One-man band: Hoehn brings unique looping performance to his hometownWORTHINGTON — Noah Hoehn is into looping. Live looping. That’s not to be confused with being loopy (eccentric or crazy) or looped (intoxicated), although Noah admits he’s a bit nuts to spend as much time and effort on it as he does, and the resulting musical effect can be intoxicating.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Noah Hoehn is into looping. Live looping.
That’s not to be confused with being loopy (eccentric or crazy) or looped (intoxicated), although Noah admits he’s a bit nuts to spend as much time and effort on it as he does, and the resulting musical effect can be intoxicating.
Looping is a process in which digital hardware and software are used to record phrases of music — loops — that are then repeated and recorded over again to create a layered composition.
“It’s kind of like performance multitasking,” explained Noah. “I’m singing and playing all these different instruments — marimba, percussion, harmonica — and also tap dancing by punching buttons with either foot, sliding sliders, punching buttons with my hands.
“In its simplest form, it’s recording what I’m playing on stage, so nothing is prerecorded,” he continued. “When I come to a show, I’m not pushing play on a CD player, there are no backing tracks, and that puts me in the category of a live looping artist. Everything you hear in concert, I’m playing it, recording it on stage, then that plays back, and I’ll have a harmonica part I’ll want to play, so I push a button, and it starts recording what I’m playing. I push another button, and it will stop recording and start playback from the beginning, and that’s the loop.”
A hometown audience will get a full demonstration in looping when Hoehn performs Thursday as part of the grand opening week at the newly renovated Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center. The son of Joe and Carol Hoehn of Worthington, Noah graduated in 1998 from Worthington High School and 2002 from Augustana College, Sioux Falls, S.D.
Showcasing his talents on the harmonica, Noah is a two-time recipient of the prestigious McKnight Fellowship, and those same skills landed him a gig with the Minnesota Opera production of “The Grapes of Wrath.” He performs widely throughout the Twin Cities area and has been featured several times at the Worthington Windsurfing Regatta and Unvarnished Music Festival.
For the last year or so, Noah has been focused on honing his looping skills.
Looping isn’t anything new — its origins date back to the pioneers of electronic recording, and the Beatles brought the process into mainstream music — but Noah is trying to “stretch the boundaries” of live looping performance.
“It was the rabbit hole. I went down into the rabbit hole and didn’t come back for months,” he said about how consumed he’s become by the process. “… It’s just such a challenge, and I love challenges.”
For each song that he loops, Noah basically choreographs his movements, writing the sequences onto big pieces of tagboard.
“Each song has its own fingerprint,” he said. “In some of my more complicated songs, I use 36 commands to pull it off. There are 87 buttons, sliders and faders at my feet and hands. I’m getting as close to cyborg as I can get.”
It’s a time-consuming process, and even the smallest glitch can have devastating consequences.
“I did every song more than 300 times before I ever performed it,” he said. “I’d get up at 8 and rehearse the whole day, do that for months. It was frustrating. If I push the wrong button, if I push it too late, too early, the whole thing blows up. I ride a fine edge — that’s kind of the double-edged sword. It’s not just doing one thing wrong; it’s executing six or seven things wrong.
“I think all my background in drumming helped, all the ambidextrous training you go through to play a drum set, that this came pretty easy. Well, it didn’t come easy, but it was easy for me to envision doing this many different things at the same time — compartmentalizing while thinking three steps ahead.”
Certain songs are better suited to looping than others, but Noah has mastered it to the point where he can make just about every piece work. Friends have told him that he needs to “mess up more,” during a performance just so the audience realizes the level of skill involved.
“I can’t take requests,” he said with a laugh. “Even now, with all the rehearsing I’ve done and playing shows, it takes two to three weeks to work up one song and add it to the show.”
Working up a looping performance taxes Noah’s mental and coordination skills, but it also strains his back due to all the equipment involved.
“I have to tear it all down and haul it around,” Noah said. “That’s why nobody else is doing it. It’s hard work. … I load all my equipment up the night before, and that takes two and a half to three hours, then I show up at the venue at 3 p.m. and it’s three hours of setup, followed by sound check, playing the show and tear down. It’s a lot of equipment, a lot of extras. I get teased by a lot of my musician friends: ‘What were you thinking? You play the harmonica — the smallest, most portable instrument there is, and here you have a whole band’s worth of stuff.’ … But I think I get credit for that. When people come out to see the show and don’t know who I am, and they walk into the club and I’m all set up, they look and think, ‘This is going to be something different.’”
In addition to select corporate and college dates, Noah is fortunate to have regular bookings of his looping show at a couple of top-rated music venues, The 318 and the Aster Café, and he also recently performed at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, home of “Prairie Home Companion.”
“Those have been great gigs, basically sold out,” he said. “… When I played my first show, I thought I was bombing out, because all I was getting was blank stares. You’ve got to be kidding me; this isn’t working. But then during the break, I realized that people were just dumbfounded. ‘Is this for real?’ Some of them didn’t believe it. … Now, you can tell there are people who have seen it before and are excited. The first-timers just sit there, trying to figure it out. The second time, they can enjoy it more.”
Noah’s performances include both cover tunes and original compositions.
“There’s definitely a strong blues vein. I do a couple of bluesy tunes, and I have a couple of originals with gritty, grimy harmonica loops,” he described. “I’ve kind of coined the term ‘Urban Blues.’ There’s also some rock — U2, The Who, Kings of Leon — blues rock with hints of world music around it.”
The uniqueness of Noah’s show caught the attention of Twin Cities Public TV, and he will be featured on an upcoming segment of “Minnesota Original,” a program that profiles the state’s creative community. He also continues to play regularly at a Twin Cities mega church and is part of a trio with fellow musicians Boyd Lee and Mary Jane Alm.
“I don’t need something that fills up the calendar,” Noah said about the non-looping dates. “The solo shows are so focused that I need to show up and just make music and have fun.”
Noah and wife Sarah (Hellstrom) — another Worthington native — are also considering a future CD or DVD project. Sarah helps out with public relations, merchandising and design work for all of Noah’s musical endeavors.
For the Worthington show, Noah anticipates playing in a venue that holds a special place in his heart.
“It feels like something is coming full circle, because I would go to Memorial Auditorium when I was growing up and get exposed to great music,” Noah reflected. “… I just think it’s a great honor to come back and be part of the grand opening week.”
The hometown concert also gives him a chance to share his musical point of view — and looping technique — with his friends and family.
“It’s mentally exhausting, but with that comes a huge sense of accomplishment — when I make it through a song, when I’m able to successfully present my point of view or another point of view with a cover and have it hit the audience. I want to inspire them, entertain them and give them something different.”
Noah Hoehn will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center. Tickets can be purchased from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Memorial Auditorium box office, 714 13th St., Worthington. Phone 376-9101; email email@example.com.