In his past, Noah Hoehn was an artist torn, leading the life of two distinct musicians. In an attempt to express himself as a classical or blues musician, he lived and trained in both worlds as neither could completely satisfy him. The challenge that faced him was to create an intersection of these parallel musical paths. To discover where classical music meets the blues.

Growing up, it would be hard-pressed to find a more cliche picture than a toddler on the kitchen floor banging out stilted rhythms on pots and pans. In Noah’s case it was a 42oz Quaker Oats bin and some Tupperware. Fast forward to a few years later in Orchestra Hall where he was instead banging on the timpani to Shostakovich as a member of the MN All-State Band. His appetite for learning new instruments came to fruition with the highest musical and academic scholarship at Augustana College after high school.

As a percussionist Noah was deeply attached to those first moments of discovery and surprise when picking up an instrument for the first time, and when he ran out of drums and mallet instruments and triangles, he turned to the attic at home where he would unearth his grandmother’s harmonica. It was a fortuitous find as Noah’s first CD was Blues Traveler’s Four, and the harmonica pyrotechnics put down by John Popper were otherworldly. After a few weeks, unlike the triangle, the harmonica could not be so easily mastered or understood and its mysterious quality took hold. No one could quite show you how to play harmonica — in his hometown of Worthington, MN, Noah couldn’t even find a teacher — or even find someone who played! This was an exciting prospect for a young musician bogged down by assignments and the regimented existence of lessons.

Noah’s time in college illuminated the duality between a disciplined classical percussionist and a blues harp magician. By day, he was trained in proper timpani technique and building his four mallet marimba repertoire all between counterpoint compositions. At night, he was howling out post war blues harmonica, cutting his teeth in the backwater bar rooms of the tri-state area by leaping onto bars and kicking over drinks. Although inspired by John Popper to buy his first harmonica, he had discovered the titans of blues and country blues harmonica; Little Walter, Sonny Terry, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Walter Horton. He would lock himself in a practice room and voraciously copy every note of these masters, seeking to reverse engineer the tone and texture of each ones voice and analyze their technique and approach. On the shoulders of the great harmonica players of the past he built the foundation that would inform the creation of his own vocabulary. This process forged his distinctive voice on the instrument. This time period also witnessed the growth of another instrument: his singing voice. Noah had never had a vocal lesson and was never in choir, but he was accepted by the top voice instructor at Augustana as an “experiment”. Noah took to the lessons and began singing rock and blues with his blues band on weekends.

After college and his rigorous time in training, Noah moved to Minneapolis. Months later his tenacious approach to the humble harmonica landed him his first McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians. During this period he began writing songs that featured the instruments he loved, and he continued his training as a vocalist. He began to utilize his newfound love of world percussion and acoustic harmonica in a popular local trio while also fronting a rock band.

A second McKnight Fellowship — this time with only a harmonica — gave him the means to launch an ambitious performance project. While brainstorming his McKnight audition set, he decided to experiment with live looping (the technique of recording oneself live on stage). As a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who always felt torn between styles and what was considered “proper instrumentation,” he embraced a paradigm shift. With looping he could singularly be the band, and he could perform the symphony of melded tones that had been nagging at his core for years. Looping also allowed him to complete his artistic vision, so he launched the show. One part Keiko Abe, one part Little Walter, and one part Eddie Vedder; it is a sound as unique as his musical past. Harmonica, marimba, Indian and Peruvian drums churn below his vocals as he tap dances on over ninety buttons and faders to loop his songs. Most loop artists use three tracks to build their song; Noah uses eight. Shortly after playing his first show he was a featured artist on the PBS show Minnesota Original. Weeks later, he earned a showcase on the college market, signed to an agency, and has been touring colleges and universities nationwide for the past three years. He also won an unprecedented third McKnight Fellowship but this time he auditioned with the very looping show the foundation bolstered.

The next evolutionary step in expression was for Noah to record an album. Since looping has a more limited structure in its writing style, Noah decided to not let that aspect limit his writing process. Too many song sections would render a piece too complicated to be looped on stage. These outlier songs that he had been writing were the impetus for the next creative adaptation of Noah’s persistent experimentation. He raised funds, built a home studio and studied the art and science of home recording and production.  Over the course of a year, he recorded his first solo album, NOAH.

The album saw the emergence of a new focal point for his percussion foundation. The dhol drum. A large wooden cylindrical drum with two distinct heads on each side. Played with a curved rod in one hand and a thin flexible cane in the other, the dhol is mostly reserved for traditional Indian Bhangra or chase scenes in movies. Naturally, it was a perfect fit. So too were strings, glass marimba, udu drums, caxixi and a bevy of other odd instruments. Noah supports these earthy wooden instruments with a host of seething synths and crystalline adornments.

The answer to his challenge has been sounded. Where does classical music meet the blues? Inside of himself as a digital blues warrior. And perhaps the question is not to be answered but to be used as a guide signaling a direction. Is the intersection of blue and red the color purple? The album is the evolution of expression. Lyrically, it speaks to Noah’s spiritual attentiveness and social sensitivity. Astronomical imagery imbue themes of the passage of time, the phases of life and a confrontation with reality. He explores quantum entanglement all while seeking the genuine. What stands at the end are a family of songs whose traits are that of classical music, world beats and traditional blues that some have dubbed “new blues” and “marimba pop.”

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©2024 Noah Hoehn.
Photography by Dan Norman