In Conversation: Award-winning Jazz and Pop Composer, Christopher Norton

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We were really lucky to have the award-winning Jazz & Pop Composer with us this week. His popular workshop at the library@esplanade was completely sold out on Wednesday. In 2008, Christopher’s Microjazz series is the biggest selling music series for Boosey & Hawkes. We caught up with Chris to find out how it all started.

M: Thanks for joining us Chris. Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into composing?
C: I’m from New Zealand originally, and really liked music from a young age. I listened to lots of music and had a tape recorder which my father gave to me when I was about 8. I used to record things off the radio and devoured classical music. Strangely, one summer holiday, I had a piano in my cousin’s place and thought that someday, I’m going to try to write something of my own. So it came about very spontaneously. I was 14 then, and have been doing it ever since. 

M: Who’s your favourite composer of all time?
C: I would say, overall, Debussy.

M: Favourite song?
C: The Cello Sonata.

M: Why is he your favourite though?
C: I totally think he is genius, almost reinventing music. He also always seem to do things which I love, very spontaneously. You can hear him thinking, “I just like the sound, I’m gonna do it.” There is a certain off-the-top-of-his-head element to the way he uses the piano, especially the harmonies, which I find has a resonance for me.

M: What is Debussy’s guilty pleasure? Choose one.

  • Staring at the hour-hand of a grandfather clock.
  • Drinking alone.
  • Watching CBeebies.
  • Eating succulent Chilli Crab.
  • The Holy Bible.
  • Explosions.
  • The Queen.
  • Trimming sparse eyebrows.
  • Twerking.
  • Child beauty pageants.

C: Eating succulent Chilli Crab. (Yummy!)

M: Which is your favourite Christopher Norton book?
C: The Rock Preludes collection.

M: Why is that?
C: I had a grand piano to work on and found myself doing the Debussy thing – going in on unexpected directions, even for myself. And I’m pleased to find that there is that resonance in that for young players. They like the fact that the pieces are spontaneous too.

M: What’s your compositional method?
C: I just start and one thing leads to another! I feed off the instrument. I often get started off by something else such as the guitar piece and then I follow up with a sample. Since I play the piano, I will play around with the idea on the keyboard. After which, I may notate it as I go along or record it as a whole. I often work in the MIDI medium so you get the whole rough print. I also use Sibelius and Logic. On Logic, you can record something and export it as a MIDI file so even if it’s a rough performance, you can at least see what you’ve done. Although, I think I still quite like doing things spontaneously – improvising almost and then notating and refining that.

M: What’s the hardest thing about composing?
C: I suppose the hardest thing for me is to figure out how to proceed with a much bigger piece. It’s fine doing something which is almost like a song but when you are trying to do something that is 10 mins long, I think that’s the hardest part. You have got to think about the harmonic structure, where the piece is going, how is it going to stretch for a longer time period… etc.

M: Do you get writers’ block?
C: No. I have always been struck by the fact that Elton John never uses a song unless he did it within 20 mins. If he didn’t, he’ll leave it and do something else. I think this reflects on the way I work too. I tend to try coming at it from a different angle especially if you’re writing for TV. And that’s where I think my work is trying to encourage the young to be creative (through improvising) so that you don’t keep coming up with the same thing all the time. You know Tom Waits? He likes to write songs using instruments he doesn’t usually play, so he doesn’t go into the same patterns all the time. It’s like if you don’t play guitar and you decide to to write on a guitar, you wouldn’t write the same thing as you would on a piano.

M: What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
C: The best piece of advice would be one that I have accidentally followed as well – To try and figure out what you really like and go in that direction. Don’t try and do things that are artificial and different from who you are. Start with yourself. When I work with younger people, I always ask them what they listen to. They often want to write something in the same style that they listen to and I tell them that’s a good starting point. That’s a good thing because you always got to base your compositions on certain rules. For example, if they like Coldplay, they are going to compose in a similar way, starting with drums, guitar and bass parts. They are essentially learning about harmonic and song structure as well as arrangements. It’s quite surprising how often your subconscious comes up with the right answers (to your composition) without you knowing! That’s the real fun in composing – when you know you are doing something right but don’t know where you are headed for.

M: Are you working on anything new at the moment? Are there any new works?
C: Yes definitely. There’s a new book out called Eastern Preludes which is all based on folk songs around Asia. I’m also halfway through a book of Pacific Preludes which has pieces from New Zealand - I’m originally from New Zealand! – The Eastern Preludes’ got a ragtime version of Waltzing Matilda which is sort of the unofficial national anthem of Australia. There are also pieces from Hawaii, the Cook Islands, Central and South America, as well as native American pieces from Canada. The structure of the book is similar to the previous Preludes books. I’ve also written an entire Jazz syllabus and piece for an Australian examination board consisting of 5 grades that’s 80 jazz standards. We are now in the process of recording with live musicians so that has been a big project which has been lots of fun!

M: What do you like about Singapore best?
C: I live in London and I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur, so I must say, I like the traffic here best. It’s so regulated and you don’t get in the kind of traffic jams you get in major cities. That’s a big plus. It’s also a very orderly place, and of course the food is the best I’ve ever come across! And the people of course! 

M: Is there anything else you would like to add?
C: I’ve really enjoyed meeting the lovely teachers and students in Singapore. It’s always fun to see how teachers react to the things I talk about – about improvisation and composition in action with young people. 


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For a limited time only, all Christopher Norton books will be on discount through Gramercy Music website. Click HERE to shop now!

Melodie Ng
Melodie Ng, Melodie graduated from Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. She loved riding the pirate ship at Fun World in Parkway Parade. Melodie rings handbells and plays percussion. When the weather gets cooler, she enjoys taking long dog walks, penny boarding and a good green tea frappe at ECP.
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