A Gambler’s HandSGL 1597-2
“…it’s safe to say that you’ve never heard music like this before…will have you wondering why Sean Noonan isn’t a household name.”
—Mark Saleski, Blogcritics.org
Saleski’s comments apply equally to Sean’s new record, his first on Songlines since Boxing Dreams (2008). Where that record featured such unlikely combinations as Irish and West African vocalists singing simultaneously in Gaelic and Bambara against raucous guitar and hyperactive drums, A Gambler’s Hand tones things down a bit (just a bit). It’s a suite of pieces for sometimes-amplified string quartet and drums, largely composed but with improvisational sections, inspired equally by the great string quartet tradition (Beethoven and Bartok in particular), the idea of a third stream uniting jazz and classical forms and approaches, Sean’s evolving drum language and varied compositional interests, and his inclination to stir diverse elements together into something wildly imaginative that also turns out to be unexpectedly coherent.
In fact Boxing Dreams was a conceptual album of sorts, a suite of “boxed” dream-fragments drawn from literature and folklore (ancient invocations, cautionary tales, psychedelic nightmares) collected from different cultures and retold from the perspective of a 21st century Irish-American punk/jazz downtown New Yorker who’d fallen in love with storytelling and African music. A Gambler’s Hand is the music for an original story of Sean’s, a dreamlike tale about an obsessive gambler who eventually finds himself immured inside a wall and lives out his lonely existence there. The music parallels the moods and liminal psychic states of the story’s first person narrator, and there’s an interesting connection back to a dreamlike real-life situation:
“I first 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….A few years later I got into Beckett and became interested in expanding the concepts of theater of the absurd and minimalism in plays such as ‘That Time’ and ‘Footfalls’…. Evolving my ‘wandering’ folk theory has led to extending my study of folklore and storytelling into a more personal form of expression.”
The music draws on a diverse range of compositional styles, from Neoclassical and 20th century American experimentalism (Nancarrow, Cowell) to downtown contemporary (Zorn), as well as punk and free jazz. But for the last few years Noonan has also been telling stories from the drumkit in semi-improvisational counterpoint to his drumming (as can be heard on his self-released jazz-rock quartet record Set the Hammer Free). In the current project the relationship of the drums and strings developed from Sean’s experience of hearing/playing music from the drum position – conceptually and even literally, the strings are positioned as extensions of the drummer’s limbs: “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 positioned the two violins far left and right, the viola mid-left, and the cello mid-right. The drum set faces directly towards the quartet. I thought it would be quite interesting to intertwine or overlap the strings and percussion and treat it all as one organism.” The string players Sean chose all have experience in improvisation, and it shows: “I want to praise these great musicians….I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find players with the right background and the level of concentration to execute and interpret my written compositions and on the turn of a dime be able to improvise in a free-form manner.”
On A Gambler’s Hand the narrative elements are left to the listener’s imagination to find in the music, or not find, if one prefers. But an expanded version of the story, “Bruised by Noon,” will eventually be available, as will a 30-minute Polish film with music but not words in which Sean plays the role of the gambler.
For more info: tomswafford.com.