29 Nov 2023

Catching them when they're young

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 29 November 2023
Group Of Students Playing In School Orchestra Together

Photo: 123RF

There's a good chance his music is played more often than any other living New Zealand composer, maybe as much as any composer anywhere.

You'll hear his tunes in practice rooms, at grade exams, at children's concerts, in school halls and in the homes of teachers and students around the globe.

Composer Christopher Norton

Christopher Norton Photo: Supplied

We're talking about the music of Christopher Norton – the master of music for beginners.

Ask any music teacher anywhere about his 'Hungarian Stomp' and they'll know what you're talking about.

New Zealand born Christopher Norton is one of the leading writers of music for learners. He's the brains behind the Microjazz series of graded pieces, for which its publishers, Boosey & Hawkes are eternally grateful.

Yet he comes from a family with no musical background – they didn't even have a piano.

Back in New Zealand on holiday, Norton sat down to talk about his work and career with RNZ Concert host, Bryan Crump.

Composer Christopher Norton with RNZ Concert presenter Bryan Crump

RNZ Concert's Three to Seven host Bryan Crump in the studio with composer Christopher Norton Photo: RNZ

Norton's father Edwin was a weightlifter and bodybuilder. He represented New Zealand at the then Empire Games in 1950. He was 'Mr New Zealand' in 1948.

However, Norton's parents were churchgoers and that's where the young Christopher started playing the piano and organ, learning church pieces by ear.

Searching for a music teacher, Norton's mother knocked on the door of an Auckland convent. When a nun told her there was no room in the music room, she insisted they listened to her son play.

"To this day I don't know what I was playing because I hadn't had any lessons, but I could play already ... and I played for the nun and she said, 'we'll find a slot'."

By 1975, Norton was one of the best young pianists in the country. He won the National Concerto Competition that year playing Prokofiev's fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto No 1.

That was also about the time a friend roped him into a gospel band, Maranatha.

While Norton didn't end up a Christian rock star, he thinks the band played a key role in opening up his musical imagination to the simple – but profoundly difficult – art of writing a good tune.

Not long after leaving New Zealand to live in the United Kingdom, Norton already had a stack of learners' music in a bottom drawer.

He showed them to a publisher from Boosey & Hawkes who saw their potential, and even came up with a name: 'Microjazz'.

Boosey & Hawkes already owned the rights to Béla Bartók's collection of graded piano pieces, Mikrokosmos. Microjazz was a sort of late-20th-century update.

First published in 1983, Microjazz was initially aimed at pianists. Now the series offers music for most of the major classical instruments, from beginners to Grade 8.

Norton doesn't necessarily set out to write learners' music. He just writes.

Usually someone else decides what level of ability each piece is suited to.

He thinks they work because he's able to conjure up catchy melodies.

"It's as simple as that, and students when they play them, they kind of think 'I know what to do with this'. Because it's not just the tunes side: they also, I think, feel 'I understand the language of this', even a seven-year-old. So teachers, of course, are quite relieved when they find material where students feel like that."

Which means Norton can wander into music shops and find signs saying his piece 'Intercity Stomp' is sold out. We don't think Bartók ever had that problem.

Norton's interests go way beyond pedagogical publishing. He also arranges hymns, produces records and writes music for fully-fledged professionals.

He's just finished a second piano sonata, which will get its premiere in China soon.

"I don't really know where it comes from. It's a funny thing composing. It's like people who paint, you just can do it or you can't, and for some reason I can do it."

Norton, now lives in Canada, because "my wife's from there", but he's loving being back in New Zealand.

After speaking with Bryan Crump, he's off to a reunion of his gospel band Maranatha. If he's within earshot of any music teacher's studio on the way, chances are he'll hear one of his tunes before he gets there.