Nate Wooley Interview by Stuart Broomer
Since settling in New York in 2001, Nate Wooley has developed a wide-ranging practice as both trumpeter and composer. On the explicitly jazz-oriented front he works regularly in Daniel Levin’s Quartet and Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day, as well as leading his own quintet. On the free improvisation side, Wooley has ongoing duo partnerships with drummer Paul Lytton, guitarist Joe Morris and trumpeter Peter Evans. Along with Evans and Axel Dörner, Wooley is in the vanguard of a revolution in trumpet technique and he’s produceda remarkable series of solo pieces as well. He’s also the composer of a piece called Seven Storey Mountain, a major work that he’s been revisiting and recasting since 2009.
Wooley was born in Oregon in 1974 and grew up in the town of Clatskanie. The quiet rural setting likely contributed to Wooley’s ongoing interest in silence, but he sees it as something innate as well: ”Growing up in a very small town where there was very little city noise and city light definitely informed a certain amount of who I am, but I’ve come to realize that I’m also just a quiet person; that I’m interested in the power of quiet and silence and the fact that it causes the listener to apply a different kind of strain to engage in the music. I have come to realize, though, that only in combination with other elements does that connection to silence really mean anything.
”The other side of his upbringing was his relationship to jazz, one that defines his current quintet: “Jazz is just a big part of who I am. My dad is a jazz musician, a big band musician to really put a fine point on it. That’s a very specific way of thinking about what you do as an improviser and as a part of a musical unit and it’s the center of how I think, for better or worse. I did a lot of exploring of different ways of playing and still do, but there was a certain point where I realized that to not play jazz with a capital J – or at least my skewed version of it – meant to turn my back on that part of me and the people that taught me growing up.
”The solo trumpet music has Wooley sharing an interiority with the trumpet and examining extended techniques and tape editing in pieces like The Almond, a long work built up with tapes of contrasting techniques. For Syllables Wooley constructed a system of notation that’s based on the International Phonetic Alphabet. It’s as if Wooley is teaching the trumpet to talk, confronting the complex relationship between abstract instrumental music and speech. The work results in long stretches of near silence, that keybuilding block of Wooley’s musical thought. Wooley recently released Syllables: “The point of that first piece was really to get the concept of what a trumpet‘ should’ sound like out of my head, to create a piece for my own benefit without crafting its musicality and luckily it happened to work out to be interesting musically outside of the concept. With Syllables, I still allowed the sounds to be raw and uncontrolled and sit outside my conception of trumpet sound, but I did three versions of the composition, some acoustic and some amplified, and combined them to shape a piece of music that I was happy with, though I’m a little conflicted as to whether I really stayed true to those original ideals that I attached to this series of pieces. I like to work like that… It’s rare that you do something that makes you question yourself.
”That focus on trumpet mechanics and speech leads naturally to Seven Storey Mountain, named for Thomas Merton’s 1948 account of the spiritual struggle that led him to become a Trappist monk, complete with the practice of silence. Wooley initially described the combination of “tape manipulation, long forms with simple written musical directions” as “an attempt to reach some sort of musical ecstaticism. ” Wooley first recorded it in 2009 with David Grubbs (harmonium) and Paul Lytton (percussion) and then again in 2011 with new tape elements and C. Spencer Yeh (violin) and Chris Corsano (drums). “It’s changed over time. The performance we’re doing on June 6th is the fourth. The third iteration had both groups on it… I also added two vibraphones and the piece took on a slightly more composed feeling than the previous two. A lot of my attitude about why I was making the pieces changed as well. “During the first two pieces, the impetus was to try to find a way to access a certain feeling of ecstaticism- religious or not – that I had read about in a lot of mystical texts. After the second, I came to the realization that I’m just not a naturally ecstatic person and that I wasn’t being very honest about what I was doing with the series. So…being honest about what I was doing became more of the theme than the ecstaticism, somehow. The third version is much calmer and has elements of composition that weren’t really in the first two. The fourth has even more elements of composition, with Corsano and Ryan Sawyer on drums, Yeh on violin and Ben Vida on electronics, Matt Moran and Chris Dingman on vibraphone and the TILT Brass Sextet. ”In a world obsessed with success, Wooley is alert to the creative possibilities of failure, recalling SamuelBeckett’s dictum in Worstward Ho, “fail better”: “I took a lot from books like Seven Storey Mountain or St. Augustine’s Confessions about the power of allowing yourself to fail. That’s become the theme of these pieces in a way. They are far afield of what I know I can do and so there is an element of me doing something very large every once in a while that just might not work. I want to do that in public, as failure should be a part of anyone making something. There’s an element in our society that tries to birth artists fully formed from an aesthetic lotus blossom. I can understand that, but I appreciate the person who stands up and says, ‘not sure if this is going to work, but let’s try it and see… it’ll be fun either way.’ And if it doesn’t work, then you gain more power from learning about who you are and what you need to do to make something powerful to yourself and your audience.”
• Nate Wooley – Wrong Shape To Be A Storyteller(Creative Sources, 2004)
• Mary Halvorson/Reuben Radding/Nate Wooley -Crackleknob (hatOLOGY, 2006)
• Nate Wooley – The Seven Storey Mountain (Important, 2007)
• Wooley/Weber/Lytton – Six Feet Under (NoBusiness, 2009)
• Nate Wooley Quintet – (Put Your) Hands Together(Clean Feed, 2010)
• RED Trio + Nate Wooley – Stem (Clean Feed, 2011)