Aurora Mitchell speaks to an Italian composer who helped shape the sound of electro as we know it.
Many of electronic music's earliest pioneers were women. Composers and innovators such as Ada Lovelace, Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire are now widely celebrated as people who broke new ground in music composition. But there are others who have not been recognised, artists who were among the first in their field to experiment with new genres and styles. One such artist is Doris Norton, an Italian composer who made some of the earliest versions of electro and computer music.
In the 1970s, Kraftwerk were the first group to mould a weird and mechanical template for electro. Utilising squeaky Moog sounds, robotic vox and custom drum pads, they paved the way for other musicians to experiment. Norton began to release her own music in the early '80s, after a period of collaborating in prog rock bands like Antonius Rex and Jacula. In the '80s, electro percussion was blending with rap, disco and funk, but Norton was one of the few artists crafting the sound of robots communicating through synthesizers and drum machines—the sound we most commonly associate with electro today.
Thanks to her affinity for computers, Norton became Apple's first music endorsement—many years before Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Taylor Swift. (Norton's 1984 album, Personal Computer, has the Apple logo on its cover.) She also became a consultant for IBM. Norton would compose music by using her computer's alphanumerical keyboard to program notes into compositions. She would also use the computer's letters by processing the vowels and consonants in different combinations to create singing sounds with her own voice that sounded both human and robotic.
"The personal computer was and is my safe room, my reserved area," Norton told me. "The computer can offer unlimited and yet undiscovered landscapes. You can enter and begin to explore them."
While Norton's life has been closely linked to machines, her formative musical years were spent exploring the organic instrumentation and vocal expertise of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music.
Norton went to operas and concerts as a young child, which nourished her passion for these styles of music. "Listening and watching was a way to learn experiencing emotions and empathy with the life phenomena too," she said. "What you liked during childhood comes forth from your subconscious and influences your choices for life. The work tools change, the realisation of the work changes, everything changes with the times, but to feel that you want to realise something—even if you don't have a precognition of what your final production will be—is the connection."
In addition to stretching the possibilities of computer-generated compositions, Norton worked with a range of analogue equipment, including a Minimoog, a Roland System 100M, a Roland System 700 and the ARP 2500 and 2600. However, her albums Personal Computer and Artificial Intelligence were solely composed with her computer's alphanumerical keyboard, external sound generators and a mixer. She was releasing a high volume of music from the early 1980s to the mid-'90s, spanning electro, techno, rave and trance. It was only in the early 2000s, a few years after her output started to slow, that Mannequin Records founder Alessandro Adriani discovered her music. "Being friends with older and serious diggers from Rome helped a lot I guess," he told me.
For Adriani, Norton makes "pure cold electronic music made with a computer but with a soul. Impossible to resist." Three of her earlier albums were chosen to be reissued on Mannequin, forming a trilogy of interconnected records. Nortoncomputerforpeace, Personal Computer and Artificial Intelligence, released between 1983 and 1985, are formative blueprints for the work of artists like Helena Hauff and labels such as Central Processing Unit. Complex, fluttering 8-bit melodies mesh with bassy, punchy percussion to create electro that's alive with colour and soul. The albums were accompanied by artwork that depicted Norton working in her recording studio with various forms of equipment. On the cover of Personal Computer, the equipment fills up most of the frame with Norton standing placidly between everything, the centrepiece that connects the machines.
"The human act of bringing something into existence is the connection," Norton said. The trilogy of albums Mannequin reissued were "the more computerised of all my productions," with some of the tracks edited using the Apple IIe and others with the Macintosh Classic. Norton had noted the potential that early computer programmers such as Ada Lovelace predicted for computer music, and she was in turn contributing as a supervisor for the computer companies whose devices she loved.
Though she collaborated with other people and companies, Norton prefers to operate and create with her computer in solitude. "When I'm alone I feel a sense of ease, I can unleash my mentation, the doubts vanish, I'm more confident with my own abilities," she explained. "In a quiet solitude, inaudible words and sounds can be heard, invisible images can be seen, you can expand yourself across the universe. The dreams become able to act on us as physical matter does."
Among the products of her solo recording sessions was Nortoncomputerforpeace, the first record in the reissued trilogy. The album, Norton said, referenced "some examples of the dozens of active wars and abuses of power, on the planet earth, at that time." The album's track titles took aim at ongoing world problems ("The Hunger Problem In The World") but also specific conflicts, including the Salvadoran civil war ("Salvasansalwar"), the declared martial law in Poland ("Warszawar") and the conflict between Iran and Iraq ("Iran No Ra"). "I deprecate the puppet masters, tyranny, prevarications, abuses, conflicts, wars and bloodthirsty infamous psychopathic abominators of mankind and Mother Earth," she said.
In 1994, Norton released an album with a track called "Science Killed HIV" which was followed up in 2003 by "No Aids," a track on Techno Shock Vol 1—a compilation she made with her son Anthony, who makes music as Rexanthony.
Adriani called Norton's son "an enfant prodige in Italian hardcore-techno-trance from the early '90s." He's released many of his own albums and 12-inches and is regarded as an innovative producer pulling together different genres of music. It was through his mother that he learned to make music.
"Growing up in the 'Doris Norton Lab' I became familiar with the technology, developing skills that now I use in my professional audio recording and studio productions," Rexanthony said. Their musical relationship continues to this day: together they own Musik Research Productions and a recording studio.
Norton elaborated on their working relationship. "In the early '90s, we had a natural synchronised modus operandi," she said. "The collaboration was a profitable exchange of ideas and abilities. He had the instinctive and high-operating speed typical of teenagers, and drove me to be less theoretical and more pragmatic. We continued collaborating and still collaborate."
Norton lived off the grid, so there was no connection to other artists during the '80s and '90s apart from those that she worked closely with, including Rexanthony. The pair both formed a working relationship with Italian trance and hardcore label S.O.B. The first two releases on the now defunct label were Norton's albums Techno Shock and Techno Shock 2. "The dynamism of the S.O.B. staff was infectious, there was energy and enthusiasm," Norton recalled, noting that the label's "collaborative spirit, propensity to trust our music productions [and] get-up-and-go philosophy stimulated our creativity."
Norton's work was originally only released on local Italian labels like S.O.B. "For convenience sake," she explained. "I feel better away from the business needs and standard label tactics. I have chosen to live in Italy, and all the Italian labels met these requirements."
Adriani, who founded Mannequin in Rome, built up a relationship with Norton's husband, the experimental prog rock musician Antonio Bartocetti. They talked for a long time over the phone and discovered they had a lot in common, agreeing immediately that it was a good idea to collaborate. After initially forming a connection with her family, Adriani was for a while put off by the bootlegs of Norton's records he saw in record shops around the globe. He eventually revisited the project, this time with Norton's son Anthony, and began work on reissuing Nortoncomputerforpeace, Personal Computer and Artificial Intelligence.
As one of electro's earliest driving forces, Norton is overdue for this recognition and visibility. The trilogy of reissues still sounds fresh compared to modern electro. In 2011, Helena Hauff included the track "Personal Computer" in one of her mixes. Hauff recently said of Norton: "She is just amazing, making that kind of music at that kind of time, as a woman, being sponsored by Apple."
The technological capabilities available to electro artists now are drastically different to when Norton was starting out. "The realisation of an artistic work can differ as technology changes," she said. "If you use a computer, you must know what you want to do: you can either re-orchestrate, arrange, reinterpret, contaminate, alter a Bach sonata or reproduce it just as it is on the original sheet music. The technology you are using can be a source of inspiration. A true artistic work has a supercharged energy that will never become obsolete."
There is supercharged energy emanating from Doris Norton's work. It bounces off the vibrant 8-bit melodies that twirl through space, as well as the spiralling claps and hi-hats she programmes. Adriani's assertion of her artistry sums up her influence, too: "I see Doris as a very open-minded pioneer."
Alessandro Adriani of Mannequin Records selects his six favourite Doris Norton tracks.
Here, you can hear Doris's voice applied to technology.
Apple sponsored her and this track shows why. An almost seven-minute trip into cold arpeggios and complex rhythms.
A trip into Doris's mind and back to the machines, with an infinite sense of looping. My favourite track from her.
Vocoder and arpeggio obsessions and TR-808 power combine on this pioneering electro tune. Killer.
An interesting synth prog experiment mixed with new hardware. With an eye on veganism.
Can you believe that there are no drums used here? Only A.D.A. conversions and processing of wave ranges. Sickness.
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