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Steve Norton: Debris and Beyond

By Published: April 27, 2010
AAJ: Did you play rhythms when you were doing the pots and pans, or did you just bang on them randomly?

SN: There were rhythms, we would sort of get into grooves, but it was—it shifted. It shifted a lot. At that point I don't think I'd actually heard any free improv, I wasn't aware of Derek Bailey

Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
1932 - 2005
or Evan Parker
Evan Parker
Evan Parker
sax, tenor
. A year or two later I stumbled upon a copy of one of the Evan Parker/John Stevens
John Stevens
The Longest Night discs (Ogun)—I found one in a used record store in Cambridge. That was unusual. I think at the time I bought it, it was a little more than I was ready for. But at the same time, I was also getting interested in classical music. I was taking music theory classes in high school. My high school had a really good music theory program. In two years we got through the whole Walter Piston harmony book.

Duck That, from left: Steve Norton, Josh Jefferson, Angela Sawyer

AAJ: I know that Dolphy's two favorite composers were Webern and Debussy, so there's the twelve-tone again.

SN: When I was at Berklee, I was a composition major, and I took a class with Greg Fritze, who's a tubaist, and he's now the head of the comp department—but he introduced me to Webern, and I was just totally smitten. And Berklee was an interesting place to study composition. I don't know how aware you are of the academic controversies of the '50s and '60s, but the controversies are still being played out. Basically the serial avant-garde took over the big writing academies, like Julliard and Columbia and Princeton, and things—to read about it things became very dogmatic: you can't write this way, you have to write that way. By the time I got to music school, I think that stuff had largely played itself out.

And at Berklee, traditional composition was an afterthought. I think there were twelve students in the major. I think I hit it at its nadir. Not a lot of people were paying attention to it. There was nothing dogmatic about it. I took a class on the Beethoven quartets, on Bartok, and on Sibelius. You can't get any less academic and dogmatic than Sibelius...But when I stumbled across the Webern I was just smitten, and he's still one of my favorite composers.

AAJ: Webern would have been a favorite of these dogmatic types.

SN: Absolutely would have. Webern begat Boulez, and Boulez is—

AAJ: The old curmudgeon.

SN: The guy, the guy with the big hammer! Le marteau. So, basically it all kind of got blamed on Webern but I think that's a wrongheaded way of looking at it. It wasn't Webern's fault, it was the academics that seized upon what they thought was the truth. I was just doing it because it was something that worked for me. I sort of took to twelve-tone writing very naturally. It made me very happy. I just liked it. I found it a very enjoyable way to work.

AAJ: I think we should discuss Debris more, because that's your most well known project.

SN: Sure. Let's see. What do you say about Debris? It was—

AAJ: Difficult, exuberating, grating—

SN: More music that nobody likes [laughs]. You, know, one of the things that strikes me about the entire experience, is the constant experience of people coming up to you afterwards, and sort of look at you quizzically, and say, "I really liked it, but I don't think I understood it." It made me think a lot. It's a topic I've been thinking about most of my musical life, and it's like, "What does it mean to understand music?" And I think there's this whole, furrowed brow, "it's all very technical" and you have to understand. It's like, "Really? There's nothing to understand. It's just sound."

AAJ: That's what Greg Kelley

Greg Kelley
Greg Kelley

was saying when I interviewed him. He wants to leave a door open for the listener to find his own meaning in the music.

SN: That's the only meaning that exists. Right? The only meaning that exists in music is the meaning between the listener's ear. And that meaning's informed by their culture and their upbringing, and all the music they've listened to before that, but there's no code, there's no secret message in there. Just because you don't know where the tone row is, that's no more important than knowing that this folk song ended on a 5 chord.

AAJ: Anything more about Debris?

SN: I think we just went tangential on one of my favorite topics. I think one of my favorite topics is, the way music is constructed in our culture, and the way people are sort of taught— there's specific roles, there's musicians, then there's mere mortals, that sort of thing, so to a degree it's kind of a priesthood. Like you can't really talk about music unless you've developed a type of jargon, otherwise your opinions aren't any good. There's this whole, "Do you understand music, or not," and if not, you shouldn't talk about it. And we're also taught to construct our opinions as facts. "This is great music"—it's not great music, it's music that a lot of people agree that they really like. So we're steered strongly away from our own subjectivity. And we're taught that subjectivity is not valuable, it's mere opinions. In fact, art is completely constructed in the subject. And that's all we've got, and we ought to learn to take our subjectivity seriously.

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