House Music, Gehry Style, by Composer Andrew Norman for L.A. Chamber Orchestra

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Frank Gehry’s iconic Santa Monica House has inspired a piece of music by composer Andrew Norman, to be performed this week by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Sarah Spitz gives this preview.

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Image by rocor via Flickr

In 1978, when a little known architect named Frank Gehry started wrapping his 1920s Santa Monica bungalow in chain link, corrugated metal and plywood, neighbors were outraged. Almost 40 years later, that house (remodeled by the architect in 1991) is the inspiration for a piece of music that will be performed this week, onetime only, at New Roads School.

Entitled “Frank’s House,” it  was conceived by Andrew Norman, Composer in Residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) and a self-confessed architecture obsessive. The concert is the first of a LACO series exploring connections between buildings and music.  

Sarah  A. Spitz, longtime KCRW producer, will attend the concert Thursday night; she wrote this preview for the  Santa Monica Daily Press.

You might imagine a classical music composer hunched over a piano, madly scribbling eighth-notes on a G-clef staff.

Instead, picture Andrew Norman at Home Depot buying pieces of chain link fence, corrugated metal and plywood, then banging and scraping on them at home.

“I needed to know what kinds of music I could elicit from the materials,” he said, discussing his new composition, “Frank’s House,” inspired by Frank Gehry’s once-notorious private residence on 22nd Street. “I spent a lot of time in my backyard playing on chain link trying to figure out what music could come out of that.”

The materials mirror the exterior of the Gehry home. The music they make and the materials themselves will be onstage, played by two pianists and two percussionists this Thursday night as Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s (LACO) Westside Connections series presents the premiere of “Frank’s House” at the Moss Theatre, on the campus of New Roads School.

Following the performance, homeowner and star architect Frank Gehry and Los Angeles Times Architecture writer, Christopher Hawthorne will discuss the relationship between music and architecture, the theme for all three of the Westside Connections 7th season performances.

Andrew Norman is LACO’s Composer in Residence and a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist. “I wanted to be an architect before I wanted to be a composer,” he said in an interview. But he veered from architecture to studying music.

But he was struck by an epiphany while viewing the Frank Gehry retrospective at New York’s iconic Guggenheim Museum in 2001.

“His creative process was all about modeling and sketching in very rough materials,” Norman explained. “The gestural pencil sketch to begin with, then a piece of crumpled paper, then wood, and then plastic, and with each model he would hone in on a design that was becoming more specific.”

“And I started to think about how I could model sounds in a less linear way. Instead of starting at bar one and writing a piece all the way to the end, I could explore a whole web of sounds, and gradually the form and structure would come into focus, not in a beginning to end process, but one that emerged from that web.”

At Frank’s actual house, the chain link, corrugated metal and plywood exterior wraps around the original bungalow, which figures into Norman’s composition.

“I was drawn to how all the different surfaces and materials interact in this layered way. At the foundational layer you have the original bungalow, buried underneath, then there are other planes or surfaces jutting out at sharp angles in a complicated balance with each other. Frank’s house is all about the relationship of new structures and raw materials built around an existing structure. I was drawn to the idea of taking a piece of existing music and building my piece around that.”

He came up with a Brahms waltz for four hands, “a piece that has an instantly familiar feel to it, something suggesting 19th century domesticity and comfortable middle-class ideas like the original bungalow. Then I take that musical object and fragment and deconstruct it and build this other crazier percussive thing around it.”

Among the cues in his score Norman has written, “dowel on flakeboard, slow scrape” and “chain link with stir sticks, diagonal drag, heavy.” He sees the musicians as co-creators, not just as performing machines and will invite their input about how to generate these sounds musically and physically on stage. “In this kind of score there’s a lot of wiggle room between what I’ve asked them to do and what they might produce,” Norman says.

Andrew Norman believes that music and architecture share a language. “Architects are concerned with surface and pattern, form and proportion and composers think about the sounds we make in relationship to one another, how long they last, how big or small they are, what their impact on the overall form is. Music and architecture have similar concerns, aesthetic and philosophical, in terms of how we make and how we create.”

LACO’s Westside Connections continues on March 19 with architect Frederick Fisher, who approaches architecture as a collaborative process, and Brahms’s String Quintet, as well as Kevin Puts’s Arches for solo violin. It concludes April 30, with the West Coast premiere of Gabriel Kahane’s Bradbury Studies, inspired by downtown LA’s historic Bradbury Building, also featuring LA Times’ Christopher Hawthorne in conversation. Visit www.laco.org or call 213 622 7001 for more information.

Listen up for an interview with Andrew Norman on next Tuesday’s DnA.

This post has been corrected.