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A composer is inspired by Gehry's architecture for 'Frank's House'

by Gideon Brower with Darby Maloney | The Frame

Composer Andrew Norman, left, and L.A. Chamber Orchestra percussionist Wade Culbreath consider possible instruments for the performance of "Frank's House." Susanica Tam/ KPCC
Frank Gehry is the most celebrated living architect in the world, but less well-known is his brief, intermittent career as a musician.
While growing up in the Canadian province of Ontario, he took lessons on the Hawaiian guitar. And as a student at USC, he joined a traditional Japanese Gagaku orchestra, playing a small gong to accompany a wind instrument called a Shou.

Even after his architecture career began, Gehry still involved himself in the world of music by performing in a Dada-esque pickup band. He explains by saying that he "graduated at one concert to taking a toilet plunger into a floor washerwoman's bucket and making noise."

These experiments mirror those of Gehry's architecture. His home in Santa Monica, where he and his wife have lived for more than 35 years, is a 1920s Dutch colonial bungalow that Gehry reconfigured and enclosed in a framework of industrial plywood, corrugated aluminum and chain-link fence. As cool as it might sound, the resulting structure wasn't so popular with all of his neighbors. "They hated it," he says with a slight chuckle.

Despite eventually abandoning his musical pursuits, Gehry has maintained a strong association with music throughout his career, in his design of performance spaces such as Walt Disney Concert Hall and his friendships with well-known musicians. So when the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra asked if they could commission a musical work inspired by his Santa Monica house, Gehry said yes.

Andrew Norman was an obvious choice for the commission, and not simply because he's the composer-in-residence for the orchestra. As Norman explains: "I wrote a piece about the Farnsworth House, which is a Mies van der Rohe building in Illinois; a piece about Frank Lloyd Wright's stained glass windows; something on the proportions of a cathedral in France; and a piece on my favorite buildings in Rome."

Norman’s string trio, “A Companion Guide to Rome,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012. 

His new work, titled “Frank’s House,” replicates Gehry’s process in creating his Santa Monica residence by starting with something conventional and homey, and wrapping it in a raw, industrial framework that some might find jarring.

Norman began his composition, he says, by looking "to include a sort of musical found object, or a piece of old music that is sort of buried within the new piece. I came upon a set of Brahms waltzes for four hands — so that's two people sitting at one piano — and I thought it was perfect, since this piece was going to involve two pianos and there was nothing that suggests the nostalgia and comfort of domestic life like piano four-hands, which was such an important part of home music-making in the 19th century."

He describes the waltzes as having "a very comforting and predictable sound. And then, of course, I subject it to all manner of deconstruction and alteration and sort of build the sort of clangorous percussive structure around this tune."

The percussive structure starts with some unusual sounds made on the pianos themselves, and it expands to include a variety of materials associated with Gehry’s house, including plywood, corrugated metal and chain-link fence, played with the kind of wooden sticks you’d usually use to stir paint. L.A. Chamber Orchestra percussionist Wade Culbreath helped Norman refine the palette of sounds found in these unusual instruments. He points out a corrugated piece of steel: "It’s got a texture and a sort of a wave to it, so that makes it easy to do something percussive with that."

The composer’s interest in using construction materials as finished instruments took him on a musical journey through Home Depot, to explore the use of plywood, industrial ducting and even wooden crates, which, he says, "have a really nice sort of wood-slatted sound."

Norman hopes that his composition "will directly engage people in thinking about music and how music is put together and is similar — or on a parallel path — to architecture, and how we think about that. Also, if they can find it exciting, or beautiful, or in any sort of way emotionally engaging, that’s great, too."

And how's Gehry feeling about it all? "I expect my feelings to be pushed somewhere where I haven't been before," he confesses. "I’m going to try not to listen to it as my house to begin with. I want to hear it just as a piece. So I’ll probably listen to it more than one time, I hope."

"Frank's House" premieres February 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica.

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