Artist Feature: Noah Baerman, Mixing Music and Social Activism
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to interview Noah Baerman, a jazz musician, activist, educator, and the founder and Artistic Director of Resonant Motion. Interviewing Baerman can only be described as a great pleasure, his eloquence and sheer love for the arts seeps through in everything that he does, and the interview was nothing short of enlightening.
“When I was about 5 or 6 I saw Stevie Wonder performing on ‘Sesame Street’ and pointed to the TV and said ‘That’s what I’m going to do,’” Baerman said of his musical beginnings, “My begging for piano lessons took another 2 years or so to bear fruit, and while it has been a convoluted path since then, my pursuit of whatever soulful, transcendent essence I found in that initial moment hasn’t stopped since. I feel like my recent music, such as my album The Rock and the Redemption, has gotten me closer and closer to that goal.”
His new album The Rock and the Redemption is a retelling of the story of Sisyphus, an ancient Greek legend of a man forced to spend eternity pushing a large boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down to the bottom again, leaving Sisyphus stuck in a perpetual state of push and pull. The album touches on the themes from the original story, but changes the overall message, relaying the strength and struggle of Sisyphus as he fights against his eternal challenge. The album features several different artists who are part of Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble.
Baerman’s work often touches on the human condition and explores socially driven themes; which inspired the creation of Resonant Motion, a non-profit organization that is based on changing the world through art, a hefty task, but something that is at the core of all of Baerman’s values.
“When I founded the nonprofit Resonant Motion, Inc. in 2012, there were a couple of things driving it. One was the awareness of the potential reciprocity between sounds and aspects of life beyond pitches and rhythms. It is clear that music has great value as a tool for social change and consciousness raising, but its comparably true that these aspects of substance in life can really inspire the art - ultimately we all create to express what we have inside that needs expressing.”
When listening to Noah Baerman’s work you can feel the deeper emotional connection coming through. Even someone such as myself, only expressive through the use of visual art, can feel the soul and connectivity of the work on a human level.
Although his work carries with it a deep understanding and love for composition and creation, music hasn’t always been an easy thing for Baerman.
“For me the biggest challenges have been physical, as I’ve juggled my career as a musician and educator with the management of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder with which I was born. This has forced me to be very industrious and intentional about how I manage things, but also drove me to be particularly prolific in my 20s and 30s, as each project felt like it could be my last. In that context, the more ‘normal’ struggles like finances or seeking visibility for the work feel pretty benign by comparison. And if that degree of clear-cut and intense devotion isn’t there, music can still be an incredibly fulfilling pursuit, I just don’t recommend pursuing this art form as a career without it.”
A devotion and passion for music that Baerman described as a cosmic calling isn’t necessary to be a musician, but sure does help add soul and inspiration to an incredibly difficult career path. This calling, almost spiritual, has pulled forth Baerman’s determination to continue making work, despite everything else.
“I’ve been feeling more and more that a career in music is essentially like a going into the clergy- you don’t do it because you calculate it’s objectively smart (which it may or may not be), you do it because you are called to do it in a cosmic sense and you choose to obey… I believe that the important choices in my life are indeed driven by a sense of spirituality, which is to say the pursuit of a higher, transcendent substance.”
And on the subject of substance and spirituality Noah Baerman knows that message based music is not for everyone and that’s okay. “Not all music is even intended to be spiritually profound, just as not all food is even intended to be nourishing, and I don’t think it’s dismissive of fast food or the musical equivalent thereof to point out that the alternatives are not of interest to everyone. The reason I’m still going in spite of the physical obstacles is that I believe I still have the capacity to make music that provides inspiration and uplift and some form of illumination to people who are hungry for that kind of experience.”
Those who wish to gain something from what they listen to are happy to feast on the work that Baerman is creating, and it is a driving force in his continued creation of soulful work. “I have just realized that my finite capacity to do something with my music needs to be directed towards those people who need nourishment in the things I consider to be at least potentially inspiring, particularly since those folks are unlikely to find nourishment in more mainstream settings.”
With work so driven and inspirational, I knew that there had to be influence from somewhere.
“There are so many musicians that I admire, but I will name a few living artists that come to mind. The first is Kenny Barron, NEA Jazz Master and my own mentor, who from the beginning of my six years of study modeled deep and genuine humility… Bobby McFerrin is a role model for relentlessly pursuing his muse in whatever sometimes
inconvenient directions she might take him, all the while putting forth positive energy. And I am so indebted to artists who maintain a sense of social activism, whether they embed that consciousness into the music itself...or whether it is separate from the music but inherent to the broad scope of their careers. And I feel the need to shout out one of my oldest friends in music, the brilliant saxophonist/composer Jimmy Greene, who as a teenager modeled the seriousness and humility I described in Mr. Barron, and who as an adult has been an inspiring model of perseverance through adversity.”
Noah Baerman's inspirations are all artists who bring together advocacy and art, artists that work towards a bigger goal than simply, 'creating music.' Baerman's work is about self-expression, but it is also about the importance of humility, advocacy, and life.
In regards to aspiring musicians Baerman said, “I tell young musicians that they need to be fiercely consistent in taking care of business (from standpoints of skill, preparation, reliability, and so on), maintaining a good attitude and remaining persistent.”
On top of being an active musician and Artistic Director of Resonant Motion, Baerman also teaches music at Wesleyan University where he conducts the Wesleyan Jazz Ensemble. An artist of all trades, and an incredibly genuine person, Noah Baerman continues to educate, advocate, and inspire young artists of all ages and backgrounds.
To learn more about Noah Baerman visit his website noahjazz.com and be sure to check out his newest album The Rock and the Redemption https://noahbaerman.bandcamp.com/album/the-rock-and-the-redemption.