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Interview with Nate Wooley

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or ripp-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, trumpet player and improviser Nate Wooley defines originality as a form of independence - and stresses his admiration for those who would cling and stay true to their beliefs.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I don’t think I appreciated originality as a quality in those I was listening to for quite some time. I came up playing jazz and the way it was presented to me was to either pick a person and emulate every aspect of that person’s playing until you are a better copy of them or, if you were very ambitious, take bits from a series of different players and put them together to make your own personal Frankenstein’s monster of a musical voice. The latter is something I think we tend to do subconsciously anyway, but I was learning it as a very conscious way to “teach yourself” how to play music.

I was deeply involved in various hero worships as I started working on playing music in earnest: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Booker Little, Dave Douglas, Ron Miles, just to chart a specifically trumpet trajectory. I spent my time not only dealing with their musical languages, but wanting to look like them, talk, act, etc. I still think a small part of my personality comes from Ron Miles, something I haven’t excised as he is a better person than I.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
After this period of hero worship that I talked about above, it started to dawn on me that the thing I admired about all those people (and this list was to include Feldman, Nono, Basinski, Boulez, Pynchon, Harrison, Gaddis and others later on) was their individuality and how they violently clung to it. I started thinking that maybe the best way to show them I cared about their music was to stop trying to make it and use their example as opposed to their content. At that point, I think it became more of an obsession to find an individual musical language than to study others.

As far as artists that stood out, other than all those I mentioned, I think Greg Kelley was massive for me. It was the way in which he just did what he did, without a bunch of unnecessary fanfare or conceptual explanation that I found really attractive. I had a workman kind of upbringing and always felt myself disconnected from the more theatrical outward appearances of those that were “originals” like Sun Ra or Charlemagne Palestine. It just was not my personality. But, seeing Greg show up with his horn, sit in a chair and just play music I had never heard before, became a real inspiration for me. I felt like I could really try and be myself and didn’t have to convince anyone of my claim to originality by “showing” it outside of the music I was making.

What's your own definition of originality?
I think it’s just understanding what you want to say and saying it without bending to the will of anyone else. Seems simple, but it’s not.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
At this moment, it’s the only thing I’m interested in. That may change, but I’ve been voracious about listening to music since I was 12 and this is the only thing that remains for me. The rest (virtuosity, production, etc.) is interesting for a moment, but it rarely makes me want to come back and listen again. Understand that I mean originality in the sense that it is a true expression of the person making the music, not as novelty for the sake of being new without an eye to progression and growth. I find this to be the one thing I really have no patience for any more.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
That’s a valid question, and one I get asked a lot, but I think it implies that the mission is to gain ownership over your musical voice before anyone else does, like a cultural landgrab, and I don’t see it as such. If we’re all being original, in that definition I set out above, then we should celebrate the influx of new ideas. Of course people are going to have the same ideas. If we were all completely original and had no overlapping of aesthetics or values then the world would have disintegrated long ago. I don’t go out of my way to see who else is playing music like mine, but I don’t hide from it or find it to be an adversarial situation either. I probably used to, but I don’t have the time to lack that confidence any more.

I’m in a period where I am mostly involved in working out my own problems or doing research for work. So, I’m not really actively seeking out new original music. I tend to get blindsided by things and become excited about those, but right now, I’m just kind of plugging away and finding more interest in books and movies, which are communities I’m not engaged with and therefore have a fresher perspective.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
The past year, compositionally, has mostly been about accepting what I’m hearing in my head as something I can try and make personal without the concern of whether it is radical or avant-garde or not. So, there are projects in which I’m arranging the early music of Wynton Marsalis, not because it’s a great gimmick or a political statement, but because I love that music and hear ways to play it in my voice. That’s a hard thing to reconcile because I know the cynic wouldn’t believe it and I am, at heart, a cynic.

Similarly, writing a piece for the Jazztopad festival in Wroclaw, I am finding much of the harmony to be pretty Romantic and R. Straussian. I’m just giving in. It’s what I’m hearing and the challenge has been to just make sure that every note is in my head. I’m finding it still comes out twisted in a certain way that I like and accepting that is harder than it seems.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
I’m very interested in the idea of work as a positive tool. For some reason, I’ve never really latched on to the idea of “having a practice” but essentially it’s the same thing. I like to work. I like to do work. I like to think about how to do work. I like to think about how I can do work better. That’s a very flexible and malleable process, and so it’s constantly on my mind.

I do tend to think that, in general, we gather raw materials for a period and then refine them for an alternating period: building and refining, accretion and rococo. Right now, I’m in a refining stage, so the process is about making sure everything I do feels true and right to me. After this maybe I will be more interested in seeking new things out and just experimenting and that will become the basis of the work. It’s always changing, which is one of the things that makes music such an attractive thing to me.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
That’s a difficult one for me to answer, as my job entails a lot of copyright work. I think I will stay out of it.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
I’ve never personally had the technology inform what I wanted to do, but I know people that can gain real inspiration for something personal by working with specific tools.

That being said, the trumpet is a tool, and it certainly is a part of my specific voice. I can’t imagine a point in which it is not the central way of saying what I want to say.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
I’m not that technologically savvy, so I’m not sure this plays too deeply into what I do. The amplifier work and some of the electronics have certainly played a part in helping me realize some of the things I hear in my head, but I wouldn’t dare say I was proficient enough with them, outside of building a way of using them to the benefit of my musical language, to even talk about them as an influence or a point of departure.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
I think that people are confronted with the ability of the human being to buy into mass movements in a more obvious way than ever before. All one has to do is spend a minute or two on facebook or understand the idea of “trending” to realize that, as a species, we are very open to doing what our neighbor is doing. That’s fine and probably a certain specific anthropological defense mechanism we need to not go off the rails. However, it makes those who are hungry for something special and original and personal to seek it out. Sadly, more and more often, that thing is subject to immediate saturation as someone seeks to monetize it. It’s possible that the backlash will occur and people will seek out real experiences of personality and originality on their own and hold those things in their hearts and minds as something special, but I’m becoming a bit of a nihilist on that score.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
There’s always that vision, but then again, there’s always a way to make it happen, too.

Nate Wooley Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Peter Gannushkin

Homepage: Nate Wooley