Student Spotlight: Graduate composition student Nick Norton on his final Ph.D. concert

Nick Norton (photo by Lindsey Best)
Nick Norton (photo by Lindsey Best)
UCSB graduate composition student Nick Norton will present his final Ph.D. concert on Saturday, May 5, 2018, at 8 pm at Art Share LA in downtown Los Angeles (admission is free but reservations can be made at The program will feature original works written by Norton, performed by current UCSB students and alumni, as well as some of LA’s most well-known names in new music. Norton spoke with us about the inspiration behind this concert, the importance of collaborating while in school, and his plans following graduation.
UC San Diego, BA cum laude, Music (composition and guitar) and Political Theory, 2008
King’s College, London, MMus, Music Composition, 2009
UC Santa Barbara, PhD, Music Composition, 2018
Garages, studios, apartments, backyards, beaches, mountains, bars, festivals, libraries, clubs, restaurants, forests, basements, fjords, and deserts, 1986 - present
Los Angeles, CA / Newbury Park, CA / Catalina Island, CA (I grew up bouncing between the three)
Q: Most of our student recitals are hosted here on campus. What was the inspiration for having your final Ph.D. concert in Los Angeles?
A: The flights for my friends coming into town for it would be much cheaper. Ha! The main idea behind doing the show in LA is that LA is my home scene, and one of the most vibrant communities in the national/international new music scene. It’s one of the few cities on the planet where you can make a regular living as a composer. I live here, and moved back here immediately after my coursework in Santa Barbara was complete. I’ve been putting on shows in Los Angeles as long as I can remember, and the resources for doing it are amazing: there are SO many great players, and venues, and organizations that can be helpful and inspiring. Concert production is a collaborative art form, and I knew that by doing it in LA I could bring on way more musicians, a video artist, a lighting designer, etc. etc. without much trouble getting everything in place. Unfortunately due to some schedule conflicts I have had to find a couple of subs for this show, and I’m not sure that would have been possible on time in a smaller town.
When it comes down to it, it was really a question of “make my twelve piece band and a bunch of friends drive to Santa Barbara with their gear, pay for their hotels, etc.” vs. “we can have an after-party at my house.”
Q: Your program includes an impressive lineup of eleven original works. How many years did it take you to compile these pieces and how did you select this particular combination for this concert?
A: Well, your choice of the word “compile” is interesting, because this concert really is a compilation. I’m very into programming concerts with some sort of conscious narrative arc, but in this case, with the purpose of the event, I knew it had to be a sort of “portfolio of everything I’ve done.” I probably started work on looking through my catalog and selecting pieces back around November. Sometimes my music can be pretty diverse, so selecting the pieces was a challenge. The way I navigated that - and this is a way that a lot of people program concerts - was to figure out what was most important, and then look at what was compatible with that.
To give a more concrete example: the biggest two pieces on the concert are Beach Song and Imitator 2, which have a combined instrumentation of soprano, flute, clarinet/sax, piano, percussion, guitar, string quintet, and electronics. So that was my upper limit: if I had a cool bassoon solo, which I don’t, it would not happen on this concert. It was pretty easy from there to pick pieces that fit within the instrumentation.
Next step was the order and the stage changes, which, to me, are unbelievably important. Any piece, by anyone, can sound awesome or terrible depending on how well it is presented. I essentially composed out the concert, treating it as an evening-length piece made out of relatively immobile materials (the pieces themselves). I tried to be musical about it, thinking about tension and release, expectations and surprises, setup and payoff, things like that. A couple pieces did end up getting cut because, though I think they’re solid pieces, they didn’t fit the musical arc of the show. And I’m not down with making a listener sit through a piece I don’t believe works in context.
Q: The roster of performers for this concert includes not only current UCSB students and alumni but also Los Angeles-based musicians who specialize in new music. How have you cultivated relationships with these artists? What advice do you have for student composers who are looking to have their works performed outside of the UCSB campus?
A: This is definitely a two-parter, and I think your second question leads to the answer to the first. How do student composers have their works performed outside of the UCSB campus? Easy. Make friends who are performers outside of the UCSB campus. Nico Muhly always gives the advice “write for your friends” and he is dead on when he says that. There’s a corollary parable that floats around the entertainment industry - but I believe is true in all industries - that if you don’t believe in nepotism, you have the wrong friends. Just speaking for myself, when I program a show and need a piece to fill a spot, the wall of email I’ve got from composers asking me to look at their music for consideration (this happens almost immediately when you start a concert series) enters my mind long, long after the question “I wonder if Marc has anything, let me ask him.” It’s not because Marc is a better or worse composer than anyone else in particular, it’s because I went to his bachelor party last weekend.
Regarding how I’ve cultivated relationships with these artists, the thing is that your friendships can’t be some forced or artificial thing to get your music played. Thelonious Monk had a really great and succinct line about this: “Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene.” The people playing on this show are my friends first, musicians second. But making friends isn’t too hard when you’re passionate about the same thing. Richard Valitutto, for instance, is a phenomenal and successful pianist. But we became friends because we both moved to LA after our previous degrees at the same time and started seeing each other at shows and noticing that, for more traditional classical stuff, we were regularly the youngest people in the room. At one Monday Evening Concerts show that we’d both arrived at early he was like, “I see you everywhere, do you want to get a bite?” We mostly talked about Webern. I did send him some pieces back then, but I was still new to the scene and over-eager. That was almost ten years ago, and in the intervening time we’ve gotten to know each other as close friends. I could say similar things about almost every single person who has ever played my music.
The other thing is not to wait. If you don’t go try to book some things and fail, you won’t ever learn. In comedy they say you need 100 terrible sets before you figure out your approach. I can’t count how many rock shows I’ve played to literally empty bars before my bands started getting good at it. That people blow up and get sudden success is a total marketing myth. You have to be in the trenches for a while.
Q: How has the composition faculty at UCSB helped to shape your voice as a composer? What is some of the most valuable advice you have received from your mentors?
A: They’ve been wonderful mentors. Clarence’s open-mindedness with regard to style and approach and Curtis’s focus on being self-critical and learning how to listen to your own work - which was a fascinating and challenging lesson to learn, as he delivered it - have been immense for me. Joel is the teacher I have worked with the most closely, and he is utterly uncompromising, but in a loving way. He doesn’t care at all what your music sounds like, he only cares that you’re doing it as intensely and with as much care and passion as possible, and not cutting any corners. The phrase “that will work” irks him to no end: he’d rather you say “that is absolutely brilliant, or I have to do better.” He gave me one of my most important lessons over a conversation at Hollister, and I’m not sure if he even remembers it because it was just so natural for him. I was outlining my initial idea for my dissertation, some many-chaptered tome about how freedom of political thought (think Baudrillard) and recognition of existential absurdity (think Camus) leads to the radical open-mindedness required to make vital art, probably talking for fifteen minutes straight, and he was nodding, and listening intently, and asking small questions, and then when I wrapped up he said “Okay. But don’t do that. Pour all that energy and thought into your music instead, and write that book when you’re sixty. For your dissertation turn in some twenty page paper that you write last minute. We care about your music, and that’s what you should be focused on.” He’s right. I absolutely believe in all of those things I’m interested in writing about, but the better move is to put those thoughts into action by making art. The teacher I’ve worked with most recently, Andrew Tholl, certainly agrees with him, and is constantly pushing to just write, write, write. Figure yourself out in your music. Less talk, more rock, as it were.
Norton performing at Home Audio in Brooklyn, NY (photo by Mara Mayer)
Norton performing at Home Audio in Brooklyn, NY (photo by Mara Mayer) 
Q: What's next for you as a composer and performer?
A: A few things! I’ve been working on a solo guitar and electronics set that I’d like to refine a bit more and then tour on. I’m calling that Music for Art Galleries and parts of it are on the Ph.D. concert. My band Honest Iago has a record called 29 Palms coming out at the end of July that we’ve been working hard on for a really, really long time. We have some shows in the Pacific Northwest around the beginning of June that should be really fun. After that I’ve got a couple weeks at the Oregon Bach Festival, where - I am totally beside myself about this - I’m going to get to work with Philip Glass. Then in July I’ve got my first commission for dance premiering at Joffrey Texas, which Katie Cooper from Avant Chamber Ballet is choreographing. Around that time I’ll be writing a piece for the pianist Mark Robson, which I’m pretty sure he is premiering at Piano Spheres next year and will be on his record. He’s a joy to write for - he studied with Yvonne Loriod - and I’ve been on a big Debussy/Messiaen kick lately so that will probably show up in the piece in some way, especially as it’s being programmed with Debussy. Then in fall I’ve got an ambient/post-rock kind of piece piece called Slow Earth coming out on the guitarist Giacomo Baldelli’s next record, and he’s playing some shows for that in Italy and NY. That record is going to be really cool, and I’m pretty sure it’s got this Eve Beglarian piece on it that I’m totally in love with. I’ve also been shopping around a chamber orchestra arrangement of Cage’s In A Landscape that I’ve gotten a few tentative bites for. We’ll see how that goes.
As I write this all out the thing that is screaming in the back of my head is “when [are] you going to finish Mirror Smasher?” That’s a 40-minute-ish piece for piano four hands and electronics and video that I have been writing for the piano duo HOCKET. About the first ten minutes are done, and I’ve got a draft of twelve more, but it’s still a ways off, even while it feels like the most important thing I’ve been working on. And I’m totally distracted right now by how into synths I’ve gotten in the past couple of years. I definitely want to write an all-synth record about my first trip to Japan, which was about a month ago, and have some sketches for it, but at this rate I have no idea when that will happen. I wrote what I thought was a track for it and now it’s turning into a part of Mirror Smasher, ha.
Q: What do you think is the most important piece of advice for aspiring composers?
A: Oh, there’s more than one, but I’ll try to list them in order of importance.
First: don’t wait around. Many students, without realizing it, say things like “someday, when I’m out of school….” That’s a great way to never do anything. Stop planning and start doing.
Second: GO. TO. CONCERTS. If you’re not up on what’s going on in music, how can you expect to write anything worthwhile? I tend to take this a step further and say “be connected with culture.” Beethoven used to give the advice that composers absolutely needed to keep up with literature, science, painting, and politics, because how else could they write relevant music? I’d say the same thing about the way more conservative musicians in the classical world sometimes view popular music: it’s okay if you don’t “get” why Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer, but if you don’t know who Kendrick Lamar is, how can I take you seriously as a person who claims to be interested in music? If your only frame of reference for your work is your classmates and what goes on in Geiringer Hall, you’re missing out on a lot of fantastic stuff that could be very inspiring for your art making.
Third: GO. TO. CONCERTS. Remember the thing I said earlier about making friends with performers? Tough to do that if you’ve never seen them perform.
Fourth: GO. TO. CONCERTS. Something that is perhaps not taught openly enough is that making a career in music takes an absurd amount of energy. If you’re in your twenties and you are not exhausted 24/7, I tend to think you’re not doing enough. If it is 8 pm and you are not at a venue or in a rehearsal - unless you’re taking a night to compose - I think you need to ask yourself some serious questions about if you can make a career out of this. Perhaps music is a very serious hobby that you care deeply about. That’s awesome, and I wish I was that way because I’d be better at relaxing. But if you really want to do this with your life, you kind of have to be all in at all times. This is actually why living in Santa Barbara was tough for me: I was spending $400 a month on gas driving to LA for shows at least twice a week. If an aspiring composer is serious, better get a good credit card.
Fifth: Answer your mail. A young composer once asked Aaron Copland his advice, and that was his response. I can’t tell you how many composers I’ve asked for pieces for a concert who have written back to me three weeks later with a badly formatted score and terrible sounding MIDI realization. To some extent, at least before people know your work, the cool shows go to the people who respond quickly and are easy to work with. And take great care in your work! I’ve judged a couple of calls for scores now, and about 50% of the scores that come in get tossed in the reject pile within five seconds of looking at the first page because the formatting is so bad. If your sheet music doesn’t have collisions between noteheads and dynamics and slurs, you’re automatically in the top half.
Sixth: Just a short practical one: get a website and a headshot and a couple good recordings. Buy your friends dinner to record your five minute piece for violin and piano, and that recording will carry you farther than ten orchestral scores.
Did I say anything about going to a lot of concerts?
More About Nick Norton
Nick Norton is a composer, guitarist, and concert producer from Los Angeles. He is interested in the colorful grey areas between genres, creating new experiences for listeners, and destroying social barriers to enjoying music. The LA Times describes his music as crazy, NewMusicBox referred to his pieces as “visceral sonic haiku,” and Fool In The Forest said they were “fit to melt steel.” Nick is co-artistic director of Equal Sound, founder, and editor of New Classic LA, a member of Synchromy, and plays in the bands Honest Iago, The Newports, and Better Looking People With Superior Ideas. He really enjoys craft beer, sci-fi, and being near or in the ocean, and holds degrees from UC San Diego and King’s College London. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in composition from UC Santa Barbara. Learn more about Nick at
Nick Norton (photo by Lindsey Best)