Is improvised music, by definition, possible to compose? If you're Gino Robair, San Francisco percussionist, journalist and composer extraordinaire -- yes. A member of Bay Area improvisors Splatter Trio and proprietor of the challenging Rastascan Records label, Robair has devised I, Norton, a work he calls his "guerilla anti-opera," dedicated to the life and writings of 19th-century megalomaniac "Emperor" Joshua Norton.
Though it's been broached in Europe by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and portions have been played in Tokyo and Tennessee, I, Norton receives its first complete American airing in Pittsburgh. That debut comes courtesy Robair's friend and fellow Rastascan recording artist Ben Opie, formerly of Water Shed 5tet and now of Opek.
Joining Opie's saxophone are members of his Pittsburgh-based improvising group, Dust & Feathers, comprised of heavyweights from the local avant-garde scene: guitarist Darryl Fleming, vocalist Eden McNutt, bassist Tracy Mortimer and, for this performance, oboist Lenny Young and accordionist (and recent CP cover boy for his "drywall dramatics") Steve Pellegrino.
However, these guys won't just show up and squonk -- there's a method to Norton's Napoleonic madness. "We get together and discuss ideas, and we do have meetings," Opie explains. "A lot of this piece has to do with the interaction between music and text. Eden feels like an equal musical partner, but on the other hand, I like the idea that he's either making up words or working from texts, and that we play in support over that."
Robair's piece overlaps a bit with the work of two MacArthur Genius Grant awardees: his mentor Anthony Braxton and John Zorn.
For those familiar with the game pieces of John Zorn, such as "Cobra," there's some similarity, Opie agrees. "But Zorn's pieces almost never involved any sort of defined notes -- it was always just about action and interaction. What's different is that [Robair] has these little composition modules from various works of his. He's arranged these pages of notes and rhythms which you can use freely when they're called up," he explains. "Where they're the same is that both [composers] wrote for improvising musicians, and there's a series of improvisational hand cues."
Sounds like boatloads of fun for the performers. But will the audience feel simply baffled by the cryptic movements? "Hopefully it's an interesting musical experience," he says. "In our case, if it's [at] all theatrical, it has to do with each musician being involved in the cuing and the shifting of the work as it happens." That shift toward theatrics and visuals, however slight, seems akin to what the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble has been doing lately to attract audiences. "It's definitely New Music," Opie says, "being a matrix of texts, compositional elements and free improvisation, but it's also different than what the PNME is accustomed to playing."
Robair's impending release of I, Norton on CD propelled Dust & Feathers' collaboration with the Warhol Museum to present its American debut -- a fortuitous coincidence. "We wanted to get in The Warhol anyway," Opie says. "But we also wanted to present this particular piece in the proper formal concert situation."