Slušanje opere drugim čulima.
(Norton je jedini i jedinstveni, samoproglašeni američki car iz 19. stoljeća)
"At the request of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton declare myself Emperor."
So began the proclamation by which Joshua Norton, on September 17, 1859, became Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. The first of many proclamations, it was published nearly 10 years after Norton landed in San Francisco to make his fortune from the Gold Rush. During his 20-year reign, Norton I abolished Congress, decreed a bridge be built between Oakland and San Francisco, enjoyed free passage by rail and ship, printed and used his own money, and corresponded with kings, queens, and presidents. Among the literary works to immortalize Norton I are Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Wrecker. Yet few people remember the one and only Emperor of the United States.
Dramatically, the work takes place as the Emperor lay dying on a rain-soaked street. At that precise moment, time is suspended and his life's events pass before his eyes. The result is an opera that is rich in symbolism and metaphor. Not surprisingly, I, Norton also carries a political subtext that resonates with current geo-political situations.
I, Norton was created as a kit that could be performed by any number of people and assembled in a unique way for each performance. The literary elements behind the work are the writings attributed to Norton I, as well as mocking "false decrees" published in contemporary newspapers to cash in on the Emperor's notoriety. The words, letters, rhythms, and structure of the texts are prepared in a variety of ways and used as source material by each performer.
In performance, I, Norton takes the shape of an improvised collage structure that combines conduction (using hand cues), graphic scores, and memory-based improvisational structures. The opera can be performed by a mere handful of people, or with a large ensemble. Although the score includes text-based material for speakers and singers, a realization of the opera can be completely instrumental. The piece does not require staging, sets, lights, or costumes. It is meant to be performed anywhere, anytime: A "mobile guerrilla anti-opera," if you will.
The work was inspired by a variety of operatic forms and improvisational approaches including Chinese opera; Indonesian wayang kulit shadow puppetry; Fluxus and Dada; the operas of Tom Phillips, Robert Ashley, John Cage, and Anthony Braxton; and aspects of the work of Cornelius Cardew, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, John Zorn, Frank Zappa, and Sun Ra.
Selections from I, Norton have been performed in Milan, Palermo, San Francisco, Tokyo, Seattle, Miami, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. In addition, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet performed a reduced version of the piece during recent tours of Europe and North America. - - www.rastascan.com/
Emperor Norton, as an Opera
By Jay Sacher
Published: July 12, 2011
An Opera in Real Time
CD review by Memory Select: Avant-Jazz Radio
Published: May 30, 2010
Sounds Heard: Gino Robair—I, Norton: An Opera in Real Time
CD review by Frank J. Oteri
Published: April 6, 2010
Interview by Stuart Broomer for "Point of Departure"
Let’s ask Gino Robair
Interview by Sequenza 21, The Contemporary Classical Music Community
Published: September 15, 2009
Respite in the Unusual
Interview by Be'eri Moalem, San Francisco Classical Voice Review
Published: October 14, 2008
Improv:21 Interview (Video)
As part of the Rova:Arts series, Gino Robair demonstrates his music and methods for the opera "I Norton" with a 40-piece orchestra of Bay Area improvisers. Derk Richardson is the host.
Published: February 1, 2006, 21 Grand, Oakland, CA.
Fifteen Questions with Gino Robair
Sound it out
The beat of his own idiophoneIn a career that began by keeping the beat, Gino Robair has progressed to a lifetime of seeking out sounds and breaking down boundaries of how music is played and exploring what lies beyond melody, tone and rhythm. Whether he's writing, advocating or performing, he wants to rip up the rule book and throw open the doors in an attempt to take music from out-of-reach places and give it back to the people. Robair has played with John Butcher, Tom Waits, Fred Frith and John Zorn to name a few and has been an active academic voice studying Indonesian music with Lou Harrison and Jody Diamond and promoting the Bay Area Improv Scene. Creating music for dance, theatre, radio, TV, and gamelan orchestras, Robair has also been running his label Rastascan since the 80s and has most recently written an opera, I Norton, that is currently being performed in North American and Europe.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences?
For as long as I can remember, I've always tapped on and with things, using whatever was at hand (wooden spoons, pots and pans, fingers, etc.). At age 7 I talked my folks into letting me take drum lessons, and by the time I was 12, I knew that music was my calling.
My earliest influence was the AM radio, which in southern California in the early to mid-sixties played a wide range of music: rock, soul, country, and big-band jazz. When I was 12, my piano teacher, who was a church organist at the local First Baptist church, asked me to play percussion with his gospel choir and chamber orchestra and also for holiday services. So I was already playing professionally when I entered high school.
Throughout this time, however, I enjoyed improvising. When I got my hands on a 4-track reel-to-reel tape deck in high school, I would multitrack improvisations at different tape speeds, splice them together, and work with musique concrète in the ways I'd read about composers doing. But I didn't meet other musicians who enjoyed free improvisation until I entered college—the University of Redlands—where I worked with Barney Childs and Phillip Rehfeldt. There, I co-founded the Anything Goes Orchestra with other students and started the Rastascan Records label.
After graduating, a colleague suggested I study improvisation in the UK and introduced me to Eddie Prévost, who graciously agreed to meet with me on occasion. So I moved to London in '85 and took in as much of the scene as I could. It was during that time that I met Anthony Braxton, whose work I greatly admired. When my work visa expired in '86, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to study with Braxton and composer Lou Harrison at Mills College. The local scene was so vibrant that I decided to stay.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
I try to make every moment of music making incisive.
Keith Rowe once asserted that it is often certain people that “give one permission to do things”. How was that for you – in which way did the work of particular artists before you “allow” you to take decisions which were vital for your creative development?
It's in the nature of most percussionists to see everything as an instrument. Consequently, permission is something we feel we're given at birth: the world is our instrument. Where I grew up, percussionists played the strangest, most interesting music, so I gravitated towards them and felt at home.
However, at some point I began looking for models of ways to shed the role of timekeeper, and I found them in contemporary "classical" music and in recordings by Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, AMM, and so forth, which were in the college radio station where I worked. But rather than look for permission, I simply congregated with musicians that accepted a drummer who worked more with timbre and melody than traditional rhythmic structures. That caused occasional friction in the rock bands I played in, but it was a good learning experience overall.
What are currently your main artistic challenges?
One of the challenges is to discover new sounds within drums and percussion.
Keith Rowe is a good example of a person whose work inspired me to look in new directions. He offered examples of an approach towards research, looking for ways to play the guitar that wasn't guitaristic. Consequently, I began to explore ways to play the drums without being drummerly. I avoided using sticks for a few years to see what would happen. In particular, I wanted to find ways to create sustained sounds without resorting to rolls and so forth.
Of course, it's common for percussionists to bow metal and wood idiophones, and for improvising drummers to work with frottage and fricatives. Some people scrape cymbals across rosined drum heads, others rub wooden sticks vertically to get tones. Using an electronic contact or driver to stimulate drums and cymbals is also a classic 20th century electronic-percussion technique.
Eventually, I discovered that I could play the wires of a snare drum with an Ebow. This led to the exploration of stand-alone metal objects that I could lay on a drumhead and play with the Ebow, such as the thin blades that fall from street sweeping trucks. If I balance things properly, the blade will slowly change position as it vibrates below the Ebow, alternating between high-frequency squeals and random-like beats against the drum.
Another satisfying direction has been to blow through a horn that is pushed flat on a drum. The air couples the horn to the head, causing the skin to vibrate. Based on the size of the drum, where I put the horn, and how hard I blow, I can get several fundamentals and their partials.
The other challenge was to find my own approach to solo improvisation. One dissatisfying aspect of the notion of "non-idiomatic free improvisation" is that, ultimately, we're playing instruments that we know intimately and we cannot truly escape their boundaries to the degree "free improvisation" suggests to me. In addition, I didn't want to feel like I need to have a specific set of instruments in order to play a high level of music. This is, in part, a reaction to the instrument fetishism that musicians of all genres have, particularly the classical and jazz virtuosi. It's also the result of having no control over the instruments and environment in which I play when I tour.
As a result, my approach is as much sculptural as it is about producing sound, while taking into consideration the physical and sonic qualities of the performance space. I work to create an evolving, site-specific sound environment using whatever I can get my hands on.
I sometimes involve the audience: in the performances I call "Potluck Percussion", I ask the attendees to bring things for me to play. The most memorable items include a package of hot dogs and a condom baked into a pan of gelatin. If there are microphones and contact mics, I will amplify whatever it is I "play", or I find ways to combine objects that make sense musically, visually, physically, or artistically. It crosses into performance art on occasion, but the artistic and intentional direction is based on sonic integrity rather than spectacle.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
In my mind, the two approaches feed each other. As a composer, I use improvisation to find materials that I want to make repeatable in some way. In my compositions, I develop things that inspire improvisation. And in my work, such as the opera "I, Norton," I explore the grey area between the two approaches where you can't tell one from the other.
There is a wonderful scene in a documentary about Harry Partch showing him improvising on the marimba eroica, developing parts that would end up in a composition. Even if you're creating an algorithm, developing a tone row, or setting up a scheme that will be controlled by chance operations, at some point there is improvisation involved as you determine materials.
Improvisation is such a natural phenomenon that it hardly merits mention, except that many people are put off by the idea of a music that is generated improvisationally. Every living creature has to improvise in order to survive. I see it as a way of life.
BYOHow important are practising and instrumental technique for achieving your musical goals?
It depends on the musical situation. My background includes playing concert music, rock, and jazz, and I still perform notated and idiomatic music of various types. In those cases, instrumental technique is a means to an end: I must be able to play the instruments in such a way that the music is accurately realized.
In my improvisational work, I try to remove the barriers of traditional playing techniques in order to see what else there is. In this case, I find that I'm always "practising" because I'm constantly testing things and situations for sound quality.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance?
I think all three are inter-related. Unfortunately, performers don't often have control over sound and space in the global sense. Most of the time they have to find a way to deal with or work around the complexities that a venue presents, because the majority of venues are not dedicated to music-making.
I have the most respect for the musicians that are able to make music—perform—in any situation and on any level of instrument. Sure, we all like to have the best instrument possible, but the musicality of a great player will shine no matter what they play. Tom Waits and Han Bennink come to mind as people who can make music anywhere and on anything. They fully utilize sound, space, and performance.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned out to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
The first part of his purported comment addresses dynamics. In the majority of playing situations, I think it's important that players maintain a global ear: they must be aware of how they fit into the overall sound of the music.
While many other cultures value this in their ensemble music, it's rarely taught in western European-based styles. We're often told that we should only play what's in the score—what the composer "intended" when he or she marked up their manuscript pages—rather than listen to how our part fits in. For example, in an orchestra, the conductor will tell you whether you're too loud or not. And if you question this, the conductor will explain that an orchestra has dozens of musicians, and in his/her select position out front, he or she is in the best position to determine whether any discrete part is at the wrong dynamic level. One can argue that much of the orchestral repertoire of the last few hundred years was created with that hierarchical, top-down setup in mind.
However, if you listen to the large-ensemble music of other cultures, you often have conductor-less situations where each player shares the responsibility in making sure that the sound is balanced. This became clear to me while studying Javanese gamelan. In that music, your ear has to be attuned to the overall ensemble because the direction that a piece takes will often depend on how specific musicians change their part in the course of a performance. For example, if the drummer plays a slightly different fill at the end of a phrase, or a melodic instrument takes the melody up or down, that can indicate that you're going into a new piece, changing tempo, or making some other major change.
Anyone who has participated in an ensemble improvisation knows that the most successful performances happen when the musicians listen in a similar way. I'm not suggesting that the improvisation should follow key musicians, or that just because one person plays loud all others should do so as well (e.g., Mickey Mousing). Rather, I believe that it's important that every participant be fully aware of the group dynamic throughout the piece. At that point, the improvisation has the greatest chance of being a satisfying experience for everyone involved, not just one or two players who want to treat it as a cutting contest.
The second part attributed to Stevens, deals with each individual's relationship to the group in some sort of musical sense. Here, I'll play Devil's Advocate and disagree: there are musically sound reasons to play in opposition or in contrast to what's going on in the group. I agree, however, that to do so effectively, one must have a group awareness and global ear. And that's what Stevens is addressing. To play in opposition, you are in fact relating to the group. To ignore the group while playing begs the question of why be in the group at all. But again, one can think of musically interesting ways that can happen.
Some people see recording improvised music as a problem. Do you?
Not at all. While I understand the reasons why some people have trouble with the concept (e.g., recordings are a 2-dimensional representation of a multi-dimensional experience, etc.), there are plenty of reasons why recording improvisation makes sense. To begin with, you need to have recordings of your work in order to get the word out about your playing, unless you plan to use Skype to "audition" in situ for festivals and grant applications. Recordings are necessary if you want gigs outside of your local area, and, of course, if you want to make money from your work e.g., record sales and performance royalties.
Second, recordings are helpful for evaluation purposes— to hear yourself and your groups improvising. I'm sure, some will argue that it's not a good idea to evaluate improvisation. I happen to think it's helpful in order for musicians to grow, artistically.
Third, it's important to document what you are doing so that people in the future can get a sense of what was happening for musicological reasons. Imagine if the early free improvisers didn't record themselves when they were innovating, not to mention Coltrane, Parker, Sun Ra, and so forth. On the other hand, imagine if we could listen to recordings of improvisations from the greatest musicians throughout the previous millennia?
One simply has to look, with an open mind, at what recordings represent and promise, rather than view them as equal to, or on the same level as, a live performance. The more interesting question, for me, is whether we should edit recordings of improvisation before sharing them.
Listening with other sensesIn the 20th century, the relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema most importantly — has become increasingly important. How do you see this relationship yourself and in how far, do you feel, does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
The act of listening is rarely done in isolation, though we may think it is. How many of us deprive the rest of our senses when listening to music, even in the solitude of our home? We hear something for the first time, and our senses simultaneously register every aspect of the environment, imprinting the information in our memory along with the sounds.
Musicians who don't take the other senses into account in their work are not giving a full artistic experience to their audience. When I do a Potluck Percussion performance, where I only play objects that the audience provides, the results go beyond merely sound. For example, the visual element is clearly there as I attempt to play a package of wieners with a hairbrush, not to mention the smell of the raw food, the feel of it when it explodes into the audience, and the taste for anyone who dares to share a bite of it with me.
Take the typical laptop performance, where the artists look like they're answering email. We'd all enjoy it a lot better if the room smelled of freshly baked cookies.
In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
The influence is great in both ways. A visit to the immigrant section of any city will prove it.
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
I don’t think it's so important that you have to create only music that is transparent to the audience, unless you're doing music for film or some other narrative thing. However, I do think that listeners gain a greater appreciation of improvised music (as well as "experimental" or "avant-garde" music) when they are told what the musicians are thinking, feeling, or exploring.
I like to bring the audience into the music, and I find that even the most extreme sounds will be accepted by non-specialist listeners if I explain the reasons why I do what I do. The intense sound of bowed Polystyrene may still sound like noise to them, but at least they'll have some appreciation of it if they know that my motivation is to make music with commonly discarded household items.
Usually, it is considered that it is the job of the artist to win over an audience. But listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
Passive listening is perfectly fine, and there seem to be people that prefer that. My music is not for them. I prefer to play for people that are interested in sound, even if they decide they don't like the sounds I produce. If they deal with it and make that decision, that's okay with me.
The verb "to win" is an adversarial one, and I prefer not to participate in that kind of approach, musically speaking. I'm not there to conquer people, no more than I am there to fool them into liking what I do. I like to organize certain kinds of sounds in ways that I think are interesting and meaningful, and I like to share that with listeners and other musicians. So I try to put myself in situations where that happens.
Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today? In what way does the abundance of music change our perception of it?
Today, music is as valuable and as easy to get as tap water. That's a good thing.
I teach audio recording classes at two colleges, so I meet about 125 people each year who are actively making music. At the end of every semester, I am floored by the level of musicianship and artistry that I hear from many of the students, some of it as profound as anything I've heard from well-known artists. It's a humbling experience and serves as a constant reminder that the hero worship that our culture practices is based on bankrupt hierarchical and consumerist models of seniority, canon, scarcity, and so on.
I'm happy that there is an overwhelming amount of music available, and I'm thrilled that everyone has the tools to make music and distribute it globally within a matter of seconds, whether they use an analog circuit, a computer or a mobile device for their creative endeavors.
I'm not interested in gatekeepers deciding what's good enough to record and distribute. Sure, it's still valuable to have "Filters" that sort through things and help us find sounds we might like, but I'm just as happy to discover music being made by someone that the tastemakers haven't discovered, or worse, would denigrate because the musicians are unknown or don't work within the narrow purview of the critic's sensibilities.
I'm convinced that listeners will appreciate the music you make when they have first-hand experience with music-making, themselves. And if we want to build an audience for the more challenging types of listening experiences, we need to get more people actively involved in the music making process itself, not just invite them to watch. - www.15questions.net/
It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing throughout the Union, is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of Government—in consequence of which, WE do hereby abolish Congress, and it is therefore abolished; and WE order and desire the representatives of all parties interested to appear at the Musical Hall of this city on the first of February next, and then and there take the most effective steps to remedy the evil complained of.Norton I,Emperor of the United States (quoted in I, Norton)
Gino Robair has just released a CD version of his opera I, Norton, a significant work that merges the idea of opera (heroic musical theatre) with processes of improvisation. Call it an “impropera,” perhaps, for it approaches the most hieratic of musical forms in ways that often challenge the notion of hierarchy, in other ways playing with notions of authorship and authority. It’s both an opera and what Robair calls a “kit,” a methodology and collection of materials for assembling a work with varying numbers of participants, instruments and very different scales of time and space. While the CD (Rastascan BRD 063) may be just one stop along the way in the history of the mercurial work, it’s an important stage and an opportunity to look at one of the more engaging on-going projects in contemporary improvised music. Video footage of rehearsals and performances is also available at YouTube and Robair has constructed a Web-site devoted to the piece (www.ginorobair.com/inorton).
As a long-running process for Robair, I Norton is an elastic work with a fascinating subject at its core. The overture to the new release was recorded in 2003, and his copyright notice on the pieces on the CD runs from 1983-2009. So the form has stretched to embrace work from the length of Robair’s career. Meanwhile, its subject is the most American of aristocrats, the Californian Joshua Norton who in 1859 modestly declared himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”
The recorded version is based around Norton’s death and his recall of scenes from his life. In that journey there are links to the ritual underpinnings of opera and its beginnings in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Its strongest links however, may be to American radical operas like Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts or their more overtly political The Mother of Us All, about Susan B. Anthony. I, Norton (the title comically echoes I, Claudius by Robert Graves) is also related to works like John Cage’s acrostic trips through Finnegans Wake and Walden, and it picks up on radical threads in San Francisco politics and culture that stretch back before the Beats and Jack London’s socialism to the Clampers, an organization both fraternal and egalitarian that thrived among miners in the middle of the 19th century. One portion of the CD is called “The Hall of Comparative Ovations,” the name Clampers applied with inflating humor to their meeting places, usually the backroom of a saloon.
A recent performance of the work in Toronto at Somewhere There with 18 musicians and singers of the Association of Improvising Musicians, Toronto (AIMToronto) demonstrated just how open the form of the piece is. Arriving an hour into a rehearsal to watch and listen to the process before talking to Robair, I found the musicians already packing up their instruments.
Talking about the piece later, saxophonist Kyle Brenders was surprised at how fast the work came together: “What I found interesting was how quickly the ensemble was performing the music. The rehearsal moved very easily from figuring out the notations and hand signals to the actual act of creating a performance of the piece.”
Brenders also emphasized the work’s openness: “I think the first thing to say is that the work is so completely developed yet free to interpretation, so it makes it quite an experience to play. Gino provides a clear set of materials ranging from hand signals, rhythmic material, traditional notation and graphic notation that provide timing information yet do not state anything else. It's obvious when you’re first looking at the materials spread out on your music stand that there is a piece of music that has been developed and is incredibly thought out, yet you don't know what the final product will actually sound like. There are particular sections that will always act/sound the same way yet how these sections are ordered and layered is decided in performance.”
One senses something almost inevitable about the processes that Robair has developed. Brenders continues, “What immediately binds the music together in both performance and rehearsal is Gino's command and understanding of the material. The music seemed to have a direction to it no matter what was occurring in the ensemble. The particular players’ musical choices are guided by the materials (and conducting of them) to allow for both the individual’s voice to be heard and the identity of the composition. You understand that you are able to play what you want to play, but at the same time you are always aware of the larger structure of the composition that you are a part of.”
For trombonist Scott Thomson, curator of Somewhere There and another key member of the AIMToronto Orchestra, what distinguishes the piece is Gino himself: “With Gino as the sole conductor, the piece is very much about his priorities for both form and content. Gino is a wonderful improviser, of course, and one who, to my ears, loves timbral extremes and dramatic shifts from moment to moment. He also has a wonderful knack for creating interesting and satisfying ‘narrative-like’ forms with beginnings, middles and endings. These skills and preferences are equally apparent in his percussion-playing and when he’s conducting I, Norton.”
SB: Have you had early life exposure to opera, or a long standing interest in the form?
GR: Yes, but my earliest exposure was via pop culture references in Warner Bros. cartoons. In high school and college, I played the material in arrangement form before, finally, having a chance to play a few classic operas in the pit, including summer-stock tours with opera workshops. Later, I attended a performance of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht, and performed in Braxton’s Trillium R, both of which were inspiring on many levels.
SB: What first elicited your interest in creating an opera like I, Norton?
GR: I wanted to create a large-scale work that explored and combined various approaches to group improvisation, including the use of hand cues and graphic scores. But I also wanted it to be thematic in some way.
I’m fascinated by the dynamic between notation and how it’s used to generate music, and much of my early ensemble work, especially with the Splatter Trio, explored ideas such as 1) getting the most mileage from as little score material as possible, and 2) pushing the limits of notation to force musicians out of their comfort zone in hopes that they’ll play beyond their own expectations.
What I didn’t expect was that I, Norton would become an open-ended project: a perpetual work-in-progress. But at this point, I don’t see any reason to close the book on the score, so to speak. I keep getting ideas that relate to the story and the compositional approach, so I decided a few years ago to allow myself to continually add to it.
And each performance teaches me something new about the piece or about group interaction, which leads to new pieces and occasional revisions. For example, after a few years of working solely with strategies and graphic scores, I introduced some traditionally notated elements, because it increases the tension when, suddenly, there is a mass, unified statement within the complex web of collaged sound. It also allows me to integrate non-improvising musicians within a largely improvised framework.
The ultimate goal is to present I, Norton in a traditional opera environment, with a full orchestra, actors, staging, and ample rehearsal time to familiarize the participants enough with the score that it becomes second nature. But I also like doing small-scale, site-specific guerrilla performances, such as the one in the Chapel of the Chimes cemetery in Oakland. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRWEd9XI_ds)
SB: I noticed that the overture was recorded in 2003. How long have you been working on this?
GR: The impetus to do a piece about Emperor Norton started in the late ‘80s, when I first read about him. But I began working on the structural elements in the early ‘90s, when I was experimenting with different ways to embed a text into music. “The Hall of Comparative Ovations” was recorded around that time, and the piece translates text into music in a variety of ways, such as using a pitch/rhythm matrix corresponding to letters and words. I liked the dreaminess of the recording enough to put it on the CD, but the scores have long since been revised and updated.
SB: Were you conscious of the relationships between musical and social and political processes as you developed the opera, even the extent to which this is opera as participational democracy? I’m thinking about issues of authority, both as authorship and the position of the conductor in 19th century music. I often come back to Elias Canetti’s description of the conductor: “The conductor alone decides what the law is and summarily punishes any breach of it.”
In keeping with that, it seems to me that Norton is a kind of benevolent despot and the best kind, since he's absurd. That image of absurd authority in politics seems to me to be a complement to some of the anarchism implicit in improvisation, and participants in a musical realization choosing their own parts, including texts and notated compositions.
GR: Yeah, I’ve been aware throughout the process of the resonances between authority and hierarchy, both in the musical sense and in the political sense. It’s very interesting that you’d use the word “absurd,” because I believe Norton considered what he was doing to be the only rational course of action possible in a country that was somewhat out of control. As a Jewish South African emigrant, I suspect he had a different world view than a lot of the business people he encountered in San Francisco, many of whom were from the East Coast. He found the rampant vigilante-style of justice distasteful, and he certainly felt that the democratic system wasn’t effective at the street level. Believing that he, himself, was of noble birth, I think the only alternative was to fulfill his destiny and take control.
It has been really interesting for me to develop the piece during the Bush years, because many people felt the opera resonated with how George Bush abused his position and acted as a monarch. However, there aren’t any intended parallels between the contemporary political situation in the U.S. and that of the Emperor in this piece.
But getting back to your question, the original intention of the opera was to provide a vehicle for a group of artists—musicians, dancers, actors, videographers, etc.—to work together with as much or as little preparation as they have. It doesn’t need the figure of a conductor as benign dictator. An ensemble can stage the opera without a conductor, and I’m very interested in seeing how people realize the score when I’m not involved. This is simply a kit to be used for collaboration. And it’s really only one step away from free improvisation in many cases.
SB: How do you integrate actors, set designers into the piece?
GR: It varies, depending on the situation. So far, each performance has differed greatly in terms of the type of venue, the number of players, the instrumentation, and the amount of rehearsal time, just to name a few of the variables. If we only have a short amount of rehearsal, I keep things reined in a bit, because the number of options can be overwhelming at first.
Consequently, the actors and singers are instructed to respond to cues from the conductor, just like the rest of the ensemble. However, in a few recent performances-- St. Louis, San Francisco, and Toronto--I’ve let the Emperor decide when and where he goes and what he does. In these cases he acts as a trigger for events. I can react in any number of strategic ways to what the Emperor is doing at any given time, such as support him, work in opposition, or ignore him.
SB: How do you organize the temporal patterns between the opera’s events?
GR: I wouldn’t use the word “patterns,” because to me that implies some sort of predetermined structure for the timing of events and sections. In the larger scheme of things, the performance practice I prefer keeps that aspect of the realization open. It’s entirely up to the conductor, as well as the performers, when they cue each other.
When I conduct the piece, I let my ear and preferences guide which sections appear, the order in which they appear, how they are layered on one another, and how often things change. It’s very important to me that the improvisers develop something when they are playing. For instance, if I select two players for a duet, I want to experience something other than parallel play although I can set that up, too. If there’s a pair of instruments or players that I think will do something unusual, I’ll give that a try. Later, I might decide I want to hear an opposition strategy, so I would cue a contrasting piece against the duo, then add a soloist on top of that. What happens next depends on what’s going on, how I feel about it, how quickly the musicians are developing the material, and any number of other things. And yes, it’s totally subjective on the conductor’s part, when there is a conductor.
But the musicians are also allowed to give cues, so they can just as easily thwart what I have set up. That’s a concept I borrowed from John Zorn’s Cobra, where the musicians can form guerrilla squads and try to usurp control of the piece from the conductor. However, unlike Zorn’s musical approach with that piece, I’m not looking for quick-change genre-mashing or imitating a Carl Stalling score. I, Norton is about long form interaction, development, timbre, and collaging disparate elements.
SB: Are these events notated? Or verbal elements in the libretto?
GR: Notated in a variety of ways, depending on the results I want to hear during a performance. The libretto is embedded in much of the score, so that it appears even when there are no singers and actors present. The texts are from the Emperor’s decrees published in local newspapers, as well as false decrees published in competing newspapers and a few personal letters.
SB: What scale has the piece reached—the most participants? The fewest?
GR: The biggest group was 45 players, for my 40th birthday (a portion of which begins the CD). The smallest was four—a reduced version I created for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. (http://www.rova.org/projects/album.aspx?id=69) I prefer to work with at least 12 to 15 performers, because it’s the minimum number of participants where I can set up multiple, independent groupings within a collage structure.
SB: Would you explain some of the visuals in the liner booklet. What is the diagram on the inside front cover—is it a structural chronology of the piece?
GR: That’s one of the graphic scores—in this case, an octet. It is read left to right, and the horizontal lines—one for each player—indicate an event or activity (not necessarily a long sound, as you might expect, but any musical event). The vertical lines indicate synchronous beginnings and endings of the events between the various players. The page can be read upside down (although each player in the group interprets the page in the same orientation) and realized in any length of time.
There are graphic scores for one to ten musicians, or groups of musicians. For example, this chart can also be interpreted as an 8-voice piece, where each line is played by a different section of the orchestra (such as winds, brass, strings, and percussion).
The graphic scores are one example of a section that has predetermined elements: During rehearsal, we decide who plays which line. One thing I like to do is have the same score—a quartet, for example—played by two different ensembles. Depending on how fast the page is played, the listener might be able to identify the fact that both quartets are playing the same score, but that’s usually unlikely to happen.
SB: What are the compositional methods used in some of the composed elements?
GR: The initial impetus was to differentiate on a global scale between short and long events, and I used Morse code as a convenient and intuitive way to get the point across to the performers. (Remember that this was designed to be interpreted by non-musicians as well, and the dots-and-dashes approach is familiar to just about everyone.) Consequently, I can embed the text of a decree into the score using a one-to-one correlation of letter to code-cell, and the result is a page of rhythmic material that anyone can interpret.
In “Proclamation,” the players travel around the page and play any rhythmic cell they want, as you would in a Christian Wolff or Earl Browne graphic score. However, my hope is that the musicians do so with intent and with a global ear, rather than just absent-mindedly playing without listening to the overall sound of the ensemble. It’s this kind of ensemble awareness that I find interesting in gamelan music, where each musician is acutely aware of how their part fits into the overall sound. That’s a skill that is often overlooked in Western music education, where more focus is placed on individual skills rather than ensemble playing.
In addition to reducing events to short and long periods of time (however that is interpreted), I put together a sheet of strategies that includes hand cues to trigger improvisational ideas, and some concept pieces. For example, I integrated an additive structure I used to call “Counting Song,” which appears on my duet CD with Braxton [Duets 1987, Music & Arts CD-1026, available in download form from Rastascan] and on some Spatter Trio recordings. The musician picks a number and a tempo, additively creates a sequence of events up to the chosen number, and then repeats and develops the idea. If you’re working with pitches and chose the number five, you could play A, A-B, A-B-G#, A-B-G#-C, A-B-G#-C-C#, then start again. It could also be a series of phrases or noises that are added up. When you get a handful of people doing this, each with a different number and tempo, you get a rich musical fabric that someone can solo over or use as a foundation for a musical statement.
After a performance, I often come away with a new hand cue or structure, because I encounter an improvisational situation that I wasn’t prepared for and have to deal with. So I add it to the score. As a composer, I find the continued discovery to be very satisfying.
SB: I recognized the Morse code alphabet in one of the charts, but I’m not sure what the 64 phonetic syllables in boxes are? How are they used?
GR: This is the solo aria for Miss Minnie Wakeman, the teenage love-interest of the Emperor. The singer combines a phoneme and a rhythmic cell and repeats it quickly, then picks a new pair and repeats it quickly. The intention was to create a live version of the stuttering trick that computer musicians use with short samples. The mise en scène is that Miss Wakeman [sung by Aurora Josephson on the recording] is reading the love letter the elderly Emperor has sent, indicating that he wishes to make her his Empress.
SB: What was the nature of your earliest works that you incorporated? I notice you copyright it back to 1983?
GR: The graphic scores date back to a set of pieces I wrote in ’83 for the New Music Ensemble at the University of Redlands. At that time, I needed a way to control and synchronize live performers as you would in the studio by splicing tape or by automating a mix. Stripping the approach down to horizontal and vertical lines worked very well. When you first look at it, it seems like no big deal. But when you dig into it with a group of musicians, it can be liberating because of the push-pull of having a certain amount of freedom but within a marginally controlled environment.
But again, when I rehearse the piece, I stress that people play the event with intention, listening and responding to what’s going on around them. The uninteresting interpretations are the ones where the musicians are playing on auto-pilot. The more you work with this idea, with all of the scores, the more exciting the piece becomes, and the more the musicians realize that they have control over the opera: it’s not just the conductor’s or composer’s music—the music belongs to the ensemble.
SB: Are there any instrumental requirements for a performance? Methodology?
GR: There is no set instrumentation for the majority of the piece. In the last year or so, I’ve augmented the score with notated pieces for solo voice, prepared piano, and voice/percussion. I’m also writing a set of orchestral sections, because I want to be able to combine a traditionally scored ensemble with a group of improvisers, but without determining the order in which the sections occur: that would still happen during the course of the performance. To make this work the way I’d like, each musician would have an electronic score on their stand, so that I could upload the next section to the screen and avoid the sound of 60 musicians shuffling through pages. A lot of composers I know are waiting for this technology to become affordable, so we can take large ensemble scoring to the next level.
The names of the sections on the CD don’t relate to the scores used to create the music. Often, there is more than one piece or strategy happening at a time, with the relationships in continual flux. So I came up with names that drew on the texts as well as related historical themes, such as E. Clampus Vitus.
To really understand what Norton was up against, you have to examine the Gold Rush era of northern California, with its greed-driven, wild-west mentality and its collection of odd individuals and groups such as the informal organization known as the Clampers. Against this backdrop, Emperor Norton seems quite reserved.
SB: Have you been consciously influenced by works like the Thomson/ Stein Mother of Us All or Cage’s acrostic pieces on the Joyce and Thoreau writings?
GR: Not in this work. The biggest influences were the operas of Robert Ashley, John Cage, Anthony Braxton, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and most importantly IRMA, the opera Tom Phillips created from his lovely work, A Humument. [http://humument.com] The approach to storytelling in Indonesian wayang kulit shadow puppetry was another big influence, as well as the Chinese opera tradition and the graphic scores of Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff. I also found inspiration in the use of hand cues for improvisation from Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Butch Morris, and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. And, of course, I love the absurdity found in the Dada and Fluxus movements.
SB: When you have the speaker writing/rehearsing the Norton speech, are the repetitions and fragments improvised or written?
GR: Completely improvised. The actor playing the emperor memorizes the speeches and approaches the text in real time as William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin would approach their cut-up work with tape. The actor is encouraged to break words down to the syllables, play with syntax and meaning, and take it as far as possible away from linearity. I’m hoping for a dreamlike quality, where suddenly a new meaning pops out from a simple rearrangement of the words, which happened a number of times in the making of the CD. Remember that all of the opera’s action takes place in the Emperor’s mind as he lay dying and his life is passing before his eyes. I imagined that he didn’t re-live the events of his life in its original sequence. - Stuart Broomer
Gino RobairI, NORTONPresbyterian Church of St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco
Here we have one of those rare phenoms in San Francisco, a hot, still day. Normally fog-swaddled and blustery, the City By The Bay today basks in calm oceans of sun, nowhere more than the Mission District, cradled in a sun bowl (really a "fog shadow") made possible by the stature of Twin Peaks, rising twenty blocks away to the west. The Mission streets are teeming with sun-seeking hipsters, but inside the Presbyterian Church of St. John the Evangelist, just off 15th and Valencia, the benches are filled with organists, and they're in a sweat, not just on account of the weather but from the sounds coming out of the church's pipe organ, a formidable device the size of a bus and packing the decibel pressure of a jumbo jet when it gets its bellows up.Right now, that organ's being put to decidedly nonstandard uses. As the man at the manuals gets beyond the first few phrases, funny things start to happen. The score he's playing calls for some organ stops to be somewhere between fully open or closed. What started as a mildly skewed chorale — pleasing contrapuntal lines hitting a dissonant guardrail here and there — passes into a spiraling sound tunnel wreathed with dark, furtive wraiths that slip by, intoning "wo-wo-wo-wo." A few stops later, the organ-bus ride opens up into a valley bathed in candy-flake beating tones that make ears flutter and eyes brim. No wonder the audience, convention-going members of the American Guild of Organists, are fanning themselves with their programs. Doubtless many of them have heard of these phantom effects, yet one wonders how many church organists have ever been allowed to test them out on their congregations, let alone expand such sonic heresies into a 10-minute improvisation complete with a two-foot-long block of wood for mass pedal clusters. It's a well-built church: the windows aren't rattling.
So opened San Francisco's July 2011 performance of Gino Robair's I, Norton, "An Opera in Real Time." [http://www.rastascan.com/catalog/brd063.html] Its subject is the life of one Joshua Norton, who, unhinged by a tycoon scheme gone wrong, in 1859 declared himself "Emperor of these United States, Its Assorted Territories and Protector of Mexico." Norton quickly became a fixture in San Francisco's streets and press rooms, where his jaunty decrees against Congress and injustice — Tweets of Yesteryear [http://tweetsofold.com/] indeed! — started selling papers. As San Francisco's first and most celebrated eccentric, Norton inadvertently set the stage for the characterization of the City by the Bay as a fog-haunted bughouse.
To return to the July 2011 performance in San Francisco... Normally it's against my policy to write up projects I'm personally involved in, but I have to make an exception in this case. The fact is that this event was so singular, so moving and beautiful, that it's replayed itself vividly in my brain these past few weeks, demanding some kind of documentation, or maybe just this simple bit of tribute prose.