Review: Gino Robair's I, Norton by the CCCU Contemporary Music Ensemble at St Gregory's Centre for Music

Gino Robair's I, Norton at St Gregory's Centre for Music, Canterbury
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

Gino Robair's 'I, Norton'
(CCCU Contemporary Music Ensemble at St Gregory's Centre for Music, Canterbury, 6 May 2014; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

There is no such thing as a definitive performance of Gino Robair's ‘open-form’ opera, I, Norton. That's what makes it so intriguing. So when the Contemporary Music Ensemble, a mainly student group based at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), directed by Lauren Redhead, with invited guests, took on this rare challenge in the beautifully refurbished setting of St Gregory's Centre for Music, it was fascinating to see what they would make of it, and how they would respond to Robair's 'kit of parts', including a variety of graphic scores, that make up the improvisational strategies for its performance.

Robair, based in San Francisco, is more familiar to the London audience as percussionist with the Apophonics, along with John Butcher and John Edwards, and has a musical career that traverses myraid bases in composition, improvisation, jazz and other genres, starting with his conservatoire training, then a year in London studying with Eddie Prévost, and collaborations with artists including Anthony Braxton, Fred Frith, Derek Bailey, John Zorn and Tom Waits.

I, Norton is based on the dying moments of Joshua Norton, the self-styled 'Emperor Norton 1, Emperor of these United States' and 'Protector of Mexico', who gained considerable public support from his initial proclamation in 1859 in San Francisco, for his outspoken, anti-establishment, fantasist rhetoric and actions until his death on the streets of his adoptive city in 1880. Over 30,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession.

Robair's complex concept took over seven years to come to its fruition in 2006. As Redhead explained in her introduction, the word 'opera' is used 'very loosely in its premise' and Robair has focused on its meaning as 'a collection of works'. He has also stated that it is not necessary for the performance to include any words, and has even overseen a Fluxus-style performance which involved the mute acting out of a dinner scene, as one of a series of simultaneous events that comprised one staging.

The Canterbury ensemble had worked on the project over a few months and, in this culminating presentation, built up a subtle, nuanced interpretation, full of incident and rich texture - whereas Robair and others sometimes have had only a few days or even hours to realise a performance, but the strategies allow for both approaches.

The role of Norton 1 was taken by clarinettist Adam Byard, sporting a black top hat, attire also donned by American synth player, now based in the UK, Charles Hutchins. From an unexpectedly quiet, luxurious start, the sense of life's episodes flashing through Norton's mind in a disjointed yet conjoined blur was achieved with a knowing, collaborative understanding. The strategies had been rehearsed and their enaction allowed for surprise and humour.

Wordplay was a gently significant component of the piece. Electronics from Hutchins and the Contact Laptop Trio (Alec Nicholson, Jakob Glock, Joe Jones), merged with intermittent babbling voices and excerpts from indistinct Imperial declarations - some genuine, published Norton texts, others fabricated by newspapers keen to cash in on Norton's notoriety at the time. With striking, skittish wit, the two vocalists, Redhead and Vanessa Hawes, flooded the auditorium with repetitive, overlapping sequences of numbers, that had both irrationality and vitality, fully in keeping with the subject of the opera.

The clarinets, Byard and guest, Tom Jackson, evidenced awareness of both Eddie Daniels and Peter Brötzmann in their range, adding precision and a raw grain at different times, and the guitars and bass clubbed together with woodwind, including Ursula Burchette's recorder, for a brief, funky jaunt picked out from the abstract flow.

The accelerations, decelerations and variations of intensity added up to a convincing depiction of a few seconds of incomprehension combined with a necessarily incomplete and randomised summary of a truly quirky, maverick life. That this could all be achieved in just forty-five rewarding minutes was remarkable in itself.

This performance of 'I, Norton' was part of the 'Sounds New' Contemporary Music Festival, Canterbury

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