Episode 12 – Noah VanNorstrand Part 2

The second half of our interview with Noah VanNorstrand. whose driving fiddle, feet, and mandolin have been a rhythmic powerhouse behind some of the most popular dance bands of the last decade. In this half of the interview we talked about Noah’s philosophy of fiddling for contra dances, some contra tricks, and about the future of dance weekends, and how the contra scene might be changing. And the benefits of a little time off.

 

Transcript

Julie Vallimont
Hello and welcome back to Contra Pulse. This is Julie Vallimont. Here with the second half of our interview with Noah VanNorstrand. In this half of the interview we talked about Noah’s philosophy of fiddling for contra dances, some contra tricks, and some stories about Great Bear’s unique approach to dance music. We compare that to Buddy System and Wake Up Robin. And then we talked for a while about the future of dance weekends, and how the contra scene might be changing. And the benefits of a little time off.

Julie Vallimont
So, let’s talk a little bit about contras again. You like to really interact with the dancers, really lock in with them. You also like to mess with the dancers. And I couldn’t always tell in Great Bear how much of that was from you? Or Andrew or both of you? Like I would just look over and you would have this devilish grin. Do you want to talk about that at all?

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, I mean, it was it was definitely from both of us. Andrew was much more comfortable with messing with the dancers, regardless of whether or not it produced a good dancing experience. Andrew was very comfortable with like, I don’t care if this is not a good dancing experience, I’m still gonna mess with them. That made me uncomfortable, but… that would always make me uncomfortable when he did that. No, no, they gotta like us, don’t you want them to like us? But so, that would be like, you know, letting your solos and your phrases go a little bit too out or something and like, it becomes easy for dancers to like, lose their place in the music and then, uh-oh, whoops. But there’s a memory I have specifically we’re at a, Great Bear’s playing at a dance weekend called Roanoke Railroader and I called it “the bridge to nowhere.” And it was we used to do it sometimes, it’s where you just, we just build, we were playing a jig, and then you play the bridge, you go into the bridge part that changes it up. And then we just like for the last four times through the tune you do nothing but build as much as you possibly can. And it turns out when you don’t release the build, you can build way, way way bigger than you can when you have to go somewhere afterwards. Because what we would do, we would just like, four times through the tune, solid, steep, uphill climb of dynamics, and then we’d get to the end of that and it’s just this wall of sound and energy. And it’s just huge because when we have like our drums and horns and huge band with us so like, just SO much energy and everyone is so ready for it to you know, release and go back into the tune and be satisfying and then we just stop! And every time we did it there’s an audible disappointment from the floor. The clapping happened eventually but it was first, like a hard stop and it was an audible “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!” “Damn it! Wait, that’s not what I wanted.” So much disappointment, so fun.

Julie Vallimont
One year you guys did that in the main room of the Flurry.

Noah VanNorstrand
Oh did we?

Julie Vallimont
Yes.

Noah VanNorstrand
Oh dear.

Julie Vallimont
I was out there watching on the floor and you build and build and build and there are 1000 people in there all together. It just, it was amazing. It was palpable. Oh, it was like, “Oooooooooooooh,” like, everyone just exhaled all at the same time.

Noah VanNorstrand
So incredibly disappointed in their experience.

Julie Vallimont
It’s like they got pranked or something. I mean, it’s fun in the right time and place.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, it’s a Sunday. It’s a Sunday afternoon thing to do. Because if you do it Saturday night at a dance weekend, it’s not funny.

Julie Vallimont
It’s like when people have settled in, they’ve got their dancing fix. Everybody’s a little bit loopy.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, maybe like a Saturday afternoon, actually. Yes, Saturday afternoon thing to do. You’re not dancing with the most important person that you’ve like, waited all weekend to dance with and you’re not, there’s plenty more dancing to come afterwards to make up for it. But man, that is fun. There’s a video of it somewhere. The Railroader one. I saw it recently. And it’s like, yeah…that was fun.

Julie Vallimont
It’s fun to mess with people’s expectations a little bit. I mean, we can all get into a routine of what we think contra dancing is as musicians, as dancers, as callers, and then this thing that sparks all this joy and enthusiasm gets like a routine like anything else. And so one could argue that what you’re doing is helping to get people to open up their expectations or just shake them out of their dream state for a moment.

Noah VanNorstrand
That story is an extreme, but in a way that’s still fun to dance to. Great Bear would make a point of trying to do that often, of using mostly dynamics, but how can we use dynamics in some way that is a surprise? Probably one of my favorite memories of playing a Flurry was, you know, big dance hall everyone, a thousand people dancing and our arrangement was, we just play a D note. Like the whole band just plays a D note for two times through the tune, like, no other note, just D.

Julie Vallimont
In rhythm?

Noah VanNorstrand
Yep, just rhythm. Mom’s just playing, you know octave of D.

Julie Vallimont
[Sings]

Noah VanNorstrand
Not that much rhythm. And the whole band’s just playing D, so it works because my foot is keeping a little bit of a tap, like that’s why it works, because we’re all being very arhythmic with our D note and we just get quieter and quieter and quieter and quieter, playing less and less. But just the one note. And then all at once we play, it’s still just D, everyone’s still playing D but we are all playing as loud as we possibly can. All at once. And the fun thing about Great Bear because we were a band for like long enough that yes, it was surprising, but everybody was in on the surprise. Like we’re a band for long enough that all of our surprises weren’t really surprises. So like, the whole crowd knew that we were going to do this and they were just waiting for it. Okay, is it gonna happen when? When is it going to happen? That was very fun.

Julie Vallimont
Yeah, I remember hearing that with you guys, not the D thing but you playing a little quiet tune or just being loud and then dropping it back to something really quiet. Most bands would then build it back up. And I just know with you guys and I would just watch you on stage. I could just tell from Andrew’s body language, he’d turn around with the guitar and look at the rest of the band and then BAM, like all the horns come in, everything, the drums come back in or even just the three of you, you know? Those kind of off the cliff dynamics are really fun.

Noah VanNorstrand
Dynamics, that’s a very fun thing to play with.

Julie Vallimont
Maybe someday I’ll be able to interview Andrew once we’re closer in the same place. But I’d love to get his thoughts about this because they’re a little different, you guys did not share the same brain. I want to let him speak for himself. He would often take it like, an electric guitar solo and the rhythm would drop out and it would just be him. And he would just play less and less notes.

Noah VanNorstrand
Oh, yeah. forgot about that set. Fun set. Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Julie Vallimont
And then all of a sudden he’s playing one note every eight beats and then it’s just silence.

Noah VanNorstrand
If the dancers were good enough, if it was like at a dance weekend where there was good enough dancers that they could like, kind of know this was happening and handle themselves. He would play, he play his like guitar riff and play less and less and less. And then like the last time through, he, once or twice here somewhere where he just, he just didn’t play for the whole entire time through the dance. He was only able to do that because he slooooowly took himself out like we taught the dancers that hey, this is happening. Yeah, I remember that. That was fun.

Julie Vallimont
Like you said, it’s not something you do suddenly. That’s not the kind of shock you want to give them. He would play less and less and less, so that they knew it’s kind of like transferring the rhythm to the dancers like, like they have to now keep the rhythm and it works best if there’s like a balance-y section to do it over or something.

Noah VanNorstrand
They have to be in on it. I find that is like kind of a little magical — for me anyway, this is helpful to know — that when if you’re arranging things and wanting to be having interesting arrangements for contra dancing, being interesting and surprising and creative and all this stuff, it’s all really great but like, the responsibility to make it enjoyable for the dancers. My philosophy about it is that like, the dancers all have to be in on the surprise, at some basic level or somewhere, they have to be in on your surprise. What you do creatively, if it’s really just out of nowhere, and they’re actually surprised, then they’re not really able to enjoy it because they’re confused and don’t know what to do.

Julie Vallimont
And sometimes the dance breaks down.

Noah VanNorstrand
The dance can break down if you go too far out. Now if you’re able to get them in on it somehow, using nothing but music, so it’s a trick, but if you’re able to like, clue them in at what’s happening without them knowing that they know, then it becomes like really really fun because it kind of, you’re all in on the secret together.

Julie Vallimont
Then it’s interactive and like that build thing you were talking about. Even though they didn’t know that was coming because you didn’t do it very often, it’s within the realm of things they expect from Great Bear, like, when you would go to hear Great Bear you expect to be taken on this crazy adventure. And so it’s not totally out of the blue, if any other band did that in the Flurry in the main hall, people’d be like, what? They’d get angry.

Noah VanNorstrand
And I think some people did get angry at us.

Julie Vallimont
I mean, to be fair, like not every dancer is is a Great Bear fan. There’s some people who don’t want to dance that way and you guys always knew that.

Noah VanNorstrand
Our biggest complaint we would get is that, because we would take solos, and sometimes the solos, they weren’t tunes, so they wouldn’t be phrased the way that some people really wanted phrasing, and they would tell us, and then we would say sorry, and only kind of mean it and not change what we were doing. Yeah, that was, that is the danger. Like, yeah, you gotta make sure you’re in a room. If you’re gonna play with it, you got to make sure you’re in a room full of dancers that, you know, won’t get lost or enjoy getting lost.

Julie Vallimont
Right, like, context is everything, and you know your audience and all these things we’ve been talking about are some of the differences between the dance weekend circuit and your little local community dance. You wouldn’t do these things at a community dance.

Noah VanNorstrand
Well, we would and we did, but it didn’t go well.

Julie Vallimont
Okay, maybe I overestimated you.

Noah VanNorstrand
Not often but I mean…..

Julie Vallimont
Maybe you tried them and then realized it wasn’t a good fit and stopped?

Noah VanNorstrand
We did it but it wasn’t as good. We shouldn’t have.

Julie Vallimont
Well sometimes that’s how you learn. I always think it’s good to mess up a little bit in contra because that’s how we experiment and learn new things, and if you want to try new things, you have to mess up a little bit.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, and in contra dancing the the bar is low. It’s as far as you know, it’s going to be okay, if you mess up it’s really gonna be okay.

Julie Vallimont
There’s oftentimes I’ve seen a fiddler forgets and A part or a B part and the band gets off, the caller’s like patting the top of their head, like we’re at the top of the tune and you fix it and you go back.

Noah VanNorstrand
And then like the absolute worse comes to worse is that it all falls apart and you have to stop and start again and it’s still okay.

Julie Vallimont
lt can be disappointing for the dancers if they’re in the middle of a good dance and for the caller or if the caller has a program, but at some point if you don’t do it all the time, you just have to hope that everyone is having fun with the form enough that they understand. I’m not gonna say whether Great Bear did it too much or not. That’s not for me to have to decide.

Noah VanNorstrand
You’re an impartial interviewer.

Julie Vallimont
Yes, that’s right, no opinions, of my own.

Noah VanNorstrand
Just getting to the facts.

Julie Vallimont
Just the facts, ma’am. But I think you guys being mostly a great, a dance weekend like in the last year of Great Bear you only played dance weekends and festivals, only things that would hire a six piece band. And so you know your audience and you have the whole weekend to spend with them and so it’s really like one kind of contra music form.

Noah VanNorstrand
It really is.

Julie Vallimont
It’s like contra music theater in a way, it’s kind of like actors in a theater production have to wear way more makeup than looks natural so that they do look natural to the audience, and Great Bear had to wear a lot of musical makeup, and you still looked unnatural. So that’s a lot of musical makeup.

Noah VanNorstrand
Analogies.

Julie Vallimont
Yeah, I know you like those. So you guys are using things like dynamics, builds like taking elements in and out you do a lot of where like, the whole band is in now it drops back just to the fiddle and feet. Then the horns are, and the drums are all back in together like BAM, like an assault.

Noah VanNorstrand
And I mean after 20 years it was every possible little variation of all the different ways, we tried everything of how to play with dynamics, dynamics was like our main thing we did. And then that’s why like yeah, listen to bands like Mean Lids and stuff where they do less of that and like, their strong point — and Elixir too, a little bit — I feel like their strong points are like, not the over the top obvious dynamic changes. It’s like much more subtle arrangements of dynamics. It’s still dynamics, but it’s like more gradual. And I like respect that so much because like I don’t know how to do it, like how do you like… Mean Lids, they get to this like, emotional state that’s, he gets all the dances are all like super emotional and it’s just so beautiful and then they just keep on doing it, they just stay there and if anything, they keep on going a little bit higher. And then if it was a Great Bear tune we would have been like a frickin’ roller coaster all that, we’re like, up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down. Jerk people around that way, but Mean Lids would just like, slowly take you upwards until you’re in heaven.

Julie Vallimont
I would love to talk to them someday. You know, like for me watching I think it was like a band that does the slow build, like if you plotted the arc it would be a slow, gentle arc, just always slowly increasing. And it’s telling about my brain because when I watch them play, they’re now on the last tune of their set, or the only tune of their set, they’re playing it with full beauty. The dancers are dancing, everyone is in their Zen place. And my brain is saying, aren’t they bored of doing it this way still? Like that urge to like, well, we got to pull it back or we have to go somewhere. Yeah, like that little voice in my head. I’m like, shhhhh quiet voice in my head.

Noah VanNorstrand
[Joking voice] Just listen, because it’s so beautiful.

Julie Vallimont
They either manage to play without that voice in their heads and just be in that place or they also silence it. It is probably different for each member of a band like that. But that’s a real thing is like, you can stay in a place a lot longer for a contra dance. I think it was Ethan Hazzard-Watkins and Anna Patton, who told me when I was first starting out, like, if something’s worth doing once, it’s worth doing at least twice, like, double the length of time you think musically something would need to go.

Noah VanNorstrand
Then dancers will hear it.

Julie Vallimont
And have time to feel it and get it into their bodies and it’s a very like, methodical approach. I do think we do that in Buddy System, sometimes like the slow builds.

Noah VanNorstrand
Oh, yeah, I was gonna say that that’s another way that Buddy System was different, like, some of our sets it was just sometimes we got to like, this energy level and then somehow it’s very different from what I was able to do with with Great Bear but somehow, we were just able to keep it up and then get a little bit bigger. And it was very, very, very satisfying and very different from anything that I had been part of before.

Julie Vallimont
It’s fun to figure out how to squeeze all the essence out of a tune without needing to use tricks, like Great Bear wasn’t trying to do that. So I’m not saying you’re using tricks instead of that….

Noah VanNorstrand
Oh we totally were, yeah.

Julie Vallimont
But the tricks were the point.

Noah VanNorstrand
The tricks were everything.

Julie Vallimont
But it’s like, when you want to squeeze all the essence out of a tune, it’s easy to force the tune, like you just start playing it really loud or aggressively or put five chords under it or something. But then I learned this with Nor’easter where the caller would always give us one more. And then we’d play everything we had. And then we’re like, well, wait, we still had more. So we started asking callers for two more from the end, to make sure we had time to squeeze it all out. And when I started Buddy System I had those things in mind, when we started Buddy System. I don’t mean I started it but when I wrote all of our repertoire, when I put all of our sets together, JK, that’s half true. It’s true enough to be funny.

Noah VanNorstrand
[Jokingly, pretending he’s Julie] I don’t mean that I started it, but when I wrote all of our sets and put them all together and remembered how they go and put all our gigs together and lined everything up and managed our website and did our accounting.

Julie Vallimont
I would say that’s true enough to be funny. We’re very collaborative. But we know what our roles are.

Noah VanNorstrand
I hadn’t ever been in a band without Andrew.

Julie Vallimont
Your role was playing the fiddle and occasionally writing tunes and my role was literally everything else.

Noah VanNorstrand
That’s how that band got started. Yep.

Julie Vallimont
Yeah, and continues in many ways. But that sense of like, learning how to get that out of you. And like learning as a band, like, how much energy can we put into this tune, but not force it on the tune, but like, pull it out of the tune? That was really cool. Like, figuring that out. And it’s not about tricks, it’s just about settling deeper into it and it might take six or eight times through to really get to that place.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, I that’s cool to know, I mean, I felt that happening. But I mean, I don’t think about that stuff so I just thought it was happening.

Julie Vallimont
I was controlling…I was pulling the strings the whole time. I mean, when I play for dances, I either like to just plunk along and crank out good music and good rhythm. Like it’s like the Festival Orchestra feel where it’s just good tunes, good rhythm, everybody can dance happy. Not show-offy. I was talking with Lissa about this in our interview for the last episode, like crank out some old New England tunes just play the chords, don’t try too hard. Or I like to also be in this mode of like, think about the whole arc and not control it, but shape it like, drive it, steer it and really think about like, what’s the dance experience and then play off of the energy we’re getting from the floor. Are they getting tired? Should we take it back? Should we bring it up? And you just like, respond to everything I do so naturally and then you would also steer and I follow you. So what about bands like because you have other contra bands like Wake Up Robin and Faux Paws. I think of Wake Up Robin is being somewhere kind of in the middle. You have some tricks because Andrew is in it and Audrey and Amy, this is Amy Englesberg and Audrey Knuth. They all have a sense of humor and like to do fun crazy things.

Noah VanNorstrand
That band’s interesting because that band has kind of turned into, Andrew is in it and Andrew does not run it. Like Andrew doesn’t pick the tunes and Andrew doesn’t call all the like arrangement shots and stuff during a dance. And that’s I think on purpose on his part. But uh, so between the dances, Audrey goes over and talks with Amy and they like figure out what to do next. And sometimes Andrew joins them but it’s not like his job and actually it was funny in the beginning of that band it really confused callers.

Julie Vallimont
Because they just expected………

Noah VanNorstrand
Especially callers that we, that, you know, Great Bear had played with, like, callers that knew us like, I mean, yeah, Andrew’s on stage, Andrew is the person you talk to because it’s Andrew. And I remember, there were so many times the caller where they start talking to Andrew and Andrew would kind of like nod and waiting for waiting to like interrupt to say like, “Aaaand actually you don’t talk to me about any of this. Here’s Audrey. Look, she’s standing right next to you on that side of the stage.” Yeah, that was funny.

Julie Vallimont
And I remember that being really fun for both of you guys to be in a band where you don’t have to orchestrate everything and you can just play.

Noah VanNorstrand
And then another thing about that band is that I only play mandolin. I don’t play fiddle at all in that band, you know, for the past so long, I just play fiddle for contra dance and that’s what I do. And being in a band and I don’t play fiddle for contra dancing. The mandolin it is different. But that band is all, it’s really fun to have that rhythm block with Andrew.

Julie Vallimont
Because the mandolin and the guitar are like the rhythm section.

Noah VanNorstrand
We’re like, glued, and Amy too.

Julie Vallimont
Right, the piano but like, the strumming is what I’m thinking of.

Noah VanNorstrand
It’s all really great because I played with Andrew for my whole life that and it’s always been in the one context of him playing backup to me playing fiddle, like that context. This is not that, it’s like we’re both playing backup but it’s a different way of relating to playing with Andrew. And that’s, that’s fun.

Julie Vallimont
That’s fun for Amy and Audrey. Lucky them to get to play with such a rhythm section.

Noah VanNorstrand
When Amy, Andrew, and I are all doing like, full volume rhythm, Audrey kind of needs a boost pedal for her fiddle.

Julie Vallimont
Yeah, I can imagine.

Noah VanNorstrand
Someone was telling us, Amy’s husband, Derek was saying when he was listening awhile ago like, yeah, when you’re all going full blown on the on the rhythm like Audrey kind of disappears. She needs a little boost to like, get on top of all that rhythm.

Julie Vallimont
Yeah, it’s not her playing.

Noah VanNorstrand
No, she’s playing, she’s totally kicking ass. It’s just volume.

Julie Vallimont
But she finds this way just to pick fiddle lines that just soar up above everything else

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, she’s figured it out.

Julie Vallimont
It’s really beautiful. She’s carved her space out up in the stratosphere, above all of you. I’m hesitating some asking a question I bet you don’t have an answer to, but this is a fun game, to see if you do. Why is your contra mandolin playing different? You talked about pitch, but is there something else? Like, you play differently as a mandolin player than a fiddler. And it’s not just the notes, it’s almost like how you approach everything is different.

Noah VanNorstrand
I’m trying to think of any sort of answer other than the boring answer of “well it’s a different instrument…”

Julie Vallimont
I mean, but that’s true, like sometimes different instruments just tap into a different part of your brain.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, I’m trying to think of any more analytical reason for, but like, it’s I can’t play it like I play my fiddle because it’s not a fiddle. I can’t approach it like I approach a fiddle because it’s a mandolin and that’s how I feel about it.

Julie Vallimont
It doesn’t make you want to play it sloppy. Something about the mandolin makes you want to play it cleanly.

Noah VanNorstrand
I think the sloppy part that I like about the fiddle is like, if a fiddle had frets, but the bowing also, I can, whenever you have an instrument that needs to be picked, it’s a very definite start to that note that has a pretty quick drop off afterwards. And on a fiddle the start of your note there’s infinite possibilities of how definite it is and how it can start really quick and it can start really slow and it can, anywhere in between. Like it can mush into the note or it can start it off hard and sharp and then tonally also like the noises of being able to play like sliding around. You can’t do that on a mandolin. So like both of those things together, the mandolin, if I were to play the mandolin like the fiddle, it wouldn’t sound good. It wouldn’t sound good. It needs more accuracy, I guess, at least rhythmic accuracy. The frets take care of the other accuracy.

Julie Vallimont
I’d love to talk about repertoire for second. I mean, like, in the early days, Great Bear did play some traditional tunes. French Canadian tunes. If you look at the tune list on Dancing Again, there’s a bunch of traditional…..

Noah VanNorstrand
There’s traditional tunes in there. We grew up playing, like, before we found contra dancing. Before Andrew found it at Ashokan we learned music from this little old lady named Granny Sweet. And she only ever like wore dresses that she made, like, she’s just kind of out of a storybook. It’s kind of weird. Thinking back, like, was she real?

Julie Vallimont
Was she in Fulton?

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, and a little outside of Fulton, the little city outside of Syracuse. So yeah, Andrew very randomly decided that he wanted to play fiddle — not violin, fiddle — when he was like, I don’t know, six or seven or something. And so mom thought he meant violin and he definitely didn’t. So then she was like, okay, I don’t what do I do with this? So she, I don’t know how, she didn’t Google back then. But she somehow found this little old lady named Granny Sweet that taught taught fiddle. So it’s like, this very upstate New York repertoire. And it’s mostly influenced by like, French Canadian music. It’s like very heavily influenced by French Canadian music, but not… it is also different. It’s also different in little ways. I don’t really know what ways, I couldn’t explain how but it’s, upstate New York has its own little niche of traditional fiddle music

Julie Vallimont
Yeah, absolutely.

Noah VanNorstrand
That’s what we learned on before finding contra dance.

Julie Vallimont
Before creating your own tunes and sound.

Noah VanNorstrand
And then after contra dance, after Andrew found contra dance at Ashokan and heard Wild Asparagus and heard Becky Tracy, then it was like, all Celtic all the time, this Celtic music was the best thing. Solas was the best CD ever.

Julie Vallimont
And it still kind of is, the first one. Oh my gosh, the melody playing on that one.

Noah VanNorstrand
Liz Carroll is the best thing ever and then somewhere in there he got really into Swedish music. And probably also from Ashokan, because Ashokan has a huge Swedish portion of it. And that opened the door to Swedish music but also just like, world music. Andrew got really into it and I say Andrew all the time cuz through all of this I just, I just copied what Andrew would do.

Julie Vallimont
Like any good little brother, you just went along for the ride.

Noah VanNorstrand
I didn’t really have any musical taste of my own for a long time.

Julie Vallimont
You didn’t follow him to his Flaming Lips obsession.

Noah VanNorstrand
No I didn’t. I was very annoyed when he liked Flaming Lips. Like come on, now what now, it’s taken a while but yeah, they’re a cool band. They’re cool. But I did not like that when got into it at all. I felt deserted and cheated on. I thought we were in this together man, I thought we liked, I thought we liked Liz Carroll and now you’re listening to this. Man you’ve changed, you’ve changed, man.

Julie Vallimont
Speaking of change. The last question I want to ask you is having been a dance musician for 20 ish years…..

Noah VanNorstrand
I know where this is going.

Julie Vallimont
Well, please go ahead then.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, now that I’m not one ’cause no one is a dance musician anymore. Is that what you’re gonna say?

Julie Vallimont
But, no, I was gonna say just although it you know, we’re still dance musicians on the inside, it’s like if a tree falls in the woods is it still a tree? Like if a dance musician doesn’t play for dances are they still a dance musician? It lives on in all of us. Obviously you still have it in you and you could go right back to it.

Noah VanNorstrand
You’re right, I phrased it wrong.

Julie Vallimont
But that’s not my question. Okay, my question was in the last 20 years, how has your vision, your part of the contra world, how has your part of the contra world changed in the last 20 years? Like, how do you see it changing and where do you think it might go in the future?

Noah VanNorstrand
I feel like for the last like, from when we started playing contra dance weekends and and dances in general, the dance weekend, like the weekend community specifically… like the nationwide weekend dancers. I feel like the community as a whole was moving in a really positive great direction of like, everything was going great and more bands were becoming a thing. And more communities were starting to put on their own dance weekends and they were really fun. And there was all these dancers that were just so jazzed about how like, good everything was, like, I mean, a good dance weekend is really good, the sound is good and the dancers are good and the music is amazing and this kind of, like, you said the theater, like it’s not real.

Julie Vallimont
And the snacks are good.

Noah VanNorstrand
They just got more and more crazy, like how good can we make this? How good can it get? Destination dance weekends, and it just kept on getting better and better and better in one sense, but it is all fake. Like it’s not, like a dance weekend isn’t the community that is there after the dance weekend is over. And so like in a way it’s like this fabricated amazing, wonderful time that over the last 10-15 ish years the community has gotten really good at putting on these events and they’re amazing. And I do think it kind of started to feel, the past three-ish years, it started to feel more like the energy was going more into the the commodity of a good weekend and less into the community of a good weekend. And it just, the list of things that had to be perfect because you’re also competing with so many dance weekends, so many dance weekends that started. And more and more and more competition and the list of things that you have to get perfect to convince these dancers who are willing to travel and pay and go to these things, because they’re what they love to do. That seems to become more like consumerism or something, like it became more and more about the product of a good dance weekend and less about like, wait, why are we putting on dance weekends in the first place? And so as a result, I also have heard organizations almost, you know, nationwide, just kind of across the nation has been just less, like dance weekends are struggling, less dancers are going to them. And so many factors into that, there’s like economy factors and just the dancers are maybe getting burnt out on going to 50 dance weekends a year.

Julie Vallimont
Politics? Like after the last presidential administration, there seemed to be a change? The aging of like the certain population that people who were going to dance weekends who have the money to fly to these destination weekends. Generally, people with the money and time are generally older, they’re retired and as they get older, I think some dance weekends do a really good job of recruiting young people. It’s hard because you want to make a dance weekend really nice, but then it ends up being very expensive. And then, but you want a full multigenerational community. And so dance weekends that try really hard to have scholarships or volunteer jobs for people seem to have more energy in general.

Noah VanNorstrand
Then just not every community is able to do that. But the ones that are, it is generally help, they have to get more generations involved. But it just was a general decline in dance weekend attendance, more or less, not 100% — there are lots of weekends that were doing great and fine and not noticing at all — but in general decline, and I see it as it was not enough attention was being put into the communities after the dance weekend, because like, that’s where you get new dancers, like, you want to get young new dancers to, even a cheap one is going to be probably 100-ish bucks or something. I mean, I know there are cheaper ones, but like in general a cheap one is 80 to 100 bucks. And like, if you want a new young college student to come to a dance weekend, they gotta like dancing. And they’re only gonna like dancing if they go to do dancing and likes it. So the the energy focusing more on the weekend and less on the community, I think, has been hard on the overall community as a whole because I think a lot of these dancers, these dance weekend dancers that I know them kinda like family at this point, because I’ve literally grown up with this community of like a handful of hundred people that I just kind of see all year long.

Julie Vallimont
Because they travel where you travel. You should support your local dance weekend if you want it to be successful. But that doesn’t just mean you showing up and paying; it also means like, being welcoming to beginners and all these other ways to build community long term sustainable.

Noah VanNorstrand
All over the country. Like, there’s a West Coast family and this just kind of a family that I just see at least once a year. And lotsa times more than that, that I’ve known for, like 15-20 years since I was a kid. And rightfully, maybe they don’t want to travel and go to 30 dance weekends a year. Like that’s, I think that’s also… but then it becomes more of an attitude of like, oh, they should, and then… once you feel like you should go to a dance weekend because like, they’re counting on you to be there because they want to have a successful weekend. That changes the feeling from that magical thing that happens that weekend, sometimes a little bit. And I was more meaning like, a dancer would spent five years traveling, like a radius of five states going to almost all these dance weekends and those dance work and organizers then became kind of dependent and expecting that oh, this person goes to my dance weekend and so there’s become a little bit of like a, oh, I should go to that weekend because I always go to that weekend and everyone’s expecting me to go to that weekend. But that’s different from going to the weekend because it’s that magical, amazing, life-changing experience that you experienced the first time that made you go in the first place.

Julie Vallimont
And to truly make a weekend sustainable, there has to be something from within it that keeps bringing in new people and helps it grow organically and keeps that magic going. And you know, you and I, I mean, you played a kazillion dance weekends, I played half a kazillion dance weekends. But between the two of us, we played just about every dance weekend out there. And we’ve seen all kinds. And we see some that have this real community component where it really feels like it belongs to the local community. And often there’s a local band who plays. I love the one with the local band where we can meet the musicians. And some people come to see their friends once a year. It’s like, their community gets together. And then there’s these other ones where like you say, people fly from all over the country. And I’m not saying one is better than the other.

Noah VanNorstrand
It’s just, it’s different.

Julie Vallimont
They’re just different, but some of them, they have different ways of becoming sustainable, basically. And to get back to what you said about like, it’s like a community that exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. And I always sort of thought what a weird life I have where my friends are in all these different states. This is really funny but we keep doing it. It’s like you can still feel like you’re constantly surrounded by friends if you constantly keep traveling and going to the same places, like you know, I’d be in Asheville four times a year and I got my Asheville friends and you know, you see the Seattle people and then you see the San Francisco people and like you say, and since this pandemic is started there are a lot of like really good friendships that have been built. Like you know, Buddy System, we have our band friends that we like to hang out with and we miss them, all of a sudden we don’t see each other anymore. And a few people have been commenting on like, something like this is a test of what a community is really like. And I would say a lot of these dancers have been very supportive financially, they’re going to Zoom events and concerts and, you know, donating, they’re donating to your tune a day. They’re donating in all different ways.

Noah VanNorstrand
Thank you, by the way, if anyone was listening, thank you.

Julie Vallimont
Yeah, it really helps. So it’s like, it’s a funny thing because this nationwide community is a community, and it’s not all at the same time, because it’s not based in any particular place.

Noah VanNorstrand
And that’s… the end of my train of thought is kind of like, I’m very curious about, I feel like it’s an opportunity and a possibility for if and when, like dance weekends come back, are able to come back. I feel like people are gonna treat them differently, or at least I hope that it’s been like a bit of a reset button of like, oh, actually, I don’t care about a lot of the things that I thought I cared a lot about. I just want to see people, dance with them.

Julie Vallimont
Keep the cost down a little bit.

Noah VanNorstrand
And just refocus on the community part.

Julie Vallimont
I mean, let’s not forget also that some dance weekends end because there’s no organizer who wants to take them over, someone steps down from the committee, and it’s so much work to run a contemporary dance weekend that often you can’t find somebody who wants to do it. It takes a whole team of people.

Noah VanNorstrand
I was curious about… there’s this accepted pressure that if you’re going to do a dance weekend, its annual. That’s just like, accepted, it’s an annual thing. Like, what if it wasn’t an annual, what if it was you do a dance — I know there’s no answer to these questions but I wonder if there’s brainstorming around that because like, what if all these dance weekends weren’t all annual? And they happened when they made sense to happen? The problem with that is like, I know promotion and getting the word out and like, you get a reputation by having something annual and that’s how people know to come to it and it would be really hard. But conceptually, it would make more sense if like, yeah, you want to have a dance, we can have a dance weekend and then you don’t have to do it next year. You can do it in the year after that.

Julie Vallimont
I’m trying to think of some mainstream dance weekends that are every other year. I know Form the Ocean was started like, Form the Ocean was an all women’s or people who felt comfortable identifying in that space, dance weekend. And after their first one, they decided to do it two years later, and I don’t know if that was their plan, but the organizers have a lot of thoughts about community and how to build it. So folks could talk to any of them. All their information is on the Form the Ocean page and see if they have anything interesting to say about that. You know, there are some newer dance weekends that are experimenting with the format, right, like trying to find out what works. And for many places, a yearly dance weekend is the right amount. But for some of them, there’s somewhere one, like one organization has an event in the spring, another one has one in the fall, but they happen at the same camp by two different organizations. And then they start to blur together and maybe that’s a kind of situation.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, it’s interesting. I hope that the forced break that we’re all on will foster some more appreciation for like that initial thing that was so magical, like, and I mean, it’s still magical. It’s still wonderful. And these are subtle things that I’ve picked up on in the past. And part of it also could totally be my perspective. I’m 31 now and I’ve been doing this since I was 10. That’s a long time. And maybe I’m a little… I mean, I know I was burnt out.

Julie Vallimont
You played 30-something dance weekends.

Noah VanNorstrand
I knew I was burnt out because the pandemic happened and all the gigs were just all canceled, and I didn’t miss it. I didn’t miss it until like, June, like in June. I was like, okay, I miss it. I didn’t know that. I was that burnt out.

Julie Vallimont
Well it was the first time you’ve had off in practically your whole life.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, that’s true.

Julie Vallimont
And it’s not just from gigging, it’s from constant touring, like your whole life being on the road. So that makes perfect sense.

Noah VanNorstrand
It’s the longest I’ve been home since I was probably 13.

Julie Vallimont
There’s also shifts that happen as you get older, less and less of your friends, your friend groups, it’s all the same age if you start to go off in their own directions, and they’re not always at every dance weekend.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah. I’m sure a lot of this feeling is also, like, my personal perspective on it too.

Julie Vallimont
I have noticed it with weekends where some of them have seemed to lose their luster and some long-standing weekends have started to have issues of attendance for the first time.

Noah VanNorstrand
Maybe this this story isn’t connected enough, but there’s my Cool Hip Dancer videos. I don’t know if anyone remembers those. But… little cartoon where a cool hip dancer is talking to a caller in the first one and then a cooler dancer is talking to someone who doesn’t go to dance weekends in the second one and they have like… it’s fine. You should go YouTube Cool Hip Dancer. They’re funny, if I do say so myself. But I always had an idea for a third one because like the general direction things went was like… this new dancer for whatever reason gets addicted to contra dancing and it’s just the most amazing, wonderful high that they’ve ever felt. And they go to all the dance weekends and find this beautiful, wonderful, huge community of close friends, chosen family. And it’s amazing, magical. And then slowly I’ve seen it happen so many times those people they still go to all those events, they still go, and they just dance less and less.

Julie Vallimont
They start hanging out with all their friends.

Noah VanNorstrand
It becomes so much more about… you’re just going for the for the people because this is just what you do.

Julie Vallimont
Like, I guess that’s a successful community then, isn’t it?

Noah VanNorstrand
It’s a successful community. The third cool hip dancer video was going to be about that the cool dancer was going to go to dance weekends but never, never dance. I don’t dance at a dance weekends.

Julie Vallimont
Until Xtranormal, that website, shut down and ruined all of your artistic goals.

Noah VanNorstrand
That website stopped and I couldn’t make any more.

Julie Vallimont
So then my last last question is on a similar tangent, is talking about change, but like, what about the music? You know like, it’s funny. It’s telling, actually, that we’ve had this now two hour interview and we barely talked about techno contra at all. That’s the thing that Buddy System started as. Like, we started that way and we’ve done a lot of it. And I think we discovered that working as a duo acoustically worked so well, that we just ran with that, we didn’t choose not to do electronic music, but for me, at least I always thought of it as like a spice, like dessert or something. You don’t want to do it too much, it’s just a fun variation. I was never trying to like change contra music.

Noah VanNorstrand
I remember there was like, a discussion happening places.

Julie Vallimont
Yes, is everything gonna be techno now? At least there’s some people were like, yes I want everything to be techno, other musicians out there but not us.

Noah VanNorstrand
To those folks I say, Good God no! [laughing]

Julie Vallimont
None of us want this!

Noah VanNorstrand
You thought that!? Don’t worry! It’s not gonna replace acoustic music. No, definitely not. Sorry, I interrupted your question though.

Julie Vallimont
You answered my question. This is your interview. So thank you, you didn’t interrupt anything. But just you know, like just getting your and our thoughts, my thoughts out there that we always thought of it as like a fun thing. It’s a fun playground. The electronic music is a fun playground because I can experiment with beats and rhythms and sounds and textures. And you can fiddle in all these different ways. It’s another way in which you fiddle very differently because now you’re essentially playing with a click track and a rhythm section. And if you stop, the music will still go on without you. And you can just make noises or laugh maniacally into a microphone.

Noah VanNorstrand
Yeah, we had that set.

Julie Vallimont
That was a thing for a while. You know, just like, playing around and I think it’s a fun way to play within the medium. But I was like, well, we’ll just do techno as long as people think it’s fun and as long as we think it’s fun. And then I never wanted to over saturate it. So I remember you and I saying, hey, let’s do this less often but bigger, like, I want it to feel like a thing you come to and you wait for and it’s exciting and everybody shows up. We don’t want to get tired of doing the same thing.

Noah VanNorstrand
We did our techno dances at like our annual gigs that we did like we always, we did Flurry, we always did LEAF and we always did Falcon Ridge.

Julie Vallimont
And CDH. Contradancer’s Delight Holiday.

Noah VanNorstrand
There’s like, four things and then they kind of just became that.

Julie Vallimont
Because we realized through a lot of trial and error also, that to make a techno contra —at least successful for me — I want the lights and the sound and the room and everything on point… not all places have those facilities.

Noah VanNorstrand
When we would go on like, techno contra dance tours, they’re so exhausting because having lighting needs is an added logistic, it turns out. It was putting on a dance. That, and also like, a subwoofer, like we couldn’t just show up with any sound system, it had to be a specific sound system and there had to be some way to make some sort of lights happen. And there’s a lot of logistics.

Julie Vallimont
And we want to work with a sound engineer who enjoys it.

Noah VanNorstrand
Many of them didn’t.

Julie Vallimont
And like, or even if they did, they have to know how to run sound for that kind of music. Like some people would make the fiddle so loud, and the drums and bass would be like, kind of backing tracks like it was karaoke for the fiddle, like… no, the fiddle is in the mix, you know, like all those things. But you know, I don’t think that was meant to change the future of contra dance music. It’s just a fun little off branch. At least for us.

Noah VanNorstrand
And I don’t know the past couple years it has seemed like it’s, I’ve noticed that it’s more just what you said, but more of a spice, like it’s not really changing contra music. It feels more like it’s a thing that happens from time to time and people enjoy it. And the people who don’t enjoy it are fine with leaving because they know it’s not going to take over all of contra dancing.

Julie Vallimont
I feel like just like putting on a costume, I love costumes, and lighting because it’s like you get to try on a different persona. Many cultures have events where they have costumes and parades and things. And I feel like techno contra is like contra dance getting to put on a different persona and try out different parts of his personality and like, you see someone who’s fairly straight laced, and all of a sudden they’re showing up at Spark in the Dark with highlighter all over their face. And some tight leggings and I’m like, you go! You know, you find your other self.

Noah VanNorstrand
Like a little PG Burning Man.

Julie Vallimont
Well, I mean, I play for techno contras at Burning Man, too, you know, like, it’s another place where they’re trying to, like, explore another facet of contra dancing. That’s a whole other topic. But as far as the acoustic music, where else do you see it going, like Wild Asparagus and then Great Bear, like you’ve already done a lot of arrangement things. Like where else is it to go? Where do you see it going?

Noah VanNorstrand
It going? That just depends on what musicians show up and play. You know, what they come up with. I don’t, I have no idea where it would go. As far as like, where I’m going within contra dancing and playing for contra dancing is, I do I feel like at this point I’ve, for now, anyway, settled into the way that I will probably play for contra dances. Started out playing drums and then it became a certain way of playing fiddle and then the rock band thing kind of happened.

Julie Vallimont
Yeah, we didn’t even talk about Giant Robot Dance, that’ll be an asterisk.

Noah VanNorstrand
That was a thing. And then Great Bear became a six-piece and then that had its own thing, its own persona, its own thing and now I have a way that I play for contra dances and I am pretty comfortable and happy with that. And I don’t anticipate any large evolution anytime soon, who knows, I’m not gonna say like, I’m done changing, that’s stupid to say, but…..

Julie Vallimont
You’re not like, looking for it.

Noah VanNorstrand
No, not looking for it. And so the only other band besides Wake Up Robin, the other band going on for me right now as I’ve been called Faux Paws, which is me and Andrew again and Chris Miller, who’s the saxophone player with Great Bear. And so we have a little trio called the Faux Paws and we recorded a CD, but it’s very much not a contra dance CD, like, there are tunes on it that you could contra dance to, and they’re fun and that’s great. And we can play contra dances, and we do but it is a concert band and we’re trying trying to do that, we’re trying to focus on you know reaching out to music festivals and concert venues and you know we sing songs and that’s a very different thing, that’s a different thing for me because like, all my confidence and comfortability?

Julie Vallimont
Comfort?

Noah VanNorstrand
Comfort… comfortability.

Julie Vallimont
Comfortableness.

Noah VanNorstrand
I want you to leave this in, this is good.

Julie Vallimont
Quality. This is peak Buddy System banter here.

Noah VanNorstrand
…comes from playing for contra dances. I know exactly what to do. I know I’m good at it. That’s all easy and good, and playing for concerts and festivals is a different thing. It’s a different feeling, different community, different vibe, everything. It kind of like, matters what you wear. But yeah, it’s different. And that’s, that’s going forward musically as a person, that’s not really, like, intentionally trying to play things that aren’t contra dances is new feeling for me. It’s an unknown.

Julie Vallimont
Well, thinking about like, where tunes are going and where you’re going, you know, you’ve tried all these different arrangements you started by playing tunes. And I think that’s the thing is like, your planning is always rooted in tunes even if you’re not playing them, like, you internalize that phrasing and things.

Noah VanNorstrand
“Everything is danceable” has always been the number one priority in my music

Julie Vallimont
And then to end up, like, for Buddy System, for example, or even Wake Up Robin. Those bands are more tune-driven and less like, riff-driven or arrangement-driven. And I feel like in a band like Buddy System, I feel like our current form. I don’t know, I could play tunes with you for 20 years and not get bored.

Noah VanNorstrand
Ditto, with you.

Julie Vallimont
Like — specifically with me?

Noah VanNorstrand
Yup.

Julie Vallimont
Like, there’s just so many good tunes out there. And that’s the timeless thing. It’s just a good tune played well in our own style with our own quirks. And then if you’re bored, you can learn new tunes, or I’ve been trying in the last couple years in Buddy System to resist that urge. And instead of saying, I’m bored, I need new tunes being like, how can I play those other ones better? Which is often harder, but like, oh, I’ve been glossing over this little chord moment in this tune that I never noticed. Let me get deeper and like, find better chords for these tunes or play them tighter. Or, I mean, you can just always play the same tune better. That’s an infinite well for me. We can always be tighter, although we’ve gotten pretty tight. Like, why do we need more than that. It’s okay if you’ve tried every single arrangement idea in the world. It’s okay. So maybe there isn’t an answer to what does it look like in the future? ‘Cause we’re kind of already doing what we were going to do in the future.

Noah VanNorstrand
I mean, I think the biggest thing obvious, like biggest question mark around that question is like this pandemic, like this, that’s gonna have an effect, this open-ended 100% break from the whole entire community.

Julie Vallimont
95% break. There are online things and Zoom stuff but yeah, it is a big thing.

Noah VanNorstrand
It’s a big break. What’s that gonna do? What’s gonna be left when it comes back and what’s gonna be changed? And all of that.

Julie Vallimont
I think a lot is going to be left. I think it might restart in fits and spurts. It’s interesting though, like, the musicians are fed by all those jam sessions and hang things and camps and it’s not just magic as you think, you know, like, it’s not just you go out there and play and you already know the tunes, like, where do we…? We learn tunes from each other. We write tunes for each other. We learn new things at jams and open bands and like……

Noah VanNorstrand
And so much of arrangements happen at dances, playing for dances.

Julie Vallimont
We get ideas while the dancers are there that we would never get home at in a rehearsal.

Noah VanNorstrand
And all of that’s been put on hold. It’s very interesting and like, what’s that gonna change or mean? Like, what’s that gonna do?

Julie Vallimont
But I hope that the roots are deep enough. It’ll come back. Yeah, we’re gonna love it. Can you imagine?

Noah VanNorstrand
That’s what I’m hoping with the community. It’s like, I hope the rosy lookout of this is that people will kind of realize more of like, really, really loving it.

Julie Vallimont
Yeah. And it just it’s a great way to underscore the whole reason we do this. Just for the joy of being together and touching other humans and being in the same room and having live music and moving our bodies and making new friends. There’s a truck outside on cue. Well, thank you so much, Noah.

Noah VanNorstrand
You are welcome.

Julie Vallimont
Well, you’d think that we wouldn’t have anything to talk about, but we just talked for more than two hours.

Noah VanNorstrand
That’s that’s a long time, we did it.

Julie Vallimont
So thank you, Noah, for sharing.

Noah VanNorstrand
You’re very welcome.

Julie Vallimont
Thank you.

Transcript may be edited for clarity. Apologies for any typos. Thanks to Ellen Royalty and Margaret Youngberg for their help in preparing this transcript.