... Two albums of electronic minimal sax/pop music, Saxaphone Demonstratons and Sax Talk
... Bad Loops (unreleased), a cacophonous suite constructed entirely from saxophone loops created from a single 5-second sample and accompanied by electronically derived percussion
... The 40-Saxophone Orchestra, with improvisational conductor, created for the New York International Festival of the Arts' Fete de la Musique in celebration of the French Bicentennial
... The Moving Planet Orchestra, an ensemble combining traditional middle-eastern sound, style, and instrumentation with modal post-bop improvisational saxophone
... Saxophone Duo, with former Romeo Void saxophonist Benjamin Bossi (now available)
... Saxophone Stories, a series of solo soprano saxophone narratives accompanied by electronic tamboura
... The Imaginary Ensemble, a group devoted to whisper improv
Aside from solo work, Norman Salant has appeared on recordings by The Residents, Romeo Void and others. He was commissioned to provide scores for choreography, performance art and film projects. His music has been featured on John Schaeffer's New Sounds radio program on WNYC in New York as well as alternative radio stations across the country, and he appears in Mr. Schaeffer's New Sounds book.
Norman Salant began his solo career in San Francisco when he began experimenting with electronics by running his saxophone through electric guitar effects. While playing in the the Berkeley rock band Deakin led by Andy Shulman, he began creating electronically treated saxophone "orchestras" in his 4-track studio. One of his first recordings, Accidents, featured eight heavily processed and speeded up tenor saxes including the first known instance of his signature talking sax technique, parodying Blondie's hit Accidents Never Happen. It attracted the attention of local radio DJ David Bassin who encouraged him to release it as a single. His first album Saxaphone Demonstrations had a startlingly original sound constructed of layers of overdubbed and electronically altered saxophones, earning him a reputation as a pioneer in new saxophone technology. While some focused on the apparent misspelling of the word "saxophone" in the title, the album was quickly noticed by the alternative/indie circuit and was even selected by Trouser Press' America Underground as one of the ten best records of the year. For live shows he formed the Norman Salant Group, an instrumental new wave/minimalist sax-rock band fronted by two electronically altered saxophones. The band played all over the Bay Area (the Old Waldorf, the On Broadway theater, the I-Beam). He was invited to play with The Residents on their album The Tunes of Two Cities and as a guest artist on Romeo Void's Benefactor alongside their own saxophonist Benjamin Bossi.
With the support and encouragement of Roy Sablosky with his fledgling label Vinyl Records and engineer Gregory Jones (both Cal Arts electronic music graduates), he began work on a follow-up album, Sax Talk, to extend the ideas laid out on Saxaphone Demonstrations and adapt them to a techno-dance format. The title track included a gaggle of electronic talking saxes reading random excerpts from Andy Warhol's memoir Popism over a techno 'sax-cluster' rhythm track. At this time a friend of The Residents at the Cryptic Corporation had lent him a tape of Bulgarian folk music, which became a big influence from that point forward, particularly as it related to the soprano sax. Once electronified, this new sound became an integral part of the Sax Talk sound, notably on Kiyo, Molih Ta and No Night.
When Sax Talk was ultimately released (on a label other than Vinyl) in 1984, it was featured on the cover of College Music Journal (CMJ, reaching #19 on the national independent/alternative radio charts, while Sax Talk and No Night went on to become underground club hits. This was an almost unheard of level of success for an alternative instrumental album, fusing pop, minimalism, world music and the avant garde yet still being accessible to a broader audience. Middle-eastern as well as Celtic and medieval music remain strong threads in Norman Salant's work today, even in the midst of his current songwriting phase.
Once the band split up public performances became rare, beginning a pattern of regularly retrenching to reevaluate ideas. He produced a handful of eclectic concerts such as a middle-eastern new music improvisational trio at San Francisco's New Performance Gallery's Midnight Loft series, which was recorded and broadcast by Germany's WDR-TV's World Cultural Magazine. He began moving heavily into pop music, beginning a collaboration with former Parliament-Funkadelic singer Lynn Mabry (one of the Brides of Funkenstein), who was just coming off the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense tour. Working with Lynn and manager Joel Webber, and Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell (who helped with some of the New York sessions), he wrote and produced all the songs for the project, becoming more deeply involved in the commercial aspects of music and songwriting.
With Gregory Jones' guidance, he also began to explore commissions for music production: after developing relationships with several producers at San Francisco's Colossal Pictures including the notorious Tim Boxell, he recorded the theme music for MTV's Top 20 Countdown and collaborated with Jones on a series of short station I.D.'s that received heavy airplay; one of them, M-Mollusk, won the prestigious Annecy Award for video animation at the Annecy International Animation Festival. He was even hired by a Japanese advertising agency to appear in a Japanese ad campaign (tv, print, billboards) for Schick Injector razors (!), playing the role of an American jazz musician who practices so diligently he forgets to shave - Schick Injector saves the day! He contributed music for other Japanese tv commercials and fashion design shows. Various artists in the Bay Area tapped his studio expertise, enlisting him to produce their recordings.
And then abruptly he turned away from electronic and commercial music and began working in an all-acoustic saxophone duo, an art-music project with Benjamin Bossi who had recently departed from Romeo Void after that band's commercial run was capped by the hit Girl In Trouble. Together they created a new kind of sound-music, exploring the sonic possibilities of two unadorned tenor saxophones. They attracted a good deal of attention and played at many premiere Bay Area venues including the Fillmore West, the Roxie Theater, the On Broadway, South of Market's DNA Lounge and the San Francisco Video Festival. Then they left for New York.
In direct contrast with the raucous and free improvisational style that dominated New York's downtown music scene at the time, the duo was radically different, exploring tightly controlled interlocking counterpoint, textural coloration and compositional improvisation that grew naturally from their contrasting sounds and styles. Without amplification, the music reflected a highly refined pop-infused minimalism, emphasizing intimacy and narrative in an attempt to tell coherent 'stories,' eschewing the 'noise theme' that predominated. Right away they became regular featured performers at the brand new Knitting Factory and other downtown venues: Experimental Intermedia, Dixon Place, Darinka, and EAR Magazine's annual benefit. Moving among New York's vibrant downtown arts scene, they contributed scores for performance artists (Alyson Pou) and choreographers (Jody Oberfelder).
Soon after the duo ran its course, he was commissioned by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to create a full-length work for the New York International Festival of the Arts' Fete de la Musique, which was sponsoring events all over the city in celebration of France's Bicentennial. The piece he contributed was Leap of Faith for 40 saxophones. A "striking" event, wrote John Rockwell of The New York Times. "All those saxophonists suggested a jazz aura, but the music was based more on Minimalist repetition, overlaid with easily accessible suggestions of hymn-tunes and the Baroque." (A video of the performance and a rehearsal tape are the only records of the event; the rehearsal tape has been released as part of the Saxophone Archive Series on cd.)
Soon after, he traveled to London with recording artist Mary Kelley for her tour of the U.K. and subsequent London showcases as music director. His developing interest in contemporary dance led to collaborations with William Douglas (a score entitled TV Dances featured some otherworldly vocals by Cirque du Soleil's Dina Emerson), Lisa Race, Laura Schandelmeier, Sue Schroeder & Several Dancers Core, Ben Munisteri, Mary Abrams (an experiment in sax loop sampling called Bad Loops, later released in the Archive Series as Saxaphone Demonstratins II: Love Letter) and others, in works presented at Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project at St. Marks Church, and Dia Center for the Arts (now the Joyce Soho).
The Moving Planet Orchestra / Saxophone Stories
After another period of retrenching when he did not play the saxophone at all, he formed the influential Moving Planet Orchestra, the culmination of the journey that started with the first tape of Bulgarian music from The Residents' organization. The Moving Planet Orchestra combined musicians from middle-eastern, minimalist and jazz traditions, producing a music rooted in trance-modal drones, ethnic sounds and rhythms, and a passionate highly personal saxophone style incorporating hard-driving post-bop free playing with middle-eastern idiosyncracies. The full group performed a handful of times at the Knitting Factory and the Gargoyle Mechanique Laboratory in New York, and subgroups appeared at a variety of downtown venues. One particular videotaped performance at the Knitting Factory was broadcast on New York Public Access television for years, and other recordings found their way onto an early Knitting Factory compilation release.
Then he began a series of meditative soprano saxophone solo performances, accompanied only by electronic tamboura, aiming toward a nonverbal improvisational storytelling cycle in what eventually became known as Saxophone Stories. He appeared at many events over the next several years including Creative Time's "Music of New York" series sponsored by the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival, the New Dance Alliance Performance Mix series (hosting an entire season), PS 122's Avant-Garde-Arama and Danspace Project's Food For Thought. "The spare beauty of its performance seemed a kind of benediction," wrote Jennifer Dunning in The New York Times. Occasionally artists from other disciplines collaborated on Saxophone Stories, such as choreographer Douglas Dunn and singer Susan McKeown. After being encouraged by choreographer and close friend Laura Schandelmeier to try actual verbal storytelling, he began writing short text pieces and incorporating them into the performances. He also began adding musicians. Out of this grew the idea of developing a large-scale multidisciplinary version of Saxophone Stories around the theme of French New Wave actress Jean Seberg, but after many years of development, and despite interest from Douglas Dunn and others, it was eventually set aside.
Next came a phase of faster/louder/wilder free saxophone improvisation, working in various duets with drummers and percussionists, primarily drummer David Gould, performing in New York and San Francisco. Then came the Imaginary Ensemble, a quintet of didjeridoo, drums, acoustic bass, and a second wind player (Daniel Carter, playing muted trumpet, flute, and sax). The Ensemble was devoted to extremely quiet collective improvisation (the so-called "whisper improv"), with the compositions deriving from descriptive text phrases such as "the inside of a balloon" or "the first light of morning." The music conveyed visual landscapes via abstract sound. The Imaginary Ensemble played at the Anthology Film Archives' Spring Equinox Festival and the Gowanus Arts Exchange Sundays at Five music series. The group eventually shed the didjeridoo and collaborated with a quintet of improvisational dancers organized by choreographer Mary Abrams.
Believing that the saxophone was "no longer a good fit," and increasingly disillusioned with the nonmusical aspects of working within the music industry, he put the instrument aside, withdrew from public view and began an investigation of songwriting, focusing on guitar and voice. He has not returned to the saxophone except for isolated forays. However, much of the unreleased music has been released in the Archive Series: Saxophone Duo (Norman Salant & Benjamin Bossi), The 40-Saxophone Orchestra, Saxaphone Demonstrations II: Bad Loops - Love Letter, and Sax/Off - Dance Scores.
[artwork by Kristen Copham]
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