Chris Norman: Bridging the traditions By Robert Bigio
Chris Norman’s geniality masks a musician of formidable ability. You may have heard Chris play without knowing it: he performed on the haunting soundtrack of the multiple-Oscar-winning film Titanic  and on other feature films, and he has made a couple of dozen recordings of folk music and of early music, with his own ensembles and with the Baltimore Consort. Folk music and early music together? Surely one is improvised music of the people and the other is carefully-composed high art? Not for Chris. For him, there is little separation between the two genres. In eighteenth-century Edinburgh, for example, it was not uncommon for a violinist to be playing in an oratorio one night and at a dance the next. ‘It’s hard not to see a lot of traditional music as having a lot of ideas from eighteenth-century music that I’m familiar with,’ says Chris. ‘That doesn’t mean the music has to be played preciously. It can be played with directness and clarity, but also with subtlety. Telemann’s music is stuffed with references to traditional folk music, particularly Gypsy dances. As a flute player, I think of the Telemann Suite in A Minor as just a folk tour of Europe.’ The Bach suites and partitas are made up of folk dances. How, I ask him, would he play the Bach second orchestral suite, for example? ‘I did just play that, with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, in fact,’ says Chris. ‘I feel that I can bring a sense of the dance and the folk traditions that this music came from. I’m not saying I’m going to play this music the same way that I will play an Irish reel, for example. However, there is no question but that these composers, Bach and Telemann derived some inspiration from traditional folk music and dance forms. I feel that as a performer it is perfectly legitimate for me to bring some inspiration, not all, from that same world as well.’ Chris Norman was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the youngest of five children of a musical family. He was brought up singing the folk songs of the Maritimes and of the British Isles from which his family had emigrated many generations before. His father, an engineer by trade, took a job in Maryland, and Chris spent his childhood going back and forth from there to Nova Scotia, as indeed he continues to do. ‘I consider Nova Scotia home, though,’ he says. The flute entered his life at the age of ten when he heard an older girl play one. ‘I loved it,’ he remembers. ‘It was one of those moments when everything else in the world seemed to disappear and I had this tunnel vision to this extraordinary sound, to explore that. I still have that vision.’ He started lessons (on a modern, metal flute, of course, as almost all children did), and after three or four years it dawned on him that he could put his two interests together: flute and traditional music. The flute was not really part of the tradition of music-making in Nova Scotia. In the Maritimes, the fiddle was king. You would occasionally hear a whistle player, he remembers, but if you were a flute player you were an odd duck. Chris began playing traditional music on his modern, metal flute, but at the age of sixteen he acquired a wooden flute. ‘It was one of those German factory-made eight-keyed clunkers,’ he says, ‘but I immediately fell in love with it. It felt like my voice, and increasingly the modern flute felt more and more cumbersome to me, whereas the simple-system flute felt more attuned to what I wanted to do and how I wanted to sound.’ When he was in the eighth grade his first flute teacher, Neil Potter, introduced him to Tim Day, then the first flute in Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and flute teacher at the Peabody Institute (and who is now, as first flute in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, recognised as one of the leading players in the country). Tim Day became his teacher. ‘To me,’ says Chris, ‘this was just some other guy my teacher wanted me to have lessons with. Of course, many years later I figured out that he was not just some other guy! I will never forget my first lesson with him, going in and trying to play something for him and having him pick up a flute. Just the presence and the sound he was able to make was spell-binding. I was even more inspired to try to go in that direction. Also very helpful was that Tim has very wide-ranging tastes and is interested in just about anything, so when it became apparent that I was interested in early music and traditional music, he was completely supportive of that.’ Chris studied with Tim Day for four years before getting a place in the music department at Indiana University. He quickly discovered this was not his cup of tea and left after a year. He remembers telling his flute teacher at Indiana of his decision to concentrate on traditional music. The teacher’s reaction was to lean back in his chair and say, ‘Oh, you’re only doing that because it’s easier.’ Chris was understandably insulted. ‘As a teacher-student relationship, this didn’t work for me.’ He says. ‘My end with the modern flute occurred when I left Indiana. I remember selling my Muramatsu silver flute. This was tremendously traumatic, because I thought of myself as a flute player, and to be selling my main flute hurt. But, it forced me to concentrate on what I wanted to be doing.’ Chris did not get involved with early music programme at Indiana, which had just started getting going, and he just missed the arrival at Indiana of the great Thomas Binkley. If he had stayed, which he now thinks he should have done, he would have met his long-time collaborator David Greenberg a decade earlier. Instead, though, he decided to go off and pursue his own course of study. After leaving university, Chris returned to Nova Scotia with the intention of learning from older players of folk music—none of them flute players, but rather fiddle players, accordionists and singers—and he always had a cassette tape recorder with him. ‘I basically parked myself at their doorstep and learned as much as I could. These people were professional players, but usually had day jobs. I wanted to see if I could fit into that tradition as a flute player because in those days the flute was still very, very rare and I wasn’t even sure I would be accepted.’ The Scots music tradition, the basis for much of the music of the Maritimes that Chris had grown up with, began as a vocal one with piping and fiddle, but the very first published collection of Scots traditional music was published not for the fiddle, but for the transverse flute: James Oswald’s twelve-volume The Caledonian Pocket Companion of the 1740s. By the later eighteenth century the popularity of the fiddle was rising and that of the flute was diminishing. ‘The fact that the fiddle was louder and therefore more useful for dance music may have had a lot to do with it.’ During his two-year, self-designed programme of study Chris continued to study baroque music and attended the summer programme at the Oberlin Conservatory every year, and he regularly visited his parents in Baltimore. While playing restaurant gigs there, he met the members of the Baltimore Consort. ‘I had developed as a musician, and the members of the consort were interested in the crossover element of my playing, with early music and traditional music. They had been working on a Scottish project, On the Banks of Helicon, and it worked out that their regular flute player, Mindy Rosenfeld, started having babies and took a leave of absence from the group, and I stepped in.’ Chris played with them for seventeen years, and then Mindy returned. ‘I held her spot!’ says Chris. Chris does not play in the same way as many players of traditional music, who like to play very loudly over two octaves. Instead, he plays with more subtlety and with variations in dynamic, colour and articulation. What caused him to play like this? ‘The simple answer is that’s the way I hear the music. This traditional music comes from a very deep well, and it has also inspired some of the greatest composers in western musical history. The true answer is that it’s hard not to see a lot of traditional music as coming from the eighteenth century and having a lot of ideas from eighteenth-century music that I’m familiar with.’ His cherished boxwood Rudall & Rose flute came to him in the mid-1980s. ‘I absolutely love it. It’s a very early one, number 742, from the 1820s. It’s in mint condition, and it’s just a very successful instrument. It is easy to play in tune and has a fabulous, buttery tone. It’s just a joy to play.’ This flute has been reproduced by Rod Cameron, and a number of other makers have measured it and used it as a basis for their instruments. Chris now often plays on the copy made by Rod. This Rudall & Rose flute has smaller holes than the later ones favoured by many players of traditional music. How does this affect Chris? ‘I’m happy to play it. I enjoy being loud as much as the next guy because, let’s face it, it’s just fun, but I also have a real thirst for subtlety and I find that those large-holed flutes frustrate me when I really want to be delicate and I want to create something that’s colourful and refined.’ I remind Chris that Robert Dick, the specialist in new music on the modern flute, described some players of traditional music as favouring what he refers to as the ‘I’m home, Ma, low D’. Chris says, ‘That’s just a fashion. Just look at the history of flute making and there’s no question that the fashion of the day is a very important element, and there’s no question that the fashion of the day now is that huge, fat, loud sound. That’s not to say that it’s bad, but I think that’s one of the elements that is leading me into pursuing flute- making myself. I feel frustrated as a player by the narrow spectrum of instruments that are available.’ A number of things have come together to make him interested. He has always been artistic and enjoys working with his hands. ‘Also, I’m very opinionated in what I would like to see in a flute and I find that while there are a lot of flutes being made by a lot of great flute makers, they all tend to fall into a rather narrow spectrum. I want to move outside that spectrum.’ And his ideal flute? ‘I’m trying to make a flute with subtlety and colour. The early Rudall & Rose flutes represent something to aspire to. But I’m also interested in experimenting with big flutes, in A and even G. I also really appreciate the sculptural aspect of the work of some early makers, and I want to explore metal engraving.’ There is one other reason why he has taken up flute-making: ‘I’m such good friends with Rod Cameron. He and I have worked together for many years. Rod is still going strong, but he’s no spring chicken. I feel that what he’s achieved in his work should be recorded and passed along as best practice. There aren’t many flute makers who would argue with the suggestion that he’s reached a level of craftsmanship, of continuity of excellent instruments and of exquisite beauty of work. Not many can match that.’ The idea for the Boxwood Festival, which Chris Norman has been running for the past sixteen years, came to him during his period of self-directed study. ‘There was nothing like Boxwood in those days,’ he says. ‘I just went out and learned directly from the players who inspired me. I just thought I would just invite my heroes to one place, and that’s how the Boxwood Festival was formed. Boxwood was not focused exclusively on traditional music, but recognising that the folk tradition and renaissance and baroque musical traditions all spring to some degree from the same trunk. None of them exist in a vacuum, and all draw inspiration from one another, so players of those traditions would probably do well to know something about the others. This has certainly helped me and has certainly influenced my view of music-making. That’s how Boxwood came about, and it’s been going for sixteen years now. I would say that the thesis remains unchanged.’ And Boxwood is as wonderful as summer school as can be imagined. I have attended twice as a guest lecturer. What I loved about it was the inclusiveness and the lack of ego—no-one worried if one person was a virtuoso and the next was a beginner. Whatever Chris has done has been brilliant. ‘I work very hard to make it very egalitarian and very non-competitive so that everyone is supportive,’ he says. ‘There is no velvet rope at the jam sessions to separate the experts from the others—everyone is invited and everyone should feel that they can participate. Similarly, there is no velvet rope in the dining room, so people are free to mingle—students and teachers.’ And the food is certainly a vital part of Boxwood’s success. Chris is clear about this: ‘You can learn only so much in a classroom, but if you really want to understand someone and be sympathetic to what they’re doing, just sit down and share a meal with them.’ The dinners at Boxwood—and they are terrific—are important in making everyone feel relaxed and comfortable. ‘If you have great food on the table, people will want to linger. That’s what the good food is all about.’ What next for Boxwood? It’s still going strong in Nova Scotia and in New Zealand as well, and Chris is considering some on-going weekends in the USA. For next year he has decided to ask for help in organising the festival. He wants to continue to be a player, not an administrator, and while he is enjoying his time making instruments, he doesn’t want to be locked in his workshop, either. ‘I just want a balance so that aspects of my life can inform each other.’ Discography Let Me In This Ae Night. Chris Norman & David Greenberg Duo. Boxwood Media, 2010 The Mad Buckgoat. The Baltimore Consort. Dorian Recordings, 2000 Reel of Tulloch. Chatham Baroque. Dorian Recordings, 2000 Labyrinth. Skyedance. Culburnie Records, 2000 The Ladyes Delight. The Baltimore Consort. Dorian Recordings, 1999 A Winter Solstice. Helicon. Dorian Recordings, 1999 Colin’s Kisses. Concerto Caledonia. Linn Records, 1999 Way Out to Hope Street. Skyedance. Culburnie Records, 1998 Portraits. Chris Norman. Dorian Recordings, 1999 Tunes from the Attic. The Baltimore Consort. Dorian Recordings, 1998 The Daemon Lover. Custer LaRue., Dorian Recordings, 1998 A Trip to Kilburn. The Baltimore Consort. Dorian Recordings, 1997 Highlands. Camerata Bariloche. Dorian Recordings, 1997 Dawn Dance. Alasdair Fraser. Culburnie Records, 1996 Bright Day Star. The Baltimore Consort. Dorian Recordings, 1996 Lullaby Journey. Custer LaRue & Kim Robertson. Dorian Recordings, 1996 Art of the Bawdy Song. The Baltimore Consort. Dorian Recordings, 1995 Beauty of the North. Chris Norman. Dorian Recordings, 1994 La Rocque ’n’ Roll. The Baltimore Consort. Dorian Recordings, 1994 Watkins Ale. The Baltimore Consort. Dorian Recordings, 1993 Man with the Wooden Flute. Chris Norman. Dorian Recordings, 1992 On the Banks of Helicon. The Baltimore Consort. Dorian Recordings, 1992 Horizons. Helicon. Dorian Recordings, 1992 The Titan. Helicon. Dorian Recordings, 1989   Film soundtracks—feature performances Stone of Destiny. Infinity Features, 2008 Soldier. 20th Century Fox, 1998 Titanic. Warner, 1997 (Multiple Oscar winner including best soundtrack)   Recent commissioned compositions by Chris Norman Sunshine of St. Eulalie. Flute choir in 7 parts Noels for Orchestra. Soloists with orchestra Acadian Suite. Soloists with orchestra Out of Orkney. Flute, harp and string orchestra Old Scots Dances. Flute & orchestra   Awards State of Maryland Individual Artist Governor’s Citation, June, 2002 Indie Award for Best Seasonal Album (Winter Solstice), Association for Independent Music, 2001 Indie Award for Best Celtic Album (Dawn Dance), Association for Independent Music, 1996 Indie Award Finalist, Celtic Album (Way out to Hope Street), Association for Independent Music, 1997 CBC Radio (Canada) ‘Disc Drive’ Listeners’ Choice award 1994 Billboard Charts: Classical Crossover, 1992 (Man with the Wooden Flute)
Chris Norman, summer 2011 Photograph by Robert Bigio
Let me in this ae night. Chris Norman & David Greenberg Duo. Boxwood Media. (5:08)
Chris Norman with a flute in F he made recently Photograph by Robert Bigio
The Lunenburg Academy, where many of the classes take place during the Boxwood Festival
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