Sounds Heard: Seven Storey Mountain II
The second piece of composer and experimental trumpeter Nate Wooley’s planned seven-part Seven Storey Mountain cycle dropped on Important records last week. For this round, Wooley engaged Chris Corsano (drums) and C. Spencer Yeh (amplified violin) to join him in creating the forty-three minute, highly improvisatory single-track recording.
It is a haunting, often aggressive sound world that moves from a place of chilled droning into a dense and pummeling chaos, before returning to a stressed restraint reminiscent of the work’s opening moments. In his notes to the release, Wooley cites the piece’s exploration of fear, anger, and “spiritual catharsis.” After listening to the work several times, all I wanted to do was have a conversation with him about the music that was ultimately created. Luckily for me, he was game to engage in a little Q&A.—MS
Molly Sheridan: I have to suspect that your Seven Storey Mountain cycle has a connection to Thomas Merton’s autobiography of the same name. Can you speak some about the connection between Merton’s words and the music you have created?
Nate Wooley: It’s connected more to Merton as a person, and maybe even more connected to the kind of person that he represents to me than that specific work. I’ve been interested in comparative religion for a long time, and specifically comparison of the mystical traditions of different religions, after reading Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy in college. It’s not something I’m consuming as aggressively now, but there are certain archetypes of the mystic in print that I still find interesting on an intellectual and personal level. The ones that resonate with me, like Merton, especially, and St. Augustine, affect me, not because of their spiritual communion, but because of the honesty in which they talk about their failure and their fear along the path. After reading a lot of mystical writing, I (as a natural born cynic) tend to start to question the idea of a spiritual human being born directly from the lotus blossom or the brow of Zeus and endowed with a direct connection to the higher being without any question that the path they are on is the right one. The idea of the perfect being, although it is a basis of a lot of mystical thought, has always seemed false to me. My experience is that every single path is full of doubt and fear and questioning, and this is what makes the effort worthwhile.
Musically, Seven Storey Mountain is more about the courage of allowing myself to fail and frightening myself as an artist. I was asked to do a commission for Festival of New Trumpet, and I wanted to be able to do something that would be honest and create a situation that could fail. I think, especially in a very specific, media-driven culture of art, we tend to view artists in this same “born from the lotus blossom” way that one may be inclined to view a mystical idea of the perfected being. We only see the successes, are only allowed to see the successes. It makes sense from a market perspective, but I’ve always connected more with the idea of taking a risk, presenting it to the people around you (knowing it’s a risk) and allowing the ensuing conversation to be about whether your success was important or not. I see that in Merton’s writing about his struggles in Seven Storey, and that was the original idea behind starting on a massive 7-part music cycle with tape, amplified instruments, drone elements, and a changing cast of characters, which is not the typical recipe for musical success in this period of marketing works that must be able to be easily and cheaply reproduced for larger audiences.
MS: This is the second installment of what will be a multi-version project with a strategy for a sort of “evolution”, I suppose you might say. How and why have you decided to incorporate this structure into the piece?
NW: The evolution is important to me. It’s the center of the whole idea really. If we’re talking about doing something that frightens you and allows for failure, which ultimately allows for growth, then it has to be allowed to evolve. The structure came out of a hope that I could make the seven separate parts change over a long period of time without the feeling that it was simply an excuse to put out seven disparate records under a loose concept. To that end, there are a couple of elements that are always present and hopefully will allow for evolution and honest expression. The first, and most obvious I think, is the tape component. The tape provides the framework for the live musicians, as far as timing and sense of narrative arc. Each version of the piece (we just performed the third version in March with the players from the first two versions plus two vibraphones at Issue Project Room) has this tape component which provides a skeletal architecture for the live musicians to work on top of, whether they are playing notated parts or improvising. The way I’ve dealt with the evolution of something so static is to take the tape component from the previous iteration, strip it down to its barest components and build the new tape piece on top of that skeleton. As each version of the tape is made, the essential structure from the previous versions get boiled down to an even more concentrated essence of what that information is about, and the structure changes to reflect the new version while maintaining a connection to the past versions.
Another agent of evolution, and this one is much easier in a way, is the fact that the musicians change from version to version. My own playing hopefully changes, of course, but there is a big difference between the way Paul Lytton approaches the drum set and the way Chris Corsano approaches the drum set in this situation. And, happily, when we did the third version with both Paul and Chris they changed the way they approached the music again to accommodate each other and the new piece. The structure for the musicians is pretty open. There is a drone component, played by David Grubbs and C. Spencer Yeh in the first two versions, there is a momentum-based component, played by the drummers, and then there is a voice or intoning element which is played by the amplified trumpet always. As you change the players, the interpretation of drone and momentum changes and evolves based on their knowledge of the piece and what I write for them based on my ongoing knowledge of the piece. The difference in their approaches becomes a built-in evolution or way of changing without really trying.
MS: This single-track recording spans a little more that 40 minutes. All of it rewards careful listening, but of all the moments, the one that most grabbed me by the ear was the post-climax dying away of the sound at around the 37-minute mark, after which the music returns to a tense restraint reminiscent of the work’s opening moments. As a listener, this gives the piece a kind of traditional narrative structure. Was that an intentional shape planned among the performers in advance? Were there other discussion or instructions given to the players?
NW: The structure is planned out to a certain extent before we play. It is essentially a very rough and ugly arch form of some sort every time. I tend to view this piece as an exploded time scale of an epiphanic moment, and as such, it always comes from a place of placidity and moves into something that is full of action, uncertainty, discovery, and then returns to the calm with something added from the new knowledge gained, which is a traditional narrative structure, like you said. Often the pieces return to the same material in the tape that we started with, but there is a very obvious added counterpoint as well as we finish the piece.
The players have very little in terms of written instructions, especially in these first two versions of the piece. The drone component is always based on a pitch and that pitch may change, and so there is a score denoting that, but often with the momentum parts, and especially because it’s been Paul and Chris, I’ve just given them the structure of the piece, so they can track their build in relation to the tape, and then I let them go. Really, most of the writing falls to my own part, as far as texts to mumble through the amplifier, certain blocks of sound and feedback I would like to come in at specific points against the tape, etc. The subtext of the piece, though, has been a feeling of religious ecstasy. Some writers have talked about it as my search for that experience specifically, and that may have been me misspeaking at some point early on, but the subtext of that mystical feeling in this piece is really based on the techniques of building upon a drone, the rise and fall of energy, and a very sustained point of high energy and volume. I try and structure the pieces and write the scores in a way where it’s clear to the players that this is the aim, and then I let them fill in the language they find most appropriate.
MS: Were there multiple recordings of version II that you selected from for this release?
NW: We did do two recordings of this second version, one at Issue Project Room (which is the one that was released on Important) and one that went live on the air at WFMU, but I don’t particularly like doing this piece that way. I prefer for there to be one performance and one recording. I don’t think this is a piece that should be rehearsed. A lot of the work is dependent on the players interpreting certain core ideas (drone, ecstasy, propulsion, sustained energy) and the more times you do a piece like this, the more they develop an articulated concept of what those things are for that piece. I feel like this piece is already too drenched in concept in a lot of ways and usually the second performances feel like the musicians are playing more out of an executable idea than a physical reaction to the music and each other. Also, doing multiple versions takes away from that feeling of fear and the possibility of failure that is so key to me, so I try and keep the recorded versions down to the barest minimum, based on what the engineer needs to successfully capture such an extreme dynamic level.
MS: I had never heard of Merton’s book before listening to your music, but I have to admit that now my subsequent experiences of it are colored by what I read in his introduction to his autobiography. He writes, “I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know, but if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both.” Am I getting carried away if I apply this sentiment to your music here as well?
NW: Well, I think there is a connection there to be sure. I don’t think that a higher being is speaking through me to the listener, which I think Merton is getting at near the end of that quote, but the idea of connection is certainly valid. I am trying to connect with people. Not necessarily with a specific message, but just in a way of being intimate. I’m not a socially open person necessarily, but I do have the desire to have intimacy with people, to share something of myself with them and vice versa. A lot of my music springs from that desire and I think these pieces are maybe the most apt physical representation of it through my use of the voice through the trumpet and the sheer physicality of the volume. I think the work on Seven Storey has always had the aim of wanting to reach out and speak to the person listening….as themselves. I think as a listener there is enough abstraction in the actual music that you tend to put your own narrative on it and that is the hope, as Merton puts it…to reach out, in as raw and honest a way as I can and share something with the listener that will hopefully lead them down a different path or maybe provide some confidence in the one they’re on already.