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Steve Norton: Debris and Beyond

By Published: April 27, 2010
AAJ: There's a time-capsule mentality. If you had ten people to put in a time capsule, who would they be—and of course, Beethoven...

SN: Yeah, because that's "great." And it's only great because enough people have decided to agree that they would say it's great...There's a lot of skill involved, there's also a lot of, completely intangible something involved, and because you can't quantify that you don't really want to talk about it. Instead of accepting that there's this strong subjectivity—I think people are afraid of that. It's warped the way people think of art in general.

Tips, from left: Matt Samolis, Noell Dorsey, Steve Norton

AAJ: Can it be otherwise?

SN: Well, I think it is otherwise in other cultures. The art object as saleable investment is not solvable inside of capitalism. I think it's confused, but I'm not sure what can be done about it. It would be nice to see some sort of aesthetic education in the educational system, but of course the educational system is busy turning out employees. So it's not going to get solved there. It seems to be that only the people that think really hard about this stuff ever get anywhere near it. John Cage notwithstanding.

I think John Cage did an enormous amount to get people thinking about art as something other than this syndrome I've been describing. He basically wanted to stop people from thinking of art as objects. He said, "I'm not making objects, I'm building processes. I want the music to be very plainly the product of a process..."Improv is that way to a degree, I think some more and some less, but it's very process-y, it's ephemeral, it hopefully makes people think about the moment, rather than investing in the future.

AAJ: So you are touching back on Debris, in the way that, you see it as a process, maybe?

SN: Sort of, yeah. Particularly because we were composing I think it was only partially there, but what the focus of the group was, was getting the balance between the composed and the improvised and trying to literally make it balance out, so that each part had equal weight. On many occasions I kept trying to get the band to improvise freely, and we would do it occasionally, but for the most part I think the band was at its strongest when it was focused on the whole composition and improvisation at the same time.

AAJ: How did the improvisation relate to the composition?

SN: in various ways. With some of the twelve-tone pieces we would actually put up the matrix that contained the whole pitch set for the piece, and use it to improvise. A matrix is a grid, of twelve notes by twelve notes, it's just a row and we just used letters. You have the prime row, straight across the top, and you would take, starting on the first note you would take the inversion of the prime row, and spell that down; so that's a series of notes in the column, going down...With each note in that row going down, you would start a transposition of the prime row going across.

So you basically have the prime row, in twelve keys, the inverted row in twelve keys, and then if you read the prime row backwards, you'd have the retrograde prime row, and if you read that up and down you'd have that in all twelve keys. And you do the same for the inverted row, you read it backwards and you get the inversion in all twelve keys. So you have this box of 144 notes, and they go in a certain order. And those are basically all the available inversions and transpositions of the row you selected to base your piece on. This is sort of standard Schoenbergian twelve-tone writing.

AAJ: So that's what you would base your improvisations on?

SN: Yeah, so instead of putting up the chart with the melody and the changes, we would put up the matrix for the piece we were working on. And we didn't do that all the time, but we did it for a bunch of pieces, and that was a fairly standard approach. So it went from that sort of attempt to lock the improvisation into the composition, to freer use of motives, to completely just free associating.

AAJ: What about funk and rock and elements?

SN: Rhythmically, the band was more comfortable there than in jazz. Because the background of the players was there. We were a bunch of suburban white kids. Rock and roll was in our blood from the beginning. I think that's how we arrived there. It wasn't really all that conscious, it's just that when we were writing that's pretty much what came out.

When I first joined Debris I was actually in Either/Orchestra


AAJ: With Russ Gershon

Russ Gershon
Russ Gershon
sax, tenor

SN: Yeah. That was the first playing-out band I had ever played in. I was Russ' first recruit. He figured, once he found a baritone player the rest would be easy. I was with the group for about a year and a half, almost two years. I'm on the first record, and I think I'm on a little bit of the second record. But I left—it was fairly mutual—he had found Charlie Kohlhase

Charlie Kohlhase
Charlie Kohlhase
sax, baritone
, who was a far better fit. He needed more jazz soloists. I was not a jazz soloist. I could play the instrument, I could play the charts—I was never a great jazz soloist. The whole blowing-over-changes thing did not—it wasn't in my gut. I sort of tried half-heartedly to do it while I was at school, but it just wasn't how I wanted to play. Which is good, because then I would be very sad!

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