Polyphony and Storytelling: A Conversation with Nate Wooley on Solo Improvisation

Nate Wooley’s music and relationship to his instrument has been a huge inspiration to me as a violinist. So I’m very grateful to Nate for taking the time to offer his take on some thoughts I’ve had since recording the solo improvised material on my debut solo album Engage, and to share a veritable masterclass on improvisation as part of my series of posts.

Written By

Josh Modney

As a listener, I’ve long found myself seeking musical experiences that generate a kind of sustained ecstatic energy from a foundation of rigorous thought and technique. Gaining access to that plane as a solo improviser is a particularly challenging task. It takes a special type of artist who engages deeply with the details of sound, upending instrumental conventions while setting boundaries and reference points (as if to say, “Here is a trumpet, unadorned—let’s see what I can do with it.”) and who is able to transfer an emotional experience through the instrument to the listener. Part of what makes trumpeter/composer/writer Nate Wooley such an extraordinary musician is his ability to achieve all of those things in performance. He is a true sonic explorer who has redefined the capabilities of his instrument while making profound spiritual connections with his listeners.

Nate Wooley’s music and relationship to his instrument has been a huge inspiration to me as a violinist.

Nate’s music and relationship to his instrument has been a huge inspiration to me as a violinist. Nate wrote an eloquent introduction to the liner notes of my debut solo violin album, Engage (New Focus Recordings – August 3, 2018), and graciously agreed to have a conversation with me about solo improvisation for NewMusicBox. I’m very grateful to Nate for taking the time to offer his take on some thoughts I’ve had since recording the solo improvised material on Engage, and to share a veritable masterclass on improvisation as part of my series of posts.

Nate Wooley playing a trumpet (photo by Ziga Koritnik)

Nate Wooley (photo by Ziga Koritnik)

Josh Modney: Polyphony is something I think about a lot in solo playing. The violin is not really built to realize densely polyphonic textures, so there’s a natural curiosity to want to do more with it. I’ve also in a very broad sense always been more interested in harmony than melody. So those are two factors pulling me away from the traditional role of violin as a singing, melodic instrument. The traditional role of trumpet is quite similar, so I’m wondering if you could share some thoughts about your relationship to polyphony in your solo work.

Nate Wooley: That’s consistently been an area of my playing that has provided the particular kind of frustration that can generate new directions—kind of a positive within a negative. I have also always loved harmony, but my sense of how (and when) dissonance should resolve has never fallen within a certain tradition of counterpoint or polyphony. Even when I was concentrating on the linear playing that is expected of a jazz player, I liked to stretch the tension as far as I could, or find a place to resolve that was awkward or uncomfortable. That always felt so much more human to me than pounding a chord tone on the strong beats; nothing in life is that foursquare, so why would music—which is inherently supposed to be an expression of life—be so rigid in the way it ebbed and flowed?

“Nothing in life is that foursquare, so why would music be so rigid…”

When I started playing solo, of course, the whole conception of harmony and polyphony had to change, as I didn’t have a rhythm section or other line to play against. It took me a long time to come to grips with that. It takes an incredible mind to captivate an audience with the brilliance of their harmonic mind through monophonic playing…and my mind ain’t one of those. I grappled with it in a lot of different ways: through electronics/feedback, extreme extended technique, use of the voice or other parts of my body. But, a certain breakthrough came during a tour with percussionist Paul Lytton. Someone told me after the show that they appreciated the way I could unfold a single sound and present the micro-events within that single note. I hadn’t thought about the way a note on the trumpet wavers in its timbral quality or overtone production, but after that comment (and certainly playing music by Eliane Radigue and Annea Lockwood in recent years) I started paying attention to a certain harmonic motion contained in those micro-movements. The motion, density, and velocity of those small details produce their own tension and release, and that became the center of how I think—not only in solo playing, but in every situation. Of course, the playing becomes broader than just that, and solo playing encompasses all the techniques I listed above (feedback, et al.) but everything now is really filtered through an attempt to give the inner workings of every sound, no matter how short or long it may be, the attention it deserves.

Nate Wooley solo at Something Else! Festival of Creative Music 2017

JM: The idea of harmonic motion contained in micro-movements totally resonates with me, and I love the way that you work with those kinds of textures. I remember in particular being inspired by the way you are able to make an extraordinarily long and continuous drone by circular breathing and using a harmon mute with a metal plate. The sound is modified unpredictably by the circular breathing while you make specific modifications with the metal plate. It sets up a feedback loop between things that you are controlling and things that can’t be controlled, generating a wealth of musical possibilities.

Hearing you do that was one of the musical experiences that sent me down a path looking for ways to translate or “map” brass and wind sounds onto the violin. The violin is such an old and thoroughly researched instrument, it can be a challenge to find means of expression that aren’t tied to the lineage of Western classical music from Bach to Lachenmann and beyond. That lineage is really important to me and forms the backbone of my practice, but I also want to fold in new possibilities for musical expression. By mapping things like the micro-variation of a trumpeter’s circular breathing and the intensity of a saxophonist’s multiphonics onto the violin, what started as an attempt to make a copy of something develops into something different and, hopefully, fresh on the instrument.

The violin is such an old and thoroughly researched instrument.

I keep on coming back to this thought about the ways that attempts at polyphony dating back to Bach may have informed my own improvisation practice, like a “spiral” of influences being mapped onto one another. This idea was spurred by a conversation with an improviser from a jazz background who told me that Bach’s solo cello suites were his inspiration for cultivating the technique to make chorale textures on the saxophone using multiphonics. Bach’s solo string music is itself a mapping of contrapuntal keyboard textures onto violin and cello. The evolution of polyphonic writing for the violin can be traced directly through the lineage of classical repertoire from Bach through Paganini, Bartók, etc. But as an improviser on the violin, I find it interesting to look at this alternate trajectory or “spiral”—Bach maps keyboard polyphony onto strings, which is in turn mapped onto winds by adventurous players, and finally mapped back onto violin after many layers of translation.

I’m not sure if there is an analog to this “spiral” idea in your experience as a trumpeter, but would love to hear your thoughts. I’m also curious to what extent, if at all, you might consider the genesis of your own highly detailed sounds to represent a “mapping” of polyphony onto your monophonic instrument?

“My grandmother could make me feel more loved by tunelessly humming just under her breath than when she would use the words ‘I love you.’”

NW: Part of that answer probably lies in my above comments about the polyphony inherent in micro-events but, in my history, there has been a different approach to mapping. I had a period when I worked at mapping piano (which I played for years before playing trumpet) or other polyphonic instruments onto the trumpet, but the real moments of change happened for me when I stopped trying to think of music at all and, instead, started mapping the soundworld that had the most physical impact on me onto the horn instead. It’s very rare for me to be moved by musical means alone. I have a deeper relationship to the sound of the human voice. And, by that, I mean the complete human voice inclusive of all that is not the stylized singing voice within any genre (as beautiful as that can be). I am most touched by the way people express ideas through speech, and the ideas they express through vocal sounds when the words escape them, and the sounds they make when they are experiencing those magnificent emotions that humans can only articulate through their individual taxonomy of hums, screams, small sighs, snorts, clicks, pops…anything like that. It has amazed me since I was small, that my grandmother could make me feel more loved by tunelessly humming just under her breath than when she would use the words “I love you.” It’s that phenomenon that I’m interested in mapping onto the instrument. I want to make it express in that way.

So, in a way, there is a “spiraling” in the way you describe it above, but it takes place a little differently in the way I articulate it to myself. In a very bastardized version of a Marcuse idea, I try to look outside the dialectic to see what may be of interest. I try to look at the process from outside and see if there’s a way to sidestep the whole cycle. And, in hindsight, that’s what I did with taking the vocal sounds as a model as opposed to the tradition of music on the trumpet. Granted, it just sets up its own dialectic, but I work within that until I become bored and then—hopefully I’ll get there before I die—I start to look outside of that cycle or “spiral.”

Josh Modney: Range (excerpt), from Engage (New Focus)

JM: The way you describe using vocal sounds as a model is beautiful. It makes total sense knowing your music, but I hadn’t thought of it in that way. I’d like to ask you a bit more about elements of trumpet tradition, since you hail primarily from a jazz background. For example, some traditions and practices on the violin related to classical lineage include straight-ahead “romantic” playing, noise-based music, post-Lachenmann timbral studies, and Just Intonation/drone music. What are the elements of creative improvisation that are within a shared space, regardless of background and training?

“The real moments of change happened for me when I stopped trying to think of music at all.”

NW: I have a lot of the same influences you do, I guess. I got as much from listening to Lachenmann or Bernhard Lang as I did from Clifford Brown or Booker Little. It’s just where that information presents itself that may be different from you to me. The jazz stuff is way deeper in my psyche at this point and has a lot of relationships to nostalgia and family, which means it has a different context for me and is generative in a base way, which I may manipulate or filter through more recent interests like hard noise, contemporary classical, David Tudor, or Ba-Benzele pygmy recordings. It’s like a rough artistic version of base and superstructure. I will always have a desire to build phrases and performances from the eighth-note grid of swing music, but everything I have in my mind that comes from outside that (the superstructure) distorts that base information in a way that makes me an individual. Just like what makes you Josh Modney (musically) is the base of the classical training and the superstructure of noise, Just Intonation, and timbral study.

JM: I’m curious about the ways that you engage with material in your solo playing, or the ways that you think about/categorize the material that forms, as you put it, the superstructure of your musical aesthetic. Do you see the various techniques that you employ coming from families of sound, or different reservoirs of musical practice?

NW: I did think that way for a certain time, but then I started feeling like I was trapped inside the technique. One of my greatest fears about the way I play is that it will be perceived as a set of parlor tricks. I always cringe when someone tells me they were impressed by all the “crazy sounds” after a solo show. To me, that means I did a poor job of putting the technique in the service of some sort of human expression. At a certain point, I felt like my approach to solo playing was too rooted in the architecture of the sound at the risk of losing the human component, so I abandoned that kind of taxonomic approach.

“One of my greatest fears about the way I play is that it will be perceived as a set of parlor tricks.”

Now, I think of each solo concert as storytelling. I come from a place where people still hold forth over beers and tell long and, mostly false, stories of their past or the history of where they are from. It’s a grand tradition that takes many forms and is something I have always loved. My process of solo playing, at its best, takes its cue from that tradition, from sitting in the chair and wanting to have the audience close, to the recent use of the singing and speaking voice unfiltered by the trumpet, to flat out telling a story as I change to the amplifier. Every choice I make now has to do with a kind of storytelling now that’s not strictly narrative or meant to paint a picture, but tries to get at the core of what a great storyteller does, which is slowly pry open their chest and show you everything that’s inside them, if only for a brief second. The hope being that, at the end, I’ve given a small, actually living, piece of myself and the audience feels like they know me a little better. I can’t do that if I think of any taxonomy or groups of sounds, if that makes sense. And, I don’t mean this as a diatribe for what solo playing should be. It’s just what communicates for me.

JM: Love the storytelling analogy! And I totally agree that the perception of “crazy sounds” is sometimes counterproductive to musical ideals. Could you talk a bit about your expressive goals in your solo music? Are there particular elements of your music that you feel act as a gateway to personal expression?

NW: It’s perhaps a little contemporary and I don’t intend to deal in politics (for my own reasons) but this has been on my mind lately and this seems like an apt place to put it in print. I think that we are in a moment of immense, prolonged trauma. There was a time when I believe people could feel intertwined with their fellow human beings in a way that—not discounting humanity’s ability to treat others with coldness and extreme evil—felt safe. That has been chipped away, and I see people everywhere I go that are just trying to figure out how to handle it—some in better and healthier ways than others. My way is to attempt to live. That sounds stupid, but how many people are trying to do that in any conscious way. Not survive, but LIVE. Breathe air, notice the world, bathe in a piece of music, freak out on an amazing turn of phrase in a piece of literature, recognize beauty, recognize ugliness, be glad that they’re both there. Say hello to people, appreciate when they say hello back, be empathetic when they tell you to fuck off. Just sit in your family, your culture, your world, and be a part of it. To that end, when I play solo, I want to be a part of an experience with the people in the room. They actually made an attempt to come out and do something, so I want to live in that room with them for 30 minutes or an hour or whatever. I want us all to feel like something happened, so that we have a renewed faith in the ability to intertwine on any level with our humanity again and fight the trauma. It’s small and, I admit, it’s not a grand political gesture, but I’m not a grandly political person. I just want to give that one period of time to the people in the room as a moment when someone shows themselves and is, maybe uncomfortably, human.

JM: Yeah, I feel from both sides of the stage, as performer and audience member, that the most affecting and memorable experiences are when people are close, usually in a small room, and you can feel the energy of everybody together. Those have always been my favorite musical experiences, but I share your sense that it all has more urgency and immediacy now.

What you describe is also a beautifully non-hierarchical way of thinking about what makes a successful musical performance, which brings me to my final question. I’ve been noticing that, at least within the relatively small community of new music in NYC, we’re moving toward a hybridized scene that operates on a continuum between composition, improvisation, and interpretation. I’m not sure if this represents an overall shift in American contemporary music culture, but there does seem to be good momentum in this direction. I can at least say that the work that comes out of this hybridized model is the music that I’m most interested in listening to and making! I’d love to hear your perspective on this. Do you think we’re experiencing a significant shift away from the “top down” hierarchy of musicmaking from the last century?

“We’re seeing a shift toward the holistic mixture of composition, improvisation, collaboration, and interpretation.”

NW: On the street level, definitely! I am not sure it’s leaked to the organizational or funding branches necessary for our world yet, but that’s completely understandable given their inherently decisive task. And, even within those institutional bodies, I think we’re seeing a shift toward the holistic mixture of composition, improvisation, collaboration, and interpretation. I’m a bit of a cynic, so I hope that it isn’t just the pendulum’s apex before it swings back but, as you say, there’s so much in that way of making music that one can invest themselves in, that I do have a little hope that it’s just the beginning of a new model of how to make music.