Canadian Bands You Should Know: The strange and beautiful music of Jordan Nobles

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Jul 02, 2014


Photo courtesy of Jordan Nobles.

Imagine for a second that you’ve been given two choices regarding an opportunity to present a new composition you’ve just completed. A piece of music that you’ve laboured over for months and that a professional ensemble has offered to perform as a part of their concert.

The first option involves a traditional concert setting—let’s a say a plush concert hall in an appealing area of downtown with all the amenities. People come well-dressed, pay eight dollars for parking, and sit quietly in rows of twenty to enjoy the show. The performers have a green room with all the luxuries 1998 can offer and the professional theatre staff adequately ensure the evening runs smoothly.

Option two is an aquatic centre. Yes, an aquatic centre. There’s a pool (obviously), locker rooms, a large timing clock for swim races, and a few diving boards. Seems like a clear choice, right? Not for Vancouver composer Jordan Nobles, who is cultivating a career as one of Canada’s most exciting composers making the types of choices that many wouldn’t and turning them into a distinctive voice in the classical music world. For Nobles, aesthetic choices revolve not only around the notes and styles contained within his music, but also the environment in which they’re heard. In other words, music is not just about what we’re listening to, but where we’re listening to it.

500 years ago, composers would strategically place their ensembles throughout impressive churches in Venice to wow the audience with the acoustic onslaught of huge brass bands. Even today we will often seek out our favourite bands playing live as a coveted opportunity, as opposed to hearing them only on headphones alone at home.

Environment can affect our impression of music just as much as the music itself and although we may never explicitly consider the effects of this, it’s one of the most important aspects of our musical consumption. Nobles, however, has considered this idea very carefully. “If I wasn’t a musician, I’d be an architect,” he remarks, adding that “When I travel I seek out architectural landmarks, something like the tallest building in the middle of town. Atriums and interiors of buildings have always been sonically interesting to me, like a big empty church, something reverberant. I just love it.” This love is clearly expressed through his music, creating in some ways a modern iteration of spatial spectacles from the Renaissance.

Watch and listen to Surface Tension, performed at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre.

Surface Tension performed by the Aventa Ensemble and the Vancouver Aquatic Centre.

The idea is novel and the result is stunning to watch—even more so one would imagine, if experienced live. In this case, the church has been replaced by a pool and an audience of worshipers substituted with one of curious music lovers. Nobles’ interest in this pursuit derives from the ideas that form some of his core beliefs as they pertain to music. “You as an audience member are at the centre of the music,” he explains, “basically the way we experience sound. You walk out on the street and you don’t hear sound coming from one direction, you hear it coming from all directions…I wanted to do music that did this as opposed to music that is projected at you from a stage.”

This is part of the beauty in what Nobles is attempting. He’s reconsidering the notion that music can be a visceral experience—one that can awe and affect us through multiple senses—something that has recently been missing in classical music. “If people experience the piece differently, they’ll have more openness to it,” says Nobles, revealing some of the intention behind his projects. “Suddenly, they walk into a building they may have been in many times before, a place they usually don’t associate with music and all the preconditions they usually have in a concert hall go away.” This idea has absorbed Nobles to the point of creating, alongside a number of other Vancouver composers, an organization devoted to the promotion and presentation of his and other composers’ music.

Under the moniker Redshift, they have successfully hosted events in Vancouver that are drawing ever-increasing crowds. One of the most remarkable was the performance of Nobles’ composition Aether in the impressive atrium of Vancouver’s public library.

Aether performed at the Vancouver Public Library by the Vancouver Bach Ensemble and Negative Zed Ensemble, conducted by Leslie Dala.

This unorthodox approach was sparked primarily by Nobles’ architectural passion. “Now, when I go into a building I imagine musicians all over the place,” he describes somewhat excitedly, “There’s a flute here, a clarinet over there. Where can I put the bass drum? Can I put it under the audience? How can I transform this building into a sonic concert hall?” This is the kind of enthusiasm that when mixed with the talent Nobles possesses, is capable of drawing in audiences and making a mark on the public’s concept of how powerful modern classical music can be.

Venue might make the presentation of this music a spectacle, but the quality of its craftsmanship makes it lasting. When considered independently from these one of a kind performances, the compositions speak for themselves. Take LaGrange Point—a riveting, meditative composition of stark beauty.

LaGrange Point performed by members of Duo Verdejo, Cordei, NOVO Ensemble, Ethos Collective, and the Negative Zed Ensemble.

Its ambient landscape suggests music that takes a back seat to other stimuli but its depth and appeal begs for repeated listens and continuously pulls listeners back for more. Flame provides the same effect with a different musical landscape, revealing Nobles’ diversity without losing track of his core compositional voice.

The Short Film Flame/Through Walls, featuring the music of Jordan Nobles and Jennifer Butler. Performed by the Turning Point Ensemble and produced/directed by John Bolton.

Then there is Simulacrum. This delicately beautiful composition exemplifies many of the stylistic and expressive goals Nobles seeks in his music. Watch carefully as this particular video also shows some of the unique methods Nobles uses in notating his music.

Simulacrum, from the CD Undercurrents by Contact, featuring the music of Jordan Nobles.

Much of this output can be placed under the large umbrella of what is known as “spatial music,” best described as music where location and musical material are placed on an equal level. As with most genre classifications though, and as his music itself demonstrates, this does little justice to Nobles’ artistic personality.

Although informed by this concept, it doesn’t define his identity as a composer. Nobles echoes this sentiment when discussing his compositional process. “I might build the house out of an intellectual concept, the supports and the foundation” he explains, “but then I paint it intuitively and paint it however I feel at that moment, always knowing where I have to end up…as long as you get where you’re going, or don’t get where you’re not going.” This sense of direction permeates Nobles and his artistic pursuits, literally and figuratively. You get the sense when listening to his body of work that each of the compositions fits perfectly in line from the one that preceded it.

That’s not to say this is done effortlessly. It’s no secret that composition takes an immense amount of work.

When discussing this, Nobles comments, “What I’ve wanted to do has not always been successful,” recognizing the inherent challenges of classical composition. “I’ve written a couple hundred pieces,” he continues, “I’ve gone for strange and it’s just been bad…I’ve gone for beautiful and it’s just been saccharine.” Ultimately, he comes to the conclusion that a combination of both strange and beautiful is the ideal he’s reaching for in his music, “Something that’s not been heard before.” At the very least, these sorts of aspirations would raise the bar on most composers’ expectations, but in the case of Nobles they’re coming to fruition in each new composition that makes the cut.

“Don’t get where you’re not going,” this poignant statement seems to sum up the music of Jordan Nobles. It is music that always says enough and never says more than it has to. Like with many artists that have harnessed the essentials of their craft, Nobles’ music is at once diverse but also recognizable as all his own. His awareness of environment and its integration into his greater musical philosophies has taken music that on its own is quite remarkable and turned it into something that is causing people to pay attention.

One can hope that many more composers will begin to adopt the same enthusiasm and ingenuity that Nobles brings to the creation and presentation of his music. There is so much more that can be done with how we create and consume classical music and Nobles is leading us all through an interesting journey with his own pursuits.

It could be said that he is getting exactly where he needs to be, one pool at a time.

For upcoming events and more information featuring Jordan Nobles and Redshift click here.

Check out Jordan Nobles on iTunes here.

Follow Jordan on Twitter @RedshiftSociety

Read my extended interview with Jordan here.


-Nathaniel Schmidt

Contact me for any comments or suggestions.
E-mail: 
natey.greaty@gmail.com or tweet @N88TE

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About the Author

Brandon Wallis

Brandon is the marketing communications coordinator for the National Music Centre. He likes his job.


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