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Gino Robair has just released a CD version of his opera I, Norton, a significant work that merges the idea of opera (heroic musical theatre) with processes of improvisation. Call it an “impropera,” perhaps, for it approaches the most hieratic of musical forms in ways that often challenge the notion of hierarchy, in other ways playing with notions of authorship and authority. It’s both an opera and what Robair calls a “kit,” a methodology and collection of materials for assembling a work with varying numbers of participants, instruments and very different scales of time and space. While the CD (Rastascan BRD 063) may be just one stop along the way in the history of the mercurial work, it’s an important stage and an opportunity to look at one of the more engaging on-going projects in contemporary improvised music. Video footage of rehearsals and performances is also available at YouTube and Robair has constructed a Web-site devoted to the piece (www.ginorobair.com/inorton).
As a long-running process for Robair, I Norton is an elastic work with a fascinating subject at its core. The overture to the new release was recorded in 2003, and his copyright notice on the pieces on the CD runs from 1983-2009. So the form has stretched to embrace work from the length of Robair’s career. Meanwhile, its subject is the most American of aristocrats, the Californian Joshua Norton who in 1859 modestly declared himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”
The recorded version is based around Norton’s death and his recall of scenes from his life. In that journey there are links to the ritual underpinnings of opera and its beginnings in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Its strongest links however, may be to American radical operas like Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts or their more overtly political The Mother of Us All, about Susan B. Anthony. I, Norton (the title comically echoes I, Claudius by Robert Graves) is also related to works like John Cage’s acrostic trips through Finnegans Wake and Walden, and it picks up on radical threads in San Francisco politics and culture that stretch back before the Beats and Jack London’s socialism to the Clampers, an organization both fraternal and egalitarian that thrived among miners in the middle of the 19th century. One portion of the CD is called “The Hall of Comparative Ovations,” the name Clampers applied with inflating humor to their meeting places, usually the backroom of a saloon.
A recent performance of the work in Toronto at Somewhere There with 18 musicians and singers of the Association of Improvising Musicians, Toronto (AIMToronto) demonstrated just how open the form of the piece is. Arriving an hour into a rehearsal to watch and listen to the process before talking to Robair, I found the musicians already packing up their instruments.
Talking about the piece later, saxophonist Kyle Brenders was surprised at how fast the work came together: “What I found interesting was how quickly the ensemble was performing the music. The rehearsal moved very easily from figuring out the notations and hand signals to the actual act of creating a performance of the piece.”
Brenders also emphasized the work’s openness: “I think the first thing to say is that the work is so completely developed yet free to interpretation, so it makes it quite an experience to play. Gino provides a clear set of materials ranging from hand signals, rhythmic material, traditional notation and graphic notation that provide timing information yet do not state anything else. It's obvious when you’re first looking at the materials spread out on your music stand that there is a piece of music that has been developed and is incredibly thought out, yet you don't know what the final product will actually sound like. There are particular sections that will always act/sound the same way yet how these sections are ordered and layered is decided in performance.”
One senses something almost inevitable about the processes that Robair has developed. Brenders continues, “What immediately binds the music together in both performance and rehearsal is Gino's command and understanding of the material. The music seemed to have a direction to it no matter what was occurring in the ensemble. The particular players’ musical choices are guided by the materials (and conducting of them) to allow for both the individual’s voice to be heard and the identity of the composition. You understand that you are able to play what you want to play, but at the same time you are always aware of the larger structure of the composition that you are a part of.”
For trombonist Scott Thomson, curator of Somewhere There and another key member of the AIMToronto Orchestra, what distinguishes the piece is Gino himself: “With Gino as the sole conductor, the piece is very much about his priorities for both form and content. Gino is a wonderful improviser, of course, and one who, to my ears, loves timbral extremes and dramatic shifts from moment to moment. He also has a wonderful knack for creating interesting and satisfying ‘narrative-like’ forms with beginnings, middles and endings. These skills and preferences are equally apparent in his percussion-playing and when he’s conducting I, Norton.”
SB: Have you had early life exposure to opera, or a long standing interest in the form?
GR: Yes, but my earliest exposure was via pop culture references in Warner Bros. cartoons. In high school and college, I played the material in arrangement form before, finally, having a chance to play a few classic operas in the pit, including summer-stock tours with opera workshops. Later, I attended a performance of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht, and performed in Braxton’s Trillium R, both of which were inspiring on many levels.
SB: What first elicited your interest in creating an opera like I, Norton?
GR: I wanted to create a large-scale work that explored and combined various approaches to group improvisation, including the use of hand cues and graphic scores. But I also wanted it to be thematic in some way.
I’m fascinated by the dynamic between notation and how it’s used to generate music, and much of my early ensemble work, especially with the Splatter Trio, explored ideas such as 1) getting the most mileage from as little score material as possible, and 2) pushing the limits of notation to force musicians out of their comfort zone in hopes that they’ll play beyond their own expectations.
What I didn’t expect was that I, Norton would become an open-ended project: a perpetual work-in-progress. But at this point, I don’t see any reason to close the book on the score, so to speak. I keep getting ideas that relate to the story and the compositional approach, so I decided a few years ago to allow myself to continually add to it.
And each performance teaches me something new about the piece or about group interaction, which leads to new pieces and occasional revisions. For example, after a few years of working solely with strategies and graphic scores, I introduced some traditionally notated elements, because it increases the tension when, suddenly, there is a mass, unified statement within the complex web of collaged sound. It also allows me to integrate non-improvising musicians within a largely improvised framework.
The ultimate goal is to present I, Norton in a traditional opera environment, with a full orchestra, actors, staging, and ample rehearsal time to familiarize the participants enough with the score that it becomes second nature. But I also like doing small-scale, site-specific guerrilla performances, such as the one in the Chapel of the Chimes cemetery in Oakland. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRWEd9XI_ds)
SB: I noticed that the overture was recorded in 2003. How long have you been working on this?
GR: The impetus to do a piece about Emperor Norton started in the late ‘80s, when I first read about him. But I began working on the structural elements in the early ‘90s, when I was experimenting with different ways to embed a text into music. “The Hall of Comparative Ovations” was recorded around that time, and the piece translates text into music in a variety of ways, such as using a pitch/rhythm matrix corresponding to letters and words. I liked the dreaminess of the recording enough to put it on the CD, but the scores have long since been revised and updated.
SB: Were you conscious of the relationships between musical and social and political processes as you developed the opera, even the extent to which this is opera as participational democracy? I’m thinking about issues of authority, both as authorship and the position of the conductor in 19th century music. I often come back to Elias Canetti’s description of the conductor: “The conductor alone decides what the law is and summarily punishes any breach of it.”
In keeping with that, it seems to me that Norton is a kind of benevolent despot and the best kind, since he's absurd. That image of absurd authority in politics seems to me to be a complement to some of the anarchism implicit in improvisation, and participants in a musical realization choosing their own parts, including texts and notated compositions.
GR: Yeah, I’ve been aware throughout the process of the resonances between authority and hierarchy, both in the musical sense and in the political sense. It’s very interesting that you’d use the word “absurd,” because I believe Norton considered what he was doing to be the only rational course of action possible in a country that was somewhat out of control. As a Jewish South African emigrant, I suspect he had a different world view than a lot of the business people he encountered in San Francisco, many of whom were from the East Coast. He found the rampant vigilante-style of justice distasteful, and he certainly felt that the democratic system wasn’t effective at the street level. Believing that he, himself, was of noble birth, I think the only alternative was to fulfill his destiny and take control.
It has been really interesting for me to develop the piece during the Bush years, because many people felt the opera resonated with how George Bush abused his position and acted as a monarch. However, there aren’t any intended parallels between the contemporary political situation in the U.S. and that of the Emperor in this piece.
But getting back to your question, the original intention of the opera was to provide a vehicle for a group of artists—musicians, dancers, actors, videographers, etc.—to work together with as much or as little preparation as they have. It doesn’t need the figure of a conductor as benign dictator. An ensemble can stage the opera without a conductor, and I’m very interested in seeing how people realize the score when I’m not involved. This is simply a kit to be used for collaboration. And it’s really only one step away from free improvisation in many cases.
SB: How do you integrate actors, set designers into the piece?
GR: It varies, depending on the situation. So far, each performance has differed greatly in terms of the type of venue, the number of players, the instrumentation, and the amount of rehearsal time, just to name a few of the variables. If we only have a short amount of rehearsal, I keep things reined in a bit, because the number of options can be overwhelming at first.
Consequently, the actors and singers are instructed to respond to cues from the conductor, just like the rest of the ensemble. However, in a few recent performances-- St. Louis, San Francisco, and Toronto--I’ve let the Emperor decide when and where he goes and what he does. In these cases he acts as a trigger for events. I can react in any number of strategic ways to what the Emperor is doing at any given time, such as support him, work in opposition, or ignore him.
SB: How do you organize the temporal patterns between the opera’s events?
GR: I wouldn’t use the word “patterns,” because to me that implies some sort of predetermined structure for the timing of events and sections. In the larger scheme of things, the performance practice I prefer keeps that aspect of the realization open. It’s entirely up to the conductor, as well as the performers, when they cue each other.
When I conduct the piece, I let my ear and preferences guide which sections appear, the order in which they appear, how they are layered on one another, and how often things change. It’s very important to me that the improvisers develop something when they are playing. For instance, if I select two players for a duet, I want to experience something other than parallel play although I can set that up, too. If there’s a pair of instruments or players that I think will do something unusual, I’ll give that a try. Later, I might decide I want to hear an opposition strategy, so I would cue a contrasting piece against the duo, then add a soloist on top of that. What happens next depends on what’s going on, how I feel about it, how quickly the musicians are developing the material, and any number of other things. And yes, it’s totally subjective on the conductor’s part, when there is a conductor.
But the musicians are also allowed to give cues, so they can just as easily thwart what I have set up. That’s a concept I borrowed from John Zorn’s Cobra, where the musicians can form guerrilla squads and try to usurp control of the piece from the conductor. However, unlike Zorn’s musical approach with that piece, I’m not looking for quick-change genre-mashing or imitating a Carl Stalling score. I, Norton is about long form interaction, development, timbre, and collaging disparate elements.
SB: Are these events notated? Or verbal elements in the libretto?
GR: Notated in a variety of ways, depending on the results I want to hear during a performance. The libretto is embedded in much of the score, so that it appears even when there are no singers and actors present. The texts are from the Emperor’s decrees published in local newspapers, as well as false decrees published in competing newspapers and a few personal letters.
SB: What scale has the piece reached—the most participants? The fewest?
GR: The biggest group was 45 players, for my 40th birthday (a portion of which begins the CD). The smallest was four—a reduced version I created for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. (http://www.rova.org/projects/album.aspx?id=69) I prefer to work with at least 12 to 15 performers, because it’s the minimum number of participants where I can set up multiple, independent groupings within a collage structure.
SB: Would you explain some of the visuals in the liner booklet. What is the diagram on the inside front cover—is it a structural chronology of the piece?
GR: That’s one of the graphic scores—in this case, an octet. It is read left to right, and the horizontal lines—one for each player—indicate an event or activity (not necessarily a long sound, as you might expect, but any musical event). The vertical lines indicate synchronous beginnings and endings of the events between the various players. The page can be read upside down (although each player in the group interprets the page in the same orientation) and realized in any length of time.
There are graphic scores for one to ten musicians, or groups of musicians. For example, this chart can also be interpreted as an 8-voice piece, where each line is played by a different section of the orchestra (such as winds, brass, strings, and percussion).
The graphic scores are one example of a section that has predetermined elements: During rehearsal, we decide who plays which line. One thing I like to do is have the same score—a quartet, for example—played by two different ensembles. Depending on how fast the page is played, the listener might be able to identify the fact that both quartets are playing the same score, but that’s usually unlikely to happen.
SB: What are the compositional methods used in some of the composed elements?
GR: The initial impetus was to differentiate on a global scale between short and long events, and I used Morse code as a convenient and intuitive way to get the point across to the performers. (Remember that this was designed to be interpreted by non-musicians as well, and the dots-and-dashes approach is familiar to just about everyone.) Consequently, I can embed the text of a decree into the score using a one-to-one correlation of letter to code-cell, and the result is a page of rhythmic material that anyone can interpret.
In “Proclamation,” the players travel around the page and play any rhythmic cell they want, as you would in a Christian Wolff or Earl Browne graphic score. However, my hope is that the musicians do so with intent and with a global ear, rather than just absent-mindedly playing without listening to the overall sound of the ensemble. It’s this kind of ensemble awareness that I find interesting in gamelan music, where each musician is acutely aware of how their part fits into the overall sound. That’s a skill that is often overlooked in Western music education, where more focus is placed on individual skills rather than ensemble playing.
In addition to reducing events to short and long periods of time (however that is interpreted), I put together a sheet of strategies that includes hand cues to trigger improvisational ideas, and some concept pieces. For example, I integrated an additive structure I used to call “Counting Song,” which appears on my duet CD with Braxton [Duets 1987, Music & Arts CD-1026, available in download form from Rastascan] and on some Spatter Trio recordings. The musician picks a number and a tempo, additively creates a sequence of events up to the chosen number, and then repeats and develops the idea. If you’re working with pitches and chose the number five, you could play A, A-B, A-B-G#, A-B-G#-C, A-B-G#-C-C#, then start again. It could also be a series of phrases or noises that are added up. When you get a handful of people doing this, each with a different number and tempo, you get a rich musical fabric that someone can solo over or use as a foundation for a musical statement.
After a performance, I often come away with a new hand cue or structure, because I encounter an improvisational situation that I wasn’t prepared for and have to deal with. So I add it to the score. As a composer, I find the continued discovery to be very satisfying.
SB: I recognized the Morse code alphabet in one of the charts, but I’m not sure what the 64 phonetic syllables in boxes are? How are they used?
GR: This is the solo aria for Miss Minnie Wakeman, the teenage love-interest of the Emperor. The singer combines a phoneme and a rhythmic cell and repeats it quickly, then picks a new pair and repeats it quickly. The intention was to create a live version of the stuttering trick that computer musicians use with short samples. The mise en scène is that Miss Wakeman [sung by Aurora Josephson on the recording] is reading the love letter the elderly Emperor has sent, indicating that he wishes to make her his Empress.
SB: What was the nature of your earliest works that you incorporated? I notice you copyright it back to 1983?
GR: The graphic scores date back to a set of pieces I wrote in ’83 for the New Music Ensemble at the University of Redlands. At that time, I needed a way to control and synchronize live performers as you would in the studio by splicing tape or by automating a mix. Stripping the approach down to horizontal and vertical lines worked very well. When you first look at it, it seems like no big deal. But when you dig into it with a group of musicians, it can be liberating because of the push-pull of having a certain amount of freedom but within a marginally controlled environment.
But again, when I rehearse the piece, I stress that people play the event with intention, listening and responding to what’s going on around them. The uninteresting interpretations are the ones where the musicians are playing on auto-pilot. The more you work with this idea, with all of the scores, the more exciting the piece becomes, and the more the musicians realize that they have control over the opera: it’s not just the conductor’s or composer’s music—the music belongs to the ensemble.
SB: Are there any instrumental requirements for a performance? Methodology?
GR: There is no set instrumentation for the majority of the piece. In the last year or so, I’ve augmented the score with notated pieces for solo voice, prepared piano, and voice/percussion. I’m also writing a set of orchestral sections, because I want to be able to combine a traditionally scored ensemble with a group of improvisers, but without determining the order in which the sections occur: that would still happen during the course of the performance. To make this work the way I’d like, each musician would have an electronic score on their stand, so that I could upload the next section to the screen and avoid the sound of 60 musicians shuffling through pages. A lot of composers I know are waiting for this technology to become affordable, so we can take large ensemble scoring to the next level.
The names of the sections on the CD don’t relate to the scores used to create the music. Often, there is more than one piece or strategy happening at a time, with the relationships in continual flux. So I came up with names that drew on the texts as well as related historical themes, such as E. Clampus Vitus.
To really understand what Norton was up against, you have to examine the Gold Rush era of northern California, with its greed-driven, wild-west mentality and its collection of odd individuals and groups such as the informal organization known as the Clampers. Against this backdrop, Emperor Norton seems quite reserved.
SB: Have you been consciously influenced by works like the Thomson/ Stein Mother of Us All or Cage’s acrostic pieces on the Joyce and Thoreau writings?
GR: Not in this work. The biggest influences were the operas of Robert Ashley, John Cage, Anthony Braxton, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and most importantly IRMA, the opera Tom Phillips created from his lovely work, A Humument. [http://humument.com] The approach to storytelling in Indonesian wayang kulit shadow puppetry was another big influence, as well as the Chinese opera tradition and the graphic scores of Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff. I also found inspiration in the use of hand cues for improvisation from Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Butch Morris, and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. And, of course, I love the absurdity found in the Dada and Fluxus movements.
SB: When you have the speaker writing/rehearsing the Norton speech, are the repetitions and fragments improvised or written?
GR: Completely improvised. The actor playing the emperor memorizes the speeches and approaches the text in real time as William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin would approach their cut-up work with tape. The actor is encouraged to break words down to the syllables, play with syntax and meaning, and take it as far as possible away from linearity. I’m hoping for a dreamlike quality, where suddenly a new meaning pops out from a simple rearrangement of the words, which happened a number of times in the making of the CD. Remember that all of the opera’s action takes place in the Emperor’s mind as he lay dying and his life is passing before his eyes. I imagined that he didn’t re-live the events of his life in its original sequence.