Steve Norton: Debris and Beyond

Gordon Marshall By

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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?

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, 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!

AAJ: I'm trying to remember when I first met you. Was it a year or two ago?

SN: Was it Grizzler?

AAJ: Yeah. It was a Grizzler show. You were throwing the reeds on the ground!

SN: I had been doing that since Debris. We had some gigs up in Bennington, VT, which had this art gallery. It was an old mill building, beautiful hardwood floors, and when you drop stuff it really sounds great. There was some really expansive improv going on, and I inadvertently dropped some reeds on the ground, and I thought, "That sounds great..." And in that same building I also found some duck calls, and that's also something I've been doing for a while.

AAJ: Was it Dave Gross who brought you back into the music, after your hiatus?

SN: I had pretty much played at one gig a year, from 2001 to 2007. I played with Matt Samolis more than anyone else during that period. Matt and I did a lot of photography together, in the early 2000s. But occasionally we would play as well. In March/April 2008 he asked me to do some Metal and Glass Ensemble shows.

It was very drone-y. Matt has a steel cello. There's a steel bracket with a big sheet of stainless, across the front that's a resonator, and there are cymbals, big ride cymbals, and these long, steel rods, bolted to the bracket, and he uses these big, heavy bows that he builds, and you bow the thing, and it creates this roar, that's just amazing sounding. And he's been working on that for 15-17 years.

In the mid-2000s he started building an ensemble around that. The other component were these sets of tuned wine glasses, where they're tuned to a set of justly tuned intervals, and there's several of these. It's like a terraced set of plywood with the glasses nepoxied on to them, and they're big, with thirty glasses on the thing. So there's a couple of people playing glasses, a couple playing bowed metal, and there's people playing instruments that can drone, basically.

I joined that playing bass clarinet, working out the long tones, the circular breathing, just coming in and playing the same note for seven minutes, and that really appealed to me. It was something I wanted to get better at...The instruction to the instrumentalists, is "Join in a subtle fashion, don't crash in," and basically the goal is to make a large, group voice. So you sneak in quietly with your entrances and you get your pitches from the glass or from the metal. And you just make this big sound. And once in a great while someone will step forward and do something melodic and soloistic, and generally you then recede back into the ensemble voice.

AAJ: Is it anything like gamelon music?

SN: Except that it's absolutely not rhythmic. The intent is that it's very much a sustained sound. There's a couple of percussionist who've done gigs with us, but the goal with the percussionists is not to do rhythmic or time-based or tempo. He'll sort of roll on a gong. It's all about swell and this sort of single-ensemble voice.

So that's where I stared playing, so I had done three or four gigs with that group in 2008, and then one day in September Dave Gross sent me an e-mail saying, "I'm putting together another improvising large ensemble and I want you to play bass clarinet and baritone. Are you in." And I was just like, "Yup, gonna do it." And one thing has led to another. At the very first gig, that is where I met Joshua Jefferson. And I had talked to Angela Sawyer before, but I'd never played with her before. And when I got there, I had brought my baritone, and my bass clarinet. And I had brought my bag of game calls, but I didn't pull it out because I didn't think I'd use it. But then Josh opens up his case, and he's got a couple game calls in there. Angela opens the big pink suitcase and she's got a boatload of game calls in there! And I was like, "Wait a minute!" And I went and got my case and I opened it up and we're like, "We should do a trio." And it was a couple of weeks after the first Grizzler gig that Duck That was born, and that band is just so much fun.

AAJ: The blending of the serious and the comic is very fine.

SN: Right. And you've really hit the nail on the head. Our mission statement is, "Bringing funny sounds to serious improv."

AAJ: And I really admire Angela, without having any serious musical training, just by being a listener...

SN: She's a fantastic listener, she's incredibly smart, and she's a great improviser. And another thing I've been thinking about a lot is that improvisation isn't necessarily an instrumental skill...Angela and I back in January played a house concert in Allston. And this guy from the West Coast does this bizarre, synth-dance-disco stuff, solo, but he had this transvestite dancing with him. And I tell you, the transvestite was the best improviser in the building!

AAJ: Dancing?

SN: Just dancing. Loud, electronic disco-y stuff, a strobe light making you have a seizure—and this guy, all sort of dressed up in drag—

AAJ: Well, would you call him "he," or "she"?

SN: Nathan Willet was the keyboard player, and he kept referring to her as "the bitch on wheels." So, "she"—fine. High heels, little sequins silver dress, doing disco cage dancing stuff. Then, there's a ladder over here, "I'm going to get the ladder." Gets the ladder. Climbs up the ladder doing all this crazy stuff, under the low ceiling. Puts the ladder back. There's a door. Picks up the door and does all this crazy shit with the door. Best improviser in the house...Improvisation is something you can apply to almost anything.

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