Liam Noble’s Saturday afternoon concerts
(Twitch TV. 18 April 2020. Livestream Review by AJ Dehany)
While we’re waiting for the lockdown to ‘flatten the curve’ of the viral spread, we’re watching another kind of curve flatten in real time: the learning curve. Musicians are not notoriously minded on practicalities beyond the complexities of their profession; someone who can design a 100-node vintage synth emulator using REAPER might crumble into dust upon having to fix up a lightbulb. Since musicians can’t play out live they are having to learn how to stream their sin with technology and some wild results. For every polished broadcast like Iiro Rantala’s ticketed concert (reviewed here) there are thirty grainy glitchy blocky phone-streams.
One of the most amusing moments of the lockdown occurred at the end of the second instalment of Liam Noble’s Saturday afternoon solo piano concert series, which he has broadcast four times now from the flat in which he lives with his partner Elena and their tiny child. After bidding adieu and reaching down to discontinue the feed, he walked off but the webcam remained on. Next, there ensued a gently stern off-screen conversation between the couple, with Elena gently berating Liam along the lines of “Well, if you just organised yourself better” while the viewers filled up the chat box with earnest attentions: We can still hear you! Turn the mic off!
As well as being an unintended window into Liam Noble’s domestic perturbations, the series has been a lovely peek into the diverse musical soul of the pianist, composer, educator and witty blogger. I missed the first week and he forgot to record it and subsequently forgot what he played (practicalities eh?) but in the second week he played tunes by George Formby, The Beat, Led Zeppelin, Elgar, Richard Thompson, John Martyn, John Surman, Don McClean and Sonny Rollins. The next week was an all-Richard Rodgers programme, and the most recent explored selections from folk and traditional music.
I chuckled when, introducing a classical piece, Salut d’Amour, he said “I can’t generally stand Elgar, I must admit”—not the kind of phrase you expect to hear every day, but in keeping with his characteristic tone of unpretentiousness and wry sincerity. Introducing guitarist Richard Thompson’s The Rattle Within he paused, admitting “I’m just trying to remember how it goes.” I found this sort of thing indicative of the general dropping-of-masks in a great many of the home streamed concerts I’ve seen.
Some of the success of many of these concerts comes when the performer successfully negotiates a formal sense of concert performance as art and the informal sense of personal connection through the paradoxical intimacy of the webcam. The sense of shared experience is fostered on each side of the screen by the responses of the audience in the chat box and the performer’s responses to those responses. Liam Noble reads the comments as he goes along and takes requests, which is how he ended up with his encore selections, which have been highlights of the series, including absolute priceless gems from the pop repertoire, Don McClean’s tearjerker Vincent, and the melodically surpassing So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright by Simon and Garfunkel.
In all of these selections you don’t get any contrived sense of a clever musician ‘doing’ pop or folk or show tunes to make a point of reverse snobbery; what’s been lovely to experience is how natural it all feels and how at home he is in these varying styles. Noble is associated with jazz and I last saw (and reviewed) him performing live in a free improvisation with a quartet led by the uncompromising tenor titan Paul Dunmall. His playing there had a lot of language from twentieth century classical style, which is usually kept a world away from pop and folk, but all are equally a part of his diverse stock-in-trade.
During this fourth week devoted to folk and traditional, while the musicianship was faultless as ever, the sound of the piano seemed blocky and muffled. He explained about his flat: “There are people downstairs and my floor is their ceiling.” He had enabled his practice pedal. This was also because to him it suited the music: “The piano is kind of an enemy of folk music. The notes are static, you can’t bend notes, can’t make it get louder. As soon as you play a note it is dying. The practice pedal gives it a more muted sound closer to a guitar. Which helps sometimes.” He amusingly likened the unrestrained sound of the piano to going from driving a Morris Minor to a Ferrari: it’s difficult to control – bright and shiny. I’m sure that’s true, but I think the low resolution of the webcam mitigates this considerably; it meant the muted piano just sounded a bit weird (though some people responded favourably). Getting a good sound in these things is a learning curve too, just as much as the skill of emoting across the internet, or remembering to switch off the webcam.
AJ Dehany is based in London, locked down in Teesside, and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
The performances apart from the first week can be rewatched on Liam Noble’s YouTube channel
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Liam Noble was one of the artists in Sebastian’s 1 April Jazz Musicians in Lockdown feature on the Arts Desk