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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Noah Becker

Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

Multi-reedist Noah Becker is filled with deep curiosity. When we at Jazz Speaks sat down with Noah to talk about his upcoming Jazz Gallery show and new record, our conservation flowed from mathematics to a painting by Paul Klee to devotional traditions of Yemenite Judaism. Becker mines this curiosity in his compositions, crafting music that is at turns rough-hewn and delicate.

On Saturday, July 10, Becker will make his Gallery debut as a leader with his band Underthought, featuring Alex Levine on guitar, Tyrone Allen on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Becker and company will be celebrating the release of their first record, The Hollow Count, which you can check out below. While you may come for the music on this stirring debut, stay for the wide-ranging conversation beyond.

The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell me about your upcoming record release?

Noah Becker: The name of the record is The Hollow Count, and it’ll be out July 7th on Bandcamp. I may do physical discs at the end of 2021, but not for now. I put out my first record, Retumbra, this past December as a co-leader with Steve Williams and Jonah Udall, only playing clarinet in that band, but this will be my first record as a solo leader (playing alto and clarinet both). The process has been really meaningful to me, and I’m grateful to everyone involved for their enormous contributions—Stephen, Tyrone and Alex for giving so much to the music, Edward Gavitt for recording and mixing, Zekkereya El-magharbel for the artwork, Griffin Brown for the liner notes, Arielle Toub and Alex Hunter for the video work…I’m proud of the final result, and I’m glad to be playing this music some more with Underthought at the Gallery.

TJG: How did the pandemic affect the timing of the release?

NB: Underthought recorded in February 2020 just before the pandemic. Actually, I recorded the Underthought and Retumbra records in two days back-to-back. I decided to release Retumbra first, and then staggered the release of The Hollow Count later.

TJG: Can you tell me what a Hollow Count is? What are we counting? And why is it hollow?

NB: Yeah, that is a curious title. I had been thinking to myself that what is countable, or what is perceivable in the world—there’s so much more to things and to people than what we see immediately. I think everyone knows this on some level, but people can really become reliant on their initial perceptions, or the perceptions that they’ve codified or internalized over time, or those that feel native to them. The simplest way for me of summarizing that idea of what’s immediately perceived, is counting.

TJG: Just to be clear, when you say counting, you’re not specifically referring to counting the beat, right?

NB: Counting in that way is something that all musicians do, like it or not, admit it or not—but no, I don’t mean that kind of counting outright. There are so many ways that numbers manifest in music—counting, and also in the construction of compositions and the construction of improvisations. They find a voice, they find a life. They’re not a dead thing. I mean, music of all places is such a wonderful place where numbers find some of their highest or most transcendent significance—or lowest, really, most rooted in the earth.

I actually initially went to school for engineering—

TJG: This was at the New School?

NB: No, this was at Northwestern. I’m originally from Philadelphia, but I went to school in Chicago for a year. I was always a big math person. I still am. Numbers are a beautiful thing.

There’s this old adage amongst mathematicians—they say that a mathematician only cares about a problem until they know that a solution can be found. If you think of it as a spectrum of sorts—on one end only caring that a solution can be found, and on the other end caring what the solution actually is—then to me, music is the opposite of that adage. For me, it’s important what things actually sound like.

It’s great that systems can be constructed in a way that leads to new sounds, new ways of hearing and understanding, new ways of musically conversing and talking to facilitate improvisation or composition—but what makes them real is the exact opposite of just caring that they can be created. The solution, musically, is the sounds that we are making right here and now.

I like to imagine sometimes that music didn’t have an active time element, as if it were like a painting, as if it were just hanging crystalline in the air. I say that mainly to make a point about our understanding of music, but really this concept extends even to art forms that are decidedly not time-based, like painting or sculpture. Normally I think of static visual arts as not time-based, but… I was looking at this Paul Klee painting recently, “Sailing Boats,” which I love and revisit often. There are three kinds of figures of sailing boats in it, and I noticed that each one was drawn with a single line without lifting the paintbrush from the canvas, and each line circles back on itself.

TJG: It shows the process of the work, so it does become time-based in that kind of way.

NB: Right. Here’s a system that Paul Klee was thinking of, this kind of structural thing, and my perception of that structural richness makes me more appreciative and more loving of this painting.

But, he could have just had this structural thought for a painting, and never actually made the painting itself. The fact that it became this painting, these sailing boats, this solution to a question, this music, this improvisation, these people who are playing this music…

One of the reasons I think Glenn Gould and Martha Argerich, in their own ways, are so compelling playing Bach is that they’re determined to rediscover each piece of music every single time they play it. It’s not about just some historical piece that they’re preserving. They’re really committed to the act of creating the sound now, and it becomes new every time. It’s the exact opposite of only caring that a solution can be found. “No, this is the solution.”

For me, music is a physicalization of math and numbers in a way that feels a lot richer in my heart than how I think I would have related to them if I had stayed in engineering. But, there are other people who really find more depth in that understanding—this is just me.

TJG: While we’re talking about systems, I’m aware you’ve done copyist work for Henry Threadgill among others. How has that influenced your playing or your thought process?

NB: Yeah, it’s been a real pleasure working for Henry. I’m very familiar, at this point, with his systems of intervallic organization and melodic treatment, his systems of rhythmic design and relative durations of phrases. I’ve done about 10 projects for him, and I’ve developed a real sense of his orchestrational wisdom, which is such a wonderful thing.

What I’ve learned most from Henry, though, is that he will not let anything stop him from just writing music. People really latch on to the system that surrounds his work, and with good reason: there’s so much there. But also, Henry has such a force of will. He’s so determined to just write the music, to get to it. Of course there are systems involved, but when it comes down to it, he’s going to plow through and write without letting any considerations of system keep him from getting to it in the moment.

That’s something that I have struggled with as a composer in the past. I still do, but it’s getting better. If I have some kind of system upfront, or a grammar that I’ve developed for a specific piece of music, because I’m so math-y I can get wrapped up in the grammar, and I struggle to write the actual content of the composition. You can build a whole palace, but then you actually have to write the stuff that goes inside it.

TJG: Let’s talk about the content. Some of the words I wrote down to describe your music were brooding, focused yet meditative, tension without release at times.

NB: I like that last one.

TJG: It sounds very condensed, like all of this energy and tension crammed into this almost quiet, well not really quiet—

NB: But it can be—we’re not afraid of quiet, I’m not afraid of quiet.

TJG: The quiet was probably what struck me most about the record.

NB: Actually, I think nowadays, and maybe people who come to the gig will hear, I’m less quiet than ever for me. There’s still the spirit of quiet, but quiet is less exclusively about low decibels. It’s more about the unfolding of detail inside the sound. There’s a lot of richness being compounded into each single moment, so that it’s almost like there are quiet little flickers inside the sound that you have to look out for or be attuned to.

System-wise, some of this music does have intervallic organization, but not all of it. But even if I’m not imposing a strict intervallic grammar onto the construction of music, I’m always aware of it. As a composer I’m really drawn to Stravinsky—he spoke at length with Robert Craft about intervals, and even mentioned once going to bed having been troubled by an interval, and then dreaming about its anatomy…

TJG: I did notice a lot of large intervallic jumps in your playing.

NB: I do like bigger jumps. I’ve been afraid of them for a long time on the saxophone, but less so on clarinet. Because of the clarinet’s cylindrical construction, I find that larger intervals are more available technically than they are on saxophone.

But I find more and more as I get older, fear of all kinds becomes magnetic. I’m usually afraid of something because that’s actually just the thing that I’m supposed to do. Not always, I mean—there are fears that are just useless, that you just need to get over, that aren’t pointing you towards something that you necessarily need to explore more. But more often than not, fears really do point the way.

Religion is a good example. I didn’t grow up religious, but I am curious, and there’s been fear for me of going towards that.

TJG: A fear of faith?

NB: Well…I’ve become really interested in Yemenite Judaism. There’s a very specific prayer tradition and a very specific way in which melody unfolds during the service. The ordering of prayers, the way that they pray together, the Torah-reading tradition—all of it is really specific, and it’s older than a lot of other branches of Judaism. It’s beautiful and it’s deep, and I have enormous respect for what Yemenite Jews do. So, I’ve been going to synagogue to try to learn more about that. And that was really scary for me for a long time. I felt like I was going to be intruding, or like I would be disrespecting their traditions just by being there.

But that fear was telling me that this is something I really have to do. That fear became magnetic. Even when we talk about fearing God, for me, that fear is so wrapped up in our deep internal, intuitive sense of what we’re here to do on this Earth as individuals, and as a community all together. Fear is extraordinarily magnetic and beautiful in that way.

And it’s the same with music. I can be afraid to write certain music, or afraid to write music at all. I can be afraid to practice because I think I’m not good enough or whatever. But the fear is actually telling me time and time again that this is what I’m supposed to do.

TJG: We all have our own fears. We all have our own burdens. We all have our own personalities. If this music is a representation of you, is this a place for you to explore those fears?

NB: That’s a great question. It has always been really important to me that music creates space for the full spectrum of human emotion and human experience. There can be such an external ideal sometimes—for example, as a saxophone player there’s the common ideal of having a big sound. But I reject that: I don’t want there to be room only for strength, fortuity, power, joy, exaltation. I want there to be room for—certainly for sadness, but also for anxiety, and for fear. There can be a quiver in the sound; there can be awkwardness. I also like to use pauses in the music, sometimes dramatic pauses, so anxiety can rush in for a moment. The element of surprise is very important.

Having access to a big sound is important, of course—but I’m not really interested in playing with a big sound always, or sounding big or brash all the time. Life isn’t like that. There are times when you have to speak up and speak your mind, when you have to be bold and comfortable with whatever you’re feeling, and not deny what’s going on inside. But there are also times when you really should not speak—or if you are going to speak, at least do it in a way that isn’t just about what you think, and is much more empathetic and concerned with hearing what other people are saying.

TJG: It’s funny—it sounds like you’re describing life rather than a band.

NB: But it’s the same thing. That’s the thing for me.

TJG: I think that may be a foreign concept for many people.

NB: But we apply the same reasoning to the English language too, right? We have these thoughts or these ideas that are flowing here. And then to call it a thought, to have a word for it at all, is just one way of trying to get at the essence of something which really is quite beyond language.

And different people hear things differently. Different people can carve different pathways of understanding through music or through any artistic medium—and through life of course.

But in terms of my intentions as a music maker—and in their own ways, for Alex, Stephen, and Tyrone, too, who are fantastic musicians—our intentions from inside ourselves can take very literal and directed pathways. To me it makes the music better, it gives it more strength, to have such intention. What I’m not interested in is that other people then hear it that same way.

TJG: I want to quote something from your website. “[Your music] is attuned to the interplay of the vibrations of sound, and the different ways we relate to them—through our bodies as resonant listeners, and our minds as co-creators of music and art.”

NB: When I create this music, certain things get planned in advance, like certain melodies, certain counterlines, maybe certain formal structural ideas of how things get arranged. But at the gig, I am interacting with, or responding to, the sounds that come out of my own instrument. It’s not like the sounds I make are a perfect picture of what I’m hearing inside. I’m also interacting with my bandmates, which is the more traditional way to think about interplay. But really, yeah, I’m interacting with myself and with other people.

And then we’ve got an audience, which is interacting with the music too. And if each person is carving their own pathway of understanding through the music, well, another word for carving in this case is creating. It’s important to me and the musicians on stage that we are not the only people creating here—that the audience is creating too.

TJG: Are you talking about the creation of the concept of your music in their minds? Or are you talking about sort of the interplay between band and audience and how that can affect the band?

NB: Both. The audience is creating their own relationship with music, creating their own understanding, creating their own appreciation. We’re creating the music and the audience is creating right along with us. I feel that we’re all on the same plane in that sense.

TJG: And you spoke a bit about the audience as a resonant body. Can you comment on the physical nature of your music?

NB: As you may know, pitch and rhythm are part of a continuum; all of that is really vibration. I use the word vibration to call attention to the physicality of the music—there are physical bodies playing it, physical waves in the air that are being produced, and physical bodies receiving it.

I think hearing live music and even recorded music is an amazing experience—to have that infinity of possibility condensed into a single gesture and hit you like a pile driver, and force you into the present moment…it’s just amazing.

TJG: While we’re on the theme of what the audience is creating or experiencing, I have another quote from your website: “ [The music has a] discerning awareness of music’s ability to shape and alter our experience of the passage of time.”

NB: There’s a way of compounding detail into slowness or fastness in music that makes us feel as though time is flowing differently—and who’s to say it’s not? Einstein said: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a lover for an hour, and it seems like a minute.” Add to that the concept of memory, the influence that music can have on when and how things are called up in our ears and mind, and you get a whole world of nonlinear, or at least non-uniform ways that time can be experienced.

Also, there’s great joy for me in the play between seeing the big picture and dealing with the details—that’s a wave you can ride for a long time.

TJG: Can you talk about how you choose clarinet or saxophone for a tune?

NB: That’s a good question. I’m really interested in having a different sound on each instrument. Obviously, since I’m me, there are certain things that are going to come out no matter what instrument I play—but I like to think that I don’t double. I have two singles. Doubling to me is more like a Broadway thing.

TJG: I definitely hear a different voice on the two instruments. I found that your clarinet sound is more folky.

NB: Thank you, that is high praise. On the clarinet, there are considerations for register, and a different kind of integration of the breath. There’s also volume to take into account—I can’t play as loud on the clarinet. Also, my technique on clarinet—like technique in the very traditional sense of fingers on keys—is not as good. I’ve been playing saxophone a lot longer. My articulation is not as crisp on clarinet, and I don’t get as much variety of sound color—but I’ve been working on it a lot since that album was recorded, and there has been great progress. To be heard on July 10th!

TJG: Do you ever write a tune knowing which instrument you’ll use ahead of time?

NB: I wrote one piece that’s a setting of a James Joyce sentence from “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which is an extraordinary book: “—We knew perfectly well of course that although it was bound to come to the light he would find considerable difficulty in endeavoring to try to induce himself to try to endeavor to ascertain the spiritual plenipotentiary and so we knew of course perfectly well—”

I wrote the piece, and I had it in my head that I’d play saxophone. In fact, I originally wrote it in a different key, but I transposed it up to make it work better for both alto and guitar. There were some range considerations I had to account for.

But I’ve played it at gigs on clarinet too, so it can be fluid. I often have in mind what instrument I’m going to play on a tune when I write it, and then sometimes I like to change it up later—it’s a new challenge.

TJG: Let’s talk about one more of your tunes, “Détente.” It’s not lost on me that you are playing the horn like a shofar. Was this technique born out of shofar study?

NB: First of all, I am hardly the first person to do this technique—Ingrid Laubrock does a great version of it. There’s also this cat Ola Asdahl Rokkones, a Norwegian saxophonist, who I found a video of playing with a symphony orchestra and using the both the whistling and buzzing techniques which I’ve adopted. I emailed him to ask questions about the whistling in particular, which I struggled with for a long time. I stumbled upon the buzzing at Banff during a conduction workshop with Tyshawn Sorey.

Aside from “Détente,” I have actually experimented with something more directly like a shofar service on the horn too. As you may know, there’s a very specific sequence of shofar calls during Rosh Hashanah, and I’ve done improvised versions of that—still in that specific sequence, but taking some improvisational liberties.

Anyway, that buzzing technique is kind of like a pitched-shofar feeling. And then I can do this whistling thing, which to me sounds almost like an eerie flute.

TJG: Eerie is definitely the right word, and an interesting sound, especially for a call to peace.

NB: Right, a call to peace. A ceasing of tension and fire.

TJG: Yet it sounds extremely tense.

NB: Yes, there is tension, but we’re playing together. There’s this whole arc of the piece, which we navigate as a group.

TJG: And then that last prolonged note—

NB: It’s quite a note, right?

TJG: Was that planned?

NB: I don’t think that Alex, Tyrone, and Stephen knew that I was going to hold that note so much longer than their cutoff. I didn’t even know until the moment it happened. It was a surprise all around.

TJG: It’s certainly evocative.

NB: I thought it was a cool note to end on. “Détente,” to some degree, was like a dystopian afterthought. Why not acknowledge the dystopia that is our world and universe, and still seek a coming-together of some sort? Either in spite of that, or because of it?

Noah Becker’s Underthought celebrates the release of The Hollow Count at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The group features Mr. Becker on alto saxophone & clarinet, Alex Levine on guitar, Tyrone Allen on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.