Steve Norton: Debris and Beyond

Gordon Marshall By

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AAJ: I feel that recently you have pushed your instruments harder.

SN: I would have to agree. At a recent performance [at Weirdo Records in Cambrige] with [drummer] Curt Newton, one of my goals was, how do I get my clarinet to sound like a duo between Evan Parker and John Stevens.

AAJ: On one instrument?

SN: No, because I'm playing with Curt.

AAJ: But you had the percussive elements, so you were doing a kind of one-man-band thing.

SN: Right. Very percussive. I've been doing this flutter-tongue thing on the clarinet that's very aggressive and percussive sounding. Basically I feel like I'm just finally getting around on clarinet. I didn't study clarinet in school, I studied saxophone. They have a lot of similarities, a lot of differences. And I felt for the longest time that the clarinet was playing me. And I feel like I've finally got to the point where I'm playing it. So I feel like I'm getting to new places on it, and that's really rewarding...I think you saw the impromptu duo with Katt Hernandez?

AAJ: Now I remember you playing , but I was too tired to conceptualize it.

SN: I'd never improvised with Katt, it was the very last minute that I said, "I'm just playing clarinet." I'm honestly not deeply familiar with her playing. But when that was over, I was really thrilled. I just felt like we meshed incredibly tightly and we were able to follow the same energy, very very closely. And it was another place where—it wasn't a breakthrough on the instrument, but an affirmation, where I've gotten to a place where I can do what I need to do with it.

AAJ: How about you and Ras Moshe, at XFest 2010 [in Lowell, Mass.]?

SN: Ha! Ras Moshe...That was the funniest thing, man. As an experience, it was rather uncomfortable.

AAJ: Really.

SN: That's all between my ears, in my head. That was a matter of trying to find a place where I could do something meaningful in that context, because it was basically two guys playing free jazz. And especially early on, when we were playing flute and clarinet things worked pretty well, but then he switched to tenor and the guy has a frickin' enormous, beautiful tenor sound, and I just started putting down these loudish pedal points on the clarinet.

AAJ: You were very successful, I thought.

SN: I sat down and Katt was like, "That was awesome!" And that's not what I thought! But I've listened to the recording, and the clarinet's hard to hear with the tenor on; but then I switched to soprano, which in the context felt a lot more comfortable. Just because sonically I was able to be heard...The thing ended up in this crazy blowout, which was a ball...I stayed on clarinet pretty much until there was nothing else I could do, and then I picked up soprano about halfway through.

The piece was about 20 minutes long. Then I felt like I was able to do things that you could hear, and that worked, kind of in contrast to what he was doing. There was a nice section where there were these long soprano notes, with the crazy free-jazz John Coltrane-ish tenor thing going. And then at the end I started doing sort of my own version of that. I don't play that kind of thing, it's nothing I've ever worked at, but I started playing a lot more frenetically, and it gets pretty over the top, and it comes to some conclusion— and the crowd seemed to love it.

AAJ: It was the highlight of the show.

SN: I've heard that from more than one person.

AAJ: There's a listening/not listening theme going on throughout your career.

SN: Early on I got interested in layering, especially with improv, because you can do that sort of thing fairly easily. With written music it's much more difficult and it takes someone like Elliott Carter to construct the kind of composed layers that are still performable as written music.

When we had guest people joining Debris, Arthor Weinstein would say to me, "All right, Steve, go give him the talk!" And I would talk with whoever was sitting in with us and basically explain that, "We're going to do a lot of improvising, so let's work together; but let's not always work together. I like to hear disparate voices sounding together in the same space."

I hadn't really codified it in my mind until I'd heard the second Carter string quartet. It's for four solo string players, all working with different vocabularies, but somehow, in the listener's ear, all getting unified. And it's pretty difficult to play that kind of music. It takes performers of a pretty high caliber. So you don't get to hear things like that a lot. But when I stumbled across that I listened to it over and over again, and it clarified a lot of the things that I had been looking for. So yeah, it's definitely a theme.

Especially when you're improvising, theoretically you have infinite choices, so a common approach is to play along with the people you're playing with: "Someone's doing this. I'm going to do something within that space, so it's rhythmically similar, or texturally similar, or timbrally similar, or it's in the same sort of pitch area." But another choice, is to do something that completely contrasts, with whatever else is going on. That's always an available choice. It's fairly common to hear people improvising all playing along together. It's far less common to hear very contrasting, very disparate voices in ensemble. It's not something you typically hear, and it's something I'm very interested in.

It's actually one of Dave's requests of the players in Grizzler. It's not quite that pointed; he doesn't say, "Please contrast strongly all the time," but he does say that what he's most interested in is individual statements. So, when you're improvising make sure your statement is full, complete and it's individual. And it's hard to do all the time, but it's definitely a goal. And what Dave is really interested in is, A: not having everybody play all the time, because then you have this monolithic density, and it gets boring; and B: try to make a full, complete statement by yourself. And you're taking into account your environment. So, be aware of your environment, but make a statement that's whole and complete and individual.

Selected Discography

Grizzle [Dave Gross]/Jefferson/Norton, 3 X 3 altos (Means of Production, 2010)
Duck That, Highly Qualified (Means of Production, 2010)
Katt Hernandez/Steve Norton, Modern Antique (Means of Production, 2010)
Metal & Glass Ensemble, Concert at Church of the Advent, June 2009 (Half Round Records, 2009)
Norton/Plsek/Robair Trio, Firehouse Futurities (Rastascan, 1999)
Joe Morris' Racket Club, Rumble Strip (About Time, 1999)
Various, Autumn Uprising (Tautology, 1998)
Great Circle Saxophone Quartet, Child King Dictator Fool (New World, 1997)
Debris, Errata (Eight Day Music. 1997)
Debris, Rapture in the Church of Disreputable Daydreams (Music & Arts, 1996)
Either/Orchestra, Across the Omniverse (Accurate, 1996)
Splatter Trio & Debris, Jump Or Die (21 Anthony Braxton Compositions 1992) (Music & Arts, 1995)
Various, YEARBOOK, vols. 1-3 (Rastascan, 1993)
Debris, Terre Haute (Rastascan, 1993)
Either/Orchestra, Radium (Accurate, 1988)
Either/Orchestra, Dial "E" (Accurate, 1987)

Photo Credit

Page 1: Justin Snow

All other photos: Courtesy of Steve Norton

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