Interview with Nate Wooley

(Note: this feature was originally posted February 15, 2012 and is reposted here for archival purposes)

You may know of trumpeter Nate Wooley for various reasons: perhaps for his inexplicably imaginative performances, for his frequently deepening and prolific discography, or for his many collaborations with some of jazz and experimental music’s most  celebrated players.  What really sets apart Wooley from the crowd, however, is his innate ability to hone a vast landscape of musical dynamism into precise, poignant, and seemingly-religious events in sound.  Wooley commands his instrument with a meditative grace and unabashed boldness that supplies a rich, cohesive narrative to genres that critics and skeptics may otherwise say has a tendency to meander into aimlessness.

The Esoterrorist had the opportunity to speak with Wooley about his work on a new online music journal, his new split LP with Peter Evans, and — most importantly — his craft.

The Esoterrorist: First, tell me a little more about the new music journal, Sound American,  that you’re working on with The Database of Recorded American Music (DRAM).

Nate Wooley: Sound American is really a companion piece to the Database of Recorded American Music (DRAM).  For the past three or four years, I’ve been working for DRAM in different capacities and I think it’s an incredible resource.  It allows students that are studying music a chance to listen to composers and performers that may not, for whatever reason, be covered in the typical streaming services like Spotify or MOG, or more specifically to composed music, places like Naxos.  I’m talking not about folks like John Cage and Morton Feldman, but people like Ken Gaburo, Al Margolis, Tom Johnson, Bob Ashley; composers doing very specific and interesting work that just happens to fall outside of the mainstream of what most university students are exposed to.

The question that always came to mind for me as I was listening to all this music for work, some of which I was discovering for the first time and some of which I had found on my own previous to joining DRAM, was, “Why is this music on the fringe of the consciousness of musicians?”.  It’s not that it’s inherently difficult to listen to.  Tom Johnson is very elegant and very easy to enjoy, even without delving deep into the concept, the same with Ashley or James Tenney or the Larry Polansky fugues.  So that opened up a lot of questioning for me.  Not only in regard to why this stuff wasn’t being consumed on a wider scale, but also having to do with why I found it so enjoyable.  I guess I always assumed I was messed up, different, special, and that brought me to this idea of how experimental and new music can be presented to the average listener, or even to the avid music fan that may be staying away.  The answer I came up with, as I say in the introduction to the site, is that I think most people that have found this music hard to handle have been colored by someone telling them it’s difficult, and there’s an element in that kind of activity that is elitist.

That’s a real problem for me.  There’s no reason that anyone, regardless of how intellectually invested they choose to be, can’t be moved by or become attached to a piece of “experimental” music.  It’s not a matter of critical thinking skills, it’s a matter of sitting down and listening, but a lot of people aren’t willing to do that because they’ve been told it’s a music for the “hardcore” or the “intelligentsia” or that appreciation of it is only available through your participation in some sort of record collector cabal.  Bullshit, it’s music.  That simple.  You will like it or you won’t.  No one’s asking for you to write a dissertation and we don’t need to have a debate.  If you like it, get more into it.  If you don’t, maybe you’ll like the next thing you hear.  It’s about discovery and broadening what you can experience, not becoming part of an ever-tightening spiral of hipness and exclusivity.

And so that’s what Sound American is setting out to do.  DRAM has such an insane amount of incredible music that we wanted to just find some new ways to let people in to explore.  A huge part of that was making the database available for individual subscription, which we had never done before.  Another way was writing about the music in a very casual but passionate way.  I think most of us have had the experience of being with friends and playing records for each other over a couple of beers and how personal and powerful that social experience can be to letting us be open to hearing things in a new way.  The hope is that Sound American provides that kind of atmosphere for, not only the recordings in DRAM, but ultimately for new and experimental music in general.  The site also gives us a chance to talk about some different ideas that maybe are more philosophical, but when simply and openly discussed, allow you to maybe gain a different perspective on a composer or performing group.  A great example is the upcoming interview with Tim Perkis and John Bischoff of the League of Automatic Music Composers.  This is one of the first computer networking musical groups, patching together early microprocessors to create, essentially, musical social networking. It’s totally arresting electronic music and an interesting idea in light of the way we’re all living our lives on-line right now.  It’s phenomenal that they were doing it 30 years ago, but listening to them talk about how the late 70s in San Francisco affected their mindset and their differing hopes in networking all these early computers together also somehow gives their music a whole different organic quality that really makes it breathe.

So, for now, we’re featuring the Phill Niblock Experimental Intermedia Archive which is new in DRAM and we’ve got other things in the works.  I think if we can make a go of it, and it does help get people to DRAM and listening to new music, which we definitely have to keep in mind as our goal, then we’ll just keep on keeping on.  I imagine the way we present will change, but the hope is we are able to continue to find new ways to get people to spend some time with some music they might otherwise feel is beyond their ability to enjoy.

TE: I’m really excited about it.  And speaking of Al Margolis, won’t you be performing at The Stone this month while he is curating?

NW: Yeah, on the 19th.  One of my recent solo recordings, The Almond, came out on Pogus and luckily just in time to be able to do something while the label was curating the Stone.  I think Al’s original hope was a live version of the record (which should be possible as there is a score that I wrote out for the Aaron Copland Foundation) and I did put some thought into it, thinking maybe I could do a version with 5 trumpets and tape, but the logistics just got to insane for how busy I was at the time, and so I am going to play duo with New Monuments percussionist Ben Hall, which I’m totally psyched about.  We’ve played a lot together, but never just as a duo.

TE: That should be an impressive performance.  I was really into the record he did with Don Dietrich last year.  And on the topic of impressive performances, last time I saw you perform was with C. Spencer Yeh, Ryan Sawyer, and Colin Stetson, which was just a phenomenal improvisation.  Yeh mentioned to me that Colin wants to make that a regular deal, with a band name and all.  Any developments on that?

NW: Developments are slow, but we’re working on it.  Spencer and Ryan and I have been doing a trio for a couple of years, since we opened up for Jandek in Brooklyn.  The quartet with Colin as special guest ended up being even better than our already high expectations, and so I think we’re all committed to doing more with the band, but with schedules and everybody doing their own thing it might take one of those generous twists of fate to get us playing more regularly.  That being said, things are moving forward slowly but surely.  We’re playing two sets at the Stone coming up on May 13th, and I think there are plans to record, so it’s definitely still on all of our minds.

TE: You have the new split LP with Peter Evans, Instrumentals Vol. 1, currently being released.  Can you explain a little of what to expect from this recording and how it connects to or differs from the previous collaboration High Society

NW: Well the LP was basically in the works at the same time that we recorded High Society, the duo record. I think it’s safe to say that the duo recording was us documenting the end of us both amplified.  At the time, I think he was moving back more to his acoustic playing and I was working on The Almond and some of the other pieces that had more to do with tape processes, so the duo thing was changing.  Now, we’re actually working on an acoustic record of the duo and a new quartet with Jim Black and Paul Lytton so those things will push us in a new direction altogether.  Uncle Woody Sullender of Dead CEO approached us about this new series of recordings where two players of the same instrument cut a solo side and he puts out a split.  It seemed like a chance to do something different and smaller, not a full length solo record which both of us had already done, but something very compact with a single, simple musical purpose.

Peter and I decided not to talk to each other about anything we decided to do for the solo split.  We purposely didn’t listen to each other’s solo, even though Woody asked us to write liner notes for each other.  I think we have an interesting relationship in that, at least from my perspective, we’re always trying to surprise each other and see if we can push things further than the last guy did.  I definitely can’t keep up from a strictly technical point of view, but I try and do things that I think will make him scratch his head formally at least.  So, that was the approach to the LP.  I did a piece that was dedicated to Walter Marchetti, one of my favorite composers  The idea for my side was to compress an hour of continuous playing into 18 minutes and fold it in on itself, then cut patterns out of it, highlighting small melodies and bits of sound while pushing others to the background, then cutting out big silences that just fuck up the whole flow.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever done and that’s the sort of thing that the collaboration with Peter has brought out in me.  I think the whole thing turned out pretty well, actually.  Peter’s side is great and Woody did a great job in making sure it sounds right and looks good.

TE: As someone who has a prolific list of collaborations under his belt, do you feel that there is a significant difference between your work in lowercase or modern-creative jazz and that of the noisier improvisational genre?  Some of this question will be subject to rules of semantics and categorization, but do you approach these various projects from different angles?  Do you feel like the line between free-jazz and noise is becoming successfully blurred in a sense? 

NW: I used to take a real journeyman approach to all that.  I think I inherited that from my dad, a big band saxophonist; that idea that you survey the musical situation and find the best and most efficient way to express yourself within the style or for the gig.  That got me through to a large extent, but over the past five years I’ve been pretty actively trying to whittle the musical things I’m doing down to only include the music that I feel like I can make a positive contribution to and will give me something back.  That still leaves me with a lot of different stuff, just because I’ve always been addicted to listening to music and I’m greedy that way.

At one point, I started to feel like the attitude of tailoring my playing to fit a genre became limiting to the point of me just making bad musical choices in a lot of situations, and so I changed the way I viewed the different styles and groups of people that I was playing with.  I’m a person that has a lot of different interests in music.  I’m no different from any other musician in that way, but I think I found a way for myself to view things three-dimensionally and approach, say a sideman gig with Harris Eisenstadt (music that is more rooted in the jazz tradition and dealing with strict harmony and form) with the same attitude I would in the duo with Paul Lytton (which is free and actively, consciously experimental) with the same basic attitude, which really helped me feel more confident in the music I was making.

So, it’s become more about being one voice that approaches all those things as opposed to “putting on a different hat”.  And, that has made me see that genre divisions really are more open than I think we all expect them to be.  There are moments in the jazz thing where I can hear nothing but a noise aesthetic and I just let that happen.  It is actually effective and powerful because people aren’t expecting to hear it. And, the same thing goes for the noise world.  If you lay down miles of white noise and feed back and find a natural and organic way to play a melody or something innately rhythmic, it provides contrast.  And, I’m a big believer in the idea that if I play something that is really, really personal to me….and not that kind of personal which is defined as an articulated aesthetic like “this is my shit”, then you will connect with people.  By personal, i mean something that is truly raw and fucked up and musically gives up that part of you that you wouldn’t necessarily be willing to tell a room full of strangers: the true person playing the music with all of their different fragilities and strengths….  I think people really don’t care about what you want to call the result, if it’s free jazz or noise or post-minimalism, if they perceive that you are letting them in a way that is really honest.  So, in a sense, I don’t really care if the lines are being blurred as far as the way we define the genres and the way certain players are moving in and out of them as long as I get to do what i want to do.

TE: And what do you have lined up as your next projects?  Can we expect another installment of Seven Storey Mountain anytime soon?

NW: I’m just getting the final mixes of Seven Storey III from Jeremiah Cymerman who did an amazing job making everything sing the way it did in the live performance….that one was with both Lytton and Chris Corsano on drums, David Grubbs on guitar and C. Spencer Yeh on violin, along with Matt Moran and Chris Dingman on vibraphones.  It was definitely more composed then the previous two versions, but it still has all the elements that I’ve tried to maintain, so I’m very happy with it.  I’ll send it off to Important soon and we’ll see if they are interested.

Other than that, I’m essentially on the road, mostly solo, some new projects with different people but just kind of continuing to grind.  I feel like I’m in a little bit of a rut, so most of my energy is going to getting out of that.

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