so someone seems to agree.

CM: Your music does appear to have a significant voice and pattern. There’s an interesting turn of phrase on the 3rd and final movement of the String Quartet #1; The last 40 seconds of the piece, the quartet plucks dissonantly and then dissolves. That’s quite perplexing to me!

NN: Ha, my girlfriend had some questions about that ending too. There’s a piece for four guitars by Leo Brouwer called Cuban Landscape With Rain that is absolutely gorgeous, and then this storm of snap pizzes kind of destroys it. I liked that idea a lot, and love Brouwer’s music…I think his guitar stuff from the sixties and seventies had a lot to do with how I think about blending disparate musical elements. Anyway, that might be me succumbing to a pre-composed structure a bit again. I had wanted to create this sort of meditative, tentative mood in that movement, and then go BANG to it. Might’ve been a young unknown composer begging for attention there a little bit.

Nick Norton: String Quartet No. 1: Movement III

When I went to the first rehearsal for the recording, and they got through that movement and got to the last chord before that section, it was like this big beautiful sigh of release and calm. And I was like “man that’s a nice ending. Oh wait, here comes-” and then it explodes. So I was a little bit torn about whether to keep it in there, but the musicians all really enjoyed it, and the producer, Nick Tipp, really liked it, as did my friends who were acting as my second sets of ears for the session, so I kept it. I’m back to liking it a lot now, especially with what Nick did with the presence and reverb on the recording. That moment suddenly feels pretty claustrophobic. I dig it.

CM: The piece titled “Moon Songs” is a really interesting concept and another great example of the worlds of music and literature coming together. Can you talk about how it came about?

NN: That’s my first commission, and I somehow have to indirectly thank Eric Whitacre. Being somewhat outside of the world of classical music I spend a lot of time submitting things to calls for scores, because I don’t have a lot of friends who are conductors. I was about done with that, since nothing ever seemed to come of it, and he had published an article in the American Composers Forum newsletter saying that even if you didn’t get picked calls for scores were a great way to motivate yourself to keep writing, and you never knew when an individual judge might program a non-winning piece later. WomenSing had a call for samples out so that they could commission a young composer from California to write a piece using text from a library of poetry written by children. It was literally the last day of the deadline, and I said, “Fine, Eric Whitacre, I’ll give wasting money on postage one more shot.” I submitted a piece I’d written for a workshop with Exaudi, called Elevation Morceau, that was never actually premiered.

Lo and behold I got the commission, which involved doing a public workshop and a bunch of consultations with the artistic director, Martin Benevenuto, and their composer-in-residence, Libby Larsen. Then a few weeks later Charles Bruffy, the conductor of the Kansas City Chorale, who was on the judging panel for WomenSing, wrote to me to ask if he could premiere Elevation Morceau with Kansas City. Of course I said yes!

Things moved along pretty smoothly from there…instead of picking one poem I picked five, I wrote the music, had the public workshop, improved the music, went back up to the Bay area for the concerts. It was awesome. They were awesome. The whole experience, really. I went to Kansas City too for that concert, and they took me out for dinner and drinks and I felt like some kind of famous guest artist. It was really cool. I think the whole deal has opened up a lot of doors for me. I wrote Eric Whitacre to say thanks, but I don’t think I’ll ever hear back.

CM: [Still on “Moon Songs”] I like that in the midst of that choral piece suddenly there is what sounds like a welcome element of pop music when the drums kick in. Would you say that there is (or has been) a tendency for new classical music and other genres like pop and rock (indie rock especially) to start meshing together?

NN: That’s my favorite part of that piece, although the altos are about ready to pass out at that point so I don’t think they like it as much as I do. I think that tendency has always been there…Mahler 1 has klezmer-y sounding folk tunes in it, Where I End and You Begin has Mahler 1 in it. Alex Ross could point out a million examples of this. I mean, listen to Sigur Ros! Or perhaps listen to some Phil Glass, immediately followed by Godspeed You Black Emperor. There’s no difference, save for marketing, and I for one enjoy the concert experience of an early Dillinger Escape Plan show way more than I’ll ever enjoy that of a Brian Ferneyhough recital. The musical meat is not all that different. I think we’re noticing more crossover now for a few reasons though. One is that orchestras are trying to attract younger audiences, and younger audiences tend to like pop and rock and whatever else. I think the bigger reason, though, is that a lot of composers today grew up listening to more pop and rock. Honestly, I don’t think about it too much. I’ve only got one set of ears, it’s all vibrating air molecules that my brain has chosen to interpret as music. Any difference is all in context. That’s why the drum set sounds so out of place or shocking there…it’s not because it doesn’t line up, or isn’t rhythmically expected (it’s 4/4 on the kick and snare, after all), but because we’re trained not to expect a drumset in choral music. Or expect to hear Bartok quartets being performed amplified in a bar before a rock show. I’ve seen that too, and it’s awesome.

Nick Norton: Moon Songs

CM: Okay, so you are a composer AND you work in not one but two rock bands (Honest Iago and Better Looking People With Superior Ideas; I like that name, btw). When you go back to your fellow bandmates, do they poke fun, or are they much more respectful?

NN: The thing I love about playing in Honest Iago (besides the fact that we’re all close friends) is that the band was formed in order to take rock and and really try to contribute something new to it. Originally we all had a rotating lineup, and would invite a bunch of different instrumentalists to play with us, so that every show was different. One time we played with two guitars, bass, drums, keys, clarinet, assorted percussion, and stand up bass. At a couple of shows we’ve handed out hand percussion to audience members. We’ve had a few visual artists in the lineup too, who would paint onstage, most notably Alex Chiu, who has been getting all kinds of well deserved good attention lately. Since doing our first record and getting out of college, it’s mostly been the four or five of us (I never know which). But everyone is very open minded. Usually it’s a bit of a battle, but a positive one. Matt, our singer, writes the most amazing hooks with simple chords, and then asks me to “Nickify” them. It works for us. We got asked in an interview once what it’s like to be in a band with a composer, and the other guys said “it makes him harder to ignore.” It was a joke, but I think there’s a grain of truth to it that makes our music more than just your run of the mill rock and roll.

Honest Iago: All Prophets In Their Houses

Better Looking People With Superior Ideas started in a kind of funny way. It’s a duo right now, just Honest Iago’s drummer/my roommate Craig Vermeyen and I. Craig’s very talented and plays a lot of instruments, and seems to like pretty technical music like I do. So with Iago, it would always be he and I trying to complexify things up, while Matt was writing catchy hooks. We one day said “We’ve got to figure out how to write a three minute pop song.” Some people said, “No way, you guys will always be trying to blow people’s minds instead of just writing a melody.” Well turns out they were right, doing this stuff well is really hard! We wrote two or three simple songs that I’m really proud of, just guitar, drums, and lyrics, or organ, drums, and lyrics, but then when we moved in together we started adding stuff and writing electronica and whatever else. So the music is yet again complex. But I think it’s really cool stuff we’ve been doing lately. We’ve almost got enough for a record. Unfortunately there’s nothing I can share publicly just yet, and we haven’t played any shows yet because we have to coordinate quite a lot of instrument switching and loops, but that stuff is definitely on the way.

CM: There’s the 2 bands, your new-classical projects, AND your duties in Music To Heal and Pavement Press, plus you blog in your spare time. Do you sleep??

NN: Not enough. Sometimes things I’d like to be doing get put on the back burner, unfortunately. I’d like to dedicate more time to Music to Heal and Pavement Press and really don’t get to. And I could really use [some] exercise once in a while. I miss that. My other roommate plays basketball once a week, and I was thinking of going with, even though I’m terrible. I actually started specifically scheduling down time about a month ago, where I would swear to myself that I wouldn’t do anything for an evening, and would just have a beer and watch The Wire. I finished the series, but it’s still sort of working. Sort of.
Nick’s official website

Nick’s Soundcloud Page

Music To Heal
Organization Nick is VP for that specializes in music therapy.


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