Composer Profile: Marcus Norris

In the world of classical music it’s not uncommon to see the same composers headlining every concert, with the same handful of pieces being played over and over again. Though these traditions passed through the music are beautiful and worth preserving, they are also dominated by the work of long-gone European men. African American composer Marcus Norris, however, wants to rewrite this narrative. Characterized by blending many genres, his compositions bring a unique and innovative twist to the contemporary classical music.

Marcus Norris performing with the South Side Symphony.

Marcus Norris was born and raised in Jackson, Michigan. He grew up surrounded by music, primarily listening to rap and R&B artists. Developing a love of music at a young age, he got his first taste of composition by producing rap beats on pirated software. The music he wrote at first was kept private, only used for himself as a way to process the world around him. It wasn’t until a few years later that he started to share his work with others.

Norris eventually went on to study music in at Columbia College Chicago. After earning a bachelor’s degree, he went on to Florida International University for his masters, and then earned a PhD in Music Composition from the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music under the prestigious Cota-Robles Fellowship.

Beyoncé performing in Dubai earlier this year with orchestrations created by Marcus Norris.

Norris’ career has had many impressive achievements over the past few years, including writing for many orchestras across the nation as well as scoring the 2022 feature film Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. His cross-genre style also led to a collaboration with Beyoncé, whose music Norris orchestrated for her concert in Dubai earlier this year.

He’s currently the Inaugural Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Philharmonic through 2024 and has earned a commission from the Atlanta Opera as prize for winning their inaugural 96-hour Opera Project. CYSO also commissioned Norris for our Listen to the Future Composer-in-Residence Program, and he’s currently working on a compositions for Philharmonic & Jazz Orchestra which will be premiered in an upcoming season. Both CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Orchestra have also performed Norris’ My Idols are Dead.

Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Assistant Director Benjarmin Firer, perform Marcus Norris’ My Idols are Dead in June 2022
Music Director Allen Tinkham speaking with Marcus Norris, April 2021
The Symphony Orchestra pod that recorded Norris’ piece, with Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor Steven Gooden, Music Director Allen Tinkham, and Marcus Norris pictured center on stage at Orchestra Hall

Constantly working to bring more diverse talent into the classical industry, Norris founded the South Side Symphony in 2020. Based in North Hollywood, Los Angeles, the ensemble builds its mission off of the phrase “Our Music in Our Time.” Norris started the project with the idea that “if orchestras did not exist, how would a young black man do it?” Focusing on much more than just standard orchestral repertoire, the ensemble plays orchestral fusions ranging from R&B, gospel, rap, anime music, and much more. Recently, the South Side Symphony performed as the on-stage orchestra accompanying Chloe & Halle Bailey, Andra Day, and others in the 2022 Wearable Art Gala.

GLORY by Marcus Norris featuring Njioma Grevious (solo violin) and the Chicago Philharmonic.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Chen is a harpist in Symphony Orchestra and served as CYSO’s Marketing & Development Intern during summer 2022. She is a senior at Northside College Prep and has been part of CYSO since her freshman year. In her free time she enjoys baking and drawing.

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