This interview with Sean Noonan (composer, drummer, storyteller), violinist Tom Swafford and mixing engineer Simon Kummer took place by email during May-June 2012.
Tony Reif: A Gambler’s Hand is a pretty radical departure in some ways from your previous Songlines recordings with Brewed by Noon (Stories to Tell in 2007 and Boxing Dreams in 2008). For one thing there’s a major focus on composition (you were studying classical composition when you started working on the music), then there’s the string quartet/percussion instrumentation itself, which as you’ve pointed out is pretty unusual, especially coming from an improvisational/jazz perspective rather than a more traditional, composed, contemporary classical approach.
Sean Noonan: I think A Gambler’s Hand is the first album that truly broke away from my previous musical conventions which I would call thrash jazz, ‘wandering’ folk music and Afro-Celtic punk-jazz. Although Boxing Dreams could be considered in some ways a theatrical world/pop album with a cast of exceptional musicians, this new project is a re-invention of myself as a serious composer, storyteller, writer, and filmmaker. The album treats the string quartet as an extension of the drum set, merging together two completely different traditions and styles.
TR: Was it after the release of Boxing Dreams that you decided to change musical directions?
SN: Not exactly. I self-released Set the Hammer Free in 2010, where I further expanded my Afro-Celtic punk/jazz concepts while adding the idea of telling semi-improvised stories while improvising at the drum set. And I still wanted to stretch further out in collecting folklore from America, Ireland, West Africa, Bavaria and beyond. Even today I’m continuing with this Afro-Celtic concept, and from this process I’ve coined the term ‘Irish griot’, realizing that my music is most effective when I make storytelling a part of the performance. For that purpose I’ve been collecting all kinds of texts, anything I can get my hands on, from cabaret to Greek mythology, urban legends to Irish playwright Samuel Beckett.
Also, even before I released those Afro-Celtic albums on Songlines I expressed a strong interest in becoming a serious composer. During the summer of 2005 I had several operations on my legs and didn’t know what the outcome would be. While I was laid up I spent my time reading and listening to 20th American experimental composers like Conlon Nancarrow. After I was awarded a commission from the American Composers Forum I realized my passion was for both composing and drumming. Albums such as Stories to Tell were great artistic achievements but even then I wanted to explore the compositional process. In 2009 I took a sabbatical from the jazz world and began mining new interests, from Samuel Beckett to studying composers like Bartok, Beethoven and Henry Cowell.
TR: And it’s not as if strings were completely new in your music, since Mat Maneri’s viola played such a unifying role on Stories and Dreams. But how did you develop the concept of combining drums and strings?
SN: There are many unique sonic amalgams a drummer experiences sitting behind the drum set that are not heard by the listener. I wanted to capture and exploit these qualities and emulate them in my string arrangements and in the process of mixing the album. So I created an electro-acoustic quartet, which we used live to balance against the drum set. I positioned the two violins far left and right, and the viola mid-left, and the cello mid-right. The drum set faces directly towards the quartet. I wanted the listener to hear these relationships across the sonic spectrum, and thought it would be quite interesting to intertwine or overlap the strings and percussion and treat it all as one organism. The listener would hear the relationship as I do from behind the drum set, experiencing the roles and interaction of each choir. There are not many jazz drummers who have the skills to compose for a string quartet, and I believe this album is the first attempt to merge the drum set with the string quartet. I tried to take great care in the quartet’s delicate use of four-part writing and in unifying these two choirs.
TR: So the string writing and playing are in some sense an extension of the rhythms and timbres you’re playing on the drum kit, and each member of the string quartet corresponds to one of your four limbs? It’s a fascinating idea, but how literally or closely do strings and percussion relate as things turned out, or was it more a concept that helped you in initially conceiving how this music might work and what different ways the two ‘choirs’ could interact?
SN: The string quartet extension concept is not supposed to be taken too literally, but I have to say it is a great tool to use in composing music. I discovered this concept when I began hearing various musical ideas, themes, and contrapuntal ideas while playing drums, just improvising at the kit. I would come home and sketch them out, but I would also develop ideas from the piano like a lot of composers do.
TR: And you were also studying composition academically, which included classical and modern string quartets.
SN: Yes. While I derived some of the composition from the musical language and aesthetics I’ve developed as a jazz drummer, there’s a direct influence from Bartok’s String Quartet #4, with the employment and expansion of the tritone and octatonic scales, also from the four part tonal writing in the late Beethoven string quartets such as Opus 132 in A minor.
TR: A Gambler’s Hand is also an absurdist, fantastical story you wrote about an obsessive gambler who ends up living trapped inside a wall. You’ve said you were influenced by Beckett in writing this tale, and of course your ethnic background is Irish-American. And obviously the music relates to this narrative and to some extent is illustrating it in a programmatic kind of
way. Which came first, the story concept or the musical concept, and how have they influenced each other as the work came together?
SN: I first had developed the storyline and in my old basement apartment where there was a man who I could hear inside my wall. I wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from but soon realized it was from the apartment next door. I never saw him come outside and I was intrigued by who this person could be. In an absurd moment one day, I imagined he was trapped inside my wall and was trying to get out and communicate with me. Often he was screaming and pounding on the wall and I thought maybe my music and drumming would comfort him. So I began communicating with him through playing my drums. This seemed to work and for a while I heard silence from the wall and believed he was connecting with the rhythmical Morse code language we began to develop. Later when I would go on tour my ex-girlfriend at the time told me the man in the wall had missed me. One day when I was walking down the street I finally got a glimpse of the man in the wall. He was with his caretaker and they began to argue and the man in the wall was so angry he took all his clothes off and began running around into the street naked. He was a rather big and strong man and seeing his full naked body screaming right in front of my eyes answered a lot of the questions I had about who he was.
Inspired by this experience I wrote “Purge,” a song that’s on Set the Hammer Free. This became the basis for A Gambler’s Hand. A few years later I got into Beckett and became interested in expanding the concepts of theatre of the absurd and minimalism in plays such as “That Time” and “Footfalls.” For the most part the story and the instrumental music were shaped together.
TR: And there’s also going to be a 30-minute Polish film adaptation of “A Gambler’s Hand.”
SN: It’s a silent film where the story is told through body movement and instrumental music. I worked with filmmaker Marta Kopec in Katowice, Poland. I play the main character. It was great to have the opportunity to tell stories in this fashion, and it will be screened as part of our live premiere performance on September 24th at Roulette in Brooklyn. In fact I was always interested in making films, and a lot of my fans have commented that my music would be great in a film. This all got going after I organized a concert of improvised music to silent films by Jan Svankmajer, that lead to the collaboration with Marta. She took my story and shaped the storyline, writing a screenplay and directing the film which we worked on together for 7 long days. It was at the end of a three-month European tour, and I was completely exhausted and even got injured in the boxing scenes and had some minor cuts and bruises from punching walls and being chained up for long periods of time.
TR: In a more general way, how does storytelling relate to your music making now? It’s something you’re been doing for quite a while – taking folk tales and children’s stories and songs from African cultures and Irish and American folklore and other places and reworking them, overlaying and stirring them together in a process you’ve called ‘wandering folklore’, as if stories from different cultures were almost interchangeable or at least understandable in their commonalities without any particular knowledge of the cultures they sprang from. Now however you’ve written a tale from scratch, in a very different style. It’s still relating narrative and music, but without lyrics being spoken or sung. What would it be important for audiences take away from the record, since the CD packaging is only including brief excerpts of the story, the gambler’s stream-of-consciousness – though hopefully enough to suggest certain psychic events and emotional overtones that could relate (loosely) to the 10 pieces of music?
SN: Of course I encourage listeners to always use their own imagination when listening to abstract music. They are free to approach this album in any way since there are no lyrics. So in principle no, the listener doesn’t need to know the story, but for me I want to create multi-dimensional art and make it not about one specific thing. I feel the story introduces and opens up many new avenues of expression. The music, story, and also film travel in a connected but independent or juxtaposed way. The story itself is an important part of the album I wanted to share, it’s part of creating substance and providing entertainment and enjoyment. Evolving my wandering folk theory has led to extending my study of folklore and storytelling into a more personal form of expression.
Everyone who gets the album will hopefully also be able to get the film, and I’m also writing an expanded version of story that I’m calling “Bruised by Noon” which there are plans to issue as a paperback – it focuses on the last chapter of the story, where Pavee has become a permanent part of the wall. On Sept 24 I will narrate and perform the whole story from the drum set along with guest improvisers. You’ll be able to get more info at noonansmusic.com.
TR: Getting back to the music, what was the role of improvisation in the playing as recorded?
SN: I created a relationship where the through-composed material and improvisation would play an equal role. I explored and developed various improvisation concepts such as the ‘improv canon’ which is in the piece “Ghost Quarters” – this is the part in the story where Pavee plays cards with 3 other ghost versions of himself. In the piece “Thank You” I transcribed the melody of a children’s toy sheep that sings a playful fragmented melody full of doots, and used that as an improvisation vehicle.
TR: How much improvisation did you ask the string players to do, how specific were your
suggestions, and how well did they respond or fulfill your expectations?
SN: I first want to praise these great musicians on the album since they really had such a hard job to do. I looked all around for a string quartet that had the abilities to execute and interpret my written compositions and on the turn of a dime be able to improvise in a free-form manner. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find players with the right background and the level of concentration needed to go from playing written material to group improvisation.
TR: Let’s bring violinist Tom Swafford into the conversation. Tom, what’s been your experience performing the Gambler’s Hand music?
TS: I’d played with Sean for quite awhile before this and so I knew it would be a tremendous and powerful experience. When I looked at Sean’s score it seemed that all the notes were physically playable on our instruments – but after the hours of grueling rehearsals I understood why other quartets had been too afraid to tackle this monster piece. But in the end we were all up for the challenge and the results paid off. I’m proud that we all stepped up and (with Sean’s guidance) gallantly tamed this beast. And I should add it is not all beastly – much of it is very beautiful and lyrical, it’s a beast with many moods.
TR: You’re a composer yourself, can you give us some insight into how Sean has approached the dynamics and rules of the string quartet from a modern perspective?
TS: I’ve tinkered around a fair amount with composing, got a doctorate in it etc., but nothing I learned in Musical Doctor School prepared me for what Sean brought to the table. Sean has very successfully combined a thorough study of many of the 20th century classics in the string quartet literature, particularly Bartok and Shostakovich, with the openness of improvisation. Making the transition between notated and improvised music seamless, maintaining the flow and energy throughout, is very difficult to do and Sean did an excellent job with that. And it helped that all 4 of us string players have experience with improvisation and are open to improvising without being shy and holding back, as often happens with classical musicians.
TR: What about Sean’s concept of merging the string quartet with the drum set, have you heard of such a thing being done before?
TS: I have not. I would not be surprised if such a thing has been attempted in the past but I doubt that it has been approached with the level of unabashed vigor and fierceness that Sean has brought to it. Part of this has to do with Sean’s drumming style, and how he has translated it to the notated music, each of us acting as one of Sean’s four limbs. And again there’s this willingness to completely ‘go there’ without holding back which Sean infected us all with.
TR: The idea of a jazz drummer composing third stream music for string quartet and drum set could make for a challenging project for everyone. Were you confident Sean could pull it off? Where any doubts expressed by you or the other members of the group?
TS: There maybe have moments of doubt here and there, when rehearsals weren’t going so well etc., but I think deep inside we all knew that it could be done. Sean is a supremely confident human being so he was able to bring us along on this wild ride and we trusted his artistic vision. Now there may be those who don’t think drummers are real musicians. But anyone with a true awareness of music understands that there is as much nuance possible in the drums – in rhythm, dynamics, texture, timbre AND pitch – as there is in any other instrument. In fact, as a drummer Sean has available to him many more possibilities in all of these parameters than any other instrument provides. Any time he plays he is actually composing for many instruments at once.
TR: In your opinion how is Sean’s compositional style influenced by being a jazz drummer? Harris Eisenstadt for example has pointed out that as a drummer he naturally approaches composition first of all from a rhythmic point-of-view.
TS: I don’t think of Sean only as a jazz drummer – what he does could fall into many categories of music as well as theater and storytelling. In some ways it is deeply rooted – it goes back thousands of years to the earliest human expression. Of course the same could be said for jazz – it depends on how you define jazz, and those definitions are constantly widening. Sean’s art is really about life itself, it touches on every aspect of human experience, from his own personal life to the universal. This is something I value in any musician or composer, this ability to take one’s own life experience, make it universal, and put it all in the music – whether it is something that can be easily defined or not. I find that more interesting than music that is only about a set of pitches or one particular sound phenomenon, although that can be interesting too.
TR: Now that you’ve listened to the album do you have a different perspective on the music hearing the end result?
TS: I’m amazed by how well it hangs together, it really works as a whole piece. While rehearsing and recording I experienced it more as a series of different sections, even when we performed the whole thing. But listening from the outside it does sound like one consistent story with, somehow, a unified sound world. I would like to add that my solo starting at about 2:10 in “Ghost Quarters” and continuing until the end is some of the best playing I’ve done, I really rocked that solo and I’m damn proud of it. And of course without Sean’s inspiration I doubt I could have taken it to that place.
TR: When listening to A Gambler’s Hand I’m struck by the intensity, contrast, and diversity in the repertoire. What has it been like playing this sort of bi-polar piece, full of extreme moods and intricate writing?
TS: Well it’s certainly a roller coaster, and quite exhausting to play all the way through. What saves us is that some of it does repeat, and there are improvised sections, so we didn’t have to learn 53 minutes of music.
TR: Was it demanding having to read written passages one moment and improvising the next?
TS: Being able to leave the page and improvise is actually a great relief. The balance works well psychologically, because after 10 or 15 minutes of reading these intricate passages your eye and brain gets very stressed and tired and you must have release – and just at the moment where you are about to go crazy, Sean puts in an improvised section. At first the switching was difficult – this is one of the things we had to rehearse a lot – but in the end it worked very well.
TR: What do you think about the different improvisation concepts the group had to work with, such as for instance the ‘improv canon’ or improvising on the melody of a toy sheep?
TS: They were a lot of fun – gave our brains something to do and gave the piece a structure that simply going from completely written to completely free would not have done – this is what makes the piece hang together. And yes the toy sheep, I’ve encountered it before, and there is of course a long and involved story about Sean and that sheep which could be a piece in itself.
TR: By the way I understand Sean calls you Dr. Tom. What prompted that nickname, is there some inside story here?
TS: As I said earlier I was given a piece of paper from an Institution which states that I am officially a Music Doctor. This enables me to prescribe medications for Sean and act as his musical psychiatrist – our therapy sessions consist of Sean expressing his various paranoias and delusions, traumatic life experiences, conflicts, general life issues etc. and me responding only with my violin.
TR: Hmm, somehow this doesn’t really surprise me, it sort of comes with the Gambler’s Hand territory, doesn’t it….However let us not dwell on hermeneutic speculation about some actual or possible Sean Noonan, I’ve just been handed a few specific and eminently sensible questions to pose to Simon Kummer. Simon, as a mixing engineer living in Germany, when did you meet Sean and what were your first impressions of the music he was playing?
SK: I met Sean in 2003 when I booked his band The Hub for a gig in a club I was running. I was impressed by his technical versatility combined with a rude punk-rock attitude. His playing was direct and peppered with intuitive explosions of associative improvisation.
TR: How has it changed or not changed over the years?
SK: I would not say ‘changed’ but rather ‘improved’. The logical structure is more evident and, maybe as a result of his composition studies, everything feels to be part of a concept.
TR: What was it like to co-producing such an unorthodox album? Were there any challenges or revelations in the mixing process?
SK: Making decisions during the mixing process with such an extraordinary combination of instruments was quite challenging. Sonically and regarding the overall aesthetics there are no blueprints to rely on. Many decisions have to made every time a question comes up. As the whole project meanders between different styles of music, most listeners will have certain ideas how they should sound – we had to decide when to break those rules of perception. For example, heavy panning, FX stuff and a somehow dry sound are not prevalent on classical music recordings. So we tried to hide them in a way that they don’t spike out but rather affiliate with the more conventionally mixed parts of the composition.
TR: Is this the first studio project you’ve done with Sean?
SK: In spring 2011 we prepared the tracks and ideas for a second concept album which will contain a melange of Sean’s drumming and my electronics. It will be focused on rhythmical aspects and a landscape like sound design.
TR: What in particular attracted you to work with Sean on this project?
SK: When I was listening to a first rehearsal recording Sean had mailed me I knew immediately that I wanted to do this project because of its remarkable character and the challenges it would provide.
TR: In listening to A Gambler’s Hand it’s evident that the drums are quite connected with the string quartet. Do you think of it as a drummer’s album or is it something quite different?
SK: We tried not to weight either the strings or the drums but to let them have a well-balanced dialogue. On some parts the listener’s attention is directed to what the drums do, on others to the strings. But most of the time our aim was that they should sound as if they were interweaved.
TR: You’re a drummer yourself, do you have any comments about his drumming style and how he interacts with and leads the string quartet?
SK: Especially the parts that contain pizzicatos combined with Sean’s heavily accentuated drumming reveal how well his composition works in respect to lifting strings and drums onto a similar level and letting them speak the same ‘language’. Compared to previous projects his drumming feels more conceptual and notated like one would expect from a classical recording.