How Do You Write a Music Piece About Frank Gehry's House?

Gehry's house in Santa MonicaEXPAND
Gehry's house in Santa Monica
Flickr/ikkoskinen

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” comedian Martin Mull once joked about music critics. But what would he say about making music about architecture?

On Thursday, Feb. 5,  at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica, four musicians will perform the world premiere of Frank’s House, an instrumental work by adventurous composer Andrew Norman that was inspired by Frank Gehry’s longtime home in the neighborhood. (The event is now sold out.)

The quartet — pianists Joanne Pearce Martin and Jeffrey Kahane, timpanist Wade Culbreath and percussionist Ted Atkatz — will set up a contrast with Frank’s House by starting with two J.S. Bach pieces arranged by György Kurtág before ascending the ever-winding madhouse staircase of Béla Bartók’s forebodingly propulsive Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The event, organized by the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, will involve appearances by Gehry himself, Juilliard School dean Ara Guzelimian and L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne.

Many of Gehry’s best-known designs, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Dancing House in Prague and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, appear to bend and twist and ripple with an inherent musicality as the architect playfully conjures motion through metal and glass. Former L.A. Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen paid musical homage to his style in 2004 with Wing on Wing, an orchestral opus that celebrated the bold way Gehry crested Bunker Hill with the billowing, undulating silver sails of Disney Hall.

But Norman found himself fascinated by the smaller-scale Gehry residence and got to hang out there with the architect. It was originally a simple bungalow built in 1920, but after Gehry and his wife, Berta, bought it in 1977, he surrounded it with a new exoskeleton of corrugated steel bookended by large, oddly angled corner-window cubes.

Frank Gehry house kitchenEXPAND
Frank Gehry house kitchen
Photo by Tim Street-Porter

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“The house has two different experiences,” Norman says in a phone interview. “The interior is warm and luminous, while the outside is raw, industrial and fortress-like … It’s multilayered. His wife said that even after living there 30 years, she’s still discovering things.”

“I was thinking about the practice of architecture, what the tools of the trade would sound like,” adds Norman, who lives in L.A. and grew up in Modesto. The 35-year-old composer says that his lifelong interest in architecture ultimately intersected with his musical creativity. “I had an epiphany in the art and architecture library. I realized that architecture could be a fruitful metaphoric language for music.”

In previous works such as Try and The Companion Guide to Rome, Norman juxtaposed rarefied high notes, spare dynamics and other moments of serene beauty with a fast, frenetic and intensely febrile collision of foraging violins, manically jerky pianos and rattling percussion. In creating Frank’s House, Norman employed some of the same materials that Gehry used in deconstructing his home (chain-link fence, corrugated steel) as percussion instruments, along with screwdrivers, dowels, flakeboard and newspaper.

Norman’s score is occasionally marked with unusual instructions to the musicians, such as “No one coordinates with anyone” and “Trace irregular curves (think of a Gehry building) on the surface of the board.” Emphatic rhythmic sections of the score resemble clusters of houses. “I was pleased that a lot of the notation ended up looking like Frank’s architecture,” Norman says. He explains that the music alternates between tightly structured arrangements and “elements of controlled improvisation.”

The event is part of LACO's Westside Connections performance and discussion series, which this year is finding links between architecture and music. “I’ve always been fascinated by the connection between music and other things,” says Margaret Batjer, the series' host and LACO concertmaster. “But the target keeps moving. Every year, we do something else.”

In one upcoming event in April, for instance, a dozen woodwinds, strings and horns unlock the West Coast premiere of Bradbury Studies, a work about downtown landmark the Bradbury Building by composer Gabriel Kahane, the son of LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane.

Has Gehry heard the piece about his house yet? “It will be a surprise for him,” Norman says. “No one, including me, knows what’s going to happen. But I’m more curious than nervous.”

Westside Connections at the Moss Theater, New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica; Thursday, February 5, 7:30 p.m. (213) 622-7001, laco.org.


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