Olympia Stone: How long have you been playing music?
Bill Noertker: I've been playing the bass since 1974, when I was a freshman in High School. A friend gave me his old bass when he got a better one. We went to a typical 1970s backyard jam session soon after that. There were very few bassists in attendance, so I was able to play for quite a while in spite of my inexperience. I also found it appealing that I wasn't the focus of attention on the stage. Later I came to appreciate how much the bassist is in charge of the structure of each tune. I like being the behind-the-scenes musical architect. Eventually my affinity for creative structures led me to composing.
O.S: When did you start composing your own music? Who are your musical inspirations?
B.N: I played in a lot of rock cover bands through my early twenties, but had become very interested in free jazz and experimental music at the same time. Shortly after I moved to San Francisco in the 1980s I joined Bardo, a wildly eclectic, psychedelic, art-rock band. Bardo concentrated mostly on original compositions, and the level of musicianship was more advanced than the bar bands I had been playing in, so this was a period of immense growth for me musically. I started composing music at this time.
When Bardo broke up three of us (saxophonist/flutist Annelise Zamula, drummer Dave Mihaly, and myself) went on to form the After the End of the World Coretet, an experimental jazz ensemble named after a Sun Ra composition. This is when I began composing in earnest. Some of my biggest musical influences are Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, the John Carter/Bobby Bradford groups, and many of the individuals and groups that came out of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
In 2001, I started my own group, Noertker's Moxie, with my close friend Annelise Zamula. I am an exceedingly visual person, and the idea behind the group was to use visual art as the inspiration for my musical compositions. So far the result of this has been a slew of tunes inspired by Joan Miró, Antoni Gaudí, Salvador Dalí, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and of course David Beck. Much of this music has been released on CD by Edgetone Records. (http://www.noertker.com/recordings.html)
O.S: You describe in the Curious Worlds CD liner notes how you and David Beck have collaborated over the years. Can you talk more about the experience of composing a piece of music to one of David's smaller kinetic works? What is your process. Do you need to look at the piece a lot and think about it? Do you talk to David about your ideas?
B.N: When composing to a painting I think a lot about the density and the colors. Because David's work is kinetic, time is an element; and because he is a sculptor, the space is three dimensional. Often I am composing to a film of his work. I get to see the piece in motion. I concentrate on the tempo that he has established for each piece. Once I have the tempo, I search for a theme by noodling around on the bass. I am drawn to melody. Basically I'm looking for a quirky little ditty that moves at the same pace as the piece. I try to elicit the mood, rather than impose the mood. For instance, it would have been easy to glibly laugh at David's Le Petite Peche Enorme, but I found that the piece was emotionally more complex than that.
O.S: As I am sure you are well aware, David has been working on a big piece, the elephant, for a long time. Since you've mainly worked on composing music for smaller pieces, what do you think the experience of composing music for something so big and intricate would be like? Would you approach it any differently?
B.N: Even his large pieces, like L'Opéra, MVSEVM, and the Movie Palace, are composed of many smaller elements, much like a cabinet of curiosities. The musical problem to be solved is how to maintain continuity and unity in the face of such diverse elements.
In 2008, a filmmaker had access to the interior of David's sculpture L'Opéra and I was asked to score the resulting film. The process of composing was a response to two temporal elements: David's piece, which is an animated sculpture that has its own tempo; and the film itself, which also establishes a tempo. While the unfolding of the music mirrors the pacing of the film as it moves from the imposing exterior to the playful interior of David’s piece with its wealth of intimately-scaled characters, the music also responds to each group of David's animated characters.
When I “auralize” the elephant (imagine its sound in my mind), I imagine a similar process—a journey from the imposing exterior to the multifarious interior spaces. I hear an ostinato that could be reconfigured in various styles, tempi, and time signatures to serve as the underpinning for a cabinet of melodic curiosities. This is merely a possible starting point. The process of composing would be a process of discovery that would mirror David’s process of discovery.
O.S: As you also mention in the Curious Worlds CD liner notes, some of the music in the film is pieces you and David composed together, and others are pieces that you had composed earlier. Why do you think your music often "fits" so well with David's art? Are there some traits the music and the art share in common?
B.N: A pianist acquaintance of mine, Satoko Fujii, once said of my music that it was warm, in contrast to the aloof and austere music of many of my avant-garde peers. That could also be said of David’s work. I think that warmth and playfulness are present in David’s work and in my work, and that both of us are inviting you into intimate magical worlds that we have created for you to enjoy.
O.S: You met David in the late 1990s and so have known him for a relatively long time—do you see any connections between his artwork and his music?
B.N: Like his artwork, David’s musical compositions are intimately-scaled portraits of life delivered with a deadpan humor. The dry wit of the song titles—Meet Me at the Edge of Noon, How Many Times (Must I Tell You I Don’t Love You), She Wore a Dress the Color of Paprika (a Spice I’d Love to Get to Know)—neither undermines nor overwhelms the fragile lyricism and emotional content of the music.
Recently David has been tossing around the idea of incorporating the tunes we’ve been writing into a musical. I think he feels the need to build a cabinet for these musical curiosities much like he has done with sculpture in his large-scale pieces Kowtowed, Rhino Rama, MVSEVM, and the elephant-in-progress.
O.S: What role do you think music plays in David's life?
B.N: There are three ways in which David interacts with music.
David is an avid listener to all kinds of music. He listens to music while he is working, and he is working most of his waking hours.
David and I play music together once a week. For me these are dialogues with each tune being a topic of conversation. The duo format allows us to stretch time, speeding up and slowing down for emphasis. We have developed a kind of telepathy for phrasing.
David composes melodies. His sculpting is a process of discovery through trial-and-error. The same goes for his composing, except that there are two of us, so it becomes a group process.