Author: NickNorton

Why I Make Music

Nick Norton's desk
Most of the time I take it for granted that I’m a composer. When I tell people that that’s what I do, the conversation usually turns to the music itself (“oh, so soundtracks?”) or to the sometimes-tricky financial side of the equation (“right, but what’s your job?”). These questions are similar to what I concern myself with in the day-to-day of it, too: What project needs attention? How does this transition sound? Are parts going to be ready in time? Who can I get to pay for this flight? The one question that no one ever asks, however, is simply “why?”

I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but in a curious one. What is it about making art that drives us to pick a path in life that involves thousands upon thousands of hours of dedication, serious financial risk, and, in many cases, rejection after rejection after rejection? This is not to say that you can’t make music as a hobby or just for fun and self-enrichment, but that’s not the way that I’m currently pursuing it. For me, there are quite a few answers to this question, which make themselves felt to varying degrees at different times. They all play a role, though, and they add up to something that, for me, makes it worth fighting through the struggles (both artistic and personal). Here’s why I make music:

Making music excites me, more than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced.

While growing up I’d always planned on doing something in or with music, but I can pinpoint the exact moment that I decided that something was composing. It was while hearing the third bar of the first piece I ever wrote for someone else to play. As an undergrad, I had started out as a double major in guitar and political science and had always written music for my bands, so I decided to take an introduction to composition course with Harvey Sollberger. Our first assignment was to write a short piece for flute, using only five pitches, which he would then workshop with us and perform. I spent the week coming up with something that I’d probably now find pretty dull. It didn’t matter. On the second beat of the first bar I was totally enraptured. I had an idea in my head, and now it was being turned into something real in the world. This was not considered a miracle? Somewhere in the second bar I did some calculations, thought about what I’d enjoyed in life thus far, how much I hate having a routine schedule and how much I like working with people, and on the downbeat of the third decided to change my major and abandon any plan B. No plan B makes me feel the way that creating music does.

I have some kind of artistic impulse, and I love introducing people to new things. Music is just the thing that I am best at.

I love to introduce people to new experiences—I worked as a tour guide in college, am pretty obsessed with finding craft beers that people who say they don’t like beer end up loving, and get a surprisingly similar kick out of making a mixtape for someone as I do from inventing my own sounds. Music is the thing that I’ve spent the most time with, and have the most experience in, so that aspect of my personality most often manifests itself in composing. Now, the things that get my mind going, and that I want to explore, could be equally well dealt with in any medium. I’d likely be just as satisfied and excited making visual art, but I’m a terrible painter. Music is my most developed skill, so it makes sense to me to use it to do the things I want to do.

Music has done so much for me. I want to do that for someone else.

This is more of a social answer than a musical one. When I was growing up, I was kind of a nerd or loner or whatnot. We moved a couple of times, and the town we ended up in placed a lot of value on adolescents’ athletic abilities and/or how hard they partied. I went a lot of years without a lot of friends, until I found the (rather small) neighborhood punk scene. Before finding it, I always had music to hang out with and work on, and after finding it I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my feelings and could use a shared interest in music to connect with people. There were even songs about just that, and I’d always read interviews with guys in little-known bands where they said, “if one kid [listener, regardless of age] connects with something in our music and finds something he can relate to or that makes his day a little better, we’ve completely succeeded.” I wish I could tell a lot of those guys how much what they did meant to me—I did write John K. Samson a letter once, and he actually wrote back!—and I do truly hope that I can do that for someone else.

There’s war and global warming and terrorism and corporate greed and student loans and corrupt cops and terrorism. The universe is probably meaningless, and we’re basically all screwed. Music is nice.

Why not, really? I’d rather be playing guitar or putting together a concert than fighting a losing battle against spacetime.
Norton at the beach


In re-reading these answers, the one that might not come across, and needs to be emphatically added, is that I love the stuff. I love making it, and I love listening to it, and I feel insanely lucky that our society makes it possible for me to pursue those things instead of pursuing subsistence. We have an extremely small amount of time in the universe. Spending it doing stuff that I don’t love just seems like a shame, and enough of a shame that I’m down to work myself to the bone to avoid it.

Onward, then. I’ve got a piece to finish.

The Art of Doubting Myself

out of your head

Image by siamonumeri, via Flickr.

I’m a terrible composer. I have almost no idea what I’m doing when it comes to music, my ideas aren’t very original or interesting, and, furthermore, I’m probably too lazy to actually do anything about it. Oh, that one quadruple stop I wrote isn’t possible on viola? I should have known that. But why should I be worrying about quadruple stops when I don’t even have the Well-Tempered Clavier memorized? My friends say they like my stuff, but they’re my friends. But I am getting a lot of performances. That can’t only be because I’m friendly and pretty good at networking, can it? CAN IT?

The previous paragraph is brought to you—as it is brought to me at least once a day—by my brain. Sometimes we don’t have the best relationship. I mean, it allows me to perceive and often enjoy the world around me, and that’s pretty cool, but it’s also been through depression, and sometimes gets into paranoid spirals of self-doubt and rather intense feelings of worthlessness. Disclaimer to the previous sentence: I’m fine, therapy plus SSRIs plus friends with good taste in beer have worked for me, don’t worry. I’m not really interested in delving into my own emotional health here, but what I am interested in is how both emotional health and perceived social or career status affects music making. Please do write comments on this one—I’d love to hear what other artists deal with in this regard. Maybe to give myself a bit more assurance that everyone else deals with this, too.

The thing that usually triggers the opening paragraph in my head is artistic struggle. When a hole in my knowledge gets exposed (for instance, “what do you mean you don’t know Mozart Piano Concerto K. 2,714,530?” or, conversely, “what do you mean you don’t know early Animal Collective?”), when I hit something like writer’s block, or when something I feel strongly about fails to elicit any reaction from anyone, it can often translate to feelings of inadequacy as a composer.

I figure this is something that everyone deals with to some extent. I recently asked a friend whose career star has risen rapidly over the last few years if the constant praise and unsolicited invitations to make music have allayed any of these anxieties, and his response was a basic “hell no,” and that he didn’t think they’d ever go away. Even Bernstein, at the height of his career, constantly sought reassurance about his music.

For me, the solution is to focus on myself instead of others. Not in a self-aggrandizing way, but in a positive and productive way. Focus on your strengths. Sure, work on your weaknesses, but realize that there are strengths there that have gotten you this far and use them. Here’s an example from outside of music that might make this approach clearer: my mom used to beat herself up over not being a better singles tennis player. She was, at the same time, a really phenomenal doubles player. It took a particularly stressful singles loss to make her realize it, but when a friend said, “yeah you lost, but it’s not what you’re best at,” it kicked off a new focus on doubles, and way, way, way more wins.

How does this translate to music? In my own practice, when I start to write incredibly complex music or very rich post-Romantic chorale textures, I feel like it often comes up short. I’m not saying I don’t push myself to improve those skills, but that when my perceived lack of ability starts to get me down, I focus on things I know I’m good at to get back on track. I think I’ve got a knack for syncopated, hooky rhythms, color/texture, counterpoint, and form. The other holes might or might not be real, and sometimes they get overblown when comparing myself to others, but spending all day worrying about them isn’t very helpful.
There’s an upside anyway: it means there’s always something to learn, explore, or improve. And we do have to be practical: if I’m recording something for commercial release, I’m going to hire a producer and recording engineer, because they have skills that I don’t. Those people aren’t the composer that I am. We both put in our best, we get something better than any of us could have made alone. That’s not something to get down about.

That said, the writer’s block issue sometimes triggers a deeper emotional response, similar to what I believe is called imposter syndrome. At the moment I’ve got a great beginning to a piece for orchestra, a climax and ending I feel awesome about, and no idea how to connect them. The formal tricks (invert this, expand that) all feel forced and trite, or—worse—boring. Nothing I’ve improvised, be it based on earlier material or free, seems to fit. At the moment, every failed attempt to fill in the gap is making me feel inadequate as a composer. After all, if I can’t be convinced by something I’ve written, how can I expect anyone else to be? Writing music is literally my job, and right now I’d fire myself.

My normal solution for writing in those situations is to take a break from the piece for a while and let it percolate in my subconscious. I’ll do something—anything—else, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few weeks, and come back to it when I get struck by an idea while driving. If that never happens, maybe I can use those things I wrote and feel good about in a future piece.

My normal solution for feeling like a capable composer in those situations has more to do with considering how differently people can react to the same music. A few years ago I put on a concert of some of my piano music in New York. I’d call the show a success—the performance was good, and the audience seemed into the music. A friend from college, a photographer who also DJs, came out to listen. He had had no experience with modernist/post-modern concert music and admitted that, while he was glad to come out and support me, the music did nothing for him. He didn’t feel connected to it or moved in any way. This bothered me at the time. Not because one person didn’t like it, but because I’d poured a lot of myself into writing something meaningful, and it had completely failed to connect. The semi-logical conclusion my brain leapt to was that I must not be a worthwhile musician, and am therefore not a worthwhile person.

That thought, have it though I may, is outright wrong. My friend pulled in an analogy from photography that I found quite meaningful to explain his take on such an idea. Basically, there are about a billion photographers making art out there. No one is going to connect with everyone. The only approach is to shoot what works for you. If it resonates with someone else, that’s great. If it resonates with a lot of someone elses, that’s great too. If not, it’s not because of you, it’s because their taste and vision and ideas and artistic needs don’t match yours.

Viewing our art like this makes the whole question of success in connecting with others a non-issue. After all, saying that everyone’s taste and ideas should match yours isn’t that far off from the thinking behind fascism, racism, and all kinds of other rather negative –isms.

Thinking about this is what actually gives me some measure of comfort that I don’t suck. If I throw people’s reactions out the window and write music that both satisfies and excites me, and is music that I want to hear, and I’m being honest about all of that, then I’m good. Much like I argued in my earlier article on musical experience, what works for me is right for me. Anything beyond that is a lucky perk, and anything less than that can be worked on until it’s up to snuff in my musical worldview.
I’m not sure that’ll make anxieties go away, but one thing therapists seem to agree on is that having something tangible to focus on instead of your own doubts is very helpful. Shutting up about all the other stuff and paying attention to what note comes next often does the trick for me.

Listen To Music, Dammit!

pile of CDs
Too often I hear people say things like “pop and rock concerts are a massive snore, unless you live and die by A minor and C major.” Defenders of popular music then launch back with lists of bands making sophisticated art in popular mediums, often followed by lists of pieces of concert music generally considered great that stick to one or two harmonies (hello, Electric Counterpoint; hello, first 136 bars of Das Rheingold). This line of argument isn’t that productive, though, and while we can use specific examples to poke each other all day, doing so doesn’t address how unhelpful the thinking behind such opinions can be. More importantly, it doesn’t address how positive keeping your ears open can be.

Listening to and trying to understand as much music as possible, even music that you don’t enjoy, is an incredibly important part of becoming a better and better musician. Different genres make use of different musical processes and ideas, and listeners raised in different traditions pay attention to different markers. Classical training, for instance, teaches us to follow tonal changes and listen for transformations, largely in the realms of pitch and rhythm. No wonder people who grew up steeped in this tradition find radio rock so boring—it does, in rather a lot of cases, tend to repeat the same four chords.

The rock tradition, on the other hand, trains listeners to pay attention to changes in color (here meaning timbre/sound). Those might be the same four chords, but this time they’re distorted, the drummer has moved from a closed high-hat to a crash, and the singer has moved from singing to screaming. Those markers, in rock, can mean the same thing to a rock listener that the move to dominant in a traditional sonata means to a classical listener. A rock listener, moreover, might entirely miss the structural importance of a change in harmony, because it may not be accompanied by a change in instrumentation. It certainly won’t in a piano sonata.

I’m not an expert in Hindustani music, but I assume there’s an equivalent structural/narrative device involved in listening to different ragas; different makams in Turkish classical music might serve the same purpose for its listeners, as might differences in the ways that different MCs place their lyrics across beats in rap and hip hop.
There is no way to make an argument that one type of music’s formal devices are better than another’s. This is not to say there isn’t a range in the quality of how well pieces take advantage of those devices. How convincing is that cadence? How dramatic is that color change? How cray is that shit, Jay?

I believe that creators have a responsibility to listeners to make ourselves aware of what’s out there, and to use what we learn through listening to improve our own art. I see no reason not to take advantage of multiple sets of signals to affect our listeners in the deepest way possible. If I’m writing something, I want it to be the best thing that I’m capable of writing, but there’s a whole world of possibilities out there that I might be missing. Even if hearing some of them doesn’t contribute directly to the work at hand, they can all contribute to my artistic understanding.

This, to me, is an extremely practical application of Plato’s allegory of the cave. A quick explanation: a group of people is chained up in a cave, in such a way that they can only see the wall in front of them. Behind them are their captors, and behind their captors is a fire. The prisoners have only ever known their current situation, and thus assume that the world consists entirely of their captors’ shadows on the wall in front of them. If they get free of their chains, they might think that the world consists solely of the cave, which includes the fire and the captors themselves. Upon escaping the cave, they’d learn that the world consists of a valley, and so on, and so on.

Today is an amazing time to be a listener with open ears. As we now have a practical means of easily accessing music from all times and all regions (Spotify and YouTube aren’t without their moral quandaries regarding royalties, but they’re a godsend for curious listeners), we have no excuse not to listen to everything we can get our ears on.

To be fair, no one has time to listen to everything that’s out there. I’ve only heard a little bit of Turkish classical music, and I don’t expect that I’ll ever become an expert on it. Of what I’ve listened to and read up on, I honestly haven’t enjoyed much. But for having heard it, I am a better composer, and better listener to other musics, than I was beforehand.

Maybe that’s the other side of expertise. If we realize there’s no way we can hear everything, and accept that we’ll never have anything near a complete understanding of the music being made today, then that frees us to grow infinitely. Knowing, experiencing, and learning from more than I knew, experienced, and learned from yesterday is a worthwhile goal.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: what, as an artist, is the benefit of being closed-minded or closed-eared? There isn’t one. What are the benefits to listening to and being aware of as much music as possible? There are about a zillion. Make it a mission to hear something new each day. Even if you hate it, figure out why you hate it. It’ll make you a better musician.

There Is No Right Experience

String Quartet

“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”
—David Bowie, album notes, 1995

A few weeks ago I was discussing an idea for an interactive piece with a friend. The idea involved the audience making decisions about what the musicians would play next, a sort of musical “choose your own adventure.” He was intrigued, and enthusiastic, but ultimately the conversation turned to whether that was “it”—whether creative staging and presentation were the things that would come to define music for our generation. I don’t think they are because I believe the thing that defines our current musical era is that no one thing can possibly define it.

Berating the traditional ritual of classical concerts is very much in vogue today. In a recent BBC interview, composer Jonny Greenwood spoke about how the “reverence and silence with which most classical concerts are done now” has squeezed the excitement out of the musical experience. And while their music itself tends to hold up (and even succeed wildly), groups like LA’s wild Up and The Industry have built reputations largely on their breaking of—or willful, useful, and joyous ignorance of—classical boundaries.

I love creative concerts like this, be they Gnarwhallaby playing contemporary repertoire in bathrooms during parties or the elaborately choreographed, intensely personal experience of Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station. The question that such events beg, however, is whether the concerts distract from the music.
While my friend, on the other hand, is happy to encourage creativity, he enjoys the traditional silence of the concert hall where you’re inherently assigned the role of listener. You know when the concert starts because the conductor walks out. You know when it ends because the performers bow. You know who the performers are, because (if you’re me) they’re probably dressed classier than you. Because everything is set, you can just sit back and focus completely on the music. There are no wild costumes or lighting or dancing or clinking drinks and clapping between (or—GASP—during!) movements to consider, just what’s being played.

Let’s call these two modes of presenting music the “traditional” and the “alternative,” and skip the discussion on how the “alternative” is actually the norm in most musical traditions outside of Western classical music. Music, for the most part, doesn’t compete with other music for an audience. Attending an alternative concert one night doesn’t stop you from attending a traditional one the next in the way that, say, buying an iPhone would stop most people from buying a Galaxy. An unplanned tangent: the elite of the tech world often have both anyway, so why don’t we who consider ourselves informed, perhaps even elite, concertgoers seem excited to take advantage of both models? We don’t have to pick a side.

Chris Cerrone’s <em>Invisible Cities</em> at Union Station

Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station

Moving on, it’s clear that the concert experience affects a listener/receiver’s experience of the music, sometimes greatly. To use the Invisible Cities example again (sorry Chris, it’s an easy target for this discussion), did I hear the opera that Chris Cerrone committed to the page, or experience director Yuval Sharon’s interpretation of it? And how does Yuval’s presentation affect the work? In this case, I’m pretty sure I really, really like the music Chris wrote, but I’m not sure how much of it I heard clearly while my attention was on the dancers and the setting. The question that such an issue brings up then, in my mind, is “what is the work?” What, as an artist, am I creating? If I’m making something, shouldn’t I be clear on what that something is?
There are two answers here. One (the one that follows from Cage’s thinking, which I’m a fan of) is that the work is whatever the listener decides it is, whether consciously or unconsciously. In this case, to me, Invisible Cities is the amazing collaboration that happened at Union Station. To Yuval, it might be the score he started from. To someone purchasing the recording (which is out this week), the audio coming through their speakers is likely the work. Although the recording comes in a lovely boxed set with postcards from the opera’s setting…surely that must be considered as well. All of this leads us to being able to say that each receiver’s definition and conception of the work will be unique. And that’s awesome. That’s part of why I love experiencing art almost as much as I love making it—because experiencing it is a form of making it, via what happens in your own head as you receive it. Take that, fourth wall.

The other answer, and one I sometimes lean on for my own internal life-narrative as a composer, is that the work is what the creator intends the work to be. There may be a greater work that comes out of collaboration, presentation, reinterpretation, and so forth, but the work that I made is whole when I take my hands off of it and send it out into the world, and anything that happens to it after that is an often-positive transformation. The logical conclusion of this is that, before the 1890s, the work (from a composer’s point of view) was the score and performance. Since we now have this whole “recorded medium” thing, I believe that my work, if it happens live, is the score along with any performance coaching or performing that I’ve been involved in, and if it happens on record, everything included in the package—the mix, the album art, potentially even the performances. Obviously there are collaborators every step of the way, but when someone asks me what I’ve made, handing them a CD feels like a good answer.
Of course, that person’s speakers and room will have something to contribute, be it additional reverb or some lovely (or not very lovely) distortion. So we’re back to answer one.
It’s possible that this belief—that the listener controls the work—is the reason I enjoy writing “choose your own adventure” pieces, or works with open scoring or that are extremely open to interpretation. I’m making the relationship between art and receiver explicit. Sometimes I have something incredibly clear to say with my art. Then I use traditional, precise notation. Sometimes I have an idea that I could be excited about in many forms, or am working with performers who I know will bring things to the table that I hadn’t even considered. In those cases, I largely prefer to leave things open.

Who is to say that my interpretation is best, or that a best interpretation even exists? And why should we limit ourselves, as composers, performers, or listeners, to just one option? We’re the creative ones, right?

This is one of the rare cases where I’m excited that there’s no good answer. It means that you and I are both free to make our own.


Nick Norton
Nick Norton is a composer and guitarist from Los Angeles. He grew up playing in rock bands and formally studied composition in college at UC San Diego, then at L’ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, then in graduate school at King’s College, London, and UC Santa Barbara—and in a whole bunch of garages, studios, apartments, backyards, beaches, mountains, bars, libraries, clubs, restaurants, and deserts. The LA Times describes his music as crazy, and NewMusicBox referred to his pieces as “visceral sonic haiku” after a show in New York. Nick really liked that description. Recent projects include a commission for guitar and electronics from Worldwide Guitar Connections, new works for Gnarwhallaby and Synchromy, an orchestral arrangement of Brahms’s complete Piano Quintet in F Minor, and an album and singles with his band, Better Looking People With Superior Ideas.