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Nate Wooley - The Almond
Nate Wooley - The AlmondImprovised music is drawn from the well of experience and, as such, it is a lived process. Playing creatively whether in a solo or a group context is, in part, drawing on history and conception, but it also requires (or encourages) getting to know oneself, one’s environment and one’s partners. It’s social, psychological and experiential. In the best instances, creative music can be sublime in the truest sense of the word - standing before a mountain or precipice as both listener and performer. Trumpeter and improvising composer Nate Wooley is a player with his hands in a number of pots - jazz-derived small groups (of which he’s both leader and sideman), as well as freer work with the English percussionist Paul Lytton and stateside players like drummer Ben Hall and guitarist Joe Morris. Wooley’s solo music, however, is in an entirely different space than any aforementioned setting and deserves to be taken on its own.

If, according to guitarist/improviser Derek Bailey, solo playing is the process of developing one’s language apart from a collective scenario, Wooley’s solos go even further - at least if one considers musical language from a phrase-based approach. Following on the heels of 2010’s feedback study Trumpet/Amplifier (Smeraldina-Rima), Wooley has released two new solo recordings that are equally remarkable. The closest thing to a traditional solo trumpet record that Wooley has cut is [8] Syllables on Chicago’s Peira imprint. On the surface it is a soloist’s project, with untreated acoustic trumpet moving through passages of related sounds and phrasal palimpsests. There is also a hint of ‘blowing the bell off the horn’ and putting the instrument through its most extreme paces, ā la Bill Dixon’s early ‘70s solo work. But Wooley is taking a different tack here, in that while he is avoiding simple refined exploration of an improvisational vocabulary, pushing the instrument is also part of a grander clause. In [8] Syllables, sounds are organized through assigning them symbols derived from the International Phonetic Alphabet (phonemes, intonation and word/syllable separation), with a specific series of breaths assigned to each. The effect is a challenging directed improvisation for solo brass instrumentalist. In practice, circularity, tinny swipes, screams and areas of winnowing, cyclical gulps separated by lengthy tacet sections are among the composition’s syllables, but the cruel abstractions that Wooley derives are his own immediate response.

The Almond developed from a 25-minute study released through the online imprint Compost & Height and is presented on this Pogus disc as a single 72-minute composition. Wooley has taken a kernel of pure, unadulterated pitch modulation and through overdubbing placed it in multiple scenarios - different rooms, microphones and mutes were used. Though it is technically an ‘acoustic’ recording, the result is certainly related to electronic composition. These sonic nuts are stretched out and overlap throughout the length of the piece, with variations in hue subtly appearing in shifting relation to a variety of overtones. Often, they take the appearance of other instruments - voice, percussion, organ and, indeed, Wooley does vocalize in a striking turn beginning around 58:00. One musical antecedent is Swedish composer Folke Rabe’s Was?? (Wergo, 1968) in which a simple word is electronically stretched into an amalgam of drones and partials. While it’s hard to see this group of sounds as being derived from ‘words’ in exactly the same way as Was?? or [8] Syllables, expanding a granular series of phrases into something environmental is a fascinating compositional approach. Wooley’s piece unfolds gradually, though it does give the effect of infinite immersion - akin to the graded, fuzzy tones and optical envelopment of a Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still painting. There is objective sonic beauty too, as a pinched, feminine wail peeks out from a series of pure and chuffed tones, augmented by the lapping of a brass chorus that recedes just as quickly as it advances, only knowable through living the work. It’s a beautiful and perhaps even psychedelic experience, superseding observable micro-changes. Compared to [8] Syllables, the end result of The Almond feels more organic in its development, swaddling in an acoustical tapestry rather than confronting with materialist parameters. Nevertheless, both works are fascinating, turning the ‘solo’ inside out while continuing to define Wooley as an instrumentalist-composer of the highest order. - Clifford Allen, The New York City Jazz Record
Listening to these two recent solo trumpet projects by Nate Wooley made me think back to around 2000 when Franz Hautzinger’s Gomberg for quarter-tone trumpet on Grob, Greg Kelley’s Trumpet on Meniscus, and Axel Dörner’s solo release on A Bruit Secret came out in relatively close proximity to each other; all of which, if not reinventing the trumpet, certainly re-invigorated an interest in the instrument. Sure, masters like Bill Dixon and Toshinori Kondo had released strong solo statements before this, but here were some new voice with prodigious technique who embraced the process of constructing advanced forms from the elemental sounds of breath and brass. Wooley’s first solo release, Wrong Shape to be a Story Teller, came out a few years later, providing ample evidence that he was another vital voice to keep an eye on. Since that release, Wooley has used the solo setting to meld pure acoustic playing, amplification, processing and tape constructions in order to develop projects of singular vision. These two recent projects are stellar examples of this musical process.

A 25-minute excerpt of his piece The Almond was offered for download on the Compost and Height website two years ago, providing an opportunity to experience this engulfing work. With this release on Pogus, one can now hear the full 72-minute realization of this lushly layered orchestral construction. In the liner notes, Wooley states that “The piece is made only of trumpet tones, no extended technique, no processing,” which may be true, but in no way prepares the listener for the harmonic opulence of what is to come. Digging in to the mechanics of the piece, Wooley explains that: “There are 10 major loops running throughout the whole piece. Within each of those large loops there are three to five smaller loops that have an element of silence. Within those smaller loops there are four to 10 smaller loops with silence and made up of the basic harmonies that move in and out. Each note of those harmonies are made up of three to six different recordings of each single pitch, using different mic techniques, room sounds, and mutes.” The result is an immersive experience (and he rightfully suggests that this one be listened to loudly), as the loops of buzzing and quavering tones accrue into coursing layers of sound.

It is easy to flip to shorthand and describe the piece as a modulating drone, but there’s far more at play here. Wooley has meticulously charted the flow and density of the piece, building upon a simple harmonic center that provides a continuous thread while transforming the resulting overtones through the use of sumptuous striations that ebb and flow throughout. The nature of the loops amassing on each other creates a sound that brings to mind a huge pipe organ, and one quickly loses track of the fact that a trumpet is at the root of the music. At other times, there are shades of a vocal choir, particularly as the densities begin to disperse at the end of the piece. Wooley eschews simple structures of arc and trajectory, instead depending upon the pulsating interactions of the overlapping sounds to develop eddies of activity, which get woven in to the immersive mix. Doubtless, hearing this one on a deluxe sound system would reveal even more richness in the detail.

Wooley’s [8] Syllables is far more raw in sound, while no less structured in process and execution. Here, he created scores for a series of sounds utilizing a graphic representation of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This was employed to create parameters of attack, body and decay of each sound. Wooley laid out groupings of similar phoneme symbols to define the deployment of traditional trumpet technique. He explains that “the idea has never been to control the elements of the embouchure, mouth, throat, tongue, et al., but to allow them to operate in an environment of their own, separated from their typical roles in the production of sound; essentially to set up a machine and let it run on its own, with no results based judgment of the resultant product.” In this process, the core kernels of spoken language are transposed to define the structural form.

The piece is broken in to sections separated by silence, with each section structured around the manipulation of the prescribed technique repeated for a specific number of breaths, a concept Wooley appropriated from James Tenney. While Wooley describes the generation of sound as “the machine,” it is his spontaneous integration of techniques established over years of playing, injected with the rudiments of techniques used to vocalize language, that sparks this piece into something beyond mere exercise. The choice of location for the recording also comes in to play; the live reverberance of the ISSUE Project Room adds yet another layer of nuance to the performance. What could come off as dry and formal is anything but as Wooley’s pinched tones, splayed flurries, hisses, shreds, scrapes, yelps, growls and groans are transformed into circuitous trumpet lines that gather force and momentum and then break into dramatic pause. Here, bereft of amplification, processing, or tape treatments, the recording captures him as he builds a transmogrified language for performance. - Michael Rosenstein, Dusted

It took two days and four listens to decide how my ears receive The Almond, a record for superimposed trumpet loops and voice that – over the course of 72 minutes, expanding a first version that lasted just 20 – could make an unfocused appraiser believe that “it sounds like” (insert name here). In truth, this is an album that does not ask for a mere “verdict”: it is better appreciated for what it is, that is to say an experiment. Successful or not, that mostly depends on the listener’s attitude.

Ever since the very beginning one realizes that the instrument has been played in different environments and with assorted manual devices (mutes for sure, and perhaps also some of the thin metal sheets used by Wooley in his solitary performances). The slight buzzing of certain pitches instantly erases any tendency to smoothness as far as the timbre is concerned. The piece’s gravity is maintained through a ceaseless succession of looping figurations of varying extent which, in their unfolding, show a rather ample gamut of shifting groupings – from consonant to clustery – that, working together, give the music a temperament of mildly perturbed quietness.

The trumpet was not processed, but quite often the mind fabricates suggestions of strings and female voices amidst the sonic accumulation. On the other hand, the recurrent appearance of an unhurried subsonic rub – sort of a low-frequency seesaw – balances the predisposition to acute stridency that many of the sections reveal. Most combinations are interesting, but the sense of awe-inspiring vibration that we experience when listening to Phill Niblock (I’m quoting an immediate and indeed not really valuable comparison read elsewhere) is not the same. The upper partials herein are less intimidating, not really inclined to fight if you get my point.

Anyhow, Wooley’s seriousness is indisputable, and his attempt to tackle long-distance minimalism is valid on that basis. Placing The Almond among the finest examples in the genre would be an overstatement, however it remains a CD that lends itself to frequent spins, stimulating the nerves in a way or another. - Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes

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