Travellin’ Light

Kevin Norton
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Kevin Norton + Anthony Braxton
Kevin Norton + Anthony Braxton                                                                                     Pietro Bandini©2008

Kevin Norton is a composer/percussionist who took part in the blossoming of the Downtown scene, playing with Fred Frith's Keep the Dog, which also included Zeena Parkins and John Zorn, as well as Phillip Johnston and Joel Forrester and their co-led band, the Microscopic Septet, and Johnston's Big Trouble. For ten years beginning in the mid ‘90s, Norton performed in both Anthony Braxton’s initial Ghost Trance Musics projects as well as Braxton’s standards quartet. Many of Norton’s own recordings document bold program-length works like For Guy Debord (in nine events) and Change Dance (Troubled Energy) (both were issued on Norton’s Barking Hoop imprint). Norton has led and co-led ensembles with such renowned players as Dave Ballou, John Lindberg and Tony Malaby. Recent projects include compositions for various sized chamber groups, a duo with pianist Connie Crothers, and his Counterpoint trio. In recent years, Norton has performed with a wide swath of European improvisers, including Paul Dunmall, Frode Gjerstad and Joëlle Léandre. Norton was a resident composer at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in 2002 and is currently on the faculty of William Paterson University. For more information, consult:

What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

It’s got to be all of them. For me (a percussionist with potentially big instruments or lots of instruments), you have to realize you have to come up with a strategy so that you can have your sound and yet not deal with a lot of bad vibes (no pun intended). For instance, recently, I’ve been doing a lot of vibraphone playing with Frode Gjerstad. I try to be really clear about what I need when I get to the other side (instrument, size, model, etc) and then I only take what I can check in the overhead. So recently I took a backpack that had some clothes, my stick bag, and (maybe notebooks, or CDs, etc) in other words, stuff to survive by and stuff to create by AND can fit into an overhead. For me, I’m fine, I’ve learned to deal with the situation, but then again, I’m not a bass player for instance.                     

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

I have low expectations. I try to eat well/healthy before I take off. If you want a better seat, sit in an exit row.  The airplanes must have more leg room (for instance) in the exit row. Another possibility is get the very last aisle seat in the aircraft, so you have no one behind you, especially a energetic child that might happily kick the seat in front of him.
Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

Recently, Heathrow..
What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

I’m too neurotic to forget something going overseas. My biggest blunders in this category have happened closer to home: once I showed up to a rehearsal without the sides of my marimba. At another hometown rehearsal I forgot half of the bars of the vibraphone (the naturals? Or the flats/sharps? I don’t remember!). I got to the point where I made sure I would make multiple copies of a folder of charts and keep them in different locations (luggage, music stand at home, etc) so that there was no way I could forget the charts to any gig.

What is your worst lost baggage story?

Coming back from a European tour: my baggage was lost. Air France said they will deliver it when it comes in. A few days later my bag came back and the bag itself was totally trashed. The contents were OK, but the bag looked like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. One time I had a really beautiful (small) gong stolen from a bag. I made a big stink about it and they gave me money, but I never found an instrument as good as that particular one, so I changed my entire way of traveling/packing from then on (it was about 20 years ago).
What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

I haven’t had horrible problems.  However, a couple of memories: 1) Coming back into the United States, I had powdered ginseng from Korea. I guess it looked like heroin. The customs agent cut it open and put it through a chemistry set. I thought, ha, ha, no problem I know it’s not heroin I’ll be out of here in a couple of minutes, but then I thought, what if there’s a chemical similarity between ginseng and heroin? Yikes, with my luck; but everything was fine he put the bag back in my luggage and when I got home it was half empty with half of it all over my clothes, etc. 2) When leaving the former Soviet Union. The customs people did not stamp your passport, they staple a piece of paper in the passport on arrival and then take it out when you leave. So with no language skills in Russian, the first customs guy looks at my passport and mumbles something to the second guy the second guy takes the visa out of the passport and passes it down to the third guy. The third guy looks at my passport and doesn’t see the visa and yells back to Customs guy #2. #2 is busy and ignores #3. #2 yells more (and louder). #2 screams back Da! Da! (Yes! Yes!). Customs guy #3 throws the passport at me and throws his hands up in resignation. When I finally get to the gate, they tell me, “You may not make it onto this plane because you are late!” “But I’m late because of your customs system!” Another delay and argument ensued, but I eventually was placed in first class on the plane heading home: bizarre.

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

Seoul, Korea. I think the un-realized Kamikaze pilots from WWII went there. On a two-way road they will be in the left most lane and pass by going into on-coming traffic! My suggestion is to start drinking heavily, before you even land.       
What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

Again, because of low expectations and the fact that I’m happy to be playing music, many of them are fine with me. Some really great ones might be described like this: quiet, windows that open into fresh air.  However, I do NOT like really bad hotels, the ones where you can’t sleep because you think you might die if you don’t stay awake and alert.
Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

I haven’t traveled with a laptop, but I might start to. I try to be good about checking my email, so I might do it in the hotel or a nearby internet cafe or grab a fellow musician’s laptop for a few minutes. It’s nice to take a break from email, but in line with Murphy’s Law, when I’m busy and can’t get to it for a few days, that’s when the WHY WON’T YOU ANSWER MY QUESTION? message comes. It’s OK, everything will be OK.

Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

I love to listen to music all the time. The most frequently used device is my brain remembering a recording or a rehearsal or singing to myself; it’s like composing away from an instrument, I think I listen more actively rather than passively. But yes, sometimes I have the typical devices for listening.
Do you do your own laundry on the road?

Not frequently, but I have done my laundry in a room sink, etc. It works. 

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

All sound checks are potential nightmares to me. I consider myself an acoustic musician. I play for listeners (including myself) who understand that sound is about vibration. It’s tough: one wants to play for a lot of people, but the intimate, close listening situation is best. The biggest problem is monitors. I dislike them and try to never use them especially if it’s a small-ish ensemble. The sound engineers bring out the monitors and I say no.  Some engineers just say, “No problem” but some feel they know best. However, if I’m low on the totem pole (sideman) and the leader says we are using monitors, the nightmare begins. They always feedback, if the there’s no individual cue (or even just volume) it takes forever; my stomach hurts just thinking about this; no more.
What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

I might be called picky so again, I don’t expect much; but when there’s no water or fruit, I tend not to look further.
What are your three favorite venues?

#1 is Roulette in New York City. I also love DeSingel in Antwerp, Belgium and The Buttonwood Tree in Connecticut because of the vibe of the space and the people presenting the gig and the memories of great gigs in these venues. These are recent memories or feelings (though I’ve been lucky to have played many, over maybe 20 years of time, at Roulette), but I could mention many venues where the magic was happening, either as a player or as a listener.
Which cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?


Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

I generally don’t encounter these sessions, however one time in Maribor, Slovenia I sat in at a jam session; it was a lot of fun. We played tunes like “What is This Thing Called Love,” “All the Things You Are,” A Night in Tunisia,” etc. It just seemed so honest to me, even though it was “old” music. It was like the stories of NYC in the 1940s, yet this was Eastern Europe in the 1990s, but it was truly fun swimming in those melodies, rhythms and chord changes.

What is the best city that closes down too early?

When you are hungry and you can’t eat, many cites fall into that category. I also don’t mind that cities close down, that’s a nice scene. A good time to look at the city, a view of the city that’s feels private.

What is the best locale to have a day off?

I like little towns, maybe with beach during the spring or summer or a fireplace during the winter. I’ve enjoyed these kinds of places all over the world: South of France, Italy, Norway or California, New York and Maine in the USA. I also like a little sight-seeing from time to time, but related to your next question …

What is your cure for jet lag?

I don’t know that there is a cure. I figure I’m going overseas for performances so it’s not like home in NYC, where it’s all about multi-tasking. Overseas, for me, is just another gig and I can sleep. As I said in the previous question, I like walking around, taking in the sights (possibly historic), meeting interesting people, but if I feel a little tired, I just hit the sack so that I can be well rested and the gigs can be as strong as possible. For me, no medicine or beer or wine works; it’s just about quieting the mind. Coming back to the USA is another thing, I find that much harder. I’ve tried everything, none of it works for me; the best thing is to try “find that quiet space.”
What is your best tip for the novice?

It’s beautiful to be able to play music and travel. I’ve met so many wonderful people (as Milt Hinton predicted I would) and seen so many beautiful environments. I don’t like to try to do too much when I travel (other meetings, bringing work from home), I like to feel that I can take that random walk in between the gigs and/or simply enjoy the travel from gig to gig, even when things go wrong or in other words, remaining open and accepting of the total experience.

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