petak, 31. siječnja 2014.

Gino Robair - I, Norton (2009)

I, Norton

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. - -

I, Norton at the Kennedy Center, DC

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

Gino Robair
Interview by Stuart Broomer for "Point of Departure"
Published: 2010

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.

image of The beat of his own idiophone

Fifteen Questions with Gino Robair

Sound it out

The beat of his own idiophone

In 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.


How 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 senses

In 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. -

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 (
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.”
The Interview
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. (
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.
I, Norton Strategies
                                                                                                                                   Gino Robair©2010
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. ( 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?
I, Norton Strategies
                                                                                          Gino Robair©2010
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?
My Dear Miss Wakeman
                                                                                                                                    Gino Robair©2010
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. [] 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
July 5, 2011
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.
What is that rattling, though? Heads turn to see Joshua Norton, played by Tom Duff, resplendent in tatty tux and feather-festooned top hat, jangling a ring of church-size keys at organist Dave Hatt, who lifts his fingers and halts the thunderous whoomping. As the bellows expire in an asthmatic wheeze, Emperor Norton announces: "Something is definitely wrong with this organ." Having given the diagnosis, he heads back up the center aisle to where his desk has been set up and takes up a pen, presumably to write another of his decrees. For two suspended minutes, there's not a sound. Then, on cue, the choir starts ringing bells.
So opened San Francisco's July 2011 performance of Gino Robair's I, Norton, "An Opera in Real Time." [] 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 [] 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.
Gino Robair has put The Emperor's legacy to more profound uses. Events and proclamations from Norton's life become the generative texts for musical activity. Improvising itself into being everywhere it lands, the life-and-death story is carried by the composer anywhere and can be up and running overnight, like a traveling curiosity show. He says: "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… 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. One of my intentions is that it serve as the culmination piece of a festival, where I, Norton gives all the festival participants a chance to do a structured improvisation together, whether they're musicians, dancers, or visual artists."
Performances have been staged so far in San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Chattanooga, Birmingham (Alabama), Athens (Georgia), Miami, Toronto, Milan, Palermo, and Stockholm. In addition, ROVA took a quartet version on tour through Europe, and Shoko Hikage's koto quartet toured Japan performing sections of the piece. The fall, 2011 performance is slated for Sweden, as part of "(Re)thinking Improvisation, International Sessions On Artistic Research in Music," at the Malmö Academy of Music.
The "collage" presented at the 2009 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival found its subject (who is usually played by Mr. Duff) tormented by a cloud of visions and voices, distorted echoes of his own. The psychotic chorus was sampled and processed by the laptops of Chris Brown, Kristin Miltner, and Jon Liedecker (aka Wobbly). What transpired was a desolate-feeling performance [] spotlighting the Emperor alone in his garret and losing the rest of his mind, spouting incoherent yet still somehow portentous babbles, after a long electronic interlude where he simply sat, motionless — think Krapp's Last Tape overlaid with Gesang der Jünglinge. There followed an episode of time travel, as the Emperor disappeared from the stage while digitally scrambled crustaceans from the 25th century clicked their claws and growled their growls.
Altogether different in forces and effect was the first Bay Area performance of I, Norton, performed by approximately 40 musician friends on the occasion of Mr. Robair's 40th birthday. An appropriately celebratory mood ruled the room, amid a raucously DIY approach to opera staging. Excerpts may be sampled in the Robair segment of Tim Perkis' film Noisy People, at around the 7'42" mark []. The October 2008 performance with sfSound (plus the laptop trio of Brown, Miltner and Liedecker) groaned with Ivesian density — Ives was, after all, the granddaddy of musical collage — massed strings and dual pianos lobbing tone-cluster mortars into the fray [].
Robair's "anti-opera" fête of the outsider Mr. Norton is a wink-nudge tribute to the rebel spirit of the musical scene the composer himself inhabits. Robair's bona fides may easily be found elsewhere. Suffice it to say that since 1986 or so, Robair, a classically-trained percussionist with a deep background in avant-rock and degrees in composition and electronic music from Mills College, has been one of the dominant figures on the Bay Area improvisation and new music scenes and has played with practically everybody and recorded with most. Case in point is the just-released Scrutables (Weight of Wax), a studio recording from 2000 with John Butcher and Derek Bailey. As with many American artists, Mr. Robair has found Europe a greener pasture for his efforts.
Besides performances in Milan and Palermo (the latter a favorite stomping ground for Robair), Stockholm was the scene of I, Norton's June 2011 incarnation, in an extended workshop setting that gave the composer a chance to get his music played while simultaneously initiating young musicians into the mysteries of improvisation — a tried-and-true formula. Robair says of that one, "Stockholm blew my mind because I had a fearless butoh-trained dancer and a painter, both of whom had never improvised before, but who found unique ways to explore the score."
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.
After Duff held the audience in hushed suspense at his desk, Robair cued the organ back in, and coaxed some "gasps and fissures" from Kyle Bruckmann (that's how they're indicated in the score: it's also the name of Bruckmann's solo oboe release on 482 Music.) There followed a series of activity / repose cycles for the Emperor at his desk, while different ensemble combinations were brought in and out.
Act II, "Letter to Miss Minnie Wakeman," extended the hushed wonder of the sounds in Act I, building onto them a crescendo of pathos via the antiphonal voices of Dana Anderson and Hannah Williams (age 11), intoning the letter, a shy plea from the never-married Norton to borrow the lady's name in a proclamation: "My Dear Miss Wakeman, In arranging for my Empress, I shall be delighted if you will permit me to make use of your name. Should you be willing, please let me know. But keep your own secret…It is a safer way I think…Your devoted loving friend, The Emperor…." At the close, after the horns and organ died for the last time, Mr. Duff read the letter again slowly, line by line, followed close upon each phrase by young Miss Williams. A long pause before the applause allowed all present to reflect on the transience of life, illustrated by the demise of a harmless yet prolifically creative and peace-loving man who died, alone, in the street.
The organ / church combination played no small part in the poignancy of the moment. The 100-year-old instrument offers a range of stops, which keyboardist Hatt exploited using the following fabulously-named combinations:
1. Air effects, from the Great Open Diapason 8', Fifteenth 2', Swell Nasard 2 2/3', Tierce 1 3/5', Flageolet 2', Pedal Open Bass 8'
2. Basic flute tone, from the Great Doppelflute 8', Lieblich Gedeckt 16', Swell Gedeckt 8', Gemshorn 8', Fugara 4', Pedal Bourdon 16'
3. Loud reed sounds, from the Great Trumpet 8', Swell Oboe 8', Pedal Trombone 16'
Robair says about the pipe organ effects: "I was planning to notate the position of the stops until I realized I should just let Hatt do what he does as an improviser. I consulted with him on the general tone I wanted to hear in the opening chorale, but after that I left it up to him. Despite having only a few stops compared to the huge modern instruments, the tracker organ (in which the linkage from key to pipe is mechanical, with no electric or pneumatically-assisted action) is capable of great timbral complexity once you begin working with fractional stops (i.e. a stop that is not engaged fully, like a half-valve effect on the trumpet, where the air flow is split between two or more pipes instead of one). And I didn't get enough time on the organ before the event to go through all the possibilities — I'm not even sure you can go through them all… Dave and I had one of these instruments at our disposal at the University of Redlands, where we met. We'd do this thing where we'd hold down clusters, then power the organ down. It was like having dozens of balloons deflate simultaneously. I could've made a record with just that sound, over and over again."
"What I didn't realize (and something that seems to have surprised Dave, as well) was that there is a lot of unpredictable behavior in the fractional stops when you hold down a pedal cluster AND clusters on the upper manuals; as you pull out a stop, the timbre doesn't always change in a linear fashion. The reason has to do with the amount of air you're drawing when holding so many notes down and what stops are chosen. You're asking for a lot of the organ's air when you hold down 20 or 30 keys. And as you move stops slowly in and out, you get all sort of sonic surprises, because that air gets redirected in uncontrollable ways. It's pretty exciting to experience first hand — a recording of this just doesn't capture the feeling you get sitting near the organ when it sounds as if it's going to explode."
I was sitting about 10 feet from the big wooden cage housing the bellowing pipes. In between was the extraordinary sound artist Krys Bobrowski, playing her self-designed Gliss Glass in a delicate passage exploiting sliding difference tones with the organ. Her instrument uses the physical principle of water seeking its own level and the bowing of glass with wet fingers to form its unique sounds [].
Robair pulled out a few more stops, figuratively, to create opportunities for difference tones, or as he calls the phenomenon, heterodyning. The horn section, besides Bobrowski (French horn) and myself (trumpets), was comprised of flutes, oboe / English horn, and clarinets, handled by Polly Moller, Kyle Bruckmann, and Matt Ingalls. Moller was called to duo duty with pianist Matthew Goodheart, who brought his instrument's strings to life using an eBow. And the Cornelius Cardew Choir moaned, hummed, hooted on bottles, and rang little bells. A sort of a Large Heterodyne Collider, if you will. The combination of setting, instrumentation, performers and audience, together with the "libretto" excerpts, made the emotional content of the piece swell and throb like the 32' pipes in the hall.
Robair says: "I agree that the setting and instrumentation added to the intensity of this performance. I also feel that it's because I set up a time-line, where certain sections would begin and end. This version had to be a specific length, and I wanted to feature certain instruments, so it made sense to give the event a narrative arc. That's something I typically avoid with I, Norton, in order to open the door for surprises. But I do like how a narrative shape can deliver emotional impact, so I wouldn't rule it out in planning other performances.
"One more thing: we rehearsed this piece in that form, with the order of events predetermined. I haven't done that since the premiere in Chattanooga. That one was linear and scored, but I wasn't happy with the results. Now it's designed so that we rehearse each improvisational strategy on its own, and then let the order and overlap emerge in performance. I love that method of working, but I definitely see the benefits of rehearsing the overall structure ahead of time. Part of me feels that the open structure is one thing that sets this piece off from other operas, so I'm not inclined to give it up. However, it's extremely useful and I would consider it an option for the future — particularly by having a narrative arc or two nested within a larger unstructured performance.
"I could tell during the rehearsal that we were heading in the right direction, but I was not prepared for the level of musicality reached in the actual event itself. I was happy that I could really listen to what was going on and not worry about constantly cueing. In Act II, where everyone was exploring beat frequencies, I crept into the center of the room to see if I could hear everyone, and — bottles, flutes, Gliss Glass, winds, vibes, organ — all there. It was a breakthrough concert for me, in terms of the opera and the kinds of things I strive to make happen in music, generally."–TD

Curtis Harrington - On the Edge, The Wormwood Star, Queen of Blood (1966)

Poznat prvenstveno kao režiser B-filmova, Harrington je i klasik eksperimentalnog filma.

House Of Harrington


On the Edge

The Wormwood Star


Night Tide (1961)


Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965)

Queen of Blood /i>

A Tribute to Curtis Harrington

Marginalized by film historians and largely overlooked during his lifetime, the late Curtis Harrington (1928-2007) was a key figure in the West Coast experimental film scene and among the most wholly original directors to work in the Hollywood studio system.  An ardent cinephile since his earliest years, Harrington began his film career as an errand boy at Paramount and eventually became a successful A-list director at Universal in the 1960s. An early protégé of Maya Deren and a close friend of Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos, Harrington’s first works were poetic trance films that revealed his careful eye and distinctive style. During his youth Harrington also befriended two of his greatest idols, iconoclastic studio directors James Whale and Joseph Von Sternberg, uncompromising aesthetes whose refined—and at times, perverse— tastes and wicked sense of humor would remain major influences on all of Harrington’s major films. This series pays tribute to an artist who never lost sight of his youthful ideals and produced a dazzling body of work ripe for rediscovery.

Night Tide

Directed by Curtis Harrington
With Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson, Gavin Muir
US 1961, 35mm, b/w, 84 min.
A hauntingly sincere fable of unrequited love, Harrington's feature debut is an unacknowledged masterpiece. In his first leading role, a startlingly young Dennis Hopper brings a fervent energy to his portrayal of Johnny, a sailor who is enamored with the bewitching Mora, a shimmering apparition of a woman gripped by a dark secret. One of the first wholly independent productions shot on the West Coast, Night Tide used locations in Venice, California to wonderful effect while also turning to studio veterans such as master film composer David Raskin (Laura), who gifted the film with a gorgeous score. One of the most essential postwar American independent films.

Curtis Harrington Shorts Program

Tonight's screening is courtesy of the estate of Curtis Harrington. These films have been preserved by and come from the collection of the Academy Film Archive.

A Fragment of Seeking

Directed by Curtis Harrington
US 1946, 16mm, b/w, 14 min.
Made while Harrington was a student at the University of Southern California, where the film was also shot, Fragment features a youthful Harrington in a revealing double role. "A climactic fragment from the existence of an adolescent Narcissus," wrote Harrington to describe his breakthrough film which so impressed maverick director Albert Lewin that he recommended Harrington for his first creative job in the studio system, as an assistant to producer Jerry Wald.


Directed by Curtis Harrington
US 1948, 16mm, b/w, 23 min.
One of Harrington's most fragile and beautiful shorts, Picnic was much admired by Jacques Rivette, who praised the film's "poetic expression." Harrington's described the film thus: "a satirical comment on middle class life frames a dream-like continuity in which the protagonist pursues an illusory object of desire."

On the Edge

Directed by Curtis Harrington
US 1949, 16mm, b/w, 6 min.
A beautiful and frightening allegory of human frailty. Harrington cast his mother and father in the lead roles of his poetic short.

The Wormwood Star

Directed by Curtis Harrington
US 1956, 16mm, b/w, 10 min.
A fascinating portrait of legendary West Coast painter and occultist Cameron - a devotee of Alistair Crowley and wife and muse to Jet Propulsion Laboratory founder Jack Parsons. The Wormwood Star is among Harrington's most visually arresting works.

The Assignation

Directed by Curtis Harrington
US 1952, 16mm, b/w, 8 min.
Long considered lost, Harrington's recently restored first color film follows a mysterious masked figure through the canals of Venice and builds to a splendid climax.


Directed by Curtis Harrington
With James Caan, Katharine Ross, Simone Signoret
US 1967, 35mm, color, 100 min.
Harrington channels Franju in his lavish, kinky tale of a swinging New York couple determined to live on the edge but unaware of the dangers invited by their reckless lifestyle. With James Caan and Katherine Ross wonderfully cast as the irresponsible couple and a sultry Simone Signoret as the mysterious neighbor who weaves her way into their lives, Games casts a dark and stylish web of intrigue and suspense. Print courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Queen of Blood

Directed by Curtis Harrington
With Basil Rathbone, Judi Meredith, Dennis Hopper
US 1966, 16mm, color, 81 min.
Working briefly for legendary B-producer Roger Corman, Harrington
made this little known gem by creatively reinterpreting footage from a Russian science fiction film, Planet of Storms, pirated by Corman. Starring Dennis Hopper as a lonely space explorer, Queen of Blood is a fascinating work considered by many to be the best of the so-called "Corman Cut-Ups." Print courtesy of the University of Calfornia Los Angeles Film and Television Archive.

Retrospective in Terror

Curtis Harrington

Actor and photographer Lisa Jane Persky pays tribute to legendary B-movie director, avant-gardist and esotericist Curtis Harrington, and reports from a very strange memorial service.

Curtis Harrington, dir­ector of famed weird B-movies such as Night Tide (1961), Games (1967), Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) and What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971) was one of very few avant-garde dir­ect­ors to succ­ess­fully make the trans­ition into comm­erc­ial film­mak­ing. He passed away at the age of 80 in Holly­wood on 6 May 2007 from com­plic­at­ions rel­ated to a stroke he had suff­ered in 2005.
“HID­EOUS BEYOND BELIEF… with an IN­HUMAN CRAV­ING!” was the tag­line for Harr­ing­ton’s best known cult class­ic, Queen of Blood (1966); strangely, it could have been app­lied to his fellow avant-gard­ist and occult cele­brity Kenn­eth Anger when he made an app­ear­ance at Harr­ing­ton’s burial serv­ice last month.

I met Harrington in 2006, at an open­ing for Dennis Hopp­er’s photo­graphs and paint­ings. Were were intro­duced by Greg­ory Poe, a friend with an apt last name. Harr­ing­ton was a life­long fan of Edgar Allan Poe and he began and ended his career with diff­er­ent vers­ions of 'The Fall of the House of Usher'. Greg­ory told me that he de­signed fun­eral urns and that Curtis had already ord­ered his. A year later, at the For­ever Holly­wood Ceme­tery adjac­ent to Para­mount Studios, Harr­ing­ton was ready to put Mr Poe’s handi­work to use.
Harrington’s mem­or­ial serv­ice was an open-casket affair held in the ceme­tery’s small chapel. Among other guests was Kenn­eth Anger, who arr­ived with a cam­era­man in tow. Best known for his films Fire­works, Inaug­ur­at­ion of The Pleas­ure Dome (in which Harr­ing­ton app­eared, along­side Anaïs Nin) and Luc­ifer Rising, Anger is also the author of two com­pendia of trashy Holly­wood scandals, Holly­wood Baby­lon and Holly­wood Baby­lon II, and his name is often linked to those of Sat­an­ist Anton LaVey and the not­or­ious Aleis­ter Crow­ley.
Acc­ord­ing to Harr­ing­ton’s exec­utor, screen­writer Robert Mundy, Harr­ing­ton and Anger had been ‘friends’ since child­hood but had carr­ied on a life­long feud, during which Anger had repeat­edly been cruel to Harr­ing­ton. Be­cause of this, as well as the att­end­ant cam­era­man, Mundy asked Anger to leave. Anger in­formed Mundy that he would have to call the police to get him off the prop­erty. Event­ually, they reached a com­pro­mise, and Anger turned off the camera. But this didn’t pre­vent him from kiss­ing the em­balmed face of Harr­ing­ton or from taking a seat in the front row. Anger, who is also 80, looks hardy and sports the in­tense, bullet-headed look of Aleis­ter Crow­ley in his later years.
Actor Jack Larson (Jimmy Olson in the 1950s Super­man tele­vis­ion series), who was to be the only speak­er at the serv­ice, de­scribed the Holly­wood mil­ieu that he and Curtis ent­ered in the 1940s. He had barely started when he was int­err­upted by Anger, who shouted juicy ‘corr­ect­ions’ to Larson’s speech. Larson per­sev­ered as Anger con­tin­ued to pro­vide a runn­ing comm­ent­ary in a we-of-the-theatre tone. Larson re­ferred to a mutual friend, ‘Paul’ from Pasa­dena, who ran a ‘coven’ which att­racted many people, includ­ing Harr­ing­ton and him­self. At this, Anger shouted “NO! NO! It was an order of the Ordo Templi Orientis and it was of as high a degree as 33rd degree Mas­onry. I am a 33rd-degree member through Crow­ley.” Previ­ous to this, Larson had already men­tioned Crow­ley and Anger had corr­ected his pro­nun­ciat­ion: “Crow as in Crow. Then Lee.”
Larson men­tioned that ‘Paul’ had supp­os­edly created a hom­un­cu­lus. Anger agreed – “OH HE DID! I saw it. It held my hand. Its little hand, like a ten­tacle, wrapp­ed itself around my finger. There were 33 others in the crib, but not in full-fruit­ion like this one” – sugg­est­ing that deg­rees of Mas­onry and hom­un­culi litter have some­thing in common. A number of act­resses were in­volved in the “coven”, one of whom report­edly saw the hom­un­cu­lus. Anger in­formed the guests that who­ever sees a hom­un­cu­lus is hence­forth re­spons­ible for its life, and this, he sugg­ested, may be why she ult­im­ately became a re­cluse.
Larson re­counted that ‘Paul’ supp­os­edly had a tail. Anger con­curred. “I SAW IT!” he shouted. “I showed it to Kinsey and he said that wasn’t so unus­ual – one man in 50,000 has one.” In the 1950s, the sex­o­lo­gist Alfred Kinsey became int­er­ested in Anger and his films, and in 1955 the two visited the site of Crow­ley’s ‘Abbey of Thel­ema’ in Cefalu, Sicily.
Acc­ord­ing to Larson, ‘Paul’s’ home burned to the ground. Anger exp­lained why. “HOWARD DID IT!” he ex­claimed. “Howard Hughes, who was crazy because he had syph­ilis of the brain.” For once no one dis­ag­reed, al­though this did prod­uce some uncom­fort­able laugh­ter.
Toward the end of Lars­on’s speech, Anger ann­ounced that he and Harr­ing­ton had both been dying of pros­tate cancer (al­though Harr­ing­ton didn’t die of this) and that he had told Harr­ing­ton that he would out­live him. Anger then in­formed every­one that his own mem­or­ial would be here, in the same place. He turned toward the crowd and said “Oh yes, It’s been con­firmed. I know the date of my death. On Hall­ow­e’en 2008. My mem­or­ial. RIGHT HERE! HALL­OW­E’EN 2008!” Then, as an after­thought, he added, “INVIT­AT­ION ONLY! Sorry.”
Across from Anger’s seat was a huge floral bouq­uet. The card read: “For my old pal Kurtiz (sic) from his old rival Kenn­eth Anger”. The note, which usu­ally bears the name of the dec­eased, read “Dr. Kenn­eth Anger,” making it look as though it was Anger’s fun­eral in­stead, well ahead of sched­ule. One of the themes Harr­ing­ton exp­lored in Queen of Blood and other films is that of beings who feed off others. With this in mind, one ass­umes that Anger won’t starve to death.
A second mem­or­ial serv­ice sans Anger was held at the Acad­emy of Motion Pict­ure Arts and Sciences on hist­oric Vine Street. Speak­ers there in­cluded scream queen Barb­ara Steele, dir­ect­ors Peter Medak (The Krays) and Bill Condon (Dream­girls), and Dennis Hopper, who app­eared in Harr­ing­ton’s early work Night Tide. This film also feat­ured Marj­orie Cam­eron, the widow of Jack Pars­ons, the sci­ent­ist at Pasa­dena’s Jet Pro­puls­ion Lab­or­at­ory who was also a foll­ower of Aleis­ter Crow­ley. Cam­eron app­eared in Anger’s Inaug­ur­at­ion of the Pleas­ure Dome and was part of the occult bo­hemia de­picted in John Carter’s Sex and Rock­ets: The Occult World of Jack Pars­ons, and it’s quite poss­ible that Pars­ons was the ‘Paul’ that Super­man’s pal and Crow­ley’s dev­otee had argued about at the previ­ous serv­ice. Pars­ons blew him­self and his house up in an ‘acc­id­ent’, al­though there are sus­pic­ions it may have been sui­cide. Then too, they may have been speak­ing of Paul Mathi­son, the art dir­ec­tor and actor who played Pan in Inaug­ur­at­ion of The Pleas­ure Dome.
In a short docu­ment­ary screened at the Anger-free event, Harr­ing­ton had the last word: “There is the exo­teric and the eso­teric… That’s what I’m int­er­ested in. The eso­teric. What goes on be­neath.” He also had a sense of humour. “Did you know,” the hus­band asks his wife in Games, “that Aimee Semple McPher­son was buried with a tele­phone?” “Why?” “Just in case,” a nod, to be sure, to Poe’s “The Pre­mat­ure Burial.” Harr­ing­ton is now en­tombed at Holly­wood For­ever in an urn made by another Poe, in which, sadly, there is no room for a tele­phone. The obit­u­ary in Vari­ety claimed Harr­ing­ton had no sur­viv­ors, but this isn’t true. He has Anger, wheth­er he wants him or not, along with a cot­e­rie of friends and admir­ers. Most im­port­antly, he is sur­vived by the prints of his films, which have been willed to The Motion Pict­ure Acad­emy.

Curtis Harrington, director and occultist, born 26 Sept 1927; died Hollywood 6 May 2007, aged 80.

Remembering Curtis Harrington and His Films

By Zeena Schreck

Back in July, Flicker Alley released The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection on Blu-ray. It's great to see my old friend and artistic mentor's art films altogether in one set, reaching new audiences. Curtis Harrington began making movies as a teenager in Los Angeles during World War II. His debut was a poignant rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Still looking boyish, Curtis played the twin roles of Roderick and Madeline Usher. His choice to play both sexes—he made a truly beautiful Madeline—was very risky for those days. What's great about this film is that its mystical and alchemical underpinnings foreshadow recurring themes found in his later work. His trademark for surreal incongruity—mixing horror, black humor, and grotesque glamor—is not only present in his debut, but his classics like What's the Matter with Helen?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, The Killing Kind, and Games.
I first learned of Curtis's work through my godfather, Kenneth Anger. Curtis and Kenneth were lifelong friends, who were both mentored by filmmaker and voodoo priestess Maya Deren. Another friend of the family, a film-distributor, used to loan us celluloid versions of Curtis's films for private screenings. One of my favorites was Night Tide. *SPOILER ALERT* It’s the story of a love-smitten sailor who becomes entangled with a woman brainwashed since birth by a huckster adoptive father. She wrongly believes she was born to a murderous siren race. The father displays her as a mermaid sideshow freak and pins her with the blame for murders he has committed. As a little whipper-snapper, I was obsessed with mythology, fairy tales, and legends. So, for obvious reasons, I felt an affinity with the shape-shifting mermaid, Mora, of Night Tide.
I met Curtis in the early 90s at a retrospective of Marlene Dietrich’s silent films hosted at the Director's Guild in LA. After a screening of Marlene’s 1930s classic, Blue Angel, my husband Nikolas saw that Curtis was seated several rows ahead of us. I introduced myself and told Curtis how much his films meant to me growing up. He thanked me and invited us to meet him again. In no time we became fast friends. In the last decade of his life, Curtis returned to his roots. He self-produced a remake of his first film in 2012, simply calling it Usher and reprising his roles as both twin leads. As with all of his films, Curtis incorporated his friends, including Nikolas and myself.

Left to right: Renate Druks, Ruth-Ellen Taylor, Zeena Schreck, Curtis Harrington, Sean Nepita, Robert Mundy, and Nikolas Schreck.  
For Usher, Curtis worked entirely outside of the unions by filming in his home, which was familiar to all of the cast and crew. The atmosphere was very comfortable, as if we were just continuing our roles in his everyday life, only slightly exaggerated. After being apart of the production, it’s difficult for me to say whether Curtis's films mimicked his life, or vice versa. For example, the eccentric birthday celebration for Madeline in the film could have easily been any one of Curtis's dinner parties. He always had little get-togethers at his Hollywood Hills home that felt just like the bizarre scenes in his movies. Always the director, he decided where you were to be seated using the antiquated custom of place cards. He would split up couples and seat people together he thought would either stimulate or antagonize each other.
The last time I saw Curtis was when he came to Berlin to show Usher to an exclusive audience at the Deutsche Kinemathek. During his visit, there were two nights in particular I remember where we sort of said our good-byes. He'd recently had a stroke and it was clear he was preparing himself for the transition from this dream to the next. The combination of the stroke with the medications he was taking had slurred his speech. It was unsettling to watch the director of the Deutsche Kinemathek, who mistook Curtis for being drunk, shift in his seat, impatiently tap his foot, and be condescending to Curtis as he struggled to speak.
However, the Kinemathek official who actually arranged the screening was very kind. He gave us a tour through the museum and showed Curtis a rare find from their Marlene Dietrich archives: a letter by a very young 20-something Curtis Harrington, introducing himself to Marlene Dietrich. It was a touching moment that brought me back to the first night I met Curtis, at the Marlene Dietrich retrospective in LA. It surely brought Curtis back, to his first meeting with Marlene and their long friendship. The Blue Angel who brought Curtis and I together also presided over our farewell in the haunted city of her birth, Berlin.

THE KILLING KIND (1973) – The Dungeon Review!

Curtis Harrington is no stranger to the Dungeon but this is the first of his films to get the full review treatment! Curtis Harrington appeared in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and his films Night Tide and Queen of Blood appeared on two of my top ten lists for 1961 and 1966. I have watched a number of films directed by Curtis Harrington this year and I am reminded what an underappreciated director he is. Harrington has 37 director credits; several of which are for television movies and shows including Dynasty. I was never a Dynasty watcher but I have seen Harrington’s TV movies Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell, How Awful About Allan and Killer Bees. His feature-length films are what I am more familiar with and he has a short but admirable list. Night Tide, What’s the Matter with Helen? and The Killing Kind are his three masterpieces in my opinion. A large part of the appeal of the three aforementioned films is the perfect casting and performances; Dennis Hopper and Linda Lawson in Night Tide, Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters in What’s the Matter with Helen? And John Savage and Ann Sothern in The Killing Kind. All three of these films are worthy of reviews but I chose The Killing Kind on account of its lesser known status and its difficult history. The Dark Sky dvd came with a 20ish minute interview with Curtis Harrington. Harrington speaks on how he got started in the industry and several of his films with a focus on The Killing Kind. The film fell victim to bad marketing and distribution. There was in fact no marketing or distribution of The Killing Kind! Harrington knew instantly that John Savage was the perfect actor to portray Terry Lambert; the melancholy, deeply disturbed mama’s boy. The Killing Kind was one of John Savage’s earliest roles and I think one of his best. The Killing Kind deserves the audience it should have gotten back in 1973; a well made, engrossing, psychological journey through the mind of a sick young man.
Terry Lambert is arriving home after being in prison for the past two years. His mother Thelma, whom he calls by her first name has been telling people that Terry has been away with the Peace Corp. Terry was in prison for taking part in a gang rape. Terry is regularly terrorized by the images of the event. In his flashback he is physically forced on top of the woman who looks at him in horror. Thelma runs a boarding house whom she rents to a couple of senior ladies, a daughter and her handicapped father and a young woman named Lori who is embarking on a modelling career. Lori catches Terry’s eye quickly. Thelma also has several cats. Terry and Thelma’s relationship is intimate and complex. “The Two musketeers” as Thelma refers to them share an odd sense of humour and affectionate touching one does not normally embark on with one’s own mother. Thelma is an amateur photographer who develops her own pictures. Thelma is obsessed with pictures of Terry and has an entire wall full of them. It is no surprise Terry feels smothered by Thelma. Terry exhibits perplexing behavior from the start. Terry peeps at Lori through the window. He is holding one of his mother’s cats who suddenly meows and almost gives him away. He quiets the cat and accidentally strangles it to death. The librarian is spying on him with binoculars and sees the whole thing. That is Terry’s first act of violence and several more follow in both the name of revenge and of a damaged psyche.
Terry is an awkward guy with an overbearing mother, He lacks social skills or in fact skills of any kind. Terry went to prison when he was nineteen and has yet to really experience life. He spend his time strumming on a guitar but never playing a song. He ambles about the house all day snooping on the tenants or interacting with dear mom. He is disturbed by flashbacks of the rape, and is full of bitterness he can not let go. His dreams get pretty trippy later in the film. Terry’s behavior gets more extreme and violent as the story progresses. Terry is a ticking time bomb. John Savage plays the despondent character with a pitch-perfect intensity. I can’t imagine anyone being better in the role. By no means does Savage carry the weight of the film. Ann Sothern as Thelma Lambert is a force to be reckoned with. The cat-coddling, boisterous, needy, jealous and overbearing Thelma is a non-stop intrusion in Terry’s life. Thelma definitely loves her son, there is no question, but a tad unhealthily. Terry seems to be both son and husband to Thelma. There is an incestual vibe with their intimate kisses on the mouth and neck rubs. At one point in the film Thelma comments that Terry started giving her neck rubs when he was just a boy with wee little hands. The peculiar relationship Terry and Thelma share is very much what makes The Killing Kind unique. Ann Sothern gives one hell of a performance; especially in that perfect brilliant finale!
The supporting characters are an interesting lot. Cindy Williams plays Lori; the pretty new tenant. When Lori first takes the room she tells Thelma she is trying to embark on a modelling career. When Lori tells Thelma that people say she has an interesting face, Thelma replies “Well, that’s what they say when they don’t say pretty.” Thelma looks on in jealousy as she watches Lori flirting with Terry. Thelma however allegedly missed the part where Terry holds Lori’s head under the water almost drowning her. When Lori comes running into the house terrified Thelma yells at Lori “You’re tacky!” I probably would have moved out at that point myself. Lori hangs in there however; despite almost being drowned by the landlord’s son and having a problem with her shower and a toilet that flushes on its own. She is not exactly the brightest bulb and the fact that she flirts with Terry after what had transpired was rather mystifying.
Luana Anders plays Louise; a librarian living with her handicapped father in the rooming house. Louise spies on Terry as he spies on Lori, kind of a peepers love triangle. Louise gets drunk one evening and shares her secrets with Terry including wanting to kill her father. Wanting to put ground glass in his food to be exact! She also hits on Terry. Louise is as awkward as Terry and the two have a strained conversation. Terry shows Louise no warmth whatsoever, in fact he insults her and she goes running off. Louise was an odd character; I felt a bit sorry for her but she was also a touch grating.
I would not exactly sell this as a horror film. The Killing Kind is more of a psychological drama with some horror elements. There are some brutal moments however. The worst for me being two animal killings. The aforementioned cat is disturbing but the rat is the worst of it. Terry offers to capture a mouse one of the elderly ladies has been complaining about. It turns out to be a big old rat which Terry traps and captures. He holds the rat above a trap he has rigged with some cheese. While calmly explaining how the trap works he eventually lets the rat get the cheese which breaks its neck. The human body count is minimal but all three scenes are worth noting; the death of his lawyer is particularly cruel.
Curtis Harrington did some significant research into mental disorders before making The Killing Kind. The proper treatment of the character was very important to him and John Savage fit the role like a glove. Equally important in the progression of Terry’s story was his complicated relationship with his mother. You need only watch Ann Sothern’s Thelma in action to understand some of Terry’s trauma. The Killing Kind is a solid character-driven story, with outstanding performances, great intensity and an absolutely fantastic finale. The picture was a touch grainy at times and the night scenes were a little on the dark side but otherwise the Dark Sky release looked decent. I included a huge gallery for you to check out. The Killing Kind comes highly recommended!
Luana Anders as Louise and John Savage as Terry Lambert.
Terry has a breakdown and runs from the house screaming and jumps into the pool.
Terry brings his lawyer Rhea Benson a bottle in a gesture of good will. Well, actually not so much good will as good bye bitch. Ruth Roman plays the unfortunate Rhea Benson who suffers a particularly unpleasant death.
Cindy Williams as Lori watches Terry fixing the shower that has been broken for days.
Whatever possesses Lori to hit on Terry after he tried to drown her is beyond me.
Ann Sothern as Thelma Lambert.
Terry Lambert. Intense.
Terry’s Dream.
The female tenants of his mother’s boarding house gather around the crib cooing at him like he is a baby. Cooing becomes a chant of shame! Shame! Shame!
Louise calls the police.
Mother and son bond for the last time.
Dungeon Rating: 4/5
Directed By: Curtis Harrington
Starring: Ann Sothern, John Savage, Ruth Roman, Luana Anders, Cindy Williams, Sue Bernard, Marjorie Eaton, Peter Brocco, Helene Winston
An Interview with Curtis Harrington; special feature that accompanied the Dark Sky DVD.



1966/Director: Curtis Harrington/Writer: Curtis Harrington

Cast: John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, Judi Meredith, Dennis Hopper, Florence Marly, Robert Boon, Don Eitner, Forrest J Ackerman

ALSO KNOWN AS: Flight to a Far Planet, Planet of Blood, Planet of Terror, Planet of Vampires, Space Vampire,The Green Woman

At first I was a little disappointed when I read that some of the stylistic and stunning space scenes from Curtis Harrington’s 1966 Queen of Blood were taken from a couple Russian sci-fi periods from a couple years earlier, one being Meshte Nastreshu (1963) and the other Nebo Zovyot (1960). I have never seen either film and understand they are pretty hard to locate online, though Nebo Zovyot was released in some sort of edited fashion by producer Roger Corman and then fledgling director Francis Ford Coppola. But I cannot find that version of the film either. Harrington as well was working for Corman as an upcoming director and writer when Queen of Blood was released and the copy/paste type technique of filmmaking, “borrowing” scenes from obscure, foreign films, was a common practice for films produced by Corman at AIP at the time. Other filmmakers, some mentioned here at the Café like Al Adamson, also used this technique in patching together film projects. Adamson often pieced together fragments and sections of his own films made over a period of years but sometimes, as with Horror of the Blood Monsters, did something similar as was done by Harrington and Corman with Queen Blood, and used footage from an unknown Filipino film. The difference is that Horror of the Blood Monsters looks like crap basically and Queen of Blood appears almost seamless in the way the films merge together. I admit that while watching it, before reading any reviews which is how I usually watch films and avoid sites like my own brimming over with spoilers, I noticed a few odd moments but never thought I was seeing more than one film. I think the film looks marvelous really and the sets have that stylized science fiction look and feel of the sci-fi pulp paperback covers of the period.

The film, along with Mario Bava’s lush and atmospheric 1965 masterpiece Planet of the Vampires (Terrore Nello Spazio), it could be argued, influenced some aspects of Ridley Scott’s horror/sci-fi film Alien, though as far as I know writer Dan O’Bannan has never cited the films as influences. The “subliminal” influences on Alien from Queen of Blood are astronauts responding to what appears to a signal or beacon from an intelligent life force in space and then a subsequent rescue mission that finds said alien intelligence and allows it aboard the rescuers space ship, only to have the creature begin to prey on the crew members one at a time. There is also the concept of the alien creature leaving pulsating, gooey eggs behind and had the sixties had the vision of franchised sequels no doubt Queen of Blood could have spawned at least based on the ending of the film where a beaming assistant (played by Forrest J. Ackerman) holds a tray of slimy alien eggs he is carrying back to earth for research purposes.

The general story takes place in the future world of 1990 at the International Institute of Space Technology which is chaired over by the brilliant and esteemed Dr. Farraday, played by then AIP regular Basil Rathbone. Astronaut Laura James (Judith Meredith) has detected signals from deep space that are soon interpreted by Dr. Farraday as a message from an alien life form that they are traveling so that the two species may meet one another. Later a video log Laura intercepts shows that the aliens are in distress and have crash landed on the planet Mars. A rescue mission is put together quickly comprised of Laura, Paul Grant (played with amusing method style acting by a young Dennis Hopper), and crew commander and voice of science Anders Brockman (Robert Boon). Left behind and none to happy about it is Laura’s boyfriend Allen Brenner (John Saxon) who nonetheless supports his better half as she ventures off to the red planet on the rescue mission. The ship of course encounters trouble in the form of a sunspot and radiation and in the process loses critical fuel supplies. They manage to find the alien space craft and even find a dead alien onboard and as any person in a similar situation would do just leave it there when they leave.

Somehow Farraday concludes that the aliens must have abandoned their mother ship on a rescue ship and that the ship is somewhere on the surface of Mars. This is just the excuse Allen Brenner and pal Tony Barrata (Don Eitner) have been waiting for and they convince Farraday to allow them to go on a rescue mission that will take them to Phobos, one of Mars’ moons, and from there they will go to the Planet in a small rescue craft whose fuel will be conserved because of the gravity on Phobos or something. This is all explained in long winded and overly complicated classic sci-fi lingo and even a blackboard drawing that is priceless.

After they have been on Phobos for a while and the launch window for the right area Mars is getting closer they look out their window and see the alien spacecraft they are all looking for. Damn. Now how much more lucky can you get. The alien escape craft had landed on Phobos and Tony and Allen take off (with less than a half hour before the launch window is closed) to investigate. Onboard they find a comatose, green alien woman and lug her back to the two man Meteor space craft. In one of the more flawed scenes of the film they decide to do a coin toss to see who has to stay behind in the alien ship while the other takes the Meteor to Mars. Later aboard the Oceano we discover that Allen Brenner won the bet, much to Laura’s relief. But basically the Tony Barrata character is written out of the story completely. It is a serious loose end and I wish his fate would have been more resolved, even if it meant the likable character had died in some fashion. Well it is not the end of the world and soon the Oceano get the fuel it needs and blasts off and is traveling back to Earth with a the alien female as its new passenger.

And what a strange and at times downright spooky passenger she is. Played by TV star Florence Marley the alien is human in appearance except for her green flesh. When she first comes around and sees the three men of the crew her smile is a combination of uncontrolled lust and hunger, yet when her gaze finally rests on Laura James it quickly turns to revulsion. It is decided that a male crew member will watch over and Paul Grant gets the honors. Hopper’s early pre-Easy Rider performances are usually pretty restrained and easy to watch and here is really at times rather charming. He tries to instruct the alien in the use of eating utensils but she does not want to eat, and does not want to drink water even after Paul shows her how to suck on a straw. She reacts violently when Anders approaching with the biggest blasted syringe I have ever seen to take a blood sample and knock it from his hands and breaks it. He seems sort of bewildered as to why the alien creature, surrounded by total strangers, is adverse to him jamming this elephant needle in her arm. Later when the crew is asleep we learn what nourishment the creature rally wants when she hypnotizes Paul and drains him of all his blood. He is found dead the next morning and she is sleeping off her night’s feeding. What follows is an interesting exchange between Anders, who is actually sympathetic to the creature, and Allen, who sees the creature as a murderer and danger. Anders seems to feel Allen is trying t impose his human sense of morality onto an alien being who may not have the same moral sense as a human being and Allen is disgusted and afraid of the creature who just killed his friend by draining all the blood out of his body. Anders wins, with Dr. Farraday’s approval, the debate and the creature is left free and fed some sort of plasma solution. Now I am all one for these high browed ethical debates that go around in circles about the nature of good and evil, as much as the next guy anyway, but Allen has a point: the thing just killed a crew member. Maybe restraining her or locking her in the supply closet is not a bad idea. And Anders himself realizes this soon enough when he becomes the next victim.

Laura and Allen find her feeding on his dead body and in a brief conflict the alien receives some scratches on her shoulder which prove to be fatal for her as she bleeds to death. Secreting green blood all over the space ship floor. The films concludes with Laura and Allen finding batches of disgusting, pulsating eggs all over the ship but there is no time to destroy them as eager an excited Farraday comes aboard to gather the eggs and alien body and take them all back to earth, where we can only guess what will happen next.

The film achieves an atmospheric quality not too common to American science fiction films of the period and the end is result is all the more interesting since the film was, as stated, patched together using footage from two Soviet films. It should be noted here that the year before Harrington had worked with Corman and AIP on another film using footage from yet another Russian made film (one I actually have here in undubbed or subtitled Russian) called Planeta Bur. The AIP film was called Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and starred Basil Rathbone as well as the space center commander who watched from the control room as the Russian actors speak dubbed English on the surface of Venus. Sadly I have never been able to finish the Russian film due to the fact I get bored watching a film where I cannot understand the dialog or plot, but it is a nice looking movie and I would definitely like to see more Russian sci-fi from the 1960’s. I guess these patchwork AIP films are as good a place to start as any until some high quality prints are subbed into English someday. -