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Let’s ask Gino Robair

The San Francisco Electronic Music Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this week.  On the final festival night, Saturday, September 19th, the program will include a special all-electronic performance of the opera I, Norton, by San Francisco Bay Area composer Gino Robair.

I, Norton is based on the proclamations of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, who lived during the Gold Rush era in San Francisco. The concert begins at 8:00 p.m. at the Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets.

Gino RobairGino Robair has created music for dance, theater, gamelan orchestra, radio, and television. His works have been performed throughout North America, Europe, and Japan. He was composer in residence with the California Shakespeare Festival for five years and served as music director for the CBS animated series The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat. His commercial work includes themes for the MTV and Comedy Central cable networks. Robair is also one of the “25 innovative percussionists” included in the book Percussion Profiles (SoundWorld, 2001). He has recorded with Tom Waits, Anthony Braxton, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, John Butcher, Derek Bailey, Peter Kowald, Otomo Yoshihide, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and Eugene Chadbourne, among many others. He is a founding member of the Splatter Trio and the heavy metal band Pink Mountain. In addition, he runs Rastascan Records, a label devoted to creative music.

S21: His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, is an “only in San Francisco” kind of personage.  What inspired you to make him into the central character of an opera?

GR: He’s the kind of complex character one needs for an opera. And I like the fact that he’s mythologized somewhat.

Although many people see him as this incoherent, homeless vagrant, I think the reality is that he was bright man who was determined to make a difference in a world that was hostile, confusing, and often out of control. We’re talking about the Old West, here!

Remember, he was a Jewish immigrant from South Africa. Try to imagine the culture shock he experienced arriving in mid-19th-century California during the Gold Rush. It makes total sense to me that he’d conclude that the only way to solve the problems in his new environment was to roll up his shirt sleeves and do the job himself.

S21: How do non-San Franciscan performers and audiences respond to the opera’s subject matter?

GR: They enjoy it. There’s a bit of that “O, that’s so San Francisco” reaction. But during the Bush presidency, people could relate very well to a guy who declares himself emperor. In fact, European audiences related to that aspect of I, Norton a little too easily, because that’s how they saw our president at the time.

S21: Is there a “tradition” that I, Norton, as an improvised opera, fits into?

GR: I’m not sure if it fits into an improvised-opera tradition. I have only experienced one opera that’s improvised: Irma, by the English artist Tom Phillips [http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/essaysan/irmascor/index.html], which is based on his modified Victorian novel A Humament.

But I’m equally influenced by the Indonesian Wayang tradition of epic tales, where the story often flows in a dreamlike fashion. In that world, the dalang (puppeteer) can take the action in a lot of directions at any given point, so there’s an exciting openness to the form.

And the modular, collage structures Anthony Braxton builds in real-time with his work were influential. On the other hand, his operas, such as Trillium R (which I’ve performed), are clearly defined in notation and are squarely aligned with the classic operatic canon.

S21: The I, Norton score includes both traditional and graphic notation.  What are the intended sonic results that made you choose each notation?

GR: I, Norton is basically a book of structural elements, any of which can be used in performance. In it, there are a variety of open-ended notations beyond traditional and graphic notation, such as improv structures and hand cues. Each notational approach gives you a different sonic perspective and potential, and their identities become more defined when the different approaches overlap.

For example, when I conduct the piece, I like to set up an open-ended structure, where a number of instrumental groupings are playing simultaneously. Then I overlay a traditionally notated work on top. The result is the kind of lovely, ear-expanding sound that Ives was interested in. But it’s a living, breathing piece because the musicians are developing improvisational and semi-improvisational pieces in real time. And if you have mature improvisers in the group, they’ll be able to listen to what the other musicians and sub-ensembles are doing and enhance the overall sound of the piece in profound ways. Not just by playing with or against the other groups, but perhaps by developing something that simultaneously contrasts and compliments what’s happening on stage.

In the best performances, the elements are constantly shifting, the musical alliances constantly changing, and the structure ever evolving, but all in an organic way. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what music should be like in the 21st century. Not just reading notes from pieces of paper or computer screens, but creating music while being fully attuned to changes happening in the moment. And I’ve found that, with some practice, every musician or performing artist can do it and enjoy the process, whether they are classically trained or come from a rock, jazz, or noise background. And whether or not they have a background in improvisation. The key is openness and a willingness to watch and listen.

S21: Each performance of I, Norton that I’ve seen has featured you as conductor.  Have other conductors taken it on?  And if so, how did they do?

GR: It doesn’t even need a conductor: the performers can cue each other, play a notated section on its own, create an order for specific sections, etc. In fact, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet took it on tour and used the improv cues and graphic scores, with each member contributing to the direction of any given performance. On the other hand, Shoko Hikage took sections of it on the road in Japan with her koto quartet and played more of a structured version of the piece. Each one is equally valid as far as I’m concerned.

Other than the ROVA and Hikage versions, I haven’t seen any of the performances of the piece that I didn’t conduct—they’ve all taken place in other cities. But I look forward to the opportunity to see a production that I’m not involved in. I want this to be a living piece that invites radical interpretation.

S21: The aria “My Dear Miss Wakeman” presents a big technical and interpretive challenge for the leading lady.  What kind of soprano soloist successfully pulls it off?

GR: The most successful interpretations have been the ones where the singer performs the piece with abandon. The mise en scene is a teenager being courted by the Emperor. She’s reading one of his love letters and has a bit of a conniption.

In performance, the words from the letter are broken into their smallest parts, stuttered, rearranged, etc. The score is made up of two tables: a table of phonemes from the love letter, and a table of Morse-code-like rhythms. The singer combines a phoneme and a rhythm, chosen at will. She performs it, chooses another pair, sings it, and so forth. The result might sound something like “ff fffff ff, sh ssshhhhh sh ssshhhhh, ah ah ah ahhhhhh.”

The challenges it presents to the singer include being able to execute extremely quick changes in rhythmic vocal sounds, as well as being able to improvise using the two tables as source material.

S21: What do you look for in a leading man?  What constitutes a compelling portrayal of the Emperor?

GR: Despite the common perception that Norton was crazy, I want to see him portrayed as someone who is obsessed with the details of being an Emperor. He’s deeply concerned with the problems of the citizenry, and he tries as hard as he can to rectify them by taking charge. Who hasn’t had the feeling that they could fix a problem in the government, if everyone would just listen to my ideas?

But the main premise of the opera is that it’s all happening in the Emperor’s head: he has collapsed on the street during a rainy evening, and his life is passing before his eyes as he lay dying. Events and images mix together: proclamations, letters, meetings, and music jumble up and reconfigure into a potentially confusing story. However, each performance unveils a new narrative—a different perspective on past events.

In fact, I see each performance as a brief flash of rearranged memories that the Emperor is having in his dying moments. In other words, each performance is part of a greater whole, in the larger scheme of things.

For example, the recent performance at the Chapel of the Chimes was site specific, and dealt with a narrow set of texts. It was meant to portray him in his study working out various ideas and plans using a variety of objects he had on the table (which the musicians interpreted as part of their score). This was a preview of the new Divination-series of scores for the opera, which I will premiere in full in Chicago in October.

One thing that fascinates me about I, Norton is that I can tune it to any situation. I can explore a performance venue within its context. It’s not static in any way. In fact, it often invites the listener into the piece, because in some situations they get drawn into the action. At the Chapel of the Chimes, the audience moved among the musicians, and the Emperor walked into the crowd and occasionally spoke directly to individuals. That is a type of artistic presentation I enjoy.

S21: Will there be any alterations to the score or the strategies for the all-electronic ensemble, or will they play the score as is?

GR: We’re approaching it a bit differently this time. Until we get a chance to rehearse it, I won’t know where it will land structurally. There is a lot more free improvisation planned for this version, though. But it will also involve live video processing. I especially like it when the videographer and musicians are working through the structures together. They play off of each other, rather than one following the other. It’s not completely like the Cage/Cunningham aesthetic where both are independent, although they might be for sections of the piece. But again, it’s different with each performance.

S21: What were your criteria for selecting individual electronic musicians for the ensemble?

GR: They have to be able to react to changes quickly, and they have to have a profound understanding and control of their instrument. In this performance, they are sampling and processing the Emperor’s voice in real-time: that’s the only source material they are allowed to use. So they have to be able to get a lot of mileage from that, without relying on clichés.

I was fortunate enough to work with Chris Brown, Kristin Miltner, and Wobbly in another performance of the piece, the one with the sfSound ensemble in October 2008, and I was floored by their inventive processing. This time, I will join them, using a vintage Moog modular synthesizer to further process what the three others are doing.

What’s unusual in this situation is that each performer has their own pair of monitors on stage, and the monitors are placed around the actor on the stage. As a result the sound isn’t coming from a common set of stereo PA monitors outside of the action: it’s all coming from the same place as the Emperor’s unamplified voice—the main stage. And most importantly, the volume of the monitors are at “acoustic” level, so that the Emperor’s natural voice and the processed vocals are equally loud, as if we’re listening in to what’s going on in his mind.

S21: From the many performances of I, Norton, what best practices can you share for improvised opera productions overall?

GR: My preference is for the conductor to let the music develop, not to micromanage the life out of it. Let the artists create the piece – don’t stand get in their way by over manipulating the scene. For example, I like to get a couple of interesting duo or trio groupings going, then sit back and let the improvisations develop before I make any additions or changes.

Because of the popularity of John Zorn’s game pieces like Cobra, there’s often a feeling among improvisers that the conductor should always keep things moving with quick, radical changes. However, that’s only one approach. Sometimes I’ll take that course, just to add a different flavor to a performance. But that’s only one of many ways to work with a group of improvisers.

Comments

Comment from zeno
Time: September 15, 2009, 8:21 am

“Remember, he was a Jewish immigrant from South Africa. Try to imagine the culture shock he experienced arriving in mid-19th-century California during the Gold Rush.” (Polly Moller)

Polly, I think that this sentence in your otherwise excellent piece is somewhat problematic. Numerous Jewish immigrants arrived in earlier to mid 19th century San Francisco from Europe, London (like Joshua Abraham Norton), New York City, New Orleans, and elsewhere – including Loeb Strauss, founder of Levi Strauss. I think that there was something other to Norton’s personality change than simply being Jewish, an immigrant to Gold Rush San Francisco, or having spent part of his early life in South Africa (although the last would be the greatest predictor, I imagine, of his subsequent personality change, along with his very substantial inheritance and later bankruptcy).

Norton came to S.F. in 1849 from London with a $40,000 inheritance. On December 31, 1849, the population of San Francisco was estimated at 100,000 including 35,000 people who came by sea, 42,000 who came overland, and 3,000 sailors who deserted ships.

Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco’s first synagogue – then comprised of 2,400 households –was formally established in 1850 (a dozen years before the first synagogue in South Africa, in Cape Town.)

See also:

http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist/chron1.html

(For example, on February 4, 1846, the ship “Brooklyn” left New York bound for San Francisco with members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints aboard. They had been instructed to “flee Babylon.” They departed for California the same day other Saints left Navoo, Illinois, following clashes with settlers over polygamy. The party from Navoo was to meet Sam Brannan’s group at Yerba Buena. …)

Comment from Polly Moller
Time: September 15, 2009, 1:55 pm

Dear Zeno: Fascinating insight, and the quote is from Gino’s response, rather than my question. Maybe Gino will read your comment and respond?

Comment from ginorobair
Time: September 16, 2009, 12:25 am

Thanks for the comment, Zeno. In the research I’ve done, it was noted that Joshua Norton’s father helped establish the first synagogue in Cape Town. As such, it would predate the one in SF.

More to your main comment: “I think that there was something other to Norton’s personality change than simply being Jewish, an immigrant to Gold Rush San Francisco, or having spent part of his early life in South Africa…”

I totally agree. I didn’t mean to insinuate that he changed simply because he was one of the first South African Jews to arrive in SF. I’m aware of the diversity of the population at that time. And certainly, losing a fortune was a major factor in how he behaved later in life, not to mention other undocumented forces in his life.

The point I was trying to make was that, culturally and politically, he came from a totally different world (e.g., from a family raised under a British monarchy that emigrated to SA) than what he found in SF. Because he was dissatisfied with what stood for a democratic political system in the city at the time, he decided to do something about it directly. (Sure, there were other people in SF at the time who came from countries under monarchies, but apparently few of them believed they had royal blood in their veins, as Norton is said to have believed.)

It’s clear that Norton felt the political and justice system at the time was ineffective. Much of what he witnessed was mob justice. For example, in his early years in SF, he was compelled to join a vigilante organization as a matter of survival. But he was deeply troubled by the pseudo-justice of such groups, and he ultimately distanced himself from them.

With these kinds of things in mind, it makes sense to me that he would decide one day to take matters into his own hands and declare himself Emperor, in order to abolish the corrupt organizations and to right the wrongs that he witnessed every day.

Additionally, William Drury notes in his biography of the Emperor that Joshua Norton was not an observant Jew when he arrived in SF. In fact, he says that Norton was ambivalent about religion until after he declared himself Emperor, at which time he made it point during his rein to visit all religious institutions equally, so as to not show any favor towards one over the other.

Nonetheless, I believe that, having been brought up in a religious household, he had a sense of morality that he ultimately wanted to establish in late 19th century San Francisco. Hence my comment.

Comment from zeno
Time: September 16, 2009, 9:36 am

First, my apology to Polly for my mistake. I guess my eyes are still getting used to the new S21 type and shading.

Thank you, Gino, for taking time from your busy week to respond. I have long had a minor interest in both Adolph Heinrich Sutro and Joshua Abraham Norton and I am very happy to see that Norton is the subject of your new experimental opera.

Your additional points are fascinating and well taken; and I will only add that Norton’s idea of himself as an Emperor must surely derive, I imagine, from
Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph of Austria, in 1864, proclaiming himself Emperor of Mexico, during the Second Mexican Empire, with the backing of Emperor Napoleon III of France and a group of Mexican monarchists. That self-proclamation ended in Maximilian’s execution three years later, at the hands of the Mexican Republicans. (Darius Milhaud’s opera Maximilien was premiered at Paris’s Palais Garnier in 1932.)

Also, as you point out (although I remain uncertain of Cape Town’s synagogue predating that of S.F.), special attention must be paid to Norton’s African experiences. I can easily imagine Norton closely following the brutal progress of Leopold II of Belgium, who became Emperor in 1865 (similar in time to Maximilian declaring himself Emperor of Mexico during the turmoil of the U.S. Civil War) and solely “owned” the Congo for the remaining 15 years of Norton’s life (as well as an additional 29 years). I see that Leopold II thought of himself as an astute businessman and that he once spent a week in Seville studying Spanish records of their trade with their Latin American colonies. (Emperor Leopold II was the subject of one of William Kentridge’s recent projects at the SFMOMA.)

Please, Gino, let us know if your opera makes it to KQED’s “Spark” — or later tours! Thanks again.