Composer Andrew Norman tries to evoke Gehry home in ‘Frank’s House’
Andrew Norman is rhapsodizing over Frank Gehry’s house in Santa Monica, where a few months ago Norman was given what the famous architect calls “the full Monty,” a tour inside and out, accompanied by ample commentary from Gehry and his wife, Berta.
“It has a quality which is almost sort of punk, iconoclastic and in-your-face,” the 35-year-old composer says with earnest wonderment. “And when you get inside the house, it’s incredibly luminous and spacious and whimsical and really lovely.”
As opposed, say, to what one encounters chez Norman.
The house where the composer recently finished “Frank’s House,” a 10-minute musical evocation of the Gehry residence that the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will premiere Feb. 5, is actually quite nice. The midcentury modern home in El Sereno on L.A.'s Eastside is perched on a hill, where it basks in bright light and commands attractive views. But what Norman has made of it lately is a flat-out mess. Or, more precisely, a sharps and flats-out mess.
“I compose in a very messy way, as you can see,” he says as he gives the four-fifths Monty tour, leaving out the bedroom.
“By the end of the process I end up with paper sketches of a piece an inch thick all over the house. I have to go from room to room looking [for sheets he needs] because I’m not sure where it landed. It’s horribly inefficient, but it’s the way I work.”
Norman, who’s tall and slender with a beard, longish face and neatly parted fair hair, says he’s lucky that Alex Birkhold, a violin-playing attorney who’s Norman’s partner both romantically and in at-home music making, understands. And, he adds, “When a piece is done I clean it up.”
With 21/2 weeks to go before its premiere in the chamber orchestra’s Westside Connections series at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica, the highly unorthodox “Frank’s House” was finished but not into the cleaning-up stage.
Amid a sprinkling of books and sundry other objects and implements were pages and pages of music, not crumpled, that presumably once had enjoyed a perch above the keyboard of his 100-year-old piano.
Norman says the Mason & Hamlin instrument “is kind of like my muse.” It’s an heirloom passed along by the woman who taught him piano and composition when he was growing up in Modesto.
His assignment for the first of three concerts in a Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra series exploring links between music and architecture was to evoke in music what Gehry made of a nondescript early 20th century pink wooden house he’d bought in 1978.
Not yet famous, the architect gained a new level of notice by surrounding and augmenting the structure with stuff that nobody had associated with gracious living. A chain-link fence jutting from an upstairs deck. Exterior surfaces of unpainted plywood. A wall of corrugated metal near the property’s perimeter, with apertures for glimpses inside. Gehry wanted passersby to see that vestiges of the little pink house remained.
The home is “Gehry’s personal answer to Los Angeles’ chaotic culture,” Casey C.M. Mathewson wrote eight years ago in “Frank Gehry, Selected Works, 1969 to Today.”
The early reviews from some of Gehry’s neighbors were less understanding: “anti-social,” “monstrosity” and “it’s a dirty thing to do in somebody else’s front yard” were some they shared with the Los Angeles Times as the house neared completion.
And now the Gehry house is to be serenaded by a 2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music, a composer who has emerged as one of the relatively few contemporary classical composers whose work is performed often enough to make a living from it — although Norman also teaches composition at his alma mater, USC.
The new piece, for four musicians, tries to evoke the Gehry home with means both literal and conceptual. As with much of his music, Norman acknowledges, there’s a chance that some listeners will find “Frank’s House” as unpleasant as those neighbors in 1978 found Frank’s house.
“I used to be super stressed out about how an audience is going to take my work,” he said. “I very much want them to have an interesting, compelling experience, but I can’t control that. Some people will like it, some not. Frank is a great example of that. Over the long haul, he’s had a conviction in his own vision. “
Two percussionists will steer the piece, sometimes rudely interrupting the two pianists and sometimes giving them cues to proceed. The instrumentation was dictated by a Bartok sonata that’s also on the program, which will be interspersed with a panel conversation that includes Gehry. The percussionists will scrape or bang away on — what else — corrugated metal, chain-link fence and plywood.
The pianists, Jeffrey Kahane, the chamber orchestra’s music director, and Los Angeles Philharmonic member Joanne Pearce Martin are invited to play their instruments’ wood frames instead of the ivory keys at certain points should the spirit move them.
They’ll also drag mechanical pencils across parts of the pianos’ innards; Norman says he’s grown fond of how the thin little pieces of lead inside mechanical pencils rattle around, adding extra texture to the zings and taps and scratches the pencil points make on chain-link fencing and other Gehry-inspired materials. Metal can openers also will come into play.
Like Gehry in 1978, Norman says, his approach has been “many trips to Home Depot and begin experimenting.” Evidence of his R&D phase leaned against a wall by the kitchen — plywood planking, a section of chain-link and a 6-foot-high sheet of corrugated metal. A tube of slinky metal ducting joined the clutter obliterating a nearby table, where Norman’s viola rested uncomfortably close to the edge.
On his tour of Gehry’s house, the composer said, “He asked me what on Earth I was going to do, and at that point I didn’t have much of a concrete idea. I told him it would involve a bit of old music and treating it the same way he treated that bungalow. And we had a long conversation about chain-link fence, how it was a universally hated material, an eyesore.”
Inside the composition’s avant-garde musical cladding Norman has placed aural glimpses of a passage from Brahms’ “Sixteen Waltzes” for two pianos. “It sounds to me like a Dutch colonial bungalow,” he said. “That was my little pink house. The question became, ‘How do I tear the house apart and reconstruct it?’”
Not in any way that’s very airtight. Norman says he loves the unique physicality musicians can bring to live performance, and he tries to give players a chance for spontaneity and decision-making within a composition’s frame. “Frank’s House,” part of his output in a three-year run as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, has a distinctive way of achieving it.
“What happens … is totally uncoordinated (and often quite crazy),” Norman has written at one point in the score — aiming to reassure the pianists it’s OK to sound that way. “If you get off from one another, don’t sweat it. It will still sound great,” he writes elsewhere, wanting to free them from the meticulous lockstep precision that gets drilled into classical musicians.
The score specifies that the percussionists’ duty, at one point, is to “take a piece of newspaper and crumple it (as if you are Frank Gehry imagining a new building).”
This, Norman admits, is partly for the sound, partly to evoke how buildings start out on paper and partly a joking allusion to an episode of “The Simpsons.” A cartoon Gehry, standing outside his house’s corrugated fence, crumples and tosses a letter from Marge Simpson — only to realize he’s accidentally formed the brilliant sequel to Walt Disney Concert Hall her letter had begged him to bestow on Springfield.
Norman says he had architecture coloring books as a kid, and dreamed of becoming an architect until music took over. He’s been periodically evoking buildings since his undergraduate days, when he wrote a piece that tried to mirror in sound Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill., — an austerely disciplined, evenly proportioned geometric structure that’s the opposite of Gehry’s home.
Norman said that for a long time he’d found the musical modernism he encountered as a student at USC bewildering.
“I was overwhelmed and not sure how to go about interfacing with all the crazy, avant-garde ideas,” he said.
An assignment to write a paper about the music of the Italian Futurist movement of the early 1900s took him to the art and architecture library in search of Futurism’s visual manifestations. Flipping through books about important modernist buildings and looking at models made by architecture students who were grappling with the same issues of form, structure and texture that had daunted him, Norman says he realized that architects’ solutions to these problems could inform his own.
“Architecture of the 20th century helped me find my way back into modernist music,” he said.
Gehry already has experienced something like what Norman’s been up to. Esa-Pekka Salonen composed “Wing on Wing” as a tribute to Disney Hall, and “Sculpture” by Salonen’s fellow Finn, Magnus Lindberg, also focused on the downtown masterpiece.
“It sounds like Disney Hall,” Gehry said of Lindberg’s effort. “Maybe I wanted it to sound like Disney Hall as I was listening to it, but it did. It had structure to it that felt so familiar to me. It’s all pretty abstract and hocus-pocus, probably, but I could relate it to me.”
And now comes Norman, trying to reach him where he lives.
“Of course I’m curious what he’s going to do with it,” Gehry said. “I’m always up for music.”
‘Frank’s House,’ Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Where: Moss Theater at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5
Info: (213) 622-7001, Ext. 1; https://www.laco.org
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