New Zealand-born, now Canadian-based composer and pianist Christopher Norton is known the world over for his best-selling educational music, including the Microjazz, Connections and Preludes series.
Here he reveals how he discovered music in his youth …
I was born into a non-musical (but very loving) family.
My interest in music, specifically classical music, was evident from a very early age. We had milk delivered (remember that?) in glass bottles and I would fill the empty bottles with varying amounts of water and create my own instrument so I could play tunes on them.
I have early memories of pieces I liked, heard on the radio I guess, particularly Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers and Beethoven’s Hallelujah Chorus from Christ on the Mount of Olives!
My father had a reel to reel tape recorder and I was given access to it and somehow figured out how to record pieces from New Zealand’s Concert Programme (we had, amazingly, an equivalent of Radio 3 in 1960s New Zealand). I soon discovered composers and pieces I really liked – Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, but also (in no particular order) Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Martinu, Nielsen, Sibelius, Faure, Saint-Saens…
At the same time, my parents had been drawn to church attendance (via a Billy Graham film shown at the army camp where my father was stationed) and I ended up with access to a piano at the church we attended.
I quickly taught myself to play, mostly hymns by ear and my parents realised I could do with both a piano and piano lessons!
They rented a piano from a local music store and set about finding me a teacher – who proved to be a nun at the local convent.
I don’t remember much about her, but my mother told me years later that the convent had no spaces for new students. My mother asked if I could play for the nun in question, who promptly said to my mother “you get a handful like this in a lifetime” and somehow found me a slot.
I quickly learned to read music and started in the Trinity exam system (not a quiz about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but a piano examination system not unlike the ABRSM).
As time went by I devoured piano literature on my own – Chopin, Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Haydn… I also read about composers and loved books of analysis! And I joined the World Record Club and started a collection of LPs, still following my nose musically.
I left Auckland at the age of 12 and moved to Dunedin and a new (ABRSM) teacher.
Musical works I remember working on past the age of 12 included the Bloch Piano Sonata, Henk Badings 4th Sonata and the Nielsen Chaconne and Suite for Piano.
It was inevitable that I start writing my own music, although this wasn’t until I was around 14 years of age.
The vast range of music I had listened to meant that my own compositions pulled on a wide variety of influences. Pop music and jazz played a very small part in my musical life up to the age of 16.
I went to university at 16 and friends there inevitably introduced me to rock music in particular at this point. Soon Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd and ELP were added to my classical music enthusiasms and I began to mess around on the piano (I had never stopped playing by ear) with these new styles in my ear.
Once I finished university, I became a high school music teacher and became vividly aware of the gulf between my classical music enthusiasms and the enthusiasms of my students (heavy rock, heavy metal, r’n’b, soul, funk etc).
I began to explore a wider range of styles at the piano and joined a band for the first time. I started writing piano music based on the sounds I was hearing and playing, but with classical music models in my mind in terms of the notation.
The result was early precursors of Microjazz.
The rest, as they say, is history.
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