Tag: solo performance

I Can’t Breathe:  A Virtual Dialogue

A protester carrying a banner stating "I CAN'T BREATHE." Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

In 2016 I first heard I Can’t Breathe, Georg Friedrich Haas’s haunting work for solo trumpet, performed by Marco Blaauw at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.  Haas’s work, written just after the birth of the Black Lives Matter organization, and well before the concept of Black Lives Matter came to international prominence, raises a number of important questions about the response of the international new music community to the increasingly multicultural and multiracial, i.e., creolized, societies in which its performances, curatorial directions, and critical and philosophical inquiries are being presented.

I Can’t Breathe was conceived and written in 2014 as a response to the police execution of an African American citizen, Eric Garner, on a New York City street. Garner’s “crime” was selling “loosies,” single cigarettes from a pack. This was said to be technically a form of tax evasion, which is not a capital crime in the statute books. However, a bystander filmed a police officer restraining Garner bodily with an illegal chokehold. On the video, Garner was heard to repeat the words “I can’t breathe” eleven times, before passing out and lying on the ground for seven minutes. While the authorities waited for an ambulance, Garner passed away; the autopsy cited “[compression] of neck, compression of chest and prone position during physical restraint by police” as cause of death. Despite nationwide protests, charges were never brought against the officers involved, although one of them was eventually terminated in 2019.

Georg Friedrich Haas: I can’t breathe (2014) for trumpet solo
Marco Blaauw, trumpet; Janet Sinica, video
(Lockdown Tape #66 in Ensemble Musikfabrik’s series of live to tape recordings of solo pieces in times of Corona lockdown by ensemble members.)

It seemed clear that Haas’s piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, who before passing away, interspersed urgent pleas to be allowed to breathe with plaintive calls to his deceased mother. In the wake of the much larger, worldwide protests over Floyd’s killing, the widest range of individuals and institutions, including those in the field of new music, are being called to account for their actions regarding race.

I have always been intrigued with the questions raised by I Can’t Breathe, so I decided to talk to both Marco and Georg about the piece. The method I am using here to combine our respective dialogues is similar to the penultimate chapter in my 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself:  The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), in which I selected quotes from nearly one hundred interviews with AACM members to fashion an imagined intergenerational dialogue about overarching social, cultural, and aesthetic issues that the organization and its individual members faced over the decades. I blend this new imagined dialogue with critiques of scholarly writing about the piece.

I begin with Georg’s understanding of the motivation for the work.

GFH:  Well, it was a spontaneous activity. It happened when we looked out of the window at our house and we saw some demonstrations, Black Lives Matter, below us, and I said, OK, we have to go down there to join this. And suddenly this anecdote popped up about Chopin, when he heard about the revolution in Russia and decided, instead of going to Paris, to fight in this revolution. But he changed again and decided to go to Paris and work for the idea. And it is clear that this actually helped the revolution in Poland much more than he could have done by being part of the military activity. In the same way, I decided it’s not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts. And this is maybe one of of a few pieces [of mine] which had some nonmusical connotation.

At the time, Georg was already quite late with another, much larger commission, but as he recalled, “Because it was such a spontaneous idea, there was no time for me to make a large, huge internal discussion about what is the right way to discuss this. Just do it. Do it now. And I think this idea is one of the possibilities to go to work as an artist.”

The present essay was prompted by a discussion I had with Marco Blaauw this past summer about the frequent negative responses to a Facebook announcement that his new-music group, Ensemble Musikfabrik, posted about this forthcoming release. Indeed, a number of the comments around the Facebook posting indicated that white new music people really had no business even speaking about the topic. One commenter suggested that Haas had “appropriated the words of a dying black man to become his anodyne aesthetic plaything.”

That such an apparently non-confrontational work could generate such heated debate seems ironic at first hearing. However, I read a number of these responses as exemplifying the growing pains that the field of new music is undergoing as its composers, performers, listeners, curators, scholars, critics, and educational institutions gradually awaken, now certainly fitfully, to the need to develop a far more refined and trenchant discourse around the location of the field in a creolized creative environment.

Marco_Blaauw playing his specially desined microtonal trumpet (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Marco_Blaauw (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Despite the shocking nature of its subject matter, I Can’t Breathe is anything but sensationalistic. Rather than a wailing lament, Haas produces a restrained elegy.

GFH: The piece starts like a sentimental twelve-tone Kaddish. What I do technically, the process is, that this Kaddish is taking away the space to breathe. You are singing freely and the space gets closer and closer. And what I did technically is just to transcribe and transform the melodic elements into smaller intervals. As I reduce it, the melody is squeezed into 16th tones. The music is really very difficult, and Marco in this performance really is able to sing emotionally within these small intervals. There exists a cantabile in these 16th tones. And I still have this very traditional translation of a huge range of intervals describing the entity of the free world, and therefore it starts with the spaces between the lowest pitches of the trumpet and the highest, soft.

Marco Blaauw’s perspective on Georg’s technique evokes the blues:

MB: A blues player colors the notes, so to notate that, Haas uses what he has always been using, microtonal intonations. In the beginning, it’s like more and more colors to the melody, and then it becomes more and more strict as the melody goes from the big trumpet range to the tiniest interval, interrupted all the time by these single notes that are held for a very long time and pull you in.

GL:  I feel that the piece as a whole can be usefully contextualized as a form of pranayama, the study of the breath: a meditation on breath and life. We are asked to feel ourselves inside the breath, following its every nuance. The piece has a timeless quality about it, although it’s only thirteen minutes long.

MB: I do think it’s very, very meditative. And in that way, I think the brain starts listening more and more for details so that when you come towards the middle of the piece, you actually hear all the microtonality, the tiniest steps. You can actually listen to them because you’ve been trained during this short duration of the piece to all these little things [sings], this blues melody, like a variation on two notes.

GL: I’d also say that with its emphasis on depiction, I Can’t Breathe is very much in the American tradition expressed in Duke Ellington’s concept of the “tone parallel,” which includes Charles Ives, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins. The use of the harmon mute is of course related to the African American tradition, very effectively through Miles Davis. And then there are those super-high “squeeze” notes, an innovation in technique that is closely associated with the Ellington Orchestra’s altissimo specialist, trumpeter Cat Anderson.

GFH: And it was you who said to me that this is a specific technique of jazz, these very high pitches. It’s very rarely used in new music. For me the association is more to Luigi Nono, for whom high melodic gestures are a symbol of utopia—for example, the beginning of his string quartet, Fragmente-Stille.

GL: The piece is about aspiration in the literal sense, and with regard to the conceptual context, for me the squeeze notes depict severe restrictions on the breath, while the hesitations in the tone production refer to the fragility of life as the breath is strangled. The breath becomes rougher and more fragile as the life force goes out.

MB: The association with suffocation comes in when that becomes softer and softer and longer and longer and you get literally out of breath. But I don’t think it’s really meant that way. And then the piece falls apart after that. It loses structure also by the use of softer and softer mutes. And then, in the end, it’s just the silences and the single notes which are, as in the beginning, very, very long. Don’t you think that when you listen to a piece and you see somebody play a very long phrase, it’s almost like you stop breathing? I think when you have long silences, the same thing can happen. I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

GL: It’s like the audience can’t breathe. And you, the trumpeter, evoke a sense of empathy via a kind of transubstantiation.

In a 2016 essay, musicologist Max Erwin positions I Can’t Breathe as program music, which from the foregoing conversation seems evident enough; indeed, Haas appears to find no substantive moral imperative on either side of classical music’s traditional debate over programmatic versus absolute music. However, the author provocatively characterizes the nature of the program as “more accurately, western art music snuff” (Erwin 2016, 10). However, rather than a criminal’s recording of an actual murder for macabre or prurient interest, one can summarize Haas’s origin narrative for I Can’t Breathe as a determined response to an atrocity (in this case, musically) by a concerned citizen.

However, when the deformation of race becomes involved, an atrocity is no longer just an atrocity, and music becomes more than just music. Erwin sees Haas’s approach as exemplifying “a pervasive self-satisfied attitude and concomitant mode of production within the New Music apparatus. Under these auspices, the ‘politically engaged’ composer writes ‘protest music’ which laments the fate of this or that marginalised group” (Erwin 2016, 9). Thus portraying Haas’s move to assert humanistic values as simple political posturing, Erwin maintains that the statement in Haas’s program note—“I leave no notes to the perpetrators” identifies an object of political critique—’the perpetrators’, whilst simultaneously extricating the subject (composer/artwork/audience) from the object of critique… The object of critique is exactly that; it remains fundamentally over there, safely removed from composer and audience to observe and lament (Erwin, 10).

Erwin’s critique would have greater currency and credibility if new music as a field could demonstrate an ongoing concern with black lives, including those of its own Afrodiasporic composers and performers. However, this lack of engagement with issues of race is precisely what Haas is pointing to with his program note. Bringing this level of engagement from “over there” to “right here”–to himself as composer, to his audience, to the performer, and to the historians, critics, and institutions of new music–was exactly the goal of the piece.

In an influential essay, theorist Sylvia Wynter pointed out the consequences of the routine use of the acronym N.H.I. (No Humans Involved) by Los Angeles juridical and enforcement institutions “to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes” (Wynter 1994, 42).

By classifying this category as N.H.I. these public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with its members in any way they pleased. You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes.

Indeed, this image of the deformation of the Black windpipe is central to the iconography of I Can’t Breathe. The remainder of Wynter’s “open letter to my colleagues” attempts to answer her own pointed question:  Where did this classification come from?

GL: In both the title and the content of the piece, there’s a conceptual aspect which is very important. It’s not just an exercise. It’s designed to make people think. And I was telling Marco that for this sort of white audience for new music, it should make these people think.

GFH: Thank you. That’s very good. And in the end, in fact, this is what I also can prove. In interviews, I’m very often asked about this. And of course, this gives us a chance to speak about this, within surroundings in which, additionally, nobody is speaking about it. This is a way in which, in my opinion, political music does work.

Mostly staying in the softer and more difficult-to-sustain regions of the trumpet, I Can’t Breathe is zurückhaltend (reserved), and not only by the composer’s choice. Rather, the situation forces the composer’s writerly hand. Here, I find that the piece’s intensity depicts both a fragility and a Stoic nobility, where Eric Garner, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, and thousands of other black citizens are literally trying to draw upon their reserves of breath in a life-or-death struggle with forces who, backed by a culture in which black lives and liveness do not matter, take no significant notice of the humanity of those lives, while negating their own humanity in the process.

While Erwin’s thesis concludes that “Haas’s piece is at least five degrees removed from even the most rudimentary criteria of effective political protest” (Erwin 10, n16), in this thirteen-minute lament, political protest seems to be no concern whatsoever–unless protesting racialized injustice is now to become merely a political matter. Rather than a reductive rerouting of human values to questions of political efficacy, I Can’t Breathe is simply about black subjectivity, and what it means to be human.

Even so, our virtual conversation took on an ominous tone:

GL: The piece doesn’t have a happy ending; one could play it again and again, and a Sisyphean hell would be evoked. That accounts for what I find to be the work’s pessimistic quality– in the sense of Afro-pessimism, or how to function in the face of the possibility that Western society might prove permanently unable to shed its preoccupation with anti-blackness as a central part of its identity.

Indeed, it could be that at this late date, a reserved, conceptualist approach may not be enough. To begin with, Marco Blaauw was concerned about the ethical dimension of this kind of work and these kinds of issues being presented by white institutions, composers, and performers, in the white-majoritarian new music context:

MB: You don’t think that when I go to that festival and I ask my fee and I play that piece, that is somebody profiting from the situation?

GL: I feel that when you play this piece, and other people play it too, it brings those issues to an audience that isn’t often exposed to them, or maybe doesn’t think that those issues are relevant to their lives, or feel that what you are performing is totally antithetical to pure musical expression–what are you doing with this political stuff? Frederic Rzewski went through the same thing, John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen–anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you’re bringing a needed message to this public. And if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?

Sylvia Wynter saw the disclosure of the category of N.H.I. as an opening from which to spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic. Such a new horizon, I propose, will also find itself convergent with other horizons being opened up, at all levels of learning… It is only by this mutation of knowledge that we shall be able to secure, as a species, the full dimensions of our human autonomy with respect to the systemic and always narratively instituted purposes that have hitherto governed us–hitherto outside of our conscious awareness and consensual intentionality (Wynter 1994, 70).

This new awareness bears strong resonances, not only for the understanding of I Can’t Breathe, but for the future of new music itself. In the end, a creolized work like I Can’t Breathe represents a move toward a new identity for new music. No longer framing itself as a globalized, pan-European sonic diaspora, the goal of a creolized new music field is less about pursuing diversity than achieving a new complexity that promises far greater creative depth by recognizing the widest range of historical, geographical, political and cultural cross-connections. As the philosopher Arnold I. Davidson has noted, “Multiplication of perspectives means multiplication of possibilities.”

As Georg Friedrich Haas has declared, “With this piece, I declare my solidarity with the protesters” (Haas 2014). Indeed, each performance of I Can’t Breathe demands from  contemporary music a further solidarity: an affirmation that black lives and black liveness do matter, to its history and to its future.

The first page of the musical score of Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe” Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna.

The first page of the score for Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe”
Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of European American Music Distributors Company, U.S. and Canadian agent for Universal Edition Vienna, publisher and copyright owner. This license is valid for distribution and usage in the territory of the world.


https://www.facebook.com/Musikfabrik/ 10 June 2020

Erwin, Max. 2016. “Here Comes Newer Despair: An Aesthetic Primer for the New Conceptualism of Johannes Kreidler.” Tempo 70, No. 278: 5–15.

Haas, Georg Friedrich. 2014. “I Give No Sound To The Perpetrators: Ein Kommentar.” https://www.musikfabrik.eu/de/blog/georg-friedrich-haas-i-give-no-sound-perpetrators-ein-kommentar

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Georg Friedrich Haas, 14 June 2020.

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Marco Blaauw, 14 June 2020.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1994. “’No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to my Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall): 42-73.

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

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.