6 minutes reading time (1203 words)

DIGITAL ONLY CONTENT: Speak out! Five-and-a-half minutes with composer, Christopher Norton

What kind of composer are you? 

I've been known as an educational composer since the 1980s, partly because I was a victim of my own success! Arriving in the UK in 1977, I was soon published by Universal Edition – three Christmas publications, including Carol Jazz, a book of late intermediate improvisations on Christmas carols. But it was Microjazz, a series of books featuring graded pieces in popular styles, that really established my reputation as a writer for children and teenagers. This series, consisting of books for piano, piano duet, all major instruments with piano, guitar, mandolin, harp (etc., etc.) has sold millions of copies and is still widely used by teachers all round the world. 

But before Microjazz, I had written piano pieces, orchestral pieces (including a ballet score) a piano concerto and lots of chamber music. And in the last few years I have gone back to writing more "serious", extended pieces, including, very recently, my Jazz Piano Sonata. (see: http://80dayspublishing.com/) 

So now I am both a serious composer and an educational composer, with projects like an entire jazz syllabus for an Australian examination board as well as commissions for 2 (solo) Piano Suites and a second Piano Sonata.

Please tell us of some current and upcoming projects! Of course, we want to hear about your new sonata, of course!!!)

As I mentioned above, the Jazz Piano Sonata is the first of a series of new pieces that are more advanced technically than anything I've done before and are also considerably longer! One exciting new commission is for a piano trio (piano, violin and cello, not piano 6 hands!) My Piano Concerto, written in 1976, is being performed in Idaho in November, as well as a new Schumann-like Suite of pieces for postgraduate piano students at the University of Idaho, where I have written pieces for individuals based on videos of them talking about themselves (i.e. their personalities are being portrayed in the music!) 


Read Rosemary Miller's Biography here!.

Who was the first person to steer you towards composing? How did s/he encourage you?

I started composing my own pieces one summer in New Zealand when I was 14 years old and was lucky enough to find a teacher attached to Otago University in Dunedin, Rosemary Miller, who decided to run a composition course for teenagers. Rosemary is still an active and wonderful musician, based in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

Who discouraged you along the way?

Nobody discouraged me once I started composing – my parents had no knowledge of music, but they certainly didn't stand in my way! The only negative experience I had was once I got to York University in the UK to do a doctorate in composition. By this time I had written Microjazz and I (unsuccessfully) submitted lots of tonal pieces for my degree, including a rock opera and popular songs. The examiners told me that they thought I would do as well as anyone who had come through the department, but what was I doing there in the first place? It's a problem I might not have run into 20 years later, and it did propel me into a free-lance career that suited my particular talents.

Which "lost-child piece" do you wish people played more?

I have a number of pieces that I really like and would be pleased to hear played more often. One of them is the Sonatina for flute and piano. Another is Country Song from the Rock Preludes Collection. Possibly my favourite piece (of my own!)

What is your proudest moment as a composer?

I have had many of these, hearing superlative performances of my pieces all over the world, played by both professional soloists and enthusiastic and motivated students.

Do you improvise or play off the page more? 

I largely play my own pieces in concert, which gives me license to improvise around them! I like to do this, especially playing with tracks, but I also like to demonstrate my pieces played exactly as the scores indicate – it's a different challenge! I have just recorded 8 pieces from the Connections series that are on the RCM syllabus and I tried to play them as faithfully as I could to the printed scores.

Please tell us your process for composing, including any apps or software/hardware you use regularly.

I hate to admit it, but I just start! I like to start with an idea and see where it goes, writing it down (on manuscript paper) as I go, but also from time to time playing straight into Cubase or Logic Pro on my Mac. I use a Roland HPi-7 digital piano to input, but I also like using my Yamaha Disklavier – you come up with different ideas using a grand piano. I start with a melodic idea, or a rhythm, or a chord – anything really!

What part of the compositional process do you dislike the most?

Development sections! Many of my most popular pieces are song-like and the whole piece is one unbroken idea. Once you get into larger forms there's an academic element creeps in and some of the spontaneity of the original idea has to be sacrificed to "going somewhere." I'm a melody writer primarily – 2 of my favourite composers are Grieg and Dvorak after all!

You travel frequently to present workshops around the globe. Where will your travels take you in the coming months?

Together with my wife Wendy, I have written nearly 30 Micromusicals (www.facebook.com/micromusicals) and once I get back to the UK in September I will be going into three London schools and teaching some of them. I will also be doing UK workshops, particularly for EPTA, mostly on improvisation. In late October and early November I will be at the University of Idaho, as well as in Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta (Canada) and in Washington State. I hope to be part of a UK tour in December presenting my Suites for 2 Pianos with the help of two Italian sisters, Duo Feola. 

I will be back in Australia and New Zealand in the new year and hopefully I will be back in Canada and the USA quite a bit in 2018. Watch this space!

Thank you for the chat, Chris! I will see you in Washington State soon. 

Please tell your readers they can follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/christophernortoncomposer.


I met the following students and Dr. de Pedro in Spokane last weekend and found out about Chris Norton's The Idaho Suite! As a new resident of Idaho and a fan of Mr. Norton's work, I can hardly wait to explore this new piece! drs

The Idaho Suite was written for members of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Collegiate Chapter at the University of Idaho, as well as their faculty advisor, Jovanni-Rey de Pedro. The pieces vary greatly in style because they were written based on videos of the students talking about themselves, their interests, and backgrounds. Christopher Norton has, in effect, written six musical pen portraits. The premiere of the Idaho Suite will take place THIS MONTH (November 2017) at the University of Idaho, with the original dedicatees performing.

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