It’s all about his bass
Noah Garabedian on jazz, Beethoven, and his life-long instrument
February 10, 2021 | by Creative Armenia
Masterful bass player and composer Noah Garabedian has dedicated his life to music, exploring it in all of its forms, from jazz to classical to hip-hop. His pursuit of its creative possibilities and its power to unite are the foundations of his career. In our exclusive interview, the 2021 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow shares his journey from the first days as a university student at UCLA to performing around some of the world’s best musicians.
CA: Tell us a little about how you began your journey of becoming a bass player and composer.
NG: I began playing piano when I was about eight years old in Berkeley, California. Neither of my parents were professional musicians but my mom played oboe and piano, and my dad played the drums a little. They both loved music and all of the arts, and I remember going to a lot of museums, concerts and plays as a family. I started playing electric bass and eventually took up the double bass when I was about 13 years old.
The high school that I went to, Berkeley High School, was the only public high school in our city but it had an exceptional music and arts department. The jazz band, in particular, had some fantastic musicians in it, so I would just go hang out there every day and listen to them, and by my third year, I was playing in the band. Then I entered the ethnomusicology department at UCLA and that was a really important four years for me; I grew to love and learn about music from all over the world, and the faculty and students opened up my ears and mind.
Throughout my time at UCLA I played in traditional jazz ensembles, free-jazz ensembles, the classical orchestra, jazz big band, several world music ensembles, and also started composing music for various bands. By my last year, I was playing gigs around Los Angeles, but I felt like I wanted to explore what else was going on in music and the arts, so I moved to New York City.
Moving to New York City was a very pivotal moment in my life and artistic development. It was like starting all over again in a very humble way, and to this day I honestly feel like I never took music seriously until I moved to New York. I entered the master’s in the music program at New York University and I became very close with some amazing students and faculty members, and it was in New York that I also started to take composition a lot more seriously. I was going out almost every night of the week to see music of all genres and styles. When I started to play more gigs, I remember musicians would ask me to bring my own music for the band to play, so I figured I should start writing more for different groups and use the gigs as a rehearsal essentially to hear my work in live settings. Over time I got a few opportunities to play with some fantastic musicians and I always tried to make the most of each performance, and always tried to learn whatever I could from other musicians. I feel truly lucky to have gotten to play with and learn from many great artists.
CA: What is a single work of art or a person whose work influenced you the most? Why?
NG: There isn’t one particular work of art or person whose work has influenced me the most, but I do remember specific moments where I experienced new music that really had a lasting impact on me, but I’m sure that I am also forgetting a lot of important music at this moment.
Anything by Duke Ellington is really important to me, he is such a powerful blend of high-society and sophistication with raw emotions, in American slang you could call it “high-brow and low-brow.” I believe I bought a CD of Duke’s trio album, Money Jungle when I was 18 or 19 years old, and that blew me away immediately. The emotional dialogue on that album comes out in the music, and it really feels like three strong characters from a story trying to establish their beliefs while also attempting to create something beautiful.
John Coltrane’s 1963 album, Live At Birdland is probably my favorite recording of his and he is definitely one of my favorite musicians of all time. His music has a profoundly human quality to it, it’s so emotional and so relatable; I feel like Coltrane is able to express the most delicate sentiment in the most fiery way possible. Also I want to give a shout-out to Alice Coltrane who is also a very important musician to me!
I remember listening to Beethoven’s seventh symphony in the music library at UCLA and being captivated by the second movement, the Allegreto in particular. The way that Beethoven orchestrated and used harmony was at such a high level that that piece feels like it has a ton of momentum carrying it, even though there is very little melodic or rhythmic development throughout that movement.
Nas is probably my favorite rap artist of all time, and his album Illmatic is a true masterpiece. He blends storytelling with heavy rhythms, deep concepts, and evocative rhymes. I have always been a huge fan of the Malian singer Oumou Sangare, but when I saw her perform in Brooklyn in 2014, it had a lasting impact on me. Her live performance is absolutely mesmerizing and it felt like a religious experience.
I discovered the composition Hallelujah Junction by the American composer John Adams later in my life, probably around 2012. I remember very vividly that I was touring in the Southwestern United States with a jazz trio, the pianist in the group played the song in the car, and I was immediately in a state of disbelief. I couldn’t believe all of the fluid transformations in the music, all of the rhythms weaving together, and the surrounding quality that the music has over the listener really just washed over me. Since then I have been a big fan of new music.
Lastly, I am constantly being influenced by my friends and peers. It is inspiring to see people whom I have known for a long time continue to get better at their craft, and in turn, it drives me to work hard and continue my own development.
CA: You perform solo, lead a band, and play with other artists. How are all these creative processes different for you? What do you find fulfilling about each of them?
NG: As a bass player, I try to serve the music and the moment as best as I can, and it is my hope that my personality will inevitably come through in whatever situation I’m playing in. Even when I’m performing solo I try to relate to the setting and speak to the audience. That isn’t to say that I pander to an audience, but I also don’t perform just for myself, I care about people listening to me and I hope that they enjoy it. When I play other people’s music I also try to approach it from an orchestral perspective and focus on shaping the entire arc of a song.
The second part of this question is difficult to answer because honestly, I find that any time people listen to me play music, in any setting, I am grateful for their attention and their presence. This is something that I was reminded of when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit and all gigs were canceled; I never want to take for granted any performance that has an audience, and every performance should be cherished. Getting to perform music with my friends is fulfilling, and if there is an audience it’s even better!
CA: You perform with the tap dance show And Still You Must Swing, which allowed you to go deeper into exploring relationships between music and dance. How was it different from the work you usually do?
NG: Working with tap dancers has been an extremely enlightening and enjoyable experience. Their knowledge of jazz and understanding of rhythm is deep, and they can discuss everything from the theoretical aspects of music to the more concrete qualities with any musician.
Playing with tap dancers has also been an important reminder to me that music and dance come from the same place in history and within humans. The dancers feel the music and express themselves physically, just as instrumentalists feel the music, but we usually express ourselves through an instrument other than our own body. Even in rehearsals, I marvel at their skill, their work ethic, and their passion for dance and music.
CA: In your upcoming album, you will be using not only acoustic instruments but also electronic ones. What was the decision motivated by?
NG: I love both acoustic and electric music but over the past year I have been experimenting more with digital audio workstations (DAW) and electronic composition. The human element in music is important to me; the emotions, the personal decisions, the potential for error, etc. Because of that, I wanted to include an electronic improviser as the fifth musician on my new album, and the final product will be four acoustic instruments performing written and improvised material that will then move into a new soundscape with the fifth musician, without losing the essence and core of the original material.
I have also been using this past year during the pandemic to reflect on where I want to be in music history, where I come from, and where I want to go. As I mentioned before, I love all types of music, but I feel myself changing as both a performer and composer and I would like to follow that feeling to see where it takes me.
CA: As a composer, you have already worked on multiple projects, ranging from your personal albums to commissions. What do you find most difficult in writing music?
NG: The most difficult part about writing music for me is starting the piece. Beginning the process, putting pen to paper, writing notes on a staff, takes the most courage and ambition because it’s almost like a leap of faith that the composer is taking into the unknown. I have found that one thing that helps me in my compositional process is to approach a new piece with an emotion or an image in my mind. Visualizing a scene helps me to begin writing and establish the character of a composition. Once I have begun writing, it is also challenging to keep the momentum going and not get frustrated during stagnant periods. The editing process can feel like a chore at times for me, and that is an aspect of composition that I would like to improve in.
CA: You have expressed interest in using Armenian motives in your upcoming music album. Have you already thought about how you can make it possible?
NG: For my 2021 Creative Armenia Fellowship I hope to write a new piece for a dancer, and I would like to incorporate Armenian motives in both the music and the dance. I will definitely not choreograph the dance, but I would like to work with a modern dancer who is also familiar with folk styles. I hope the more that I learn about Armenian music this year, the more I will be able to incorporate elements of it in my own writing, and I think that the music for my Fellowship will have a combination of both electric and acoustic samples.
CA: How has COVID-19 and lockdown changed your work?
NG: Prior to COVID-19 the majority of my work was a live performance and live to teach. Performing music is usually a social activity, and within one week the social and in-person elements were taken away from musicians and other performing artists. I have heard so many people tell me that throughout the pandemic they have been really bored and don’t have anything to do, but for me, I find that I wake up every morning with a lot to do, as if this year has opened up endless possibilities for me to learn, create, and move forward. Additionally, I have had to think about ways to maintain a presence in the music scene and share my new works with audiences, without leaving my home.
In late March, 2020 my father passed away. It was during the beginning stages of the pandemic in America and everything felt like it was collapsing around me: I lost my dad, I lost my gigs, I lost my income, and I lost my social network and support because we all had to stay home on lockdown. I became a much more introverted and insular person, and I believe that all of that, along with my solitude and loss has had a profound impact on my work.
CA: Do you have a composition that you are most proud of? What makes it special?
NG: The piece that I am most proud of is something that I was commissioned to write for the Peace Resource Center at Wilmington College. The entire process was new and challenging for me in many ways, and while I cannot definitively say that it was my best writing I am very proud that I was able to compose music for a quartet, have it all recorded remotely (because of the COVID-19 quarantine), mix the music in Logic, add a video to the 14 minutes of music, and put it all together in Final Cut Pro. Usually, I’m used to composing music and having it performed live, but this time I had to take on several different roles throughout the entire process.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
NG: My long-term vision for my creative career is to continue to improve as a performer and composer. I want to do as much recording and performing as I can for the rest of my life. More specifically I would like to get better at electronic composition and using DAW’s. I also hope that I can continue to tour and perform and teach around the world because I love it, it truly makes me happy to connect with new people from different backgrounds, to learn from them, and in turn share what knowledge I can with them.
CA: What are your plans for your year as a Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow?
NG: I think that the Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellowship will help me in my creative career path because I will be connected to an entirely new network of inspiring and creative artists. There is a lot for me to learn from the other fellows and I hope that this fellowship will also provide a lot of good exposure and publicity for me.