Marcus Norris Talks South Side Symphony in “Castle of Our Skins” Artist Profile Interview

From Castle of Our Skins:

Happy Sunday, all! Today’s BIBA Blog is the first artist spotlight of the COOS 7th season! This spotlight features the composer, producer, songwriter, and multi-talented artist Marcus Norris! Having worked and continuing to work in multiple different genres, Marcus Norris’s passion for concert music and melding other influences into the world of concert music yields a unique, captivating artistry that is worth exploring. His hard work and dedication has paid off in the success of his chamber orchestra, recognition from various media and music institutions, and his thriving pursuit of a PhD at UCLA. 


BIBA : How did you get your start in music and in composition?

MN : I might be the only person I know that came into classical composition by way of rap and R&B. My uncles Nate and Dre had a group called Loonside. They introduced me to making beats with FL Studio when I was 13. I got obsessed with it and spent all day everyday making music. In high school I rapped and produced with friends.

When I graduated I got a scholarship for 2 years to a community college that the state of Michigan was giving to low-income kids at the time. I found a recording technology program at Schoolcraft College, outside of Detroit, and enrolled there. While there I had to learn basic music skills like how to read music, and was introduced to music theory. I loved it and did well, so I took some advanced independent studies in more theory and jazz harmony.

Then I was going to transfer to Columbia College Chicago for audio engineering, but decided last minute that if I was being honest with myself, I liked the creation better than the science, so I switched to music composition. I went on to get a full ride for my masters at FIU in Miami, and then my PhD at UCLA, where I am today. 

I’m still a producer and songwriter, but concert music fills a different need for me.

BIBA : Your voice includes a multitude of stylistic approaches. How do you navigate these influences? Can you describe a moment, if any, where one style seemed to speak stronger than another or others?

MN :  I’ve had to learn over time to just respond to all art, music, and people as authentically as possible. I navigate influences by just being honest with myself about what resonates with me. Everyone’s specific perspective makes them unique. The word ‘biases’ usually has a negative connotation, but they aren’t inherently a bad thing in this context.

As for specific moments where one style speaks louder, this happens everyday for me. My moods can differ drastically day to day, and I just try to be absorbed by whatever influence is speaking to me at the time. I might only listen to new bass-heavy trap for a few days, and then need to exclusively play Debussy piano pieces the following week.

BIBA : Your first violin concerto was recently performed a number of times, including in China (congratulations!). How was this experience for you? If you could change something about it, what would it be?  

MN : Thanks! China was amazing. When you compose music that is extremely personal and vulnerable, it is always powerful when it resonates with people who have very different lives than you, and in this case, don’t even speak the same language. I’ll remember those moments always. 

The only thing I would have changed would have been to have some of my loved ones there so they could experience it with me. But in reality, I think that specific trip at that specific point in my life was something I needed to do on my own.

BIBA : You started the South Side Symphony this year. What made you decide to begin this chamber ensemble, and how has the process been so far? Where do you plan to take this ensemble in the next couple of years?

MN : The mission with South Side Symphony is “Our Music in Our Time.”

I am extremely grateful and blessed to work with some great ensembles, but I recognize that these opportunities have been exceptions. In other situations, I feel like as a Black composer I’m often expected to alter what I do to fit into mediums and scenarios that weren’t designed for us (or were designed to exclude us). Situations and mediums that aren’t always even conducive to the telling of our stories. I wanted to create a space where this cultural and artistic compromise isn’t necessary, and we can celebrate the things that make us who we are. And do so in a way that is culturally relevant in a wider context, and isn’t exclusionary of audiences who aren’t learned in music. 

My short version is “What if the orchestra didn’t exist as a concept and was invented today by a Black 20-something in America? What would that look like? What would they play? Where would they play?”

The big thing to watch from us starting very soon is community partnerships with organizations who resonate with the music and the mission. It’s very important to me that South Side Symphony exists as a member of the larger community and culture, and not as an isolated island. I’m very excited to be partnering with some brilliant people and organizations. I’m always looking for more like-minded groups to collaborate with. We’re starting in LA, but long term I want to travel and bring South Side Symphony events to other cities.

BIBA : I give you the commission of a lifetime: unrestricted funds and resources and time. What piece would you compose?

MN : I’ve worked with dance, film, singers, theater, pop and concert music. I had the thought recently that it would be fun to try to bring all these elements together to make a modern fusion opera. I’m actually gonna write one as my PhD dissertation project, and I’m workshopping an excerpted scene in LA this December. Filmmaker Adamma Ebo is writing the libretto. If I had unlimited funding and time, I would do this same type of project, just on a bigger scale and with a 90 piece orchestra (LOL).

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To learn more about Marcus Norris, please use the following links:
Instagram: @MarcusNorris; @SouthSideSymphony
South Side Symphony website (sign up for mailing list!)


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