Read the full interview transcript which formed the basis of Julian Cowley's feature on Gino Robair
JC: You have developed a very open approach to improvising and have also arrived at an 'opera', I, Norton. It appears to be a very open structure; have you called it an opera to be provocative?
GR: Opera means "a collection of works." I, Norton is made up of a collection of approaches to music making, in the form of a kit. Any of the elements of the collection can be used in a performance situation, and a group of performers can tailor a realization to match their immediate needs. In fact, you don’t even need singers or text for there to be valid performance of I, Norton as far as I’m concerned, as long as the musicians work honestly with the material. My piece fits a wider interpretation - perhaps a reinterpretation - of what people think of as opera in the 21st century.
JC: What do you want the piece to achieve in its realization that is different from free improvising situations?
GR: For me, music making — both public and private — is a social affair. I want to extend that feeling into a larger, multi-disciplinary work. I, Norton facilitates a variety of ways for artists to interact in a performance. The piece can be easily realized by non-musicians, such as dancers, actors, painters or set builders. The score elements help organize collaborative activities between artistic disciplines, as well as between musicians in a more traditional way.
I've got three performances of I, Norton cooking at the moment - in San Francisco, St Louis, and Palermo. The San Francisco one is for laptops only, with one actor providing the only source material. The laptops will sample and process only that voice. It was a commission from the sfSound ensemble for October.
Have you seen the movie Noisy People by Tim Perkis? Part of it focuses on I, Norton, which I've used quite a bit to get a wide range of local musicians to work together - often, musicians from several genres who might not normally collaborate or be onstage at the same time. It has also allowed me to introduce talented college students into the scene, which has resulted in some interesting offshoots when younger and older musicians playing together; as in the Jon Raskin - Konoko Nishi duo.
I most enjoy playing with musicians who are sympathetic to my anti-percussion approach and who aren’t looking primarily for an energy or free-jazz drummer to keep things interesting. I’ll go there sometimes, but it feels two-dimensional if that’s the only direction available to me in a playing situation.
Overall, the Bay Area scene seems to encourage people to cross over the boundaries of musical styles and collaborate. Part of the reason, I believe, is that there is very little "careerism" here: because there are so few sustainable well- paying gigs, people aren't so concerned with having to keep some kind of performance style "pure" by not mingling with other kinds of music. And the talent pool is massive, despite there being no real music industry, compared to, say, New York City or LA. Musicians who settle here are in it for the right reasons: to explore sound, even if it takes them into unknown territory. Cage, Partch, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley ... all spent formative years here doing unique and highly creative work.
JC: So how do you locate I, Norton within your musical life in relation to, say, turning up at a gig with a bagful of objects to bow, or inviting audience members to supply sound sources?
GR: All three ways provide parameters within which to improvise. One way to make sure I’m always improvising is to steer away from things that I know intimately … such as drums, which I’ve been playing since age 7. Obviously, if I’m doing a more traditional rock or jazz gig, I’ll bring a proper kit but in other contexts I’ll cut the tether of having a regular set of instruments and leave the drums at home. Am I still a drummer if I don’t play a drum or use sticks during a performance? This is why I often refer to my instruments as "energized surfaces" in liner notes. If I’m blowing into bike horn to make a drum head vibrate sympathetically, am I a percussionist? Or if I use an e-bow on a snare drum? Or if I bow a polystyrene plate or use a rubber ball as a fricative?
Sometimes I’ll bring a bag of things I’ve never played before (usually stuff from the recycling bin). The other way is to let the audience provide instruments. If someone shows up with a package of hot dogs and someone else has a hair brush, I have to make a performance with them - I’ve imposed that rule on myself, because it makes for the most extreme example of free improvisation. I cannot rely on my bag of tricks, so to speak. A Potluck Percussion performance is a way to work in an environment of total improvisation.
JC: In Tim Perkis's film you say that you eclipsed your formal training with an approach that effectively rediscovered what being a percussionist might mean. To what extent does your conservatory training still inform your playing?
GR: Conventional techniques help me execute musical phrases that they were designed for, such as playing rolls around an array of flat surfaces. They don’t necessarily help me if I’m bowing a piece of polystyrene. Traditional techniques also show ways of playing that are in opposition. For example, the opposite of a clean, well-measured buzz roll is a sloppy, unmeasured, messy roll-like sound. All I have to do is find this other extreme and all of a sudden I have a world of material to work with between the two. Multiply that by the dozens of things classically trained percussionists do, and you can see that I have a lot to work with.
But the most important part for my own musicianship is that I have that rigorous training. As far as I can tell, it’s easier to start with a conventional technique and devolve than to move in the other direction as you get older. That’s one reason my playing, for good or ill, sounds different than musicians who started with more of an informal training in percussion. The kind of practice I do now has to do with getting into the space, or the zone of being creative. Anthony Braxton calls it "putting the beam on," as in the laser beam of creativity. It’s like a meditation for me - an altered state or focus. I love being in that place - that’s what keeps me interested in playing. I am completely in the moment while improvising, and I can’t tell accurately how long I’ve been playing because regular time goes out the window. I’m not trying to be New Age-y: that’s just how it feels. Most musicians you talk with will know what I mean.
JC: I'd be interested to hear more about your meetings with Eddie Prevost. Did you seek him out? Can you pinpoint specific lessons learnt?
GR: When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to focus on improvisation. A friend suggested I contact Eddie Prevost and take lessons. Eddie’s first reaction was "You have the degree in percussion. What am I going to teach you?" But I knew that his music was multidimensional. I had a lot of questions, even though at the time I couldn’t articulate them. Probably the biggest thing I learned was how the musicians in the London scene lived this music. It was very different where I had come from. His immersive participation in the scene - from running a label and organizing a festival to writing about music - had a profound influence on me.
JC: So, does improvising have a philosophical or political content for you as it does for Eddie?
GR: Absolutely. The politics at play in the States in this time period are different than what Eddie has faced in the UK from the ‘60s till now, but playing music in the margins is a political act, no matter where you are.
I don’t like routine and repetition in my daily life. When I started piano lessons at 11, I was more interested in improvising and composing than playing my assignments. In high school, I created improvisatory structures for the drum line in our marching band. It seemed like a natural way to work. The rock bands I was in at the time used improvisation as a way to come up with songs, so it didn’t seem unusual to use it in other contexts. Only when I got to college did I find out that not every musician improvised … or even realized they were allowed to!
JC: Your investigations of texture and timbre are clearly intimately involved with particular materials that you are handling. Are there other musicians that have had a special significance for your understanding of your own musical practices?
GR: A student in the college jazz band arranged one of Anthony Braxton’s pieces for us. I had a radio show at the time, so I began listening to his LPs, as well as Sun Ra, Carla Bley, AMM, Derek Bailey and so on. Instrumentally, I’m greatly influenced by tabletop guitarists. Keith Rowe and Fred Frith have been absolutely critical to my education. I met Keith when I was living in London in 1985 and 86. I didn’t get to know Fred until he came to teach at Mills College, but I knew his work in rock and improv very well from recordings. Both were my biggest influences as a post-percussionist. They’ve inspired me to find new ways to get sounds out of percussion. Eddie Prevost’s influence went well beyond the playing aspects of my life.
Performance artists and Wayang Kulit puppeteers have influenced how I work in terms of flow and improvisatory skill. And I listen to lot of different music and usually come away with something that I can apply to my own work. I spend a lot of time listening to Sundanese music [from West Java], particularly the drumming styles. But I also enjoy the glitch direction in electronic music, as well as rock, folk, and Italian opera. I’m a big fan of Metalocalypse.
I get to explore loud rock environments as a drummer in the band Pink Mountain. Scott Rosenberg decided he wanted to make an improv rock record, so he invited his favourite musicians into the studio. The five of us improvised some rock-like structures, and later picked the ones that seemed well suited to being songs and added overdubs. The singer and lyricist Sam Coomes, from the band Quasi, is a brilliant songwriter whose words tie the pieces together nicely. The Beatles made their first album in one day, but they already had the songs written. We tried to do the same from scratch, and it took us two days. Our second release will be a double LP, due out next Spring, and there’s talk of a European tour. We toured the west coast with Zu in 2006.
Although as a student I was greatly influenced by the structural elements of 20th-century composition - aleatory, chance, indeterminacy on one side, and process, serialism, algorithmic composition on the other - when it really comes down to it, I’m most interested in how something sounds once it’s realized. When I was completing my degrees at Mills College, the fashion was computer-assisted music. For many of the people involved, the program or algorithm was more important than the sonic results. This proved to be the tipping point for me, where I realized that if I’m going to work with process or algorithms, I want the results to be musically satisfying as well as intellectually stimulating. Otherwise, I’ll just work intuitively, as with improvisation. Consequently, my opera includes process pieces, but I’ve been refining them to the point where I’m happy with the sounds people get out of them.
I now find that my favourite compositional medium is the digital audio workstation. I can take a recording of a performance and transform it into something new -perhaps something that couldn’t have been done live … at least not on my budget. In one respect, what the printed score was to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, the computer is to the modern musician. Even when it comes to free improvisation. Although there’s an aesthetic for some improvisers of releasing performances without editing, "as performed," I would only consider that approach if the performance worked in the recorded medium without alteration. A stereo recording is only an artefact: it doesn’t fully capture a musical performance.
If I was a purist about improvisation, I might say CDs are a necessary evil, because you need to be able to share the type of music you make with someone who might be interested in providing a performance opportunity. However, as a musician and label owner, I’m interested in offering recordings that make sense for the medium on which they are delivered. And I don’t feel aesthetically bound to release an improv as is, when some editing might make it more interesting to listen to. A CD for me acts like a painting or multiple does for a visual artist. A painting of a landscape is no more representative of the real thing than a two-dimensional, stereo recording of a live improvisation is of a concert. If you take into consideration how recording technology - microphone type, mic position in the room, reverb characteristics, digital or analog resolution used, and so on - frames what we hear from a CD, a recording shares only a marginal resemblance to the performance itself. It’s merely a 2D perspective on a multi-dimensional event.
I’ll give you an example. I participated in a direct-to-vinyl-disc session in LA in January with a quartet called The New Black. The music was also backed up to tape and hard disk. When you compare the sound of the LPs to the 24-bit, 96 kHz digital version, the LP playback has a softened focus, almost like a veil of gauze is in front of the musicians. The high-resolution, digital version lets you hear more detail, which makes it sound like a different recording. Yet, it is nothing like what we were hearing in the studio while we played, because the volume of the instruments was balanced differently in the room. And of course, the recordings do not indicate any of the physicality and gestural information you would get from a live performance.
For the CD release of I, Norton I’m using recordings of live performances, but treating them under the constraints of the score. For instance, in one section graphic score pages are used to determine which areas of the orchestra are heard and which are muted, underneath a foreground of text and singing. This is a very satisfying way of work, compositionally, in a post-production environment. But the same process can be used during the live performance, with an improviser manning the front-of-house mixer during a show, when the technological resources are available.
In my mind, it’s all interconnected: improvisation feeds composition, which feeds improvisation. My goal for the opera is to have the "composer" and performer interact at a deep level. Consequently, the piece will never be finished - I’m always adding to it and refining it after each performance, because something new develops. I might compare it to the ensemble behind the glass work of Dale Chihuly, where he provides the vision, or sets things into motion, but a team of willing participants come up with a realization. And it’s their skills that inspire Chihuly’s designs. That sort of feedback has been critical in performances of I, Norton, just as the talents of members of Ellington’s and Mingus’s bands fuelled their compositions.
JC: You’ll be playing in the UK with John Butcher in November….
GR: John is just a joy to improvise with. We seem to find all the right ways to play - together or in opposition - in real time. I like the way he gets an electronic, non-sax sound out of his instrument, but in an acoustic way. It parallels my own focus: to find ways of playing that are unusual for the instrument, and to get electronic sounding timbres acoustically. Simply putting a transducer on a drum or a cymbal and running it through a stomp box is pretty easy, so I’ve tried to find non-idiomatic sounds by other means, such as a using a bow, ebow, or rosined stick on things.