(For detailed background on this project, check out Point of Departure‘s lengthy interview with Gino Robair.)
I, Norton is an opera built of improvisation, installed in modular pieces and intended for ensembles of varying size and makeup. In one sense, it’s a concession to economic reality — large-scale experimental works are difficult to stage.
But it also means I, Norton is a living creation, augmentable, evolving. In fact, creator Gino Robair, who’s been a major force on the Bay Area experimental music scene for a couple of decades now, still considers it a work in progress. The CD, combining live performances with manipulations and samples of those performances, is just one representation of what the complete opera could be.
You won’t find opera singing. The program contrasts moments of modern-classical music with long stretches of otherworldly electronics. Metallic buzzes and sound curtains drift by, constructed from a base of Tom Duff’s recital of Norton’s proclamations.
(If you’re wondering: Emperor Norton is one of the colorful, beloved characters of 19th-century San Francisco history. Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico — detailed biography here.)
The opera represents the flashes of memory in the final moments of Emporer Norton’s life, as he lies dying in a San Francisco street. While I, Norton doesn’t have to be a linear journey, the CD is arranged in something like a storyline, complete with an overture and an ethereal, heavenly conclusion. Along the way, Robair makes use of the moods that electronics and structured improvisation can create.
“Overture” opens with a mob of cacophonic voices, cut short by a gong that opens the spacious body of the section, colored by metal percussion and sampled, filtered fragments of Norton’s speech. It’s like hurtling through a dust cloud in space. (And I like the cut-up of Duff’s speech, done in fluttering half-syllables. We were taught as schoolkids that an opera’s Overture contains snippets of the music you’re about to hear. In this case, it contains fragments of the words you’ll eventually hear.)
The theme knitting all the pieces together is a Norton speech abolishing Congress, and it appears throughout the album in fragments or in mutated, sped-up form. Duff does a marvellous job with the character, so the longer passages of untreated speech are a real treat. I’ve seen part of the opera live, and Duff was terrific, dressed in 1880s finery and pacing the stage while giving his proclamations.
“The Hall of Comparative Ovations” is the most classical-sounding of the tracks, using lots of conventional instruments and some quasi-composed passages: grand horns in a sadly regal mood. It sounds like the individual notes are left to players’ choices, a very Braxton-like touch. All this is augmented with passages of improvisation textrued with squiggly electronics.
The longest track, at 28 minutes, is “Mobs, Parties, Factions (Part 1).” Its first section is sparse, with long segments of Norton’s proclamations, and “music” built from slowed, sped, or shuffled blurs built of Duff’s voice. We hear Norton’s words revealed slowly, in pieces, while we also possibly experience some of his madness, the voice-based noises like fascinating insect buzzes, a distraction from the core point (and yet, because they’re the “music” here, they’re also the core point.) Aurora Jospehson adds skittery vocal sounds accompanied by piano — it’s the aria for her character, Miss Minnie Wakeman, the high school girl who Norton tried to woo. (Minnie was already engaged, and that was that.) Given its length, this track on its own could be considered a micro version of the opera.
“The Committee of Vigilence (Mad Scene)” is a snippet of crazed electronics, some cries of anguish from Norton. It’s aptly titled, and works as kind of a soliloquy, a standalone scene.
“Mobs Parties, Factions (Part 2)” brings us back to acoustic instruments, with hammering piano and woodwind wailing. It’s fun and spritely, with long unadulterated passages of Duff speaking — and then it turns dark, ominous. We’re nearing the end of the story.
Duff then quietly recites Norton’s proclamation, as prelude to the final track, “Joshua Norton Enters into Heaven.” A soliloquy of ghostly electronics, the piece slowly builds up to a shimmering haze before ending with a final, quiet heartbeat.