The composer next door The Windham Orchestra’s latest Citizen Composer, Jan Norris, has blazed her own trail toward creating music that’s genuinely hers
BRATTLEBORO -- When she was 10 years old, Jan Norris, a bright young singer and struggling piano student in Mount Pleasant, S.C., issued her Declaration of Musical Independence.
"I walked out on my piano teacher. I remember that day," said Norris, familiar to many as the owner of Delectable Mountain Cloth on Main Street. "I asked the question: Where does it come from? Where is it? Where does the music come from?"
The last 60 years have been Norris’ discovery and celebration of the answer to those questions. In a sense, those questions led Hugh Keelan, director of the Windham Orchestra, to include a composition by Norris in its upcoming performances.
On Friday at 7:30 p.m., at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River and Sunday at 3 p.m., at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro, the Windham Orchestra presents a program that features Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, pieces by Sibelius and von Suppé and Norris’ "Melting Spring."
Norris is the latest Citizen Composer whose work Keelan has chosen to be played alongside that of the musical world’s titans.
"The idea is to find people who have a noticeable degree of passion for music and are less likely to have access to having their music played," said Keelan. "It’s so that we can jump outside the world of comparisons."
And jump, perhaps, into the realm contemplated by Norris’ question: Where does music come from?
Still, comparisons are inevitable.
"Bruckner, Sibelius ... and moi!" exclaims Norris to friends who stopped by her shop Monday morning for the sole purpose of congratulating her. "It’s beyond exciting."
Originally written, like all her music, for just piano, "Melting Spring" will be played in full orchestration, arranged by Keelan.
"I’m a big dreamer, but it is way beyond what I imagined," said Norris.
A self-taught singer, pianist and composer, Norris has held firm to the musical independence she declared as a young girl.
In her 20s, Norris moved to New York City to be a singer, but she became drawn, in the musically rich 1960s, to musicians of all types who were doing it their way.
"I started noticing that everybody I admired wrote their own stuff and played guitar or piano. It’s empowering to own it. ... Rather than sign on the dotted line to be a singer, I remembered that day when I wondered where it came from," she recalled. "I left New York to find out where my roots are, and I always hoped I would be part of everything. When they do a DNA on me, I hope they find I’m part of everything, because that’s what we all have."
Though she grew up in the south with a heritage of country music, Norris is musically omnivorous. Asked to name her influences, she listed classical, blues, jazz, country, folk, Cajun, zydeco, Delta blues and Swedish folk music. The list goes on -- Chopin, Lucinda Williams, Dire Straits, The Beatles, Mamas and the Papas, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Rosemary Clooney, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino ...
"I want music with no walls ... no walls," she said. "I want to get to stream of consciousness where my total being is making music right then."
Norris plays piano every day, often first thing in the morning, and composes songs by ear -- dozens, hundreds of them -- by slowly, patiently creating first the melody and then the harmonies on her piano.
"It inches along, and it’s a long process, but I’m about going slow and steady. I’m about not being stressed, manipulated, mashed, pulled and prodded. I want it to be a real thing," she said.
Norris’ pursuit of the "real thing" has taken her through life’s ups and downs. At one point, she injured her voice and couldn’t sing any more, but she kept playing the piano. Just over 10 years ago, after the death of a close friend, Norris channeled her sadness into recording some of her songs. "Melting Spring" was written around 2004 and is included on "A Little Heartbreak," a CD sampling of Norris’ large body of work. Her music is also featured in the video "Holding Our Own" about the Brattleboro Area Hospice’s Hallowell Singers.
Norris gave those CDs to friends and played them in her store. When Keelan walked in the store on another matter a couple of years ago, Norris worked up the gumption to hand him a CD. A day before Norris’ 70th birthday, Keelan called to say the orchestra would be doing "Melting Spring."
"I’m delighted and surprised with the chord that seems to resonate with this idea of the Citizen Composer," said Keelan, who is still looking for work by other Citizen Composers (for details, visit windhamorchestra.org). Norris hopes these concerts will inspire other musical ensembles of any size and style, to perform her music.
Keelan is equally excited for the orchestra to play Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, a big, masterwork by this late 19th century composer, whose lineage is from Beethoven and Wagner, yet he sounds like neither.
"It’s transcendent. ... It’s going to invite you on a very long and complex journey, and you can choose how you want that journey to be," said Keelan.
Listeners are awestruck by this music that lives at the the intersection of elemental contrasts -- simplicity and complexity, loud and quiet, fast and slow, abstract and pictorial. Bruckner creates a vision of life beyond the earthly.
The program also includes Sibelius’ "The Swan of Tuonela," featuring James Adams as English Horn soloist; and von Suppé’s Overture "Light Cavalry."
"Our first half starts in a remote place of mystery as a swan glides in the lake surrounding Tuonela, the Finnish Isle of the Dead," notes Keelan, "and ends very brightly with a popular operetta overture, ‘Light Cavalry,’ brilliant and full of mischief."
The Windham Orchestra invites the audience to name its ticket price, choosing anywhere from $5 to $65, or more, for admission.