Q & A with Nick Norton and Jonathan Morgan

Nick Norton & Jonathan Morgan's single Elegy II is out today! To celebrate, we are happy to share our little interview with composer Nick Norton and violist Jonathan Morgan.

Nick Norton (photo: Lindsey Best), Jonathan Morgan (photo: Star Foreman)

Nick Norton (photo: Lindsey Best), Jonathan Morgan (photo: Star Foreman)

How did the idea for Elegy II come about?

NN: Well, the circumstances are unfortunate. Jonathan and I were both studying at UCSB when the Isla Vista shootings occurred in 2014. Isla Vista, for those that don’t know, is where the large majority of UCSB undergrads live. Six students were killed, and the campus was deeply affected - some of my students were literally on their way to one of the restaurants that got shot up when it happened.

Anyway, the music department decided to put on a memorial concert, and I wrote the piece for that. It was a kind of hard choice - the families of some of the victims were there, and I felt a major sort of “who am I to present something here?” After a lot of talks with friends about it - especially Marc Evans and my teacher, Joel Feigin - I became comfortable enough to say this isn’t telling anyone how to feel, but if music is the way I express and experience things and interact with the world, then I’d almost be doing a disservice not to write something. I was having very strong feelings, after all, and this is the exact thing we train for as composers - writing music that might matter.

I still feel slightly weird releasing a single and music video reacting to a school shooting, though. If people were to accuse us of trying to get notice off of a tragedy, I’d understand that. Hell, I worry about that view myself. But Jonathan loved the piece and plays it beautifully, and he and others really thought that people might take some comfort hearing it. It’s been performed a couple of times since that first concert, and someone invariably comes up and says “thank you for writing that.” So, okay. If it does that for some listeners, I am very happy to have it out in the world.

Did you two work together before this project? Do you have other projects coming up?

JM: Yes, we worked together in 2013 when Nick wrote a piece for my group, the Now Hear Ensemble. I'm a huge fan of Nick and his music, so I hope to perform more of it in the future. I think we are both exploring some promising ways to make that happen, so we'll keep you posted!

NN: Ditto! I loved Jonathan’s playing from the first time I heard it. When we met he wasn’t nearly as into new music as he is now (read: he is now very very into new music), but his tone and interpretations and stage presence on more traditional rep blew me away. It’s been such a joy to watch him explore, and seriously, he kills it. Plus we’re close friends and all, so I can’t imagine that this will be the last time we do something together.

What was the inspiration for the video and whose idea was it?

JM: Initially I was the one who pushed for a video of the piece, because I think engaging more senses of an audience can increase the message of hope around which Nick has crafted his music. Our friend Gaby Goldberg runs a boutique film, graphic design, and videography/animation studio, and was gracious enough to work with us on this project. She sent us a video of violinist Charlie Siem (whom I adore) that she really liked, as a starting point for the video.

NN: I’d only add that we were adamant about keeping it simple. It’s probably worth noting that the video idea came before deciding to release the audio as a single. Nick Tipp’s mix of our extremely basic recording setup for the video was so good, though, that we couldn’t not release it too.

What's your big project for 2017? (Individually or together)

JM: my individual projects include a recital tour of California, performing music by several composers I have worked closely with who have written pieces for me, many of which are responses to political and social struggles of our time - Norton's Elegy II counted among them. I'd like to share what I love with the LGBT community in California and beyond, so if you are part of your local LGTB center, you'll be getting a call from me! I'm also teaming up with other musicians to perform retrospective concerts of Clarence Barlow's music in Fullerton, CA, Santa Barbara, CA, and at LA's REDCAT in late January, late February, and early April. As a member of the Now Hear Ensemble, I will be part of collaborations with composition students from UC Irvine who are writing works for us. Now Hear Ensemble will also produce concerts inspired by mirrors, for which we have commissioned works from Dan VanHassel and Florent Ghys.

NN: My big project is to have a big project, ha. I keep writing 4 to 6 minute pieces for chamber ensemble or piano. I don’t want to get comfortable, and I find larger scale pieces very challenging in a way that I enjoy. I suppose the two most specific things on my mind are to turn my piece Mirror Smasher, which I wrote for HOCKET, from a 9 minute thing into a 30 minute thing, and to finish my band Honest Iago’s record, which is always slow because we live in multiple cities. I’m also finishing up a chamber arrangement of my teacher Joel Feigin’s opera, Twelfth Night. There are always more ideas, though. I’ve always wanted to write a piano concerto. I have a couple of pianist friends who said they would do it, so we are looking for an opportunity for that. I’ve also got a one-act opera plot and a librettist, but it’s too early to talk about that.

Nick, you are a man of many trades and skills. Your bio says that you "enjoy craft beer" but isn't that a bit of an understatement? Please give us a short pitch for Barly.

NN: Gladly! Barly is an app some friends and I built to recommend craft beer to people. It’ll also show you what is on tap at bars or restaurants near you. The thing the separates it from other beer apps is that you don’t have to know anything about beer to use it - it asks what flavors you like in general terms, like “sweet” or “bitter” or “sour” and then recommends things the same way Netflix does - red stars for how much it thinks you’ll like a beer, yellow stars you set that are taken into account for future recommendations. We particularly think novices to the beer world like it, because if you search for ratings on a site for connoisseurs, crazy hoppy beers are going to be rated highest, and newbies tend not to like those. Getting someone from “I hate beer” or “Bud Light is good” to “I didn’t know beer could taste like cherry wine” or “White Rascal is way better than Bud Light” is way more exciting to me than helping a beer expert find Pliny The Younger. But we do that too.

I think that excitement about introducing people to beer they’ll love comes from the same place my excitement about music comes from. I love playing tour guide, and my favorite experience in life is probably when I show someone something - almost anything - and they say “oh, I didn’t know about that” and get into it. It’s why I do my best to introduce my more classically-minded friends to interesting rock and vice versa.

Jonathan, what are some of your hobbies? What kind of activities would you seek out if all your musical instruments were in the shop for a couple weeks?

JM: Good Friends, good food, and good beer are my salves. By nature, I'm a bit of a brooding loner, so I have to remind myself that I am happier when I am social. I also love being outdoors with my dog Eve, and binging on great science fiction and fact. I'd love to travel more, and hope to be in a financial situation to do so soon - yes, I take donations! ;-)

Do you either of you have a cool/funny story to tell about the other?

JM: Nick is a super cool badass who makes me laugh. I'm lucky to enjoy his friendship.

NN: Same back at you, and I’d add that while Jonathan often calls himself a curmudgeon, he is one of the warmest, sweetest, and most earnest people I’ve ever met. I have no idea how he responds to texts with contextually appropriate drag queen reaction gifs so quickly. He also looks ridiculously hot in shiny gold leggings, and I’m straight.