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15 Questions to Nate Wooley

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi, I’m in Brooklyn, right now. I’ve been better, but I suppose I’ve been worse too. Thanks for asking.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I’m coming out of a period of not concentrating on music at all, to tell you the truth. Because of the little hiatus, I’m just now coming to grips with a lot of projects that are looming: music for a dance piece by Anna Sperber that we’re premiering at the Kitchen in October with Greg Kelley and Peter Evans, trying to write some new music for the quintet, doing the final listens to a couple of new solo records, working on presenting Phill Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia Archive at DRAM (Database of Recorded American Music) where I work, trying to get better at playing and improvising. It’s not a schedule per se, as much as a giant conglomeration of free floating anxiety, but at least it’s all creative and fun, so I can’t complain.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?

I’m not a great judge of scenes in general. For the most part, I tend to be on my own, working on my own projects, and I don’t leave home unless I really have to. So, that kind of separation, along with the fact that I happily get to work with a lot of different people from different genres, makes me a little squeamish to generalize New York.
In broad brush strokes, though, I think New York has the most amazing concentration of musicians, composers, thinkers, and doers that I’ve ever been around. In that way, I would rate New York very high. There is a lot of competition and, to me, that is one of the main selling points of the city as well. It gives you the impetus to continue working past what you may have been comfortable with in a place where there is a cultural ceiling.

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences?
I started playing trumpet when I was ten or eleven. I began playing professionally in a big band with my dad when I was thirteen, and I think most of my early influences on the instrument came from those players. They taught me a lot about economy, and making your ideas extremely clear, so that you could express what you wanted to in the rigid 8 or 16 bar solo system of the big band.
My dad was, and still is, a big influence. I always thought he had the broadest spectrum of sound on saxophones. He could really do bar-walking tenor skronk blues and turn around and play very smooth Paul Desmond –like alto. It was kind of a journeyman education. There were never any specific limitations put on the way you approached playing as long as you made it fit the music in the right way for the context you were presented with.

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
I don’t know that there is anything that is all that incisive in what I do. Most of my work seems to come at the same set of problems from different angles, and I guess that could be viewed as a sort of incisive philosophy, but it doesn’t really feel that way to me. It’s just in my nature to try and view things from different sides. It’s kind of like the idea of “self-determination” if you don’t have a clearly articulated “self” yet. There are moments of very clear decision, but the rest seems to be mostly through intuition.
As far as moments that may have shaped where I’m headed, in that sense of incisive, I don’t really know. I think probably meeting and working with Paul Lytton has been that kind of moment. It wasn’t necessarily an immediate change, but that relationship seems to have played a large part in the way that I think about music and being a musician.

Keith Rowe once asserted that it is often certain people that “give one permission to do things”. How was that for you – in which way did the work of particular artists before you “allow” you to take decisions which were vital for your creative development?
I’ve never felt that I needed permission to do what I do. I assume he just means that there are people that come along and open up certain kinds of musical “language” or approach or structural/aesthetic thinking that hasn’t been recorded or codified before. I always felt like that idea of “permission” and justification was sad in the jazz realm, where it’s hidden under the guise of traditional lineage, and it usually leads to a group of people creating a dogma around the person that is perceived as “giving permission”.
It would be naive of me to think that I haven’t been affected by certain players. I’m happy to admit that I have been affected by certain records and musicians, but I’ve found that the people that are most often spoken of in relation to what I’m doing now, within that idea of “permission” have always been the ones have the absolute least amount of impact on the way that I think.

What are currently your main artistic challenges?

My main problem now, artistically and aesthetically, falls in with that idea of self-determination. I have certain tenets that I understand about my own way of living and making music, and I can follow them up to a certain point, but I have a hard time finding a real, unified musical manifesto to work under. I used to think that this wasn’t a problem, but lately, I feel the effects of viewing things from a lot of different angles wearing down on me, and I have a desire to find something of a language that I can refine for a while and make my own.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Right now, I don’t really separate the two. I have a feeling that will change as I mature, but I tend to think of composition as providing a framework for ideas, and when I improvise I am also conscious of providing that same kind of framework. I’m not at the point where the compositional side of my thinking is any more complex, or radically different from the way I improvise, and so for a piece like 8 syllables, which is a composition, it’s really just setting up parameters of sound and letting the machine run.

How important are practising and instrumental technique for achieving your musical goals?
I think I heard Joe Morris say that he practiced his instrument to put the skills in place to be an improviser. I would say that I subscribe to that as well. I practice as much as my schedule and my private life will allow me. I’m never really very happy with my trumpet technique, in practice or in performance, and that, combined with a real, true, ingrained love of work for work’s sake, means that I’m happiest and feel most confident when as much energy as I can spare is spent on practicing trumpet.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance?
I generally have less interest in the sound and space that I’m performing in than I do about the relationship to the audience. I want to be as close to the audience as possible. I like that intimacy. If it is a big room, and I’m really separate from the audience, I feel uncomfortable no matter how beautiful the space looks or sounds.

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

The idea of a long drawn-out sound that changes through micro-activity within it has been something that I’ve been interested in for a long time. I never seem to cease being interested in the mechanics of the voice and the mouth as a generator of timbre. The most recent example of that is the piece 8 syllables that I talked about earlier, where the mouth cavity, tongue, teeth, and throat are set up like a mechanism, and allowed to run without control for long periods of time so that the sound is allowed to break apart and be what would classically be called “ugly”...or The Almond which is really about combining pure trumpet tones, without extraneous techniques for 72 minutes and letting the small micro events play out between the overtones.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?

I agree with the statement, and have thought that on occasion, as well. The journeyman education that I got from my dad and the guys in the big band follows these same lines I think. I guess the difference to me is in the quality of decisions you need to make in each situation. I play very differently in a solo situation because I only have to answer to myself (and the audience) for the way I make musical decisions. I can be very stubborn about how I do that. I don’t have to worry about my decisions affecting the group’s trajectory. I’ve never found a way to be that stubborn in a group and be very happy with the results. You’re presented with a situation and you figure out under what parameters your contribution can exist and whether you want to break those parameters or not. You have more flexibility in your decision making process with solo playing than within a group setting.

Some people see recording improvised music as a problem. Do you?
I really don’t, and I know I’m in the minority there. I think the average improvised music record contains a lot of information, more than you would ever be able to process in one sitting. I understand that this is part of the appeal, but we have so many live concerts in which to experience its fleeting nature. The recording allows you to go back and find out more, to approach the same statements with different kinds of attention and knowledge and perception that repeated listening allows you. I’ve always believed in Aldous Huxley’s idea that a great work of art was one that you always want to return to and rewards you with new insights each time. How much would you get out of, say, “Topography of the Lungs” if you were only allowed to hear it once. It would affect you, no doubt, but I think the ability to revisit it over and over and gain new levels of attachment to it is a great thing.

Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
That’s too major a question for me to tackle. I do think we are entering a transitory period where we are going to have to deal with a way of tightening controls on information or giving up on that information (especially cultural information like music, writing, visual art) as a part of the free market system. What that’s going to mean for the fiscal value of music, I don’t know. Aesthetically, artistically, I don’t think much is going to change. There will either be more or less music in the world and each individual listener will find the same ratio, relatively speaking, of good to bad music. I think the question is just how or if they choose to reward what they think is good.

Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.
Jeremiah Cymerman and Jason Roebke are two of the most underappreciated musicians out there I think.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Nate Wooley European Tour:
21st Cave 12. Geneva, Switzerland
22nd Rumor. Utrecht, the Netherlands
23rd WORM. Rotterdam, the Netherlands
24th Instants Chavirés. Paris, France
26th Grenier Martini. Brussels, Belgium
27th O'. Milan, Italy
29th Teatro Maria Matos. Lisbon, Portugal

Nate Wooley Discography:
Wrong Shape To Be A Storyteller (Creative Sources) 2005    
Transit/ w. Jeff Arnal, Seth Misterka, Reuben Radding (Clean Feed) 2006    
Silo/ w. Leonel Kaplan, Audrey Chen (Utech Records) 2006    
Trio/ w. Tim Barnes, Jason Roebke (Peira) 2007    
Untitled/ w. Paul Lytton (Editions Brokenresearch) 2008    
Seven Storey Mountain/ w. Paul Lytton, David Grubbs (Important) 2009    
Crackleknob/ w. Mary Halvorson, Reuben Radding (hatOLOGY) 2009    
Throw Down Your Hammer And Sing/ w. Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jason Roebke (Porter) 2009    
Tooth And Nail/ w. Joe Morris (Clean Feed) 2010    
Creak Above 33/ w. Paul Lytton (PSI) 2010    
Trumpet / Amplifier (Smeraldina-Rima) 2010    
The Almond (Pogus) 2011    
The Seven Storey Mountain/ w. Chris Corsano, C. Spencer Yeh (Important) 2011    
Scowl/ w. Scott R. Looney, Damon Smith, Weasel Walter (ugEXPLODE) 2011
Stem/ w. RED Trio (Clean Feed) 2012

Nate Wooley

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