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Sky-Pointed Incantations and Synesthetic Sounds: Nate Wooley at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions (it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators). Today, Sean Donovan shares his perspective on Thursday night’s first Sound Horizon […]

Nate Wooley, Photo: Nicola Carpenter

Nate Wooley    Photo: Nicola Carpenter

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions (it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators). Today, Sean Donovan shares his perspective on Thursday night’s first Sound Horizon performance from trumpeter Nate Wooley. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

To launch this year’s Sound Horizon series of live music performed in the Walker galleries, vanguard trumpeter Nate Wooley gave three 20-minute performances the evening of March 21 within Bruce Nauman‘s seven-channel video projection installation MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage). My recollections of the experience:

It’s a few minutes before Wooley’s performance. As I enter the room, I choose to sit in a small folding chair (instead of the pillow discs on the floor). Eyes closed, Wooley is sitting hunched inward with his trumpet, perhaps meditating/centering before he begins. My senses start to adjust to the dim light, the echoes of audience whispers, the slight breeze circulating the cave-like space. While multicolored projections show us night-time footage of Nauman’s studio, the large white-walled Walker room houses a simultaneous vibe of anxious surveillance and calming spaciousness. Unlit, Wooley is in a chair on top of a small boxed platform in the center of the room surrounded by 20-30 audience members. In addition to his trumpet, he sits next to his amplifier, a few microphones, a rubber mute, and a digital sound-effecting foot pedal.

After a brief introduction from Walker curator Doug Benidt, applause, and an anticipatory silence from the audience, Wooley slowly breaths into a sustained and steady pitch. This single note lays down a “home-base” for this exploratory sonic journey. What started as a soft and simple unwavering tone begins to crescendo into a fully enveloping chorus of timbred variations. The multiplications of all of these wave-shapes build up a dense sonic mass of overtones. I look around the room and notice many people beginning to close their eyes with the musician.

Nate Wooley, Photo: Nicola Carpenter

Nate Wooley    Photo: Nicola Carpenter

While continuing a circular breath, Wooley gradually adds a mute to the equation. He begins to bend the pitch and articulate falling phrases. From this moment forward, my mind goes into a synesthetic mode of imagery and stories. I start to hear mournful elephants and lumber being cut. Next, he transitions into rapid and repetitive trill patterns (see Rachmaninov’s Flight of the Bumblebee). These anxious calls steer the performance into a more dissonant place.

After this energetic build, Wooley suddenly removes his mouthpiece with one swift movement (and puts a contact microphone in the bell of his trumpet) and the energy collapses. Still maintaining  his breath, he begins to build a new theme. This time, relaxing and percussive sounds of “wooooosh” followed by “thuddd.” I am now envisioning water drops after a storm, parking garage squeaks, the sounds of one’s brain within their skull. Now I’m thinking, “Can a trumpet really do this?” Combining blowing, valve pressing, sucking, with other abstract noises I start to hear something between the IDM beats of Aphex Twin and mouth sounds of Bobby McFerrin. This percussive section builds and Wooley starts to add subtle and distorted falsetto singing into his trumpet. Now, I’m hearing semi-trucks pass and someone singing in the shower.

For the final section of his performance, Wooley slowly arches his arms and trumpet to point up toward the ceiling. This ending crescendo mimics frenzied rhinoceri, racing motorcycle gangs, colliding glaciers, and speeding airplanes. I (and I imagine the whole audience as well) am in awe at his endurance and passion. After minutes of commanding breath and exhausting a whirlwind of sounds into the sky, it was suddenly over. Wooley snapped out of character, smiled to the audience, and we clapped in appreciation, yet I was preoccupied with trying to digest what I had just been hit with. Although very mesmerized by the skills and techniques used for such a marathon of a performance, I was even more captivated by the variety of dynamics, stories, and emotions. All in all, a great start to this season’s Sound Horizon!