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Interview with Nate Wooley

img  Tobias Fischer

Your biography mentions that you „spent your life trying musically to find a way back to the peace and quiet“ of your early youth, to the sound “of  your grandmother humming”. This may not always be obviously apparent in your music, such as when listening to your recent „Trumpet/Amplifier LP“. Could you therefore expound a bit on what this ideal means to you in practise?
The idea of peace and quiet as it applies in that sentence is more about finding a musical angle of repose than anything else. Everyone has a resting musical rate and density, in my experience; a tempo or level of musical density where they feel like they are truly able to express themselves. After working towards slowing myself down, feeling like I was forcibly inserting silence into my playing as an attempt to regain that feeling from my youth, I realized that my resting rate of density and velocity is more elevated than I had thought it was. I feel, now, that I have the greatest mental quietude when I am playing material that is information-dense and at a more aggressive velocity.
Another way that I reconcile the idea of peace and quiet with something like the LP or more dense moments of the duo with Lytton is that I don’t really think of the masses of notes and sounds and gestures as phrases as much as I think of it as a slowly moving, incredibly dense layer of sound that is made up of millions of repeating cycles that are all playing out against each other to create a kind of uniform soundfield. The whole thing feels very glacial to me in a lot of respects and therefore is a very relaxed place to be. Whether that is the perception in the audience I don’t know.

How do you go from enjoying the sounds of your grandmother humming to playing a kind of music which actually actively incorporates these sonic events?
Most of the things that I don’t like about my playing have to do with a reliance on musical models that don’t necessarily have anything to do with my direct personal experience. I’m a product of a certain kind of isolation where I grew up only reading DownBeat and listening to records, and so there is a certain feeling that some musical forms and musicians are more valid than others. I’m not saying that to dwell within a style and really learn it and understand the rules and syntax of that has no value or meaning, but for me, it feels false to base the way I play on that model, and so I work hard to try and recognize what is honest to me and make that the center of what I’m trying to do.
A lot of that lies in the presentation of your materials. To use the example of my grandmother humming; my grandmother would hum somewhat tunelessly during certain periods of frenzied family dinners and long boring car trips. I realized later in life that she used this as a way that she could withdraw from either the tedium or the chaos and find her own inner peace while still maintaining a presence with those that she loved. That feeling is something I’ve always been connected to, and it is one of the things that brought us close together. So, in this example, that is the material. The way you present that material could take a lot of different shapes. I could take it on an abstract level and express a loss or a sense of peace through a certain jazz model (for example), such as lyrical melody, minor or diminished harmony, irregular repetition of certain rhythmic cells, but I would rather have a more direct and visceral connection in reproducing that feeling or memory. That has meant stripping any excess musical ideas from it and making it all about the sound of my grandmother’s voice, and so it has developed into a whole series of mumbling vocalizations through the horn that have a very specific meaning to me.

How crucial is the fact that you “grew up only reading DownBeat” and listening to jazz for your current albums and performances?
The most recent records, specifically, are influenced by jazz a great deal, if only in a reactionary way. The amount of jazz I listened to and studied up to this point gave me a certain set of skills and it also pushed me to a saturation point at a specific age which caused a break. I still love jazz and practice that material regularly for a number of different reasons, but I reached a point where listening to new records of modern jazz didn’t hold any attraction to me anymore. It became one of those philosophical definitions by antithesis at a certain point, where I spent so much energy trying to get the jazz out of my system that, in a strange way it has been directly responsible for the way I play now. These records, especially Creak, were recorded at the height of that I think. My attitude is more accepting of that part of myself now, and I’m looking more at how to be personally direct about the way I deal with jazz forms and traditions as opposed to denying that part of my history altogether.

So you could envision recording a straight Jazz-album at some point in  the future again? Do you feel as though there is perhaps a space where these two approaches of presenting materials could be combined?
I think the upcoming quintet record will be the closest thing to a "straight jazz" release. It has a jazz quintet line up, uses swing and some elements of jazz harmony, but I'm sure a purist would not strictly call it jazz. I think there must be a place where the worlds can combine, but to be successful there has to be a way of presenting the music in which either the jazz or non-jazz elements don't come off as a kind of exoticism. That's the thing that creates the greatest obstacle I think. When does pure sound become a parlor trick to jazz fans and a semi-harmonic eighth note line become kitschy to experimental music audiences, regardless of the intention of the artist? How do you avoid that and is it worth the energy or not? I'm not really sure. I am just trying to be honest about what I play and be open to how it's being perceived. 

One of the early reviews of „Creak“ stated that, on this release, „the Trumpet doesn't sound like a Trumpet“. This, of course, is a somewhat naive statement, but it does open up a question: Do you still see what you are doing with your instrument as a natural continuation of a line which ran from classical music to jazz, or do you feel your work is part of a new and different tradition?

I think of it as a continuation… definitely. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything that is necessarily any different than certain players before me did, in some cases I feel like I’m doing less. I had a conversation recently where someone said that improvising (jazz) trumpet players now don’t have a “sound” like they used to in the heyday of jazz. I can understand that reasoning to a certain extent, but I think that is an attitude that comes from a comparison of modern trumpet players with a history that is not directly transferable to now. You have to take an artist or a thinker or a politician or whomever in the context of the society, time, ideology that they are working in… along with all the problems that come with that. On the one hand, you can’t hold someone like Greg Kelley or Axel Doerner to a model of trumpet technique and aesthetics developed by Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge, but on the flip side of that coin, you can’t say that this generation has revolutionized the instrument out of the blue. There are a lot of forces at work that make this kind of playing particularly valid at this period of time.
My approach to the trumpet isn’t any different than anyone else’s. I always work through the basics; good sound, range, endurance, flexibility, articulation, intonation, etc. Everyone I know and respect does the same thing: Greg, Axel, Peter Evans, Taylor Ho Bynum, I know they all are coming from that same set of basic skills. I think what we have chosen to place directly on top of those pillars is different… the extremes of sound and range, the special considerations of endurance involved with circular breathing and thinking of more long form phrasing, extreme tessitura changes, more variation in the way notes are started, microtonality, etc… that is what not only defines these last couple of generations, but also defines the differences between us. I don’t necessarily want to speak for all of those guys, but I think that they would agree.

So, from your point of view, people like Greg Kelley or Axel Doerner do have a distinct, personal sound, which you'd be able to recognise if blindfolded?
I think that is the point I was trying to make and thank you for refining it in my mind a little. I'm taking the word "sound" in personal sound in its strictest sense, meaning the physical production of a pitch on an instrument and the timbre involved in that. In that sense, no one has a totally recognizable personal sound. If you take a note of anyone and place it in an aesthetic vacuum, without the context of rhythm, harmony, and the musicians around them, then you would be hard pressed to tell Miles Davis from Ed Harkins, and even if you could, what a monumental missing of the point. The individuality of the player comes from this context of which the "sound" in that strict sense plays a part, but only a minor part in conjunction with how the person places the note in time, the differences in articulation, timbre, their tessitura and how they build or don't build melodies and on and on. It also comes from who they play with in what way and when. If you put Miles Davis with Sean Meehan and Toshimaru Nakamura you would have a hard time recognizing his sound as well. So, I could recognize Axel or Greg if you give me that context, yes. And I do think it matters, but only if you take the aggregate of individual differences and not concentrate on the subtle differences between Roy Eldridge and Sean Jones' second line G placed side by side in an anechoic chamber.

It might be interesting to note in this regard that someone like John Butcher mentioned that he never liked the term „extended techniques“, because it already implied that some techniques were more natural than others ...

I never really put much thought into the term, to tell you the truth. More often than not, I think of technique as the set of skills that makes a player unique. In that sense, those techniques are natural to them. There are certain sounds and technical things that Peter Evans does that I simply can’t make happen, either because of my physical set up or because I just don’t hear it. So, I guess if I forced myself to learn one of those techniques, it could be one of my “extended techniques” in the sense that is an extension outside of what I do naturally. There are a lot of things that I do that fall under the traditional understanding of “extended technique” for trumpet though which are so natural that I don’t really realize that I’m doing them. I hear the sound and the technique to make it happens. That’s only an extended technique if you take a very narrow view of how the instrument is supposed to be played and what it is supposed to sound like.

Your work includes both electronic processing and „pure-Trumpet“ pieces. On „Trumpet/Amplifier LP“, these approaches come together on a single album. What, to you, are the most interesting aspects about both?
Well, I am not a huge fan of saying those pieces are electronically processed. Processing, to me, means that the base sound has been manipulated post-production by very specific means, usually addition of filters or passes through certain computer plug-ins, etc. to hide or change the sound of the original material. That has never been very interesting to me and in a way has always felt a little like cheating for some reason. I know the rigor that goes into that work and have listened to a lot of amazing music that involves processing (Lawrence Casserley, Joel Ryan, Robert Van Heumen, just off the top of my head), but there is something about the use of a computer as the primary shaper of the sound that makes me uncomfortable for my own work. It doesn’t help that I am virtually illiterate when it comes to anything beyond basic editing and mixing. So, any of the pieces that have been more post-production oriented have been limited only to things that I could conceive of doing with a piece of ¼” tape (and I would be truly, truly limited with that) like editing, layering, and changing speed.
For example, the “Amplifier” piece on the LP is just one live performance of a solo piece I performed in New York with a trumpet through amplifier with no pedals or effects whatsoever. The reason it sounds worked on is that I cut it in half and layered it on top of itself so the density is greater than I could create playing live. The two acoustic pieces on the LP sound way more processed than the amplifier piece but they are the simplest; recorded on an old Sony ECM microphone plugged into a mini-disc player. Live, one shot, no editing, no processing. The end of the second piece did get thrown back into a room a bunch of times and re-recorded to create an effect, but that is it.
Ultimately, with solo trumpet, which is what that LP is to me, I love the feeling of being naked and exposed. That’s why I do it. I love the fear of sitting on a stage or in front of a mic with the minimum of materials and making something out of very little. I tend to be paranoid about whether I am hiding behind a technology or technique instead of creating a real musical statement. I need things to feel a little bit bloody when I get done and, to me at least, a heavy amount of processing loses that feel.

What were the main differences in approach between the Trumpet-part of the LP and your free release on Compost and Height?
The Almond, which is the piece that is excerpted for Compost and Height was about using the trumpet in the most obvious way. I have spent a lot of time working on how to push away from a standard trumpet tone, but earlier this year, about the time that Patrick asked me if I would try something for Compost and Height, I felt like a lot of what I was doing was losing its base. So, for that piece I recorded each of 9 straight trumpet pitches in 12 different ways, only concentrating on different mic techniques and mutes. So, in that way, already it is very different from the LP which doesn’t have any traditional trumpet pitches on it.
Another thing that is different is the approach to putting the piece together. I usually think of a piece, even one that has some post-production of some sort, in an improvised way. For The Almond, I had been interested in ambient music and tape loops especially, and so I wanted to create, what was for me, an extremely rigorous tape loop piece. There are 10 65 minute loops in the full length version of the piece, each of which consists of 3-8 smaller loops which in turn consist of 3-8 notes, which are made up of anywhere from 2-5 recorded versions of that pitch. All in all, it was incredibly time consuming and exact, which is not how I usually work.
Strangely, even though I think of all that as a very different working method and set of materials, it still came out in a way that is kind of rough and improvised sounding and there are a lot of points during the piece where the trumpet sound is not obviously a trumpet (either because of the synthesized nature of combining multiple versions of each note or because of psycho-acoustic effects arising from the way the overtones clash). So, I see it as being different in materials and process, but similar in overall aesthetic, at least to my ears.

Let's talk about your new album on PSI with Paul Lytton. The press release dotes on the „transAtlantic and trans-generational connections“ of your creative partnership. Can you actually sense the generation gap between you and Paul? Does it play a role musically?

I don’t really sense a generation gap with Paul when we’re playing or talking about music. Obviously, I have a lot to learn from him, and I don’t take that lightly, but I think we approach improvising in the same way. We both have a healthy love of the jazz tradition, but have chosen to make our own path. We have both committed ourselves to a process-based view of how we are working, meaning we are looking to expand the possibilities of the duo as opposed to refine. We both have relatively dirty minds. In those ways we are on the same page and would be regardless of our age difference.

What about the intercontinental difference?
I feel that less musically than professionally. I have been a fan of European improvisation for a long time and have periods where I feel less comfortable in an American free jazz setting for whatever reason, so the intercontinental difference doesn’t really come up for me when we are playing music. It is, obviously, much different to fund a tour in the US with this kind of duo than it is to play in Europe. The attitudes here are different and Paul and I can get in some interesting conversations about how American audiences and musicians view improvised music versus, say, Germans, but that usually remains a primarily sociological conversation, and one that comes and goes with the amount of wine we’ve had.

Your MySpace site drily states: „We are two people. Paul plays percussion. Nate plays trumpet. We play our instruments at the same time.“
I think of the duo with Paul as very conversational in the most natural meaning of that term. We each move at a certain rate. Sometimes we are playing together, sometimes not. Decisions are constantly being made by the two of us and the essential decision, at least to my ears, is whether to ignore the other person. I don’t mean to discount what they’re playing, but to choose to stay on your musical path as opposed to working towards some kind of complementary musical figure.  We definitely know what the other person is playing, but there is an air of finding the route less travelled in how we deal with it.
The description on our MySpace-site about me playing trumpet and him playing percussion is a way of saying that these instruments are really the only limits to the duo. There is no overarching aesthetic or way of thinking about how we are going to interact that needs to be followed when we perform or record. I don’t think we have a lot of baggage at this point about what the music needs to sound like. The only thing that needs to be there to start is percussion and a trumpet, and the rest is going to go where it goes.

You've mentioned that you don't particularly like concept music. So does that mean that there is not much planning or intellectual preparation that goes into the duo albums?
Right, there is no planning outside of the logistics of the recording, how to set up, roughly how much material we want to have at the end to cull through, when we will get lunch, etc.
To clarify the point about concept music, I think what I meant in that statement was that I don’t like music that is only interesting in light of an in-depth explanation of its concept. There are certain composers that are highly conceptual in their thinking whose music I already love at a base listener level and is only enhanced when I begin reading about the concept behind it, specifically Tom Johnson and Walter Marchetti, but I get a feeling with some works that I only appreciate the amount of work that went in to the concept and not actually the result. That’s fine on a certain level, but it is not something I’m interested in revisiting very often.

How does „Creak above 33“ compare to your previous LP with Paul?
The first LP was the very first time we had played as a duo, so it was definitely very different. I was scared to death. We recorded in a garage in Köln, and even though I had heard Paul’s electronics I had never dealt with them before, so the whole session was nerve-wracking for me. It didn’t help that I had lived with the Parker/Lytton duo records for about 5 years before that. I spent a lot of energy on that session trying to live up to everyone Paul had ever played with, Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Toshi Kondo; it was a real battle of personalities in my head. I was surprised how cogent it sounded when I heard it back a couple of weeks later.
Since the LP, Paul and I did two small US tours and had had some time to play and develop a nice friendship, and so when we went back in to do Creak Above 33 it was a totally different experience. We hadn’t seen each other for 6 months and it was much more of a relaxed reunion of sorts than the first record. I felt like I had less to prove, technically and musically. We were in a better situation of an empty Köln jazz club and I think the music feels much more expansive and indicative of what that duo does.
One thing that remained the same through both sessions is that the great Bojan Vuletic recorded and mixed both records. I consider him a third member of the group, he gets great transparent sound and really works hard to make a very disparate group of sound sources work together. I always feel he deserves a mention when these records are talked about.
The other thing to be said about the duo is that it is always about experimentation and pushing forward. That sounds obvious, but it can be very attractive to find a certain successful recipe and just refine it. Paul and I, although we may have never been explicit about it are trying to work against that feeling of stasis. For that reason, the LP is one point in time… Creak is another… and after doing a couple of duo and trio gigs since the recording I feel like we are in another place altogether again. That’s one of the main attractions for me to the duo.

So to you, with Paul, you seem to have found a collaboration that very organically avoids repeating itself?
I think so, yes.  A part of that is how little we get to perform together too, maybe one tour a year, last year was only a handful of times, so there is a lot of growth on both sides in between meetings too.

What's the appeal of playing in a Quartet formation compared to your duos?
First of all, the quintet enables me to write, which is something I haven’t done in a couple of years. It’s exciting for me to write for specific players and to develop a group sound in my head. Personally, it is a chance to emphasis a part of my playing that explores melody and harmony and rhythm more than timbre, density, and velocity, which is how I typically think of my language.
In the duo with Paul, or in the duo with Joe Morris, or with Spencer Yeh/Chris Corsano or Fred Lonberg-Holm/Jason Roebke, the concentration is a second by second spontaneous expression. Those situations don’t have any barriers to what language I use, how I structure form, the length of pieces or what audience they are for, and because of that, they are essential relationships for me. However, there is a side of me that feels the need to play some music in a very composed and contained stylistic way. I feel like the quintet allows me to do that while still providing the flexibility for all five of us to express ourselves pretty freely within the constraints of a composition.

A while ago, you mentioned that you didn't think the Quartet would get together again very soon. Now, you're playing live again. How did that come about?

The quartet as it used to be no longer exists. Right now, I’m working with a new quintet with Harris Eisenstadt, Eivind Opsvik, Matt Moran, and Josh Sinton. The quartet that used to perform ended not long after Take Toriyama’s (the original drummer) death. When I thought about trying to put it back together it just needed to be different in some elements because of the loss of Take and certain aesthetic changes that had gone on for me in the interim. Now, we are performing a lot and I’m really happy with the direction it’s taking. The group has melded together beautifully and I’m very proud that those guys, who are all insanely busy in New York, spend the time working on this music. We’ll go in to the studio in September and there will be a release on Clean Feed in 2011.

In the liner notes to the Compost & Height release, you write that we are „mired in the muck of our own histories, opinions and aesthetics“. How do you personally try avoiding that?  
I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways in that I don’t think I get viewed by listeners as any one specific thing, so there is not much pressure on me to reproduce anything specific. That comment from Compost and Height came from thinking a lot about how something long-term grows musically. This year is the first of doing second records of certain projects (Lytton, Crackleknob, Hammer Trio, Seven Storey Mountain) and what the value is of that, or how it can reflect the changes that an artist goes through in the 2-5 years between documentation while staying true to the original idea. It’s a big challenge for me in a lot of ways, but always at the forefront of my mind in this process is to make something that shows some growth. There is no reason to put out a recording just because you can. I always love picking up third or fourth records by the same group and hearing how much it has changed. That’s truly exciting. I love groups like the Peeesseye and Burning Star Core for that reason, every record is a step further.
As far as not getting mired in my own opinions, etc, I’m not really sure that I have a tried and true way to get out of that. I’ve been proven wrong too many times to take my opinions too seriously and so any new ideas or music that I come across I give some pretty rigorous and open-minded attention. That’s not to say that I don’t have moments where I just don’t like something because of my past history or listening or aesthetic. That’s just part of being human, but I do try and find something I can relate to in everything I come across and that provides a lot of opportunity for expansion.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Peter Gannushkin/ DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET.

Nate Wooley Discography:
Wrong Shape To Be A Storyteller/ w. Chris Forsyth (Creative Sources) 2005
Silo/ w. Leonel Kaplan & Audrey Chen (Utech Records) 2006
The Duchess Of Oysterville (Creative Sources) 2007
Trio/ w. Tim Barnes & Jason Roebke / (Peira) 2007
Untitled/ w. Paul Lytton (Editions Brokenresearch) 2008
Throw Down Your Hammer And Sing/ w. Fred Lonberg-Holm & Jason Roebke (Porter Records) 2009
The Almond (Compost and Height) 2010
Creak Above 33/ w. Paul Lytton (PSI) 2010
Trumpet/Amplifier (Smeraldina-Rima) 2010
Tooth and Nail/ w. Joe Morris (Clean Feed) 2010

Nate Wooley
Nate Wooley at MySpace
Nate Wooley & Paul Lytton at MySpace

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