UC San Diego's Department of Music
June 18, 2008
CLASSICAL, PUNK, JAZZ: NICK NORTON'S ECLECTIC COMPOSITIONS
Composer/guitarist Nick Norton graduated from UCSD in June with a BA in music. This summer he's studying composition in Paris with Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, and in the fall, he begins a grad program at King's College in London. Norton is currently composing short guitar pieces based on places where he's lived. We spoke with him about his time at UCSD and his future as a composer and performer. Photo: Scott Toepfer
Q: What experiences at UCSD helped prepare you for the career you're pursuing in music?
A: It's been great studying with Lei Liang, Harvey Sollberger, Chinary Ung, and Rand Steiger. I think the most valuable experiences I've had in the department have been with individual people, not in classes. Sure, the class material is both necessary and useful to composition, but talking to and arguing with professors and other students is what has really opened my mind and changed some of my ideas, even about the definition of music. Getting your pieces publicly performed is one of the bigger parts of being a "career composer," and learning how to make connections and put on and advertise concerts has been an important part of my time here. Doing things off campus has been a big part of that. I've attended a few festivals out of town (and in Mexico) with Colin McAllister, my guitar professor, and was an intern at the SoundON Festival in La Jolla last summer. Those have all been great learning experiences. I've been lucky to be allowed to do a double emphasis in composition and classical guitar performance. I've also maintained a position in a band, and been able to support myself a bit through teaching guitar. Though I think my career will mainly be through composition, this has taught me some extreme time management, and given me a point of view some composers don't have.
Q: What helped you grow as a composer at UCSD?
A: The amount of exposure to music I would not have otherwise heard has been a huge help and provided a lot of inspiration. I've recently been hanging out with a lot of the jazz majors, and besides really enjoying their friendships and our conversations, I'm working on learning that system of harmony and structure, and it's entirely different from anything I've ever worked with. Beyond that, it seems like a lot of the faculty here have an "anything goes, but only if you do it well" attitude," which is really nice. I grew up playing rock, and a lot of my past teachers have said that distracts me from what I should be doing, which is "classical." I've always enjoyed both, and here I've been encouraged to combine the two. By that I don't mean just adding strings to three-chord punk, but to really capture some of the energy of rock and other popular musics in my compositions. Finally I think getting in touch with people in other fields here at UCSD has been a huge help. One of my closest friends is a philosophy major, with an interest in neuroscience, and we've had a lot of great conversations about perception and its consequences, among other things. Being able to use broad theoretical ideas in music is, for me, what makes it more than something that "just sounds good."
Q: So what your plans for Paris this summer?
A: I'm going on a scholarship from the European American Musical Alliance to study counterpoint, harmony, and composition. Lei Liang recommended the program to me, and I'm very happy he did. I feel like I'm pretty proficient with concepts and structure, but need work on my actual musicianship, to better realize what I hear in my head. The program there will help with that. It's taught in the Nadia Boulanger method, which has helped a lot of American composers make names for themselves, like Philip Glass, Elliott Carter, and Aaron Copland. I'll also get to work on composition with Sofia Gubaidulina, who is one of Russia's greatest living composers. I'm working on a series of short guitar pieces right now, each based on a city I've lived in, so there will be a Paris one that I will write while living there. I'm also planning my first full scale orchestral work, but am just working on the structure and the concept for it. I'm going to begin on the actual musical material in early August, with some more training under my belt.
Q: And then London in the fall.
A: I'll attend King's College to work on a master's in music with Rob Keeley, and possibly George Benjamin as well. I've always wanted to live in another country, so I'm really excited for this opportunity. It's a pretty rigorous program there, but I'm eager to focus on composition without any of this "work" or "general education" stuff I keep hearing so much about getting in the way. I mentioned starting my first orchestral piece late in summer. It's based on a novel by Italo Calvino, and I'll finish composing it during my second semester at King's. I've also got a song cycle in the works, and next summer (2009) I'll work on a string quartet. Rand Steiger (chair of UCSD's department of music) wants me to see a friend of his who teaches improvisation outside London. Getting some lessons with him would be great. Also simply being in the London music scene is going to be amazing. Last time I was there it seemed like the modern classical scene is almost as active as the punk scene is here. And there is some very good British and Northern European electronica, IDM, and post-rock that I've been listening to a lot lately. Hopefully I'll be able to absorb some of that too.
Q: Where will you live in Paris and London?
A: In Paris I'll be on campus, which is just south of the center of the city. I've never been, so I can't say much more than that. In London I'll stay in Waterloo, just a block away from the Tate Modern, very close to the River Thames. It's just across the bridge from the West End as well. Awesome location.
Q: Do you plan to perform or record?
A: Besides a show that my band has with A Scribe Amidst the Lions on June 3rd (it's their tour kick off), there's not much coming in the way of concerts. The last few weeks of this quarter were insane in that regard, and I've barely had time to compose. I had my senior guitar recital and senior composition recital within a week of each other, a show with my band in between the two of them, then the guitar ensemble concert and the chamber singers concert, which was actually the same night as my band's show with Scribe at O'Connell's Pub in San Diego. With the band, we've been working on our full-length record since March, and have been doing stuff for it just about every day. We're doing it ourselves (our bass player is an ICAM graduate and is pretty good at mixing and engineering), and it is sounding really good for what it is so far, but it still has a long way to go. We're hoping to release it sometime towards the end of summer, and will probably have a release show for it then, right about when I get back from Paris. I don't know if that will be in San Diego or LA. I will most likely get one or two of my piano pieces performed in Paris while I am there, and might see if I can squeeze in a coffee shop classical guitar show, but I'll be spending most of my time studying I think.
Q: So, when you're not pursuing your career and education, what do you do for fun?
A: I am really excited to see Radiohead and Sigur Ros in Arras, France, for my birthday this summer. I've got about a week before and a week after my program to trek around Europe, so I'm going to hang out with a friend in London, and then a friend in Berlin, and then visit Amsterdam. I've worked on Catalina Island for many summers, and I'll do that for three weeks when I get back, where I'll finish the Catalina guitar sketch, teach waterskiing, and hike and kayak. I've been meaning to get back into sailing for a really long time so maybe I'll have a chance, but working there doesn't actually leave much free time. As I mentioned, we're working on the record, so there might be some shows around its release when I get back from Catalina, before I move to London.
Q: Where would you like to end up after your Paris and London experiences ? What kind of career do you envision?
A: As you might have guessed, London is going to cost me a lot, so I'm planning on working to pay that off for a year or two, before applying to a PhD program. Career-wise, I suppose the ultimate goal is to be able to support myself entirely from composing and playing, with my band or otherwise. That might take a university position, we'll just wait and see. I'd like to give modern music a bigger profile. I think with a lot of 'noise' and experimental music gaining popularity, there couldn't be a better time for me to try to succeed in that scene.
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