Marcus Norris on building musical community and breaking classical traditions
JEREMY LEE | AUGUST, 26 / 2021
Photo provided by Marcus Norris
In the last week of February 2020, Marcus Norris was ready to make history. Norris had created his own orchestra named the South Side Symphony, which proudly owns the fact that they are the only orchestra that would perform "Back That Thang Up" in the same concert as Beethoven. At the WACO Theater Center in North Hollywood, this tradition-shattering ensemble opened its first show to a fully packed house, only to shut down a few weeks later because of COVID-19 restrictions. However, the Michigan-born, hip-hop producer turned classical composer expects to pick up right where he left off. Composium recently sat down with Marcus to discuss his musical journey and career path.

Growing up on the south side of Jackson, Marcus began his exploration of music by experimenting with hip-hop beats around the age of 13. His uncle, Dre Norris, first introduced him to this world and Marcus was "fascinated by the idea that [he] could be the whole band with [producing], [he] could be creative and play all the different parts." By high school, he continued to make beats and rap with his friends, and eventually earned a scholarship to attend a two-year music recording technology program at a Detroit craft college.

While attending this program, he was also exposed to the fundamentals of music theory, jazz theory, and counterpoint, and eventually found himself dabbling in classical composition. "I think the first one that blew my mind was Bach...I was like, 'How is he thinking about [counterpoint] like this, I've never heard anybody thinking about music in that way,'" he shared.

He soon transferred to Columbia College Chicago with the intention of entering the audio engineering program, but switched last minute to enter the music school instead of the engineering school, as "[he loved] the music part more than the science part." After continuing to both compose classical music and produce R&B records, he scored a full ride assistantship at Florida International University in Miami for his master's degree.
The awards kept coming as he also secured the Cota-Robles fellowship for pursuing his Ph.D. at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and won numerous composition competitions across the country. He was selected for the Los Angeles Philharmonic National Composers Intensive, and recently became the inaugural Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Philharmonic from 2021-24.

South Side Symphony is a Los Angeles-based orchestra created by Marcus himself. He first conceived of the idea when he visited LA for his UCLA doctorate interview. After meeting up with some friends, recording some music, and seeing small little shows at local bars, Marcus's experience with Los Angeles and city life brought this idea to life. "I'm going to move out here and I'm going to do my own stuff...That's just how we think where I'm from," he expressed.

Being in LA was not just the spark for South Side Symphony; it was also a lifeboat. Marcus knew that there were enough people in LA that would support that kind of creative engagement. "Almost whatever you are into, there [are] enough people that are probably into it, too. You could make that into a thing," he explained. He ultimately saw South Side Symphony as a re-imagination of the traditional orchestra and asked questions like: What if the orchestra didn't exist? What if there were no traditions and everything was started today by a young black man in his 20s? What would that sound like? What and where would they play? Marcus decided not to be bound by tradition and simply start from scratch.

Once inspiration struck, it became a matter of actually bringing the idea to life. By attending various parties and networking events and promoting his idea to musicians, Marcus was able to sell the concept of South Side Symphony and began creating his orchestral roster. Through his additional connection with Chicago-based R&B duo DRAMA, he was eventually able to get his budding orchestra to play strings on their new record.

He was also able to film this recording session and use it as a proof of concept to pitch to sponsors, collaborators, and more. This step was crucial for the Symphony's success. "When you're trying to do something no one's ever done, there's not really a precedent. People have to see it," Marcus explained. Creating an orchestra that rejected the norms of a traditional ensemble had never been seen before and Marcus needed to show that his idea had traction.
From the beginning, Marcus knew he wanted to host his orchestra at the WACO Theater, as he has an immense amount of respect for the owners, Tina Knowles-Lawson and Richard Lawson. After composing for several plays at that venue in the past, Marcus also had developed a working relationship with Steve Foley, the Director of Operations and lighting/video artist at the WACO. Marcus mentioned that after showing Steve the proof of concept video for South Side Symphony, he received the green light to program their first official concert.

With a whole host of concerts scheduled at venues around the city, the Symphony was ready for their debut. They performed with artists like Airin Artisan, Aaliyah Muse, and Gaby Duran at their show in February, showcasing new compositions and musical styles. The show included segments where they performed songs from their influences, accompanied by masterful orchestration and live acoustic instruments.

Unfortunately, the Symphony had to press pause on its upcoming flurry of shows after its first packed house performance. However, the pandemic did not stop Marcus from pursuing new creative avenues for his new group. They began doing remote recordings and even dropped a mixtape, uniting Marcus's musical upbringing, the rise of streaming services, and the conditions of the pandemic into one outlet.

Marcus also has involvement in numerous other projects that span genres and even disciplines. He has worked with his good friend Adrian Dunn and his group, the Adrian Dunn Singers, to compose orchestral preludes for new acapella arrangements of old Negro spirituals. Some of his other projects include working with the Rise Orchestra, an all-black orchestra based in Chicago, preparing for an upcoming opera, and developing artistic projects and composing music to accompany a plant biology project at UC Berkeley. He will be working with Dr. Benjamin Blonder and artist and researcher Juniper Harrower to bring this multimedia project based around climate change and ecosystems to life.

Across his wide collection of work, Marcus has found human connection and honest emotion to be his source of inspiration. "It's always about the people in the relationship for me, I'm a people person at my core...One of my mentors told me what's from the heart reaches the heart," he revealed. Marcus has achieved everything in his career so far by writing music that speaks to his own experiences while connecting with others.

One example of this was his senior recital at Columbia College Chicago where he was allowed to perform half concert music and half rap/R&B. He revealed that "[he] was worried that people who came for the rap or R&B stuff [wouldn't like] the concert music, or if they came for the concert music, they wouldn't like the other stuff," but he performed anyway and successfully reached his audience with his heartfelt and authentic pieces.
"I just always had to write from the heart, from real places, real feelings, and whatever I'm moved by at the time. And it doesn't always have to be heavy or somber or deep, sometimes you just feel happy."
Lastly, when asked to share some advice for getting started in this industry and building a community for yourself, he strongly emphasized the idea of service. "Find a way to be of service to people...I think a lot of people are like, 'What do you do? What can you do for me?'" he elaborated. Having a way to be helpful and provide assistance to other people's projects not only can give you that chance to break out, but it can also develop valuable connections now and in the future.

Marcus mentioned Adrian Dunn as an example: "We've been working together for eight years...we resonated with each other and respected what each other did and then stayed in touch and kept collaborating." These opportunities for service are the gateway for building a musical community. This community can provide you with moral and social support, more chances to collaborate, and mutual feedback to elevate everyone's craft. I've been looking more into community, and it is looking more and more crucial to any kind of career in music.

In the future, Marcus sees himself continuing to branch out. He shared his desire to expand into composing for film and TV and plans to tour with and grow the South Side Symphony even more. He hopes to continue composing and developing new projects, both for himself and for others. "I would like to meet more people. I want to have the music touch more people," he declared.
Jeremy Lee is an undergraduate economics and composition student at Loyola Marymount University and Composium Ambassador
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