One man, many songs
Jerry Noble dons many musical hats for free concert Sunday
“There are only two kinds of music; music that sounds good and whatever you want to call that other stuff.”
— Duke Ellington
Jerry Noble leads a flock of parallel musical lives, among them, piano accompanist for the soloists and choruses of the Smith College music department, where he will provide a fall-season kickoff concert featuring himself in two additional roles: Clifton J. Noble, composer, and Jerry Noble, jazz man, the latter in tandem with his Dixieland-loving clarinettist sidekick, Bob Sparkman.
The concert is free and takes place at Sweeney Concert Hall, Smith College, Northampton, Sunday, Sept. 15, at 3 p.m.
I asked Jerry about his program in a recent phone conversation:
JN: The first piece will be my fifth sonata for violin and piano, written for Joel Pitchon, the violin professor at Smith; I wrote that piece for him and we’ve done it a couple of times and have recorded it, but this will be the first time we’ve actually played it at Smith.
JM: Can you characterize that music at all?
JN: I can, yes. The whole impetus for it was that I heard Joel play the highest D on the reach of the violin — the one that Beethoven climbs up to in his (violin) concerto — and it was such an other-worldly, sweet, yet powerful sound that it was going to have to be the very first note in any piece that I wrote for him, and was going to have to be a major destination for him throughout the piece. The fact is that that high D begins the piece and ends it, but within the piece it’s all based on ocatatonic scales, so any fan of (20th-century French composer Olivier) Messaien or any of his school will recognize the sounds of those chords, of that scale of alternating whole and half steps. So it’s a very sort of alien sounding piece in a way.
JM: Yes, I was going to say that, to my ears, the octatonic scale creates a nice “tipsiness” that enables the movement of the harmonic palette to keep going ...
JN: That sounds way better than what I came up with!
JM: (Laughing) Something about it contrives not to cadence (to come to temporary or complete endings or closures.) And while I’m not sure, because I haven’t had a chance to see the music, but I have the strong impression that the famous film composer Bernard Herrmann may have made abundant use of the scale in his music for the Alfred Hitchcock films.
JN: I wouldn’t be surprised. I love his music, at least all of it that I have.
JM: It keeps moving you dynamically forward; and it does have an eerie quality, you’re right. I think it’s the constant slip-sliding of the half-steps that keeps the ear off-balance.
JN: Yeah, because it alternates half-steps and whole-steps and it never commits; you can manipulate it in so many ways, to produce triads (traditional major and minor chords) and those kinds of harmonies or you can manipulate it to do what Debussy does to produce whole tones and to get all the whole tone scales going, and it’s very handy.
JM: All right, I have a ‘devil’s advocate’ question for you because I don’t write music this way and I’m interested in those who do, since I never find myself having a technical or theoretical bailiwick or mark to hit, such as starting and ending on a high D, or whatever it may be. If you decide upon using some sort of structure or sound prior to yet having come to the place of experiencing a feeling of any kind, do you then contrive to make that “mean” something by what you then go on to compose after it?
JN: Well, the way that I wrote this piece — to dodge the question — is to begin on the high D and to know that it was gonna to back in there simply so that I could hear the sound; and then create melodies that just composed themselves with the scale and fit into a very, very loose, rough sonata form. Because, I just love that form, the idea of the tension that’s built and then the resolution that’s achieved by returning to the initial material, whether it be conventional tonal music or not. And I really do strive for melody. In the middle of this, you’ll hear an awful lot of (Sergei Prokofiev’s) “Peter and the Wolf,” not consciously quoting it but for some reason those tunes and those harmonic progressions popped out somehow. So, as far as “meaning something” goes, I guess I was after creating some meaning around the sound of Joel’s playing, and using the scale that I used was a convenient way of getting tonal material that wasn’t going to sound like anything else I’ve written, because none of the other four sonatas that I’ve written use that scale.
JM: And then what?
JN: And then comes a series of setting by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca from his children’s collection, entitled “The Cricket Sings.” I’ve set eight of them. It started as material for a children’s or family concert with Joel Pitchon and Katie Hoyer, a singer, at the Eric Carle Museum last spring. Katie Hoyer just graduated last year and is interning at Smith as a publicity assistant in the theater and music department; she’s a very, very gifted young mezzo-soprano. Joel said that the main focus of the concert was going to be music inspired by the Latin American culture. So I asked a professor in the Spanish department if she might recommend some poems to me and she said her father used to sing her these Federico Garcia Lorca poems. She remembered him singing one in particular about a pair of lizards who were getting married and who were giving this ring back and forth to each other.
JM: Did you by any chance happen to set those with guitar, as it’s an instrument you also play.
JN: Well, this time not, but I have certainly guitaristic things going on in the piano and the violin; there are a lot of strummed chords in the violin and some guitar textures in the piano.
JM: Is the whole concert being presented by the three of you?
JN: The first half will be the three of us and then Bob Sparkman will do our traditional jazz numbers and, finally, Katie and Joel will join us for some Jobim songs and, as a matter of fact, I will be on guitar for those.
JM: You’ve been doing your two-man jazz performances with Bob for quite a while now ...
JN: Since 1995 I believe.
JM: ... anywhere and everywhere that people will open their doors to you.
JN: Yes, we just played at the Westfield Atheneum last week and I think it was one of our most inventive outings ever, it was terrific. He’s 85 this year and I’m 52, and I feel like he’s younger than me!
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.