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Interview: Nick Norton on his music and community

This Saturday, May 5th, soon-to-be-Dr. Nick Norton is premiering the first evening length concert of his music at Art Share, in an event titled Music for Art Galleries that is doubling as his PhD recital. Nick is the founder and editor of New Classic LA so felt a bit conflicted about covering his own event, but asked the other writers and me what we thought and we agreed that an interview would be appropriate so that we readers and listeners might have at least some background information on him, as well as some sense of his musical thoughts and activities. I know Nick from casual conversations but only in preparation for this interview did I immerse myself in his music.  It was time well spent.  Suffice to say, I urge you to check out his online recordings and, if you can, come to his concert on Saturday.

Composer Nick Norton. Photo by Lindsey Best.

Composer Nick Norton. Photo by Lindsey Best.

What was your entrée into music?  At what age did you realize that music was a part of you?  What kind of music spoke to you first and how did your stylistic identification evolve over time?

Whoa, we’re starting with a big one. Okay! I certainly started young with some piano and guitar lessons that didn’t stick. My mom was in film and TV, so I was always surrounded by all sorts of arts and entertainment. I expected I’d eventually become an artist of some sort, maybe a photographer or filmmaker, and I did always like music quite a lot – I remember how excited I was the first time I got to buy CDs for myself. I think things changed late in elementary school, when we moved from Los Angeles to a much smaller town called Newbury Park. It was a sports-centric town that was, at least at the time, pretty cut off from culture, and with how horrible and cliquey little kids are, I immediately became an outcast loner. I’d pretty much watch TV or read every day after school, and would leave MTV on all night back when they used to play music videos nonstop, I think mainly to distract myself from how lonely I was. Though I was totally unhappy for a lot of years, in hindsight I’m incredibly grateful for how that led me into music.

I’m not totally sure of the timeline here, but I remember two very specific events that got me into taking music seriously. The first was a school assembly where high schools kids came and played instruments for us. I heard someone play a saxophone and said “yes, I’ll take one of those please,” and joined the school band. Suddenly I had something to do other than watch TV or read after school! It was magical. The other, perhaps more important one, was discovering punk, probably sometime in middle school. This is cliche, at least among punks, but I went to a couple of shows in garages and at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center and Ventura Theater and thought “whoa, other loners! Maybe we have something in common! And they don’t seem to think I dress weird!” Plus the music was SO different from anything on the radio or that the “outside world” knew about, and so much more raw…I was just immediately in love. Punk isn’t technically hard to play – in fact it’s so focused on community and breaking down the audience/band barrier that it’s not supposed to be – so I started thinking “hey I can probably do that” and picked up guitar again.

It’s funny that you ask how my stylistic identification evolved over time, because as far as I’m concerned I’ve never actually left punk. The thing I realized, though, was that the things that defined the genre for me had less to do with music and more to do with ethics. I was reading all of Greg Graffin’s writings sometime early in high school, where he was discussing freedom of thought and self-determination and how the corporate desk jockey from a family of hippies might be just as much a punk as those of us in studded belts and safety pins, and something really stuck for me. I love punk music, and still do, but the thing I loved most about it was how self-driven it was, and how it didn’t care that it was different from what the masses (read: popular kids) were into. Following that line of interest, rather than the power chords/kick kick snare aspects of the sound (which I do love), I eventually got into hardcore, then really experimental rock. I’d never left the school band though, so was playing some jazz and classical music there, and when I got to college double majored in music and political theory. The timing and environment just worked out in that I was at UCSD and we started studying Cage and the downtown New York scene right around when I was getting into noise and drone bands, so the jump to the “classical” world felt totally natural. Even calling it a separate world of some sort seemed incorrect to me. I probably would have gotten there myself via La Monte Young and the minimalists if school hadn’t done it for me first. I was just like “whoa, there’s a path where you can get a degree in this?” That’s when I started taking theory and history and composition classes seriously, and like to say that I worked backwards into the canon from there. Nowadays if I’m writing a piece with, say, a very traditional classical vibe, I’m still thinking of it as an extension of my relationship with and growth in punk.

Europe.  I’m a native New Yorker whose lived in a number of European cities, and as such, it’s something I’m instinctively aware of.  But as someone who’s now been in LA for 20 years, my awareness of it is diminishing.  I see that you did some of your studies in Paris (at Ecole Normale de Musique, a school I also attended!) and London.  How important were those years to your musical development and how did they jibe with, or contrast with, the musical aesthetic you were developing and experiencing in California?

Attending a conservatory-style school in Paris was huge for me. For one thing, it made me realize that if I was going to do the composer thing, I had a LOT of work to do to catch up to these students who had been at it since age 3. I went in with my bachelors and was essentially a remedial charity case compared to the Juilliard kids in attendance. “Sorry, modulation is what now? Why do Germans have their own augmented chord?” At UCSD – like a lot of undergrads, I now know – I had tried to slide through the earlier parts of theory and history to get to the stuff I was into doing, which was largely either total serialism 60 years late or basically minimalism, which I still dig into here and there.

Anyway! I learned a lot there, though perhaps most important was learning how much I had to learn, or how little I knew. Socratic wisdom, if you will. That’s probably the first time I felt a real drive to analyze Bach, and do counterpoint exercises, and actually work hard on ear training. I’ll almost certainly never be as good at that stuff as a lot of those people, but at least it made me bone up on everything that I thought I’d need, which continues to this day.

There’s another side to this first Europe sojourn too: oh my god their music was boring! Other students could run circles around me in class, but if I asked them about a current artist they liked they’d draw a blank, and 90% of their music sounded like Hindemith lite. It was like they were only doing music because they had degrees in it and didn’t know what else to do, and weren’t even particularly interested in it. That’s not true of everyone there – I did make some great friends whose work I continue to respect and enjoy now – but it was definitely the general vibe. I wrote what I now consider to be a childishly-shallow attention-getter of a string trio. Harmonically it was really boring, and the teachers there didn’t seem into it, but it used, like, one extended technique and ended in a surprising way, and at the final concert of the program people – including the teachers – went totally nuts. Like they’d never heard someone tap on a soundboard before and I was a genius. That was completely insane to me, and gave me some resolve to say “okay, you’re doing something that doesn’t really fit with what the people in this classical slice of the world know, and if they don’t get it and they’re uncomfortable with it, fuck em.” But to say fuck them I’d have to catch up with them a little too, and make sure I was doing it well. Hence deciding to go to grad school in Europe and try to get the super traditional training I felt I’d missed.

King’s College, where I did my MMus, went as expected, which was wonderfully. I learned a ton! I loved London and went to concerts every night! I wish I’d kept in better touch with my friends and teachers there, because a lot of them are doing awesome things and I miss them. Rob Keeley in particular was a huge influence on my work today. I once spent like 30 minutes describing the system I was using to generate pitch and rhythmic material to him, and he said “okay, but what does it sound like?” I’d been writing stuff for my bands using my instincts, but most of my concert music up until then was still using algorithms or serialism as a crutch, or a shield against what I thought of as a lack of traditional classical abilities. Rob asking me that kind of made me re-assess my whole “I am in two worlds” view. I think my concert music, if we want to call it that, got a lot better very quickly, or at least suddenly felt a lot more like me than it had up to that point. There’s definitely a “before” and “after” to that lesson with Rob in thinking about my own musical past.

To prepare for this interview, I gave myself something of a crash course in “The Music of Nick Norton.”  First of all, let me say that I very much enjoyed that, so thank you.  I was familiar with a few of your pieces before but this immersive study made me realize the scope of your musical activities, especially with respect to genre.  There are some composers whose music is poly-stylistic within a given piece.  I didn’t find this to be the case with your music.  Rather, I heard works, compositions, songs, whatever term works, that seemed rather pure with respect to the genre of that particular piece.  Is that a fair observation?

I would say so. I try not to be too conscious of genre norms because they can be quite limiting, and instead try to ask “what does this piece need? Will this idea make the piece stronger?” In a lot of cases the result of that is something that makes a lot of musical sense – at least to me – and part of making musical sense is coherence. That said, while there are some polystylist pieces I dig a lot, I am wary of using genre signifiers in an obvious way, which is somewhat necessary in a polystylist piece. It can very easily become “guess the reference” rather than living in the world of the piece you’re hearing.

Genre, for me, has a lot more to do with socioeconomic circumstances or, at best, tone color and instrumentation, than with anything musically abstract, and in writing I often think in musical abstracts. For instance, when I’m writing with my bands Honest Iago or The Newports, I’m not asking “does this fit with a punk sound,” but am instead concerning myself with if enough tension has been built up to justify a release, or if a chord progression has repeated too many times in too exact a way, or something like that. One thing my bandmates have commented on, particularly in The Newports, is my obsession with not giving away your entrances. In almost every single Bach fugue the voice that is about to re-enter rests for a few bars before it does, which makes the entrance that much more exciting. Just like the trombones at the end of Beethoven 5. The other guitarist in The Newports now knows that if we’re gonna write a new section, I’m very likely going to take something out of the previous section so that the new one is fresher. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m the very same composer, using the very same skill set. If I’m wearing black denim and it’s distorted and amplified people call it punk, and if I’m wearing a blazer and there are program notes people call it contemporary classical music, and if the audience is lying on their backs they call it ambient. Whatever.

I will admit that I really enjoy messing with these discrepancies. ASCAP, for instance, arbitrarily divides their divisions into “concert music” and “pop/rock” and “country” and “rhythm & soul.” Concert music pays A LOT more per performance than the popular genres, so I tend to register my bands’ albums as song cycles for voices, two guitars, bass, and percussion, and let them figure it out. I can’t imagine what they would do with Ted Hearne’s piece for Saul Williams and string quartet.

Nick Norton performing his piece <em>On Geology</em> at Home Audio in April.

Nick Norton performing his piece On Geology at Home Audio in April.

You seem very busy, very willing to divide your creative psyche into multiple personae and work hard on all of them.  Is this a conscious choice or just what feels good, right, fun, etc.?  Is that something that is or should be more important to today’s musical participants?

It’s all an expression of the same basic passion. My first job, in high school, was as a counselor at Camp Emerald Bay on Catalina Island. I discovered that I LOVE introducing people to new things. Perhaps my favorite feeling is seeing someone else have a moment of realization about a new experience, of having their preconceptions challenged and ending up happy about what they learned. When I began composing and learning about the classical world, I essentially wanted to be the gateway drug between musical worlds for people from both, to let what I thought of as the conservative classical folks hear something in popular music and say “whoa, that actually is very good” and to show the people who are used to rock shows that what happens in the concert music world is vibrant and interesting. At a young age I thought I was unique for having this view, but it sure seems like a lot of interesting musicians are ignoring traditional boundaries these days, and I think that makes for better music for all of us.

It’s really beyond that, though: I started New Classic LA and Equal Sound for the same reasons, and I don’t think I necessarily need to be the composer or performer to allow someone to have that moment. Maybe a piece already exists that would mean a lot to someone, or open someone’s mind, in a way my music wouldn’t. If I think that’s the case, then the best thing I can do is send them a mixtape or take them to a show. This even extends into my love of craft beer, and starting the beer recommendation app Barly with my friends. The number of people who say “I hate beer” and have never had anything aside from a light lager kind of astounds me. Give them a sip of a Belgian quad, or something that fits their palate, and you often get a “whoa, I didn’t know beer could taste like that.” Their mind opens a little, and I really, truly see this as a way to improve the world. “I didn’t know beer could taste like that” or “I didn’t know that music could sound like this” or “I didn’t know that I like kayaking” might, for someone, somewhere, eventually lead to “I didn’t know not all Muslims are terrorists” or “I didn’t realize women are my equals” or, from my own perspective, “I didn’t know some Republicans aren’t horrible.” I’m still working on learning that one. But yeah, it’s really all the same, and I just try to do whatever seems most useful in any given moment or situation.

As to what “should” be more important, I don’t think I’m in a position to judge that for other people. And shoulds are dangerous anyway.

From what I can see, you play in at least two rock/punk bands.  Are they side projects for fun or an integral part of your musical persona?

Absolutely integral. However, in both of those bands, the other members have very full non-musical lives, so the bands themselves are becoming a little more like “very very serious hobbies” than anything I’ll be able to do in a full time way. That’s talking from a career standpoint though. As far as writing music goes they’re incredibly important to me. I learn a ton through playing with them, and have a great time – perhaps we don’t talk about having fun enough, but it’s pretty damn important – so I don’t see my work with them really slowing down anytime in my life.

Would narrowing your focus (e.g., just writing “concert music” or just creating electronic works) spoil the fun of it all?

I think I’m incredibly narrowly focused on music. The things that sometimes get neglected are my health, finances, and personal life. That seemed like a worthwhile trade in my twenties. Now, especially with non-musician friends buying houses and having kids and stuff like that, I’m trying to put a little more emphasis on, say, making time to hang out with my girlfriend and her dog, or taking some down time here and there, or caring a bit more about what I am paid than I like to admit. Whenever I’m at home trying to take a break and watch a movie or something on a night when there’s a show somewhere in town (i.e. every night), I do have to turn off the little voice that says “you should really be at that show.” That’s a struggle.

You’ve mentioned community to me.  I can’t tell you how important that word, that concept is to me.  (I decided to go back to grad school not because I wanted to pursue an academic career but rather I needed to be immersed in a musical community and I wasn’t finding it in the real world.)  You’ve got a big recital coming up on May 5th and it seems to me that a large part of your musical community is helping you realize this concert.  Who do you consider to be the primary members of your community and what defines it as such?

I don’t really want to name people for this answer, because I am sure I would make someone feel left out, and that is something I am sensitive to. That said, I think the people in the community who I am most inspired by, and most want to work with, are the ones who are working hard to help other people in the community. I think – aside from great programming and performances – the thing that makes wild Up, the LA Phil, WasteLAnd, MonkSpace, and a bunch of our series and institutions here in LA so fantastic, are that they are focused on helping other people. WasteLAnd is NOT the Nick Deyoe show, it’s the “how can we provide opportunities for interesting music to get heard in a compelling way” show. Dudamel and John Adams may be the faces of the LA Phil, but the organization is great because of how many composers they program. They don’t focus on themselves. Hell, I feel weird about not having music by anybody else on my own PhD concert.

You and I have also mentioned the state, if not also the fate, of the musical scene, the community, I guess you could say, of our fair city.  At the risk of flattering you (which I’m honestly not trying to do) I would go so far as to say that you are one of the people, one of the factors advocating for, shaping said community.  What drives that?

That is incredibly kind of you to say. I am not sure I know what drives it, aside from the whole life-mission thing of trying to open minds that I talked about earlier. The thing is, community is a necessity. You can’t do all the things I want to do without involving other people. And you’ve gotta have humility and recognize that you’ll never be the best at everything, if at anything. You and I were talking about websites once, and you said that my personal one was really solid. That’s because I recognized that someone else, in this case Traci Larson, is way, way better at designing websites than I am. Of course she is! She’s a designer, and I’m a composer. I’d have to be pretty hard headed to think that I can make something as good as it can be when whatever that thing is is not part of my main skill set. If I want to make an awesome record, sure, I can learn a bit about mixing and engineering, or I can recognize that Nick Tipp is better at that than I will ever, ever be. But I’m better at writing music than he is. If the goal is to make a great record, we’d better work together. If the goal is to inflate my own name then I can do it all myself. And it will not be nearly as good. If the work truly comes first, before your ego, the community sorts itself out.

For all the talk of “music” as existing, even thriving in an environment where genre, style, underlying aesthetic or political motivations might seem to create a fractured landscape, I really feel like we’re living in something of a Golden Era.  It is certainly not unified stylistically yet I do see it as a rather coherent, happily-multi-headed creature. Do you agree?

I think we’ve always lived in that era, and big institutions are just getting better at recognizing it. That said, the idea of being stylistically unified is a bit scary to me. It implies that some kind of Platonic asymptote for music may exist, and if it does then we can all just quit now. It doesn’t, though. The varying views of what makes music good are what makes music good.

One thing that I found really refreshing about LA’s “classical” scene is the relative abundance of non-traditional venues.  One of my first classical encounters here outside of the major venues was through the folks at Classical Revolution.  I believe you’re interested in similar issues, involved with similar issues as well, right?

This is something I think about a lot. Here’s the thing: what people in the classical scene call non-traditional venues are actually traditional venues. We have it backwards. How is putting music on at a bar or art gallery or outdoor festival in any way unique or interesting? I go hear bands and songwriters at bars all the time. Those are the places where 99% of the music in the world is performed. That’s normal. It’s weird that a traditional classical venue requires you to dress nicely, pay a lot, and sit there in silence. As far as I’m aware classical music in the modern era is the only genre where audiences aren’t expected to dance or move or react in some way.

I think this is, at its core, a marketing problem for the classical world. People say “we’re playing Haydn – in a bar!!!” and expect the public to show up, because “in a bar” is supposedly the interesting part. It’s not. I can’t stress enough how normal playing music in a bar is. If I asked you to come hear my band, and you asked why, and I said “because we’re playing with amplification and you can drink a beer,” you’d look at me like I was insane. The music has to be the key.

This is a big part of why Andrew Glick and I founded Equal Sound. A lot of the music in the new classical world is fucking awesome, and no one hears it because people have all these preconceptions about what classical music is. The fact that Tristan Perich is on the same shelf at a record store as Clara Schumann, and is marketed in much the same way, is completely absurd. What we want to do with Equal Sound is to essentially hide the fact that what we’re presenting comes from the classical world. Instead of saying “isn’t it interesting that we are putting a string quartet in a cool gallery space,” we are saying “come hear this rad show of music by these interesting artists!” We don’t see ourselves as competing, insofar as there is competition among presenters for attention, with series like WasteLAnd and Monday Evening Concerts and Green Umbrella. We see ourselves competing with Spaceland Presents and FYF and Goldenvoice. We just usually have more violins.

We basically stole this idea from wild Up, and probably from others before them. When they got started they were playing at the Echo Park Rec Center. DIY hipster heaven. If they’d started up with shows at the Broad Stage or something, they’d be just another chamber orchestra playing new music and begging for donations. By putting themselves into the popular music world, they stood out as incredibly interesting and worth seeing. My understanding is that their publicist came up with the idea to never use the word “classical” or “new music” or even talk about “the tradition” and a lot of the members were uncomfortable with it at first, but wow did it work. “Wait, your band has a huge string section? I have got to see that!” But they’ve got the musicianship and programming down to back it too. Sometimes that gets lost in these conversations, but it’s really at the core. A good frame can’t save a bad painting, but a bad frame can ruin a great one.

OK, a quick tangent pertaining to my own music-philosophical anxiety, if I may: Whether there is a unified “scene,” or even if it’s fragmented, positively or negatively, to me, the underlying and more important, even terrifying question is this: What is the role of music, for the individual and in society?  Do we need it?

Of course we need it. Or at least I need it – I don’t want to speak for others. But if I had any questions about that I probably wouldn’t be doing this. I love my life in music, and I’m insanely lucky that I get to spend a lot of my time and energy on it. It can, though, at times be incredibly taxing. If I didn’t believe it was a necessary thing for me to be doing, I’d probably relax a little, get a job at a nonprofit or something that has a slightly more tangible or obviously measurable effect on the world or pays a lot more, and just make music as a hobby. That’s not me, though.

How much of music, your music and the music of our community, is political or in any way a critique of our society?  (And how much should it be?)

I think hearing music as a critique of society would be up to each individual listener or musician, but I tend to think that for just about everything the meaning is defined by the individual experiencing it, so any sort of objective answer is really impossible.

I will say, though, that to me virtually everything I do is political. Fact is I get to try to make a living in music because I don’t have to worry in my daily life about shelter, food, clean water, being enslaved for human trafficking, getting shot when I walk out my front door, having a front door…I have a fucking iPhone that I get annoyed by when it is slow. The fact that I get to be annoyed by that, compared to how a lot of people live, makes me into an ungodly rich person who gets to make music. And I am very, very far from rich by Los Angeles standards. I think I have to use that privilege responsibly, and use these skills that I am so, so lucky to have the opportunity to have to try to do some good in the world.

At the same time, we do want to recognize sacrifices of people that allow us to do this. My great grandparents crossed Europe on foot with no money. We have to think that they went through a hardship like that so that someday someone like me could be more comfortable, and do something that makes them happy. If I get to draw some dots on a line that I think sound nice instead of going to work in hellish conditions to earn barely enough to eat, then in some way I feel like I’m honoring the aims of all the people who have struggled for better lives for everyone. And in whatever way we decide to approach it, we have to keep up that struggle for others. We owe it to people.

I think to understand the value, the excitement, the momentum towards polystylistic appreciation and acceptance (Kendrick Lamar’s recent Pulitzer win comes to mind), I think it would be wise to understand where that comes from.  Was it not borne, decades if not centuries ago, of a strict, urgent stratification, categorization of the various musics?  If so, why do you think that was?  Is it racist?  Classist?  And not to be glib, but does it even matter?

It’s absolutely racist and classist, and it absolutely matters. When, to your previous question, I said that I am lucky to have had the opportunity to try, I wasn’t kidding. An artist like Kendrick – and I don’t know his whole history – probably didn’t have a lot of money for music lessons. He also probably – certainly actually – had a far higher risk of getting shot by a cop than I do. Yet he’s making incredibly creative and vital music that is complex and connected to a huge portion of society that many of us with money and degrees often ignore.

The thing we’ve seen in people’s reactions to the win, at least in racist assholes’ reactions, is like a fear of invasion. It’s not totally unfounded, as classical music as a “genre” is, at its heart, a tradition of wealthy European landowners or the most powerful churches in the world paying people to make things for them to put their names on. It is literally designed to be insular and exclusionary. That makes some people feel secure. Someone like Kendrick getting recognized by a big institution for making, I don’t know, really cool art? is a threat to the people who have felt secure with their institutional support.

The funny thing here is that this all actually lines up quite nicely with the “little tiny genre” thing we were talking about earlier. There’s so much awesome music in the world that some classical institutions love to pretend doesn’t exist. And let’s be honest, a lot of traditional academic composers would not really be surviving their own careers without grants and commissions and teaching positions. The socioeconomic structure of classical music is not the way most music-making works, but some of us who work in it or write about it treat it like the way the everything is. And a minority always wants to protect itself.

That all sounds glib, but I’m actually hopeful. Sometimes you need a good kick in the face. Maybe a few people got one and we can all be a bit more open in our listening and understanding now. And it’s not a competition. It’s very possible to love black metal and the Romantic era and hip hop and blues and noise rock and Frank Sinatra with the same passion. Music is just, you know, rad.

So this recital of yours is, if I’m not mistaken, part of your doctoral work as you complete your academic studies.  When I was a student, it seemed like the academic path was practically a requirement if you were to function in the modern classical world.  But for better or worse (much better, in my opinion) academic participation is considerably less crucial than it was just a couple decades ago.  How do you see this, and is teaching and/or additional academic involvement part of your plan?

There are definite advantages to an academic career, or at least the promise of one: economic stability, getting to talk about music with students and colleagues, having summers off, all that. It sounds pretty cool. Unfortunately this is 2018 and actually getting one of those cushy jobs is incredibly unlikely. A lot of people end up teaching adjunct at five universities and having no time for actually making music. Did you see that university in Illinois advertising “volunteer” teaching positions for people with PhDs? That’s exploitation on the face of it, and maybe unions will do something useful, but much as we try to fight it we can’t really ignore the free market. If people are willing to take those unpaid positions there are going to be more of those unpaid positions. As far as I’m concerned the stable academic career path for composers is basically over, and people are just taking a while to realize it. I’m working on other options to essentially get out ahead of the rush.

One thing that I see as a problem is that a lot of people who are tenure track faculty now came up in the world when that was a viable option, and are still advising their students as if it is. I think it’s a disservice to students to let them think that there’s a stable career path there that they can access without an giant amount of work. I respect the people who make it in, but I don’t think it’s for me, at least not yet. It would be an enormous amount of work for something that isn’t my main focus.

The ironic thing here is that I teach at Chapman University and I’m lucky to have that gig. But it has shown me, to some extent, how limiting doing the adjunct life thing can be. I was never late delivering a piece before I started teaching. It’s a little like if I say “I want to be a musician!” and someone responds with “cool, you can be a teacher!” That just sounds so incongruous to me, it’s like telling a kid who wants to be a scientist that they can be a lawyer, or telling a kid who wants to be a lawyer that they can be a farmer. If someone offers me a cool teaching job I’m likely not going to turn it down, but I think my energy is better spent on writing pieces and putting on concerts.

Let’s discuss the actual music, shall we?  I’ve seen the program for your recital.  You’re presenting quite a varied program.  There are many works that are not afraid to be, dare I say, beautiful.  Are “beauty” and “beautiful” loaded words?  What do they mean to you and how do they (or don’t they) pertain to your music?

I’m not sure. I try to be honest about what I think a piece needs, and take my own ego or any ideas about what I want listeners to think about me out of the equation when I write. Lately that’s had me turning to writing more “traditionally beautiful” music. I will say that, as a person who grew up in weird rock and went to UCSD, that it scares me a bit. Whenever I write an elegant line I’m still like “wait, isn’t this supposed to be more aggressive?” I’m not totally comfortable with that sound yet. If I was, though, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting to me. I can make horrible noises all day if I want to – and I don’t mean horrible in a bad way! Sometimes we need a bit of horror. But right now writing music that is somehow comforting is something I seem to be doing. Wonder what that means.

I feel like I started composing at the tail end of an era where you were either decidedly atonal or dissonant, or you were equally-decidedly consonant, usually in the form of something akin to what was called “The New Romanticism.”  I found the stratification limiting, not to mention polarizing.  Between your “classical” works and your various electric/electronic/rock/punk, such excluding stratification, compartmentalization, seems considerably less present.  Is this a conscious decision rooted in revolt or simply the natural way of your musical expression?

Well, the pieces I sent you were pretty consonant as it’s what I’ve been doing lately. I think I started out being quite inspired by modernist anti-populism, which UCSD is still quite into. Early Boulez was my favorite stuff for a long time, and I definitely have pieces that stem from that tradition, though I haven’t written one in a little while….these days I try not to be conscious of things like that, though, and just write honestly. Sometimes the music gets pretty thorny, but that hasn’t happened in many recent pieces.

Actually I do have a really gnarly mixed chamber quartet that I think I want to rewrite as a piano concerto. That’ll be a cool one.

You seem comfortable with music that is virtuosic and difficult to play (your All The Wrong Notes and Mirror Smasher come to mind) as well as music that is not particularly challenging on a technical level. Do such things, as such, enter into your compositional calculus or is that, as an isolated criterion, not of interest to you?

As artistic expression it’s not particularly interesting to me, except to say that I do think hard-to-play music requires a certain energy level that is harder to attain in stuff that is easy to play. If I want something to feel really intense, I want the musician to feel really intense about it. Making it challenging can be a way to achieve that, but it’s not really the goal. It’s a means to the thing I am interested in, which is more like a musical-final-product sort of thing. I care a lot about that, and whatever means get me there in the most effective way are cool by me.

To follow up, you have a number of really lovely pieces that exist in various guises, whether acoustic or electronic. Quiet Harbor is a simple, peaceful chamber piece with acoustic instruments, evoking the sounds of the water, boats, foghorns, general mood of pastoral, calm space..  On Geology for electric guitar and electronic sounds is similar in its simplicity, its adherence to tonal centers, yet obviously created by a different sonic palette.  Beach Song is almost shocking in its folk simplicity.  (It reminds me of early 20th century Americana, with a hint of Ives’ modernism.  Also some brash rock and jazz inflected interjections towards the end!)  Is this simplicity a statement, a reaction, or just how music goes?

Well, it’s somewhat related to what I said about means in the previous answer. Those jazz and rock interventions in Beach Song are there because I wanted some dramatic contrast, and instead of merely using different harmony or rhythms or whatever, I thought I could get an even stronger contrast by mixing in things that are entirely foreign to what it seems like the language might be. I once heard Ted Hearne use the phrase “genre counterpoint” and that stuck with me. I kind of ask myself what my goal is, and then try to figure out the best way to achieve it, regardless of where that leads or comes from.

A note on On Geology: everything in that piece is guitar with some effects pedals. None of the sounds are synthesized. I don’t really care that they are or aren’t, and I’m happy to use whatever sounds are effective for the piece…but aren’t guitar pedals rad?

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that this is far and away the most in-depth anyone has ever gone into my music, and I really, really appreciate it! Answering these questions was a lot of fun, and very interesting, and made me think about a lot of things. Thank you!

I also just want to take a minute to express my thanks to you, and the other New Classic LA writers, for contributing to this site. I had no idea when I started a concert calendar whenever that was that it would turn into this. And I’m thankful every day for the energy you all put in to keep it up.

Just in case anyone is curious about conflict of interest – I am, after all, the editor of this website – I wrote to all the writers and said “I’m having a concert that I want to have covered, but I’m very concerned about posting my own stuff on the site. I don’t want it to be self-serving or biased. Tell me what to do.” What you and Leaha came up with was the fact that if another composer putting on a show like this came to New Classic LA for an interview I would definitely say yes to them and put them through our normal process for getting coverage, which I was about to put myself through, so it felt okay. But if people don’t dig that I get it.

Details about and tickets for Nick’s concert on Saturday are at nick.brownpapertickets.com. You can find his music, concert dates, and more at nickwritesmusic.com.

Interview: Sugar Vendil and Mara Mayer of The Nouveau Classical Project

The Nouveau Classical Project, a New York-based, all-women contemporary ensemble, makes it their mission to integrate music with other arts disciplines and to show that classical music is a living, breathing art form. On February 7, Equal Sound presents The Nouveau Classical Project’s first Los Angeles concert, “Currents.” Currents features music composed for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and electronics commissioned by NCP. I interviewed NCP’s artistic directors Sugar Vendil and Mara Mayer about interdisciplinary arts, commissioning new works, and the upcoming concert, featuring works by Odeya Nini, Olga Bell, Gabrielle Herbst, and Isaac Schankler. Here’s what they had to say: 

Can you tell us about the works on the program? What is the inspiration behind the title, “Currents”?

Currents is a program that consists of pieces commissioned specifically for NCP that use our acoustic instruments of piano, flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, and some form of electronics. The title refers both to electric currents and the fact that the music is brand new. Each piece explores the boundaries between acoustic and electronic timbres in a different way, from field recordings in Bell’s piece to acoustic buzzing sounds created through extended techniques on a deconstructed clarinet in Kifferstein’s work.

What are your thoughts about interdisciplinary arts, and what kinds of interdisciplinary works do you hope to see evolve in the future?

Interdisciplinary collaboration can be great, but can also be tricky to do really well. We both attended E|Merge interdisciplinary collaborative residency in 2015 and learned a lot about communication during the collaborative process and how to clearly define roles and potential decision-making hierarchy between collaborators. Artistically it’s important to understand how the elements fit together and interact and not just slap things together at the last minute. Ideally, collaborators work together throughout the artistic process so that ideas can evolve together and the finished work can be cohesive and fulfilling for all parties. We hope to see our work with fashion designers evolve in the future in a way where they are more involved earlier in the process.

How often do you commission new works for Nouveau Classical Project? 

We commission new pieces every year, and this happens in a variety of ways: a composer can be awarded a commissioning opportunity via our annual Commissioning Call for Scores competition (we are accepting submissions until April 20, 2018 you can apply here: http://www.nouveauclassical.org/call-for-scores/). We reach out to composers we want to collaborate with; or occasionally a composer sends us a random proposal and we’ll work with them if we love their music and decide their proposed project is a good fit.

Sugar, you’re known for combining classical music with new fashion – what parallels do you see between the fashion and music worlds?

They’re both nonverbal ways of communicating. A score or a piece of clothing is activated by a human. Music and fashion – and I use fashion here in the sense of personal dressing – are two expressive art forms that already exist in a musical performance. What we try to do at NCP is make these parallels intersect.

Any future projects you’d like to talk about?

On May 31, 2018 we are premiering a new opera by Gabrielle Herbst at Roulette in Brooklyn. We love her music and working with her, so this project is really special to us.

Check out Equal Sound for more information about the upcoming concert Feburary 7 and to get tickets. 

Review: Equal Sound presents Battle Trance @ Live Arts LA

I had never heard of Battle Trance before attending this show. What little I did know was what I read on the Facebook event page, and gleaned from talking to other concert goers. I don’t believe I even knew their instrumentation. Like seeing a movie without seeing a trailer, this can be a better experience. Hype can set a bar too high. All I knew was that Equal Sound was putting on the concert, and that some quartet called Battle Trance would play Blade of Love. 10/10 for the names, but would the performance live up to these vague expectations?

A string quartet – Madeline Falcone and Emily Call on violin, Diana Wade on viola, and Betsy Rettig on cello – performed the first half of the concert, which consisted of Medieval and Medieval-inspired music. They opened with Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae, a pensive, simple polyphonic work. Its texture was so lush, yet at the same time, so bare. In light of the women’s marches worldwide, particularly the 750,000-strong march in LA on January 21st, I appreciated that the most prolific Medieval female composer had the honor of opening. I always love von Bingen’s work, and this was no different. O virtus Sapientiae praises the power of wisdom, a lesson we can all value in this age.

The next piece, Valencia (2012), by New York composer Caroline Shaw, had clear roots in Medieval style. The strings pass around ostinato rhythms and simple melodies, intercut with striking glissandi and dense harmonic swells. Shaw wanted to evoke the texture of a Valencia orange. Such a synesthetic feat may be impossible (I must admit I did not get the connection between the title and the piece until reading about it later), but the music by itself was pleasing and its textures were interesting.

Third, My Desert, My Rose (2016) by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, featured low and slow cello like a cantus firmus while the higher strings played aimless harmonies, muddled like a fine cocktail. It feels like wandering through a busy marketplace; each step brings a new wave of sounds, and while there is a goal to reach, the journey wanders. It’s a flawless interpretation of Medieval inspiration for a 21st-century style.

Finally, the quartet concluded the first half of the concert with Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie I. The Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass Ordinary, and it is most appropriate during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent. The quartet saved the Kyrie for the last piece in their set, but it also served to introduce Battle Trance, thus keeping with tradition. While we were not actually in a penitential season, something about the timing and the mood of the audience made it fitting.

After intermission, we got what we came for: the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance performing Blade of Love. Here’s my short review first: it was bananas. And I love bananas.

Battle Trance performing Blade of Love at Live Arts LA, presented by Equal Sound

Battle Trance performing Blade of Love at Live Arts LA, presented by Equal Sound

Now here’s the longer review. First, you must realize that each segment flowed from one to the next, sometimes overlapping or splitting half and half between the players. The players never rested. The performance was one uber-piece, and the energy ebbed and swelled but never ceased. Sometimes three players would provide an upbeat, looping harmony for the soloist to howl over. Other times, all four would whistle through their reeds. There was impressive counterpoint. There was intense sound blending. There were intergalactic lasers and interstellar spaceships. There were intrepid explorers in jungles. There was an immeasurable ocean. There was an insane profession of love. There was also insufferable honking – but so it is with saxophones, I suppose, and it didn’t last too long.

Most impressive of all, in my eyes (ears?), was that there were difference tones. Those happen resonances combine and modulate in your ear so that your ear itself creates new sound. It’s a curious sensation, and rare for acoustic instruments to pull off. So not only did the four gentlemen of Battle Trance play for an hour straight, on memorized music (somewhat improvised, but mostly structured for sure), and was the music incredible, but they also caused your ear to invent its own music, using acoustic instruments. This illustrates why I love writing these reviews; every time I think I’ve heard it all, that I’ve heard every extended technique, I go to another concert and I’m absolutely floored.

Battle Trance’s music is available on their Bandcamp page. You have the upper hand compared to me; you already know what to expect. I’ll be upfront: I’m told that their recordings don’t have the same chutzpah. So this is what I recommend: buy a CD. Hear how good they are recorded. Then see them live. Fly to New York if you have to, but experience them in person. It’ll be bananas.

Review: Equal Sound presents M83: Digital Shades [vol. 1]

We found the place all right, though it took a minute to find the door. It’s frankly genius, using a dance studio as a concert venue at night, since it functions like a blackbox theater. It even had a balcony, with squishy sofas to view the performance. It was completely sold out, standing room only. The lights dimmed and Nick Norton, one of Equal Sound‘s directors, ran up to the stage to make an announcement: the Michael Gordon piece, originally written as a reaction to 9/11, was moved to the beginning of the set as tribute for the recent attacks on Paris and Beirut. This simple and meaningful gesture hushed the audience, and the piece began.

Light Is Calling is pure and beautiful, just a solo violin and electronic sounds. It began with the thump of a slow heart, a tiny ray of hope in light of a tragedy. It sounded like music heard through pounding ears, muffled and throbbing like there’s too much adrenaline to calm down enough to pay attention. The violin cut through the pulsating track, the only pure and uninterrupted sound, singing, like glass rubbing on glass. At the end of the song, the sounds through the speakers were clearly manipulated synths, and yet they sounded human, like a choir singing underwater and far away. It was both an elegy for the lost and a paean for the survivors.

John Cage’s Radio Music is a (relative) oldie but a goodie. Oddly enough, it carried over the mood from Gordon’s song. The trick with Cage music is that one often hears what one wants; aleatoric music is more or less a blank slate, the most famous example being 4’33” of silence. I like to say that Cage’s music lets the listener put in more of themselves, sort of like paint by number rather than a filled in piece. Radio Music had the performers holding radios and taking turns twiddling the dial on AM and FM stations and turning up and down the volume. There were commercials for car dealerships, live reports on various sports games, a few pop songs, and a talk radio segment. More than half the piece was static. At the best of times, static and white noise have a kind of mystery, a potentiality to become or be imagined as anything else. Coming immediately after Light Is Calling, the static seemed like a metaphor for waiting to hear from people at the sites of the attacks, or the silence of the fallen.

Next up was Missy Mazzoli’s Harp and Altar. Having first been introduced to her work through her opera the LA Opera put on a month or so ago, it was affirming to hear a quartet piece that solidifies what I now recognize as her style of strident strings, tasteful pitch bends and slides, highly motivic, pounding syncopation in exciting sections, and recorded sounds blending and sometimes overtaking the live sounds. At first I thought the recorded voices were an illusion from open strings from the quartet. After a segment of minimalism in the middle, the voices crescendoed until it all but set the quartet in the background. The ending was absolutely turgid with the quartet grinding on their strings and the voices growing ever louder, and one could practically hear the grain in the wood of the cello. It ended suddenly, like inhaling after holding your breath for almost too long, just a cut and ringing out to nothing. I say here again that my mind was still on Paris and Beirut, and the fading resonance at the end was to me another reminder.

One cannot remain sad forever and the show will go on. I would describe Fog Tropes II by Ingram Marshall as if Stephen Sondheim wrote Lark Ascending as a track for use in the movie Pan’s Labyrinth during the rain scenes. The recorded sounds became windy, dissonant, and haunting; the strings gradually caught up from pastoral air to grim dirge, as if it only slowly dawned on them to change. Chattering birds added to the foggy forest mood, followed by didjeridoo and scratchy strings to make it more foreboding. A woman’s voice in the recorded sounds turned into an unreal animal. Near the end was a kind of double duet, with the violin and viola hocketting pitches and the other violin and cello intertwining melodies. The sound as a whole is how I always imagined a cursed forest would sound. Being from Seattle where the landscape is vastly dim forests, it felt weirdly like a slice of home.

You have probably heard M83‘s Grammy-nominated Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which contains their hit “Midnight City,” one of their more danceable songs. A French electronic band now local to LA, their niche lies in chill grooves and ephemeral minimalism, often similar to Sigur Rós or Balmorhea. There were ten tracks in total, and given the seamless flow from one piece to another I inevitably got off in keeping track of where I was in the program. That said, Digital Shades is decidedly an album that ought to be heard together in one sitting, so maybe it is even better this way.

My notes from the performance stand as testament to the distinct sonority M83 possesses in each of their songs. It started with ocean waves, synth waves, and string quartet waves. It moved on to vocals moving softly like a stream, drops in the water, over tremolo cello, in the form of a passacaglia; the vocals never change, but the strings move around them. The performance featured a viola plucked like a ukulele, bird song, and white noise, and always sounded natural. Certain sections strongly reminded me of Iceland. Others sounded like people bumping into each other on a New York sidewalk.

An essential takeaway from this concert is that modern music is not inaccessible. While writing this, several people implored me to make this clear, for even they were surprised. It seems that many stereotype new music to be constantly unyieldingly harsh. Yes, I am one who enjoys hearing extended trombone technique solos and experimental jazz. I will be the first to admit that much modern music is an acquired taste. That said, a substantial corps of music in general, from Perotin from the Medieval era to Buxtehude from the Baroque to Milhaud at the turn of the century, can sound alien to our ears attuned to Nirvana and Taylor Swift, when all we listen to from ‘Classical music’ is Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. There is so much more. Live performers can play tonally and in tandem with recorded sounds and it can sound simply beautiful, no qualifiers attached. Some composers push the limits of possibility with sound, and they are, quite literally, the fringes. Equal Sound reminded everyone in the audience that modern music is not dissonant, just new.