Lee Noble Challenges People's Expectations About Ambient Music
Lee Noble performs at the now-shuttered Pehrspace. For Noble, each live set incorporates a new array of instruments.
In terms of art-making, Lee Noble will take uncertainty over precision any day. This conclusion struck him while studying film at Boston’s Emerson College. The rules and regulations, steep learning curves and lack of accessibility inherent in filmmaking turned him off of the medium. Instead, he gravitated toward music, a practice that he could take part in independently and on his own terms.
“So many of the best performers and the most interesting projects have been people that don’t have any training or don’t do any research or anything like that,” he says. “I think there’s no bar for entry for playing music. It’s a really intuitive thing. You can’t just dive into film in the same way.”
For Noble, the genre of experimental music encapsulates not only a particular set of sounds but a mindset as well. It’s no surprise that he has made a name for himself within Los Angeles’ experimental performance circuit since arriving in 2008. The environment built by Noble's music is one of curiosity rather than complacency, subverting an oft-assumed marriage between ambient music and relaxation. Whether his walls of sound come out smooth or textured by percussive patterns, there's inevitably something glacial to them.
Music was not merely accessible to Noble growing up — it was nearly impossible to ignore. Raised in Nashville, he recalls participating in a music scene largely housed in local basements and garages. His high school post-punk-meets-folk band only played in permitted venues a handful of times.
“Everyone in Nashville’s in a band,” he says. “Everybody plays music.”
Noble’s “everyone can do it” approach to music winks back at his hometown’s rich musical history and artist-run ethos. His father — a professional guitar player and member of the Grand Ole Opry backing band — cultivated a household primed for music-making, with “tons of guitars” lying around.
But the prospect of making music independently didn’t entice Noble until college, when he began recording on his own, keeping things as simple as possible through the use of a self-contained 8-track. From there, he would ask a friend to dump those recordings onto a computer or live mix them to a digital audio tape (DAT) machine.
“I would record everything, mix it and record it onto a tape, and then it’s done,” Noble says. Only recently did he start mixing and editing recordings on a computer — but still in a slightly unconventional manner, using video editing software, removing the video tracks and keeping the audio ones to make simple fades and cuts.
He takes issue with the interface of a laptop. Without it, the process of playing music maintains a sense of intuition. He references Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards published collaboratively by experimental composer Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt in 1975. Each card offers artistic strategies for the creative-minded; Noble’s favorite reads, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” Human first, artist second.
In approaching his live sets with an element of improvisation, Noble blurs the line between practice and performance. Whereas the former is typically thought to belong in the bedroom and the latter in front of an audience, for him they function along the same lines.
“There’s no reason for me to do the same song over and over again,” he says. “It’s an experiment. I just treat playing live like another project, I guess. It doesn’t have to be the same as the recordings. When I record, those are just sort of documents from that performance in my bedroom. I’m just following my intuition each time.”
Every live set is unique, with his arrangement of instruments contingent on the space itself. In April, he performed just outside of a room-size camera obscura in the Mojave Desert, using a delay pedal to loop sequences made on a Korg MS-10 synthesizer. His warehouse setup can pair a synth with an Indian hand-pumped organ called a shruti box.
Noble finds a meditative quality in such uncertainty, and he hopes his audience can do the same. The ambiguity of ambient music allows space for expression wherein he doesn’t have to “beat anyone over the head with something.” He doesn't seem the type to do so, anyway. Though Noble cites his impatience as a major motivator in opting to make music alone, he chooses his words thoughtfully — not to preserve some mystery behind the music but to avoid telling anyone how to think or feel about it.
Lee Noble performs at the Handbag Factory on Friday, July 7, with White Suns, Wreck and Reference, Some Pepper and Lay/Haug. RSVP and more info.
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