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Thinking in Sound: Jon Notar


Having worked with artists including Blondie, Kid Kudi, No ID and CeeLo Green, Groove Guild composer Jon shares his satisfaction of ideas coming to life and the continuing improvement of music

Thinking in Sound: Jon Notar

Jon Notar is a pianist and composer who writes music for TV advertising and lives and works in the Catskill Mountains in NY.

With a degree in jazz and contemporary music performance from The New School, Jon spent his 20s playing in some of the most prestigious venues in the country including Jazz at Lincoln Centre, the Blue Note, the Jazz Standard, the Kennedy Centre, and more.

Jon made his way from the stage to the studio, where he discovered a talent for recording and producing informed by a deep understanding of live, improvised music. He has worked with artists including Blondie, Kid Kudi, No ID, CeeLo Green, and Steel Pulse, as well as many independent artists.

As a composer with Groove Guild, Jon’s music has been featured in dozens of commercials for major brands including Verizon, Mass Mutual, Bank of America, Nickelodeon, Toyota, and Chicago International Film Festival.

When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?

Jon> When I start a new project, I’d say that the first thing that I think about is tempo. If there’s a cut that I’m working on, I’ll try different tempos to see what hits the picture the best and ideally land on a beat or beginning of a measure for the major transition points. If there is no cut yet, I’ll just make sure the tempo is right for the project’s energy level, or appropriate for the emotion the spot is trying to convey.

After that, it’s about finding the right instrumentation and beginning to build out the chords and the form--finding the areas that need to shift to something new and knowing where it needs to be at its biggest. From there, it’s all about building out the track so that it sounds great and all of the elements fit together.


Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

Jon> I tend to work solo primarily, but it’s always fun to collaborate. One great collaboration was with my good friend Sidney Mills, longtime keyboardist for the reggae band Steel Pulse and top notch music producer and engineer. We wrote a song for Jamaica Tourism which was later adapted as an anthem for the Jamaican Bobsled team’s 2014 Olympic run. The end result was awesome, memorable, and even got played live on air during the Winter Games. You can check out the case study HERE.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

Jon> The most satisfying part is watching a creative idea come to life with music and sound. Ideas are one thing on paper, but once the spot is filmed, edited and paired with the right music, suddenly everything clicks and the emotion, energy and gravity of the spot shine through, and you’re immediately taken aback by how well all the pieces work together. Other than that, just getting to write music and work with audio everyday is satisfying in its own right--not everyone gets to have a job they are genuinely passionate about.


As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?

Jon> Well, in one way, music is getting better across all advertising and branded content. The quality has really improved on many levels. As a result, the visual components and overall storytelling become more compelling, as does the music.

Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

Jon> This is a tough one. I’d say from the music producer/engineer side definitely Nigel Godrich and Joe Chiccarelli. Musically, my influences are always changing and I’m constantly checking out new music but some of my musical heroes include: Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Jacqueline Du Pre, The Books, D’Angelo, Nick Drake, Paul Simon, Sufjan Stevens and Wilco, to name a few. It’s truly impossible to only single out some because the world of music is so vast and I listen to so many different styles.

And when it comes to your particular field, whether sound design or composing, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

Jon> I think I just constantly remind myself that music and sound are there to support and serve the underlying idea. Music and sound help us feel a certain way or understand what it is we’re seeing, providing audio content that allows the audience to familiarise themselves more quickly.  This means the music and sound must be supporting the visual and the concept behind it. It’s also essential to make sure the VO is clearly understood and easy to hear on top of everything happening within the music and sound.

When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

Jon> There is no such thing as background music to me. Also because I’m working with music and sound all day it helps to keep my ears fresh and enjoy some silence when I’m working on other things.

I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound - how does that factor into how you approach your work?

Jon> Well, the music industry as a whole has been compensating for music being heard on smaller devices by making music less dynamic and 'louder.' When music is more compressed it is easier to hear on your phone. But that’s not inherently a bad thing. I feel like well mixed music should translate on any device, whether it’s a large speaker system or through your phone or computer speakers. Checking mixes on multiple speakers and making sure that a mix is dynamically controlled and loud enough is definitely one way to help make sure it translates on all devices.


On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?

Jon> I have a few blogs that keep me hip to new music, and everyday I try to check out what is currently being released.  I also try to spend time listening to the genre of music I happen to be creating that day. Having made the switch from the bustle of Brooklyn to the serenity of the Catskills, I tend to tune in to the sounds of nature when I’m spending time outside, but still enjoy the classic albums that make me happy while I’m driving or looking for fresh inspiration.

Other than that, I just enjoy classic albums that make me happy while cleaning or driving, just like everyone else!


Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take (are you a vinyl nerd, do you have hard drives full of random bird sounds, are you a hyper-organised spotify-er…)?

Jon> I’m definitely a vinyl nerd. I also have hard drives filled with FLAC (lossless audio), and I’m a hyper organised spotify-er (although I use Tidal as well). So I guess all of the above. My CD collection is also intact but not used as much anymore--but sometimes I use it in the car.


Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music?

Jon> In order to be a professional musician, you have to love the art of learning and practicing. I enjoy learning new things that push me completely out of my comfort zone and require focused time and energy. Recently I began to learn to paint, even though I have next to no background in visual arts. I’ve also found that flyfishing has taught me a lot in regards to patience and learning slowly over a longer period of time. The recording engineering side of things really requires problem solving, and every now and then I take a deep dive back into math and science to exercise that side of my brain. So really it’s all connected, and loving to learn and solve problems is at the core of being a multi-instrumentalist/producer/engineer.

Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do - I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?

Jon> Travel is usually my chance to get away from audio and music. I really enjoy spending my vacation time backpacking and bike touring, although I am going to Japan in November and I’m excited to check out some music while I’m there. 

As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?

Jon> Actually, I don't think it has. I still listen to music as obsessively as I used to. It’s always been a big part of my life to create and listen to music. I will say that listening to music through streaming services compared to CDs has definitely changed how I listen, but in subtle ways. I still obsess over a new album that I like. So my relationship with music hasn't really changed for me and I honestly don’t think it ever will. Unless I lose my hearing, but then I’ll just become a painter and know I had a good run. 


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Groove Guild, Tue, 06 Jul 2021 13:48:01 GMT