Rounding out the trilogy of albums that he has released since the start of 2014, drummer/ composer and storyteller Sean Noonan released, In the Ring is the second album in Noonan’s A Gambler's Hand chamber music series, in which Noonan writes for and performs with the NY-based Momenta Quartet: Emilie-Anne Gendron and Adda Kridler on violins, Stephanie Griffin on viola, and Michael Haas on cello.
On In the Ring, as he did on A Gambler’s Hand, Noonan utilizes the strings as extensions of his own limbs, both conceptually and literally. “I learned a lot from both making and touring with A Gambler’s Hand in how a string quartet strives to be one organism and similar to how I condition myself on the drum kit. As my compositions and performance on the drums were in effect a reflections and extension of one another, “ explains the drummer. “Yes both works belong to the same chamber series but however there is an aesthetical difference between In the Ring and A Gambler’s Hand. The relationship that I’ve established between the strings and myself behind the drums remains the central musical core of the two projects.”
On his latest album, the prolific Noonan presents a collection of song cycles that together tell a story about the transformation of a man who get tickled by a sunbeam one morning on a mountain top, and who, as the story progresses, wanders and gets lost in a desert and transforms into a coyote. The coyote hitches a ride from the American folk hero Casey Jones, whose train crashes at the bottom of the sea, where the coyote transforms into the Celtic mythological creature known as a Silkie, and eventually back into his human form. As a result of his adventures, he loses his shadow; he can only reclaim it by challenging his own shadow to a round of shadow boxing In the Ring.
“This song cycle is intented to be performed in sequence as a single entity, and is a reflection of the American cultural melting pot experience ,” says Noonan. “Often after riding the C Train in Brooklyn and wandering around the planet I found myself collecting stories and finding characters so much they invited me to dinner. Sometimes at the table there were folk heroes and even later I had tea later with Alex Lomax.
Noonan incorporates cultural archtypes from a variety of sources, such as Casey Jones, and the Native American trickster/deity, Coyote, into his stories to illustrate some common themes that he’s discovered in his personal explorations.
In the end I noticed a similar pattern that range from John Henry to Pecos Bill and even Rocky Marciano. The story transcends time and place; its themes are derived from sources around America, but it’s also very personal. I wish I started doing all of this long a go and it was when I went to Mali in 2009 that I became to realize the importance of my job as an enthnomusicologist on a grant assignment.
In the Ring is launched by Noonan’s signature storytelling. Rather than playing the role of observant narrator, his poetic approach reflects the innermost thoughts of his protagonist as he experiences his transformation from Man to Coyoteman, to Silkie, and back to Man. From track to track, as the story progresses, the Momenta Quartet alternately takes center stage and provides atmospheric support for Noonan’s graceful recitations, weaving and embellishing a musical tapestry that is as integral to the story as are Noonan’s own drumming and lyrical presentation. This is neither background music nor soundtrack, but an ethereal and innovative contribution to Noonan’s spoken word performance.
“To be able to create through compositional music you really have to dedicate yourself exclusively in understanding Western classical music tradition, just as to play jazz which I spent more part of my life discovering,” says Noonan. In 2009, I took a two year drumming sabbatical to study classical composition at the Aaron Copland School of Music. During this period I completely ignored my jazz roots, and put aside the influences of drummers like Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, and Ed Thigpen, in order to learn from Western tonal innovators such as Stradella, Haydn, Beethoven and post tonal innovators Stravinsky, Bartok, Nancarrow and Ives. My questions were, what really made them tick, and what they went through as they composed. I imagined myself conversing with them to get answers to my questions, along with spending innumerable amounts of time studying scores and listening, listening, and studying scores. I had fun with this.”
Noonan composed the pieces on In the Ring with an ear to transforming various story elements into aural pictures that is immediate from the first track “Prelude to the Ring,” which captures the vast openness of a desert with separation and space provided by the ever accending and descending harmonics by the quartet. “Story of Jones,” feels like your riding high on top of a train in an accellerando into chaos piloted by the famous Casey Jone's speed demon whose crash this time throws Coyoteman straight to the bottom of the Salt Lake Line. After he witnesses John Henry's death by Big Steam it is the “Reincarnation of Several Hammers” that transfors all the hammers of the Earth to re-awake and reincarnate to defeat Big Steam and evil machine who killed John Henry the matyr of the working man. “The Final Conflict” the shadow boxing match; mimicked in right and left channels is narrated by boxing commentators apparitions from aka “Rumble in the Jungle”
“This album is multi-dimensionsal,” states Noonan. “In addition to the story, there is still another whole world to experience on In the Ring, if one wishes to explore the compositional development process, or harmonic, textural and melodic expansion of the numerous leifmotifs. I usually emphasize this with all kinds of percussion instruments, so often the drum kit is treated like a jazz instrument, often assuming the role as a soloist, improvising another layer of counterpoint over the rich textures played by the strings. I approached In the Ring to similar to how Gene Krupa really approached his role as the lead solo instrument in his orchestra. He is a heroe now for me and think that drum battle against his shadow Buddy Rich he still having at this moment.
Noonan’s dual passions – his “wandering” folk music theory and the utilization of strings as an extension of the drum kit – have come together on In the Ring in 15 tracks that consist of never before heard songs as well as a reworking of several works from previous projects. Noonan explains: “I really wanted to re-structure and further develop the musical ideas from older pieces like ‘Morpheus,’ ‘Dr. Sleepytime,’ and ‘Story of Jones, originally featured on the albums Stories to Tell and Boxing Dreams, performed by jazz and world musicians way back then before I knew how to truly compose. But I could even hear how I wanted to structure those compositions and and as a result they appear as such on In the Ring,” he discloses.
In the Ring is packaged in a 50 page portrait photo book animating all Noonan's poems. Both Pavees Dance and Bruised by Noon also included a striking visual companion booklet, the former featuring drawings and painting by Malcolm Mooney, who has developed a career as a visual artist over the past several decades, and the latter featuring abstract images in subtle shades of gray with a hazy vellum overlay, which are, in fact, x-rays of Noonan's shattered limbs after a nearly fatal car accident while on tour in Italy in 2003. Both of those books also feature lyrics and poetry, as does the one that accompanies In the Ring, which also includes photos by Dirk Eusterbrock, whose work has been featured in such outlets as Playboy, Muzikexpress, and Alternative Press, with special effects created by makeup artist April Townes.
“Lyrics and poetry are abstract but music is the consequence everyone can connect with. They don’t show the audience what I am seeing when I write them, or when I compose the music,” explains Noonan. “I’ve begun to include books as visual representations of the stories conveyed on these projects, so that anyone can experience the vision that inspired me.”
“Now that I’ve done these two albums, I feel like I want to continue to compose for the string quartet for the rest of my life, since it offers such infinite possibilities,” Noonan concludes. “Currently I am sketching the ‘Skarbnik Suites,’ which will be recorded in London at the end of my UK tour this November, and I’m already working on a series of works for my I.Q. Quartet, that are pure improv concepts.”
released 21 October 2014
Sean Noonan drummer composer vocals
NY-based Momenta Quartet: Emilie-Anne Gendron and Adda Kridler on violins, Stephanie Griffin on viola, and Michael Haas on cello.