Noah and Luke Interview: a cold dream in Minneapolis
Date: mid-March 2023
Question: Sun Yizhou
Answer: LUKE (Luke Martin) NOAH (Noah Ophoven-Baldwin)
1. Please tell us a little bit, introduce yourself. How old are you? What are you working on these days? Are you currently working as musicians/composers or in other professions?
Thanks for doing this interview—it is a very nice idea. And for releasing this music!
I am 30 years old. I live in South Minneapolis, near Noah, with my wife Nina and two dogs. We moved here about 4 years ago from Boston. I miss Boston quite a bit—the people particularly, there are amazing musicians in town—but Minneapolis has been a wonderful place to move to. Good scene, great people and musicians, nice city, and there’s something to be said for being able to have a backyard.
I moved here after working in Boston for a few years to start a PhD program at the University. I study philosophy, experimental music, political theory—it is a kind of wide-ranging program, people work on all sorts of stuff. Mostly, I read a lot. So, yeah, my job is to teach at the University and to read. Both are exciting and challenging, though the fact they are ‘a job’ is not. But, it is not possible to survive making the kind of music we do. Which is fine in a certain way. I would hate for it to be a ‘profession’ in the usual sense.
In terms of what I’m working on at the moment, things are fairly busy. Noah and I are running a little series in town. We also have this ensemble with friends who are composers & performers—us with Max Wanderman and Adam Zahller, and we call the group ‘Short Americans’—that is a nice outlet to try new compositions and hang. I am just wrapping up a project for Noah’s new label ‘All Sky’ based on the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth (late 18th, early 19th century)—her writing is totally stunning. And I have recently put the last touches on an older project inspired by the poetry of Jack Spicer, which will come out soon on cassette.
Luke and I are both the same age. I grew up in Minnesota, went to school here and have basically never left! For a long time I worked as a custodian— the solitary life worked very well for me. Now, I’m a parent of a 1-1/2 year old and to give the family some flexibility I do similar work but am a little more enterprising doing construction and handyman type work in my neighborhood. It’s very different from the music thing and gives my life some necessary balance.
Musically, I’ve been working on putting together the first few releases for a new label, like Luke mentioned, which includes writing and music of mine, a piece from Luke and music from Zhu Wenbo and photographs from a photographer, Lyn Corelle. I just finished up the last rehearsal for a piece with my main group, Realtree, a chamber quintet (and in this case it is a piece for double quintet). The piece is sort of a culmination of the last few years writing for this band. For whatever reason being a parent has been incredibly energizing in my artistic practice.
2. When did you start doing this type of music? Have you done any other type of music before this? Do you guys usually practice your instruments/equipment? I’d like to know more.
For most of my 20s I played a lot of jazz, a lot of improvised music. I didn’t really set into the quieter, composer-like things until 2017 or so. Before that there was lots of stop and starts trying to figure out what was and wasn’t clicking for myself as an artist. I heard Suidobashi Chamber Ensemble (released on Meena in 2016? Or 17?) and for whatever reason that clicked with me and I found myself very set in the quiet music.
As a trumpet player (cornet now of course) I was brought up in a jazz and working musician capacity and have always held myself to that—practicing and keeping up my playing so I am ready to play everyday. Honestly, I was not a very skilled brass musician coming up and I didn’t find a path for myself until I was out of college. Because of this I think I really relied on shedding and preparing everything beforehand. I love to practice and I am incredibly disciplined about it.
I grew up playing jazz guitar. Straight ahead stuff. I loved it and still do. Wes Montgomery and Grant Green were my favorites (as they are today, in terms of guitarists). I did this until I was about 20. Then I came across Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, late John Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, re-listening to people like Monk, and on and on. My mind was annihilated. At the same time I was getting really into Cage, Feldman, and Wolff, as well as music concrete / noise music. Then I found Wandelweiser. It all happened super quickly and I was very excited about everything. I ‘started’ doing this music a year or so afterward, so maybe around 22ish, when I went to study with Michael (Pisaro-Liu) at CalArts. That was a life-changing experience. The whole thing: Michael as an inestimably great, incisive, and generous teacher and now friend, the friends I made there, the scene downtown, and so much more.
Yes, I practice. Not as much as Noah though! He’s very disciplined with that. It’s admirable, if slightly intimidating. I don’t practice guitar as much anymore, at least at the moment. I did a lot of that years back when I played it regularly with Ordinary Affects. Nowadays I practice no-input mixing, probably because I’m improvising more frequently (I don’t improvise on guitar typically). ‘Practicing’ no-input is for me just improvising by myself for a couple hours or so, or with a friend. More often with friends! It is not so much about what sounds I can make or techniques I develop or hone, though that’s a part of it, of course. Practice, in the end, is about developing my relation to chance and silence and listening. A few tones, some simple feedback, and maybe a field recording always prove to be more than enough material. I am, ultimately, of the opinion that you don’t really need to make ‘sound’ at all to practice or play—which is not at all to say that sound is not welcome, nor an important part of that process!
3. It doesn’t feel like it’s your first time working together! You know each other very well. Have you performed together before? What was it like live?
Correct. We play a fair amount together, and talk about life and politics and music and other nice mundane things, etc. Noah very gently yet assuredly beats me in chess (he is very good). Anyway, I think we have very similar artistic/musical orientations and interests, although we may approach them from slightly different angles. I have to say, I’m incredibly grateful Noah lives here! I remember when I first saw him play a show—holy shit, who is this guy!? His playing was right in the pocket of a kind of music and thought that had fascinated and confounded and drove my own work for years. Can’t tell you how happy I was to hear it.
Performing together is great fun. When we improvise together I think we are each after a similar thing, kind of sitting with something (anything) right on the edge of nothing, just a sustained teetering, like trying to catch something out of the corner of your eye. Occasionally something starts to form, to build, to grow from that space of uncertainty almost of its own accord (which can only really be slipped into accidentally)—and then we have this thing, this odd little created thing, which somehow refuses all justification for being, and which may dissipate at any moment. And you can’t do anything with it! It just sits there. And we sit there. And there you have it. There’s this quote from Simone Weil (whose writings Noah introduced me to) which we hilariously, without knowing, each named a piece after: “to see the landscape as it is when I am not there.” I think this kind of gets at what’s going on when we play together.
It was extremely easy for Luke and I to fall into certain things. The first time we played together at his place I was blown away with his playing. It really felt like we were building something together when we were improvising. Thinking about it now, someone told me about him when he first moved here and maybe I was scared or something but it took a second for us to start hanging out. I always feel comforted knowing that I could sit there with Luke for quite some time and we could each be doing almost nothing at all and be quite pleased with it. He has a terrible sense of humor and I love him dearly for it… Here we are and I’d do anything for him.
4. I heard that you two recently played a show in Minneapolis? In a small space? For our Chinese friends, Minneapolis is a bit of a strange and distant place, like a dream world. Can you talk briefly about what the new music scene in Minneapolis is like? About how many people are making this type of music? Are there new people coming in from time to time? Is there a strong connection with musicians from other states in the US? I’d like to know more too.
Haha, it is a cold dream world!
Yes, we did play a show recently. We’ll hopefully do another one together this summer for this cassette release. Noah can talk more about the Minneapolis scene. He’s been here and involved with it for a long time! I’m definitely involved now, but I’m still new to it.
Regarding the connections between states and internationally (at least in my experience): basically, in nearly every small to larger town someone, at least one!, is doing this kind of music/way-of-living. And their door is always open, with a couch, a meal, drinks, and conversation—just as ours are. I find this very inspiring. Nonetheless, it can feel isolating doing this music. At times you feel like you’re alone (or at least I do), in a fog or something, just stumbling around, but then you bump into someone else, by accident, and maybe squint really hard and see another person in the distance, and so on—and before you know it there’s a whole world, and it’s massive, and beautiful, and exciting, and intense, and full of people to learn from and make music with.
Since I’ve been into this stuff there has always been something interesting to go out and see in town.
Before the pandemic there was enough happening that you had a lot of different music series you could go to and there were a lot of things happening musically that you could check out. Bars, small DIY venues, concert spaces and all sorts of stuff. I think it was impressive! Thinking back on it now almost every night of the week (in a larger time-scale) was filled with music: there was Monday nights at the Icehouse where you could see some amazing jazz/jazz-adjacent music which was has been a long standing continued series for decades now (thankful for the great jazz trio, Fat Kid Wednesdays), the Tourniquet noise series also every few Mondays had incredible local acts and some mind blowing touring stuff (Jason Kahn in 2022!?), “last Tuesdays” was a series for a few years that Tim Glenn and Erik Fratzke put on and (I think it was Tuesdays) there was an amazing music series on Tuesday nights around the 2010s above a daycare in South Minneapolis where so many great musicians played, Thursdays at this legendary Afghani restaurant, Khyber Pass, in St. Paul (I was privileged to be one of the curators there for the last few years along with Paul Metzger, Adam Linz, Kevin Cosgrove, Davu Seru) had some transformative nights of improvised music from 2014 (?) or so. I’m still leaving out a lot but it was really bustling for awhile!
When I was growing up there was this Minnesota Sur Seine festival which had musicians from Europe and elsewhere come play here. I was 14 and got to hear Evan Parker play—twice! It was also the first time I heard George Cartwright play and Milo Fine. My dear friend and mentor, Adam Linz, who is the greatest double bassist I have ever heard, has an amazing story of some guy that played shovels in the early aughts. He would show up to shows in a miner costume and just drag this shovel on a metal sheet—with an extreme degree of precision.
Minneapolis (St. Paul too, our neighbor across the Mississippi river) is a great place to be a creative musician. It’s a bit of a slow rhythm here but I think that’s helpful. We don’t get too many new people but from time to time someone special shows up. Luke is a great example!
5. To me, this album is like a short version of the Realtree group coming to play “so softly that it came, a wild dim chatter, meaningless” sequel! It’s a perfect blend of your usual creations. Can you tell us a little bit about what led to this album? Was the album recorded in one day? What were some of the interesting things that happened during the creation process?
That’s very nice of you to say. Hmm, what led to it? We started hanging out! Improvising together, and so on—and of course I was an admirer of Noah’s compositional work and playing. And so writing pieces for each other was just a natural thing to do. A continuation of our friendship and the conversations we had been, and still are, having.
In terms of this piece’s relation, at least for me, to so softly—yes, there’s a kind of abstract connection, in the sense that I’m still pursuing similar questions/problems (silence, chance, collectivity, change). However the way I’m looking at things today has changed quite a bit since then (7, 8 years now!). So, yeah, I have fond memories of it—especially of my friends I did it with, that early morning trek in Mentryville, the birds—but feel a bit distanced from the compositional process. All that has to do with, as you nicely imply in the question, meeting more people (like Noah) and watching my approach and relationship to music change as a result.
All the recording was done in one day. Our friend, Patrick, who also plays with Realtree and has recorded all of that music, generously engineered the session in his backyard garage. Oh! I am just remembering— I forgot my mouthpiece for the session! Amazing… I think it’s fairly hard to tell that the two pieces are from the same day and location. Luke’s piece is filled with this dreamy bird and bug filled soundscape and my piece has cars driving through the alley, dog interjections, and construction noise.
6. When I heard both of your compositions, I felt a sense of freshness. It carries a strong eclecticism, in the seam of field recordings, improvised music, and experimental compositions. For example: you guys play the composition differently from the calm treatment of it by Wandelweiser or Taku Sugimoto (letting the music sink into the ambient sound), and you both have a lot of natural jitter/signal dynamics while playing …. It may sound a bit random, but every element is important. What were you thinking about during this recording process? Was there any kind of philosophy? Were there trade-offs?
This is a good long question that is best answered over several drinks. I will just try to say a few things here. Regarding the relation to Wandelweiser, many of these composers are massively important to me, and I have learned a lot from them over the years. One thing is that there is an immense variety within Wandelweiser in terms of approaches to music, as well as thoughts regarding the nature of music. I think of the work associated with Wandelweiser—though again it is hard to talk about the group as a whole—more in terms of laying open
fields of possibility rather than being any ‘kind’ of thing in particular. Of course yes there are the emphases on things like silence and duration and quietness and listening and so on; but I am really interested in and inspired by this question of possibility (and by extension experimentation). There is more to be said about what I mean by possibility and experimentation, but I find myself most generally in fidelity to that.
In this sense what you say, ‘a bit random, but every element is important’, is exactly correct. This is something I think Noah does extremely well, in fact: in his playing, for me, there is a feeling of constructing a precise architecture of some mysterious sort and yet every single support and wall and screw and hinge feels like it may crumble if you look directly at it. Do things hold together? This is an open question! My hope is that our music ‘thinks’ toward a conception of ‘may-being’—that is, each thing, each existent ‘x’ (a being), is grounded in absolute possibility (a ‘perhaps’, a ‘maybe’). A sound or thing or whatever is, most definitely, but there is also no ultimate reason for it to be as it is, nor to continue being as it is.
Oh, and trade-offs. No! There are no trade-offs when I play with Noah!
I’m with Luke on this one. I don’t even know if I can begin to really explore the cracks in some of what you are asking. I do think we came at this recording with a sort of freshness that you allude to. That sort of freshness is definitely what draws me to Luke’s playing and compositions! Whenever we are working on a piece of his I find myself snickering or in awe of some tiny word or phrase in the score instructions. I want to stop the piece and marvel at it!
As far as my piece goes, I was trying to create a longer form out of a simple melody for two voices. A piece where we reconvene every now and then but are left with a lot of space to think in the meantime. There are four different versions of the same melody and one large “macro” version of the melody played over the course of the composition. The melody, not quite completely intoned until the end, combines three elements of a short field recording: the sound of the wind whistling through my bedroom window, the sound of sparrows, and traffic noise.
There is no other person on the planet I can find myself droning on and on about the meaning of music, playing, composing whatever. It’s truly such a treat to be in the process together. There is absolutely no trading off when we are working together.
7. Are there any influences on your musicians/composers for your compositions? Any type of music…… or even pop music! Or anyone in another professional field?
Too many influences to count, too many to know! I suppose I’ve already mentioned a bunch above. But this is a kind of deep question. My friends are probably the biggest influences in the end. Friends are so important. Foucault says somewhere that the friend is the one who ‘cares for your soul’—it is at once a rich and clear statement, and one I sincerely agree with.
There are, too, the people who have been integral to various little scenes I’ve been part of in different cities, both musicians and not. There’s so much to learn from all this activity. A lot of difficulty and struggle and laboring, and nothing’s perfect, but there’s joy and freedom in it. I guess that’s not a specific answer (such and such person, etc.) but a specific answer always feels too reductive. Even those I brought up in the previous responses. Yes, influence is an interesting thing! Maybe, in the very end, it aspires to something like love? I think that’s nice. Yes, love and friendship. Can’t reduce those things to anything else!
Friends—it’s so true… In a mentor sense I am thankful for Michelle Kinney, Adam Linz, Phil Hey and Pat Moriarty. In a music fan sense I am heavily indebted to Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Bill Dixon, Radu Malfarri, Sachiko M. In a philosophical, political sense I can’t stop thinking about Ishamel Reed, Simone Weil, Therese of Liseux, Lebbeus Woods, Susan Sontag. Samuel Delany has always centered my work in form and craftsmanship.
8. And finally, small talk for tea time! Is there a local food you love in Minneapolis? What hobbies do you have in your life? Do these hobbies have any influence on your music?
I’ll let Noah answer the food question. He’s been in town longer.
In terms of hobbies, I play tennis. I’m sure there’s some cross-influence to my music but I’m entirely unaware of it—and that’s OK by me! Oh, and I like to think of myself as a very competent cribbage player.
It is impossible to get bad tacos in town… I love gardening with my partner and once I get some free time back in my life, studying chess is one of my favorite things to do—it’s like practicing cornet but nothing is at stake. I would love to play Luke in cribbage.
Thank you so much.