Primary tabs

Norman and Hearne Looking to Flip the Script at USC

January 21, 2014

Andrew NormanLast year, the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music found itself with a couple of openings on its composition faculty. To no one’s surprise, one of the West Coast’s most renowned schools received more than 200 applications, mostly from exceptionally well-qualified composers with the usual pedigrees: doctoral degrees, strong recommendations, and the rest. But for a university with a fairly traditionalist reputation, its ultimate choices came as a surprise: Neither Ted Hearne nor Andrew Norman, two composers in their early 30s from the indie new-music capital of Brooklyn, was an academic. Rather, they were two of the leading lights of that city’s burgeoning new-music scene.

“We were not looking for the ‘standard’ academically trained composer, even though they all are, including Andrew and Ted,” both of whom have doctoral degrees from top schools, says Chair of Composition Department Donald Crockett, who headed the search committee. “If they had only been trendy composers, we wouldn’t have been interested. But they both had a unique combination of creative talent and strong training and ability to be productive faculty members. We wanted to be sure we were getting composers who are not academically entrenched. We wanted a fresh look.”

They got what they were looking for. Hearne, who grew up in Chicago (where he was born in 1982) and has lived in New York for the past 15 years, boasted degrees from Manhattan School of Music and Yale School of Music, a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award in 2008 and 2012, and commissions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other traditional institutions, plus work with new-music ensembles like the San Francisco choir Volti and the New York electric guitar quartet Dither.

Yet he also had a strong relationship with popular music, including hip-hop, having worked with Erykah Badu, recorded an indie rock album, conducted the avant-garde ensemble Red Light New Music, directed the new-music collective Yes Is a World, played piano in the uncategorizable nonet Your Bad Self, and cofounded the electronic duo R We Who R We.

Ted Hearne“Up till now we haven’t had a composer as actively interested in downtown as we have in Ted,” Crockett says, referring to the old shorthand for nonacademic, experimental new music, “and that was part of the attraction for wanting him to join our faculty.” He’d been especially impressed by Hearne’s 2009 Gaudeamus award-winning, hour-long, dramatic song cycle, Katrina Ballads, composed to found texts drawn entirely from the first week of the hurricane disaster in New Orleans, which incorporated influences ranging from jazz to hip-hop to minimalism.

Norman’s slightly more conventional resume includes several major composition awards such as the Rome Prize; commissions from the L.A. Philharmonic, Orpheus, and other orchestras; and degrees from both Yale and USC. “Andrew was my student at USC, and I’ve known since he was a freshman that he is one of the most promising composers of his generation,” Crockett recalls. “In Andrew’s music, you can hear his American academic training, but he also spent a year in Rome and Berlin, doing first-hand exploration of recent European trends.” Norman’s string trio, The Companion Guide to Rome, was a runner-up for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music.

“One of the things about my career that’s different from my Brooklyn colleagues is that I work with orchestras and chamber orchestras, more of the old-school model,” Norman explains, “as opposed to the sort of grassroots and local, build-yourself-a-career model, which is so much of what’s going on in Brooklyn these days.”

From Brooklyn Cool to L.A. Sprawl

Actually, many of Brooklyn’s finest actually hail from elsewhere, including the West Coast. Born in 1979, Norman himself (like one of his mentors, Bang on a Can founder and quintessential New York composer David Lang, who’s actually from L.A.) is a California native. Having just completed his first term teaching at his alma mater, Norman already appreciates the differences between his new and old home bases.

“There’s nowhere like New York, especially if you’re young and trying to get started,” Norman acknowledges. “There’s a wealth of possible connections and creative energy. I do miss the energy of Brooklyn in terms of having so many peers in such close proximity and a supportive group of people who are all interested in feeding off each other.”

But he found that living at the hub had its drawbacks. “When I moved there, I remember thinking, This is really strange; everyone is so into what’s happening right here and oblivious of what’s happening elsewhere. Leaving it has made me realize how internally focused that community can be. It’s kind of refreshing to be outside that and to be in a place like L.A., where there are different communities of composers and the structures are less well defined, a little less rigid.”

“In L.A., the Phil is in the forefront and is a tastemaker. They’ve made new music part of their identity, and it goes without question for the audience that this is part of their diet.” –composer Andrew Norman

Los Angeles boasts its own advantages, from its diverse multicultural communities to the fact that, with a smaller group of new-music composers, they tend to pull together rather than dividing into stylistic tribes who don’t often connect with each other, as sometimes occurs in New York, he says. “I’ve found the city to be very friendly. Maybe it’s just the weather, but people seem more laid back about these issues of style in a way that feels fresh and open. There are fantastic things going on on the West Coast, but when you’re in New York, you tend not to see things going on outside your backyard.”

Those “things” include the relatively recent resurgence in new music spearheaded by the city’s biggest classical music institution. “The L.A. Philharmonic sets the tone for this city and scene that is so different than New York,” he says. “The New York Phil is doing its best and doing good work but it’s always playing catch-up, and in L.A. the Phil is in the forefront and is a tastemaker. And I feel like that attitude trickles down throughout the the new-music community, whereas in New York it feels like you’re fighting your way up” to the big institutions. “The number of U.S. premieres by living composers is staggering. With other orchestras, you get the sense there’s a fight for new music, that underlying sense of ‘Why are we being forced to listen to this stuff?’ The L.A. Phil has made it part of their identity, and it goes without question for the audience that this is part of their diet.”

That news might surprise New Yorkers and others who have long viewed L.A. as an arts culture backwater, its occasional glories diluted in a sea of suburban, lowest-common-denominator pop culture blandness. But in an article last month, The Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne ticked off changes that signal a gradual transition from a sprawling sea of isolated suburbias to (in places, at least) a real metropolis: “high-level debate over the future of the L.A. River; new parks in Santa Monica and downtown L.A.; exhibitions at the Getty [Museum] and elsewhere that highlighted our architectural heritage; the election of Eric Garcetti as mayor and his early initiatives; victories for preservation in Beverly Hills and elsewhere; progress on planned subway and light-rail lines and designs for an expanded Union Station: All contributed this year to the sense that L.A. has crossed a major divide and entered new civic territory,” Hawthorne wrote. “Nearly every demographic trend suggests that the city’s move toward a more public future is irreversible. Simply put, Los Angeles is no longer in the business of building freeways or stand-alone houses, those twin anchors of its deeply privatized, 20th-century identity.”

Those changes, and the slow resurgence of downtown (where USC is located), portend the city’s eventual transformation from a place where ambitious composers start and then leave, to a locus of homegrown, adventurous music. Norman already sees the shift that has occurred since he left the school and city a decade ago, despite horrific urban planning and the transportation system that conspire to isolate artists and arts lovers, rather than knitting a scene together.

“It’s hard to get around this city,” Norman acknowledges.

You don’t run into people unless you’re meaning to run into them, whereas in Brooklyn, I’d run into people on the street all the time. I’ve talked to people who live on the west side [of L.A.] who’ve given up going to Disney Hall because it’s so hard to get there, and the same with the east side and Pasadena.

“It’s one of my goals in coming here that we also hold up the model of ‘stay in town and work as a composer.’” –Andrew Norman

It’s a problem, but people are going to find ways around it. My sense is the new nexus is the central east side neighborhoods, the downtown arts district, Silverlake, Atwater Village, Koreatown — places where it seems like all the like-minded young people are moving. Certainly, the more composers and creators that gather, the greater chances of forming geographically based communities here. L.A. is poised for that.”

Beyond the Ivory Tower

Norman already has plans to foster that centripetal force from his new academic base. “When I was in school, the idea that someone would stay in L.A. and just be a composer — not doing TV but concert music — was unheard of,” he recalls. “At USC, the academic track is useful, but there are other models of being a successful composer in the world, and one is to plant yourself in a city and write for the people there. In New York, it’s so obvious no one even talks about it, but [students] haven’t had the model for that here. It’s one of my goals in coming here that we also hold up the model of ‘stay in town and work as a composer.’ Hopefully, with Ted and me coming into USC, that energy and possibility will be there for the students.”

The USC Music Department’s decision to bring Hearne and Norman west may also represent the culmination of a recent change in the academy itself. The past few generations of composers who preceded them, from Lou Harrison and John Cage to Philip Glass to the Bang on a Can composers, including Hearne’s teacher Julia Wolfe, “perpetuated the idea that the academy was where music went to die,” Hearne says.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, you had to come in and do your hardcore academic modernism, and that was the only way to get along professionally,” Crockett remembers. “We still have plenty of people in the academy who feel that the freedom from market pressures in the new-music business can be an advantage, so they’re not trying to write a pale imitation of some trendy postminimalist or crossover thing. And there’s great interest in hardball, European modernism, so that’s still going to be a draw for academic departments — to hire a European composer well versed in those styles. But for junior hires, you’re probably going to see more composers who have a strong track record with performances, commissions from groups like ICE, the Jack Quartet, eighth blackbird, so you get the feeling that they’re out in there in the world,” not just closeted in the academic in-group.

“Anything that becomes institutionalized has a tendency to calcify,” Norman concedes. “Somehow, in the academic end of our field, people have trouble being themselves. So often, composers out of the academy end up writing like their teachers or what the power structure wants, but really people want something fresh and new. But things are changing. People of my generation, as a whole, look at things very differently.”

“There are so many fascinating, experimental things going on in all different genres of music … in hip-hop, rock, jazz, and everything else. The more those things become separate, the whiter and more boring classical becomes.” –composer Ted Hearne

Hearne is one of them. “Classical new music is in a weird place in this country,” he says. “It’s very white, very orchestra-centric, because that’s where the money is, what little money there is. And there are so many fascinating, experimental things going on in all different genres of music, not just notated music, in hip-hop, rock, jazz, and everything else. The more those things become separate, the whiter and more boring classical becomes. It’s the job of serious music academies to incorporate those ideas, as well as continuing the tradition of notated music, of course.” He already hopes to start a new-music series and ensemble, and to find venues to present them in different parts of the vast metro Los Angeles area, “making sure we include musicians with different backgrounds from different parts of the city and different schools, doing performances in different places.”

Norman also wants to push his students beyond the ivory tower’s walls:

One of my jobs at USC this semester has been teaching the sophomores, and I’m amazed these kids don’t go off campus. You have the most amazing new-music series in the world [at Walt Disney Hall] two miles from your dorm and you’re not going? You have to get them out of their academic place, and I believe that once they’re out in the world and circulating they’ll have conversations and start ensembles. I’ve seen it happen a couple times in L.A., where composers start something but sooner or later you know they’re going to leave. That’s the tricky thing — this transience about L.A. People come and go, and that’s one of the things we’re going to have to change. Because creating a community is a long-term project that takes years and lots of energy. My role at USC is encouraging people to be out in our local community.

Both young composers believe that USC, which once was identified with academicism, can be on the vanguard of change and openness. “The folks there really believe in what Andrew and I are doing,” Hearne says. “They’re not shying away at how different we are from the direction USC has been going in. People of our generation are trying new things out, and it’s so exciting they want to bring that to their institution. It is a special thing they did, and I’m really honored to be a part of it.”

Coda: Norman is writing a new piece, to be performed this spring, inspired by an M.C. Escher illustration series, for the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, where he’s composer in residence, and is also composing a piano concerto that the L.A. Philharmonic will perform in May. Hearne has a performance of a new work for choir (Volti), percussion, and electric guitar ensemble (Dither), coming up in the Bay Area in mid-March.

Brett Campbell writes about music for The Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, Oregon Arts Watch, SFCV and many other publications.