Review of sound piece performed February 27, 2018 at IMRC by our MFA artist-candidate Steve Norton.

Amidst lined up pots, lids, and cups, also two beautiful reed instruments, we filed in quietly. His program notes read, “Sounds also carry marks of their creation, whether via breath, saliva, string noise or mallet strike” and we were asked to experience his piece without our shoes on.

These were the established instruments that were featured: alto saxophone and contra-alto clarinet. Roughly in order of appearance we experienced: splash cymbal, one large-pot lid, measuring cups, bells, small-pot lids, and one large pot. These, Steve tells me, are normally just termed percussion.

As I entered the performer’s space, it was abundantly clear that the composer was offering up not just sound but a divorce from pre-reasoning– the suspension of belief. We had program notes to read, instructions, and a space was beautifully prepared in advance. In experiencing the piece I wondered if imposed hierarchies in music references metaphorical kind of kind of worldview. Does a human being rate everything they see and hear by artificial values they assign? Steve’s piece ran amok of a kind of flimsy hierarchy. A spaghetti pot and an alto saxophone? A ascending, musical run, then a pad slap; a pan lid almost as a musical cadenza…

Ben Watson, in Noise and Capitalism, was cited in the program notes this way; “Extrinsic formal structure (whether song or composition or training)

prevents us seeing what’s right under our noses:

instruments, fingers, people, ears, amplifiers, attention, inattention.”

It was beautifully unfamiliar. My favorite moment was when Steve dropped a pan lid, not quite tossed, or was it tossed, colliding with the ground— the heart jumped as it hit. My own idea was that he was playing the floor. Floors are not ever thought of like that; no steady rhythm nor any chords or melody? Not really. What about songform? Yes, it very much had that and it was something like (I am making this up) 1a, 2,3,4,,1b, 5,6,7, etc. Was it deliberately anything? Yes. There was an undeniable display of craft for the benefit of the audience— like classical chamber music. The program notes and seating– even a sort of “imaginary balcony” with two guests, yes, who took the back seats. I had an “orchestra seat” and was right by the artist’s left foot.

Instead of a timorous clinging to the past, with Correctness as a justification for Greatness, we have an obligation to make the sounds that make sense to us.  Only by listening to that sense do we truthfully represent our reality. Steve Norton

There is some historical argument over where music either completely rejected ordinary tonality-based logic or experienced composes who tried to reinvent a system. Stockhausen is a great example someone who I thought of with this piece, but in our program overall we are much more aware of John Cage. Nature, the connection that John Cage felt so strongly about, is not a twelve-tone system. Atonality is really not really noise. Noise is not the absence of tonality. Steve’s work worked to me since it put together noises and tonal sounds that had a noise-like quality. For example, the transient slapping of pads, actually called a slap-toungue technique, had tone yet also its smack sound. I do realize that it is done by stopping air, too, not just the pad.

About the author: MFA candidate Jim Winters is a jazz musician grounded in scoring and arranging for small groups, winds, or strings. His degree will involve noise.