Drummer/composer and rhythmic storyteller Sean Noonan releases two audacious and imaginative new albums in early 2022
Knott Tones (due out February 1) features new compositions for drumkit and strings featuring the U.K.-based Ligeti Quartet, while Zappanation (March 21) is an outrageous Frank Zappa-inspired rock opera
The releases precede the 2022 premiere of Bartalk, a new multi-media performance piece addressing the issues of isolation and solitary confinement
Drummer and composer Sean Noonan has long preferred the term “Rhythmic Storyteller” to describe his audacious, genre-defiant artistry. As a modern-day sonic griot he combines the most ancient of traditions with forward-seeking experimentation; as a kind of post-modern wandering minstrel he gathers irreverent folk tales and offbeat inspirations from various cultures and translates them through his own singular worldview.
Noonan’s two upcoming releases offer a glimpse into the wide range of his eclectic tastes and interests. Zappanation is a surreal rock opera composed in the provocative and inventive spirit of Frank Zappa and Edgard Varèse; Knott Tones is a collision of new music composition and free improvisation, written for string quartet and drum kit and inspired in part by comedy legend Don Knotts.
“I always want to take a listener or an audience on a journey into new worlds,” Noonan says of his always-unpredictable output. “I try to constantly explore different topics and new places.”
Knott Tones, due out February 1, 2022, features the U.K.-based Ligeti Quartet. An acclaimed string ensemble devoted to modern composers and innovative programming, the quartet features violinists Mandhira De Saram and Patrick Dawkins, violist Richard Jones, and cellist Valeria Welbanks (with guest violinist Alicja Pilarczyk stepping in for De Saram on Knott Tones).
The quartet will also join Noonan for one of his most ambitious projects to date, the multi-media piece Isolation. Commissioned by the Arts Council of England, PRS for Music, and Forestry England, Isolation addresses the issue of solitary confinement — a long-held concern for the composer that has only come into sharper focus during the pandemic era. In March 2022, Noonan will perform a 23-hour solo percussion piece at an in-progress dry stone wall maze in England’s Dalby Forest. The piece will be filmed and edited, with elements serving as inspiration for a new composition, Bartalk, that Noonan will write for himself and the Ligeti Quartet to perform during a five-concert tour in April 2022 (see dates below). The finale will take place on April 20 at London’s St. Giles Church, sponsored by Jazz Live at the Crypt. This expanded concert will include the premiere of Bartalk along with a chamber orchestra featuring Alex Ward on clarinet, guitar, Matthew Bourne, fender rhodes, organ and Otto Willberg, bass. The concert will help kick start the fundraising campaign for the restoration of the St. Giles church organ, built by renowned organ builders Bishop & Son organ in 1844 and currently in need of repairs.
The world of Zappanation, due out March 21, 2022, is a particularly outrageous one even for Noonan, whose past works have related tales of a Beckettian street-smart boxer and an Irish gambler trapped inside a wall. The story refracts Mozart’s brothel-set opera The Abduction from the Seraglio through the bawdy humor and musical inventiveness of Zappa and the percussive abstractions of Varèse.
From the kit, Noonan plays a young boy abandoned to grow up in a swinger’s club by his embittered war veteran father. As he pays back the old man’s debts by playing in the club orchestra, the boy meets a variety of zany characters portrayed by the Sardinian vocal quartet who also appeared on his 2020 release Drumavox: soprano Alice Madeddu, mezzo-soprano Eva Pagella, tenor Matteo Siddi, and bass Manuel Cossu.
Zappanation (whose title mashes together Zappa’s name with the title of Varèse’s most well-known composition, “Ionisation”) was commissioned by Italy’s Sant’anna Jazz Festival and premiered in 2016. Ironically, Noonan had never been a Zappa acolyte, despite parallels between the two iconoclastic and self-sufficient composers.
“I never really checked out Frank Zappa,” the drummer admits, “but especially when I play in Germany and England, people always tell me that I’m just like Zappa. The connection I feel to him is really in the fact that he did everything on his own. He was really a workaholic.”
Knott Tones, meanwhile, is an outgrowth of “Don Knotts,” a Noonan composition originally recorded on Drumavox. A self-described “member of the Three’s Company generation,” Noonan composed the piece based on a 12-tone row and dedicated to the late comedian – an unlikely inspiration for such intricate music, but perhaps Noonan recognized the stellar grace and timing essential to any successful physical comedian.
The five pieces on the album employ polytemporal rhythmic ideas from composer Conlon Nancarrow’s “Studies for Player Piano,” a key source of inspiration for Noonan. “Nancarrow is one of one of my favorite American composers,” Noonan says. “I spent a lot of time studying his output of music for player piano.”
The unconventional instrumentation on Knott Tones – drumkit and string quartet – allowed Noonan to reimagine the narrative and melodic potential of his rhythmic ideas. “I treat the quartet like it's an extension of the drum kit,” he explains. “My two legs and two arms are almost like the cello, viola and two violins. So I tried to visualize ways that the quartet’s playing could come out of what I would be naturally playing on the drum set. Sometimes that means transcribing my rhythmic language, though often it’s more abstract than that.”
Noonan’s fruitful relationship with the Ligeti Quartet, which began in 2015 with performances of A Gambler’s Hand, will further evolve with the composition and recording of Bartalk in 2022. The first piece that Noonan has written directly addressing contemporary social issues, Bartalk was inspired by conversations with his father and brothers, criminal defense lawyers who shared horrific stories of prisoners wrongly convicted and held in solitary confinement.
The composer conceived the piece well before last year’s pandemic, but the notion of living in isolation has since touched all of us, leading Noonan to further refine and develop the piece. The wordplay of the title suggests the ideas swirling around the multi-media composition – the discussion of imprisonment hinted at by “talk” of life behind “bars,” but there’s also the suggestion of idle conversation in the local saloon as well as the composer Béla Bartok, who much like Noonan took pieces of traditional folk music and repurposed it to his own compositional ends. While he hopes that the piece will offer insight into the treatment of prisoners, his approach has broadened to look at different kinds of cages in modern life.
“The pandemic has made the world stop and take a breath as well as created an understanding around the theme of isolation,” Noonan concludes. “In 2020, the whole planet endured several levels of isolation: quarantine, loneliness, solitude, confinement, seclusion, remoteness, insulation, retreat, separation, detachment. Bartalk is an intimate performance relating how a rhythmic storyteller has coped with isolation and entrapment. From a wider perspective, it examines how we’ve been made to feel incarcerated and unwell due to climate change and environmental issues (including COVID itself), and how crucial breaking out of ‘environmental entrapment’ is for our wellbeing.”
Bartalk tour dates:
April 6 - Queens Head, Monmouth
April 9 - The Band Room, Low Mill, Farndale, Kirkbymoorside, North Yorkshire, YO62 7UY
April 10 - Northeast Jazz, Newcastle
April 11 - The Old Hair, Glasgow
April 30 - St. Giles Church, London
"The drummer and composer Sean Noonan approaches postmodern jazz and world music from the same angle of self-discovery ... he manages to make his pieces speak coherently, and in a unified voice." - Nate Chinen, New York Times
"Menacingly surreal, often assaultive, a feast for fans of dark, challenging music…it’s a category unto itself – and one of the best albums of 2012 in any style of music. Scary Stuff from Sean Noonan." - Lucid Culture