AMN Reviews: Nate Wooley – “The Complete Syllables Music” [Pleasure of the Text Records]

a2155272499_16 “The Complete Syllables Music” is a deluxe four CD box set by composer, improviser, and trumpet player Nate Wooley. It is beautifully packaged and contains detailed liner notes plus the scores for each piece. The box set contains two out of print works – “[8] Syllables” and “[9] Syllables” and the complete version of a new work in this series “For Kenneth Gaburo”.

For the “Syllables Music” Nate Wooley constructed a sound language from experiments with using the shape and articulation of the mouth in making a particular phoneme as a primary physical parameter for his trumpet embouchure. This technique greatly alters the sounds that are produced from the trumpet. He then worked with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as a replacement for the traditional building blocks of music resulting in a unique sound for each entry in the IPA.

Wooley acknowledges that the work, which led to the development of the Syllables series, was inspired by the work of Kenneth Gaburo. Gaburo was an important American iconoclastic composer whom among his many outstanding compositional achievements developed his own theory of compositional linguistics, which explored the components of language as musical elements. As always with the work of Nate Wooley, inspiration or influence does not mean imitation.

Each of the “Syllables” pieces explores the grouping of phonemes into a syllable, which then becomes a musical gesture. The gesture is then repeated for some number of breaths to give it duration and to build a segment or section within the overall composition. The repeating of the gesture is not a simple repetition, as no two breaths will be of the same length plus each gesture is physically demanding so it’s unlikely that it can be exactly repeated. This uncertainty gives each segment a kind of drama. Then there is the use of amplification and creative microphone techniques. Wooley is known for amplifying the trumpet in a manner similar to the electric guitar including distortion and feedback. This amplification allows the smallest of gestures to be magnified. Things like breath, the touching of the mouthpiece or the valve keys or the tubing all become very audible sounds. One of the most interesting techniques is the use of the sound of the room. Several of the pieces have been recorded in beautifully reverberant rooms. Wooley manipulates the room sound by using microphones placed around the room. The multiple microphones capture the room’s response. With this technique you hear his gestures articulating the room.

The first disc, “[8] Syllables” is in eight sections and runs about fifty minutes. The syllables used do not represent a word or words. Many of the sections begin with a blast or an impulse that “announces” the section, but it also serves as an articulation that aurally defines the space in which this music is being made. Each sections gesture repeats and as the repetitions build, it becomes a kind of drone. When ending a section, the gesture will often just stop and dissolve, as it decays in the room’s reverb, while other sections will stop short and leave you to hear the “silence”. Each section is separated by a long pause.

The second disc “[9] Syllables” is in nine sections running about forty-eight minutes. The syllables used in this composition form a word – Wooley’s hometown of Clatskanie. There is no programmatic significance of using Clatskanie. The word is used as a structural device. “[9] Syllables” makes greater use of the amplification of the trumpet, feedback and creative microphone techniques. Its compositional mannerisms are very different from “[8] Syllables” in that it feels more electronic or manipulated by the microphone mix and the use of feedback. Each gesture is played once with the natural sound of the trumpet, then repeated moderately amplified and then repeated again highly amplified. The gestures are really enhanced and varied by the changing microphone mix resulting in shifts of color and texture within a single gesture. Repeating and overlaying a gesture with a completely different microphone mix and varying its duration and pitch results in a sonic illusion similar to tape based feedback looping.

“For Kenneth Gaburo” is in two parts, each with its own CD. The third disc “For Kenneth Gaburo Part One” runs about seventy-six minutes and continues the exploration of the techniques developed in “[8] Syllables” and “[9] Syllables”. The phonemes in both parts are drawn from a quote from Gaburo’s book “Publishing as an Eco-System”. The quote is used as a structural device and is not programmatic. Despite this piece using many more syllables than in the first two pieces, it feels more stretched and stripped down than its predecessors. The activity seems to alternate between shorter gestures often of higher pitched breathy sounds and longer more mid range sustained sounds that transition into thick rough multi-phonics. The sound seems to be all “acoustic” trumpet; in that I don’t hear the closely miked or amplified trumpet sounds. However, there are some very subtle stereo and room microphone techniques in use. In this piece the drama of producing the sounds has also increased. The physicality of the gestures are deliberately designed to put Wooley in the awkward position of having his embouchure fall apart over time, to the point of losing control, leaving him to accept the sounds as they are.

The fourth disc, “For Kenneth Gaburo Part Two” runs about sixty-six minutes. This part is for trumpet and electro-acoustic tape. Like its predecessors this piece builds from sounds, colors, and repetitions that span durations, that sum up into longer spans of time as its builds into its form. Wooley uses his phonetic system as a kind of template to build out this electro-acoustic work. The phonemes are used in a more of an intuitive way than in a literal or conceptual manner and many of the mannerisms of the earlier pieces find their way into this piece. The electronic part tends to use three types of sounds – colored noise, percussive sounds, and sustained sounds that blend well with the trumpet. The trumpet plays in a very traditional way and is used an element of the sound that is in play. So the trumpet is not really separate from the tape. The performance beautifully blends the two parts so that they fuse, integrate and separate as the composition unfolds. It is a remarkable piece with a somewhat solemn but determined feel throughout.

The compositions in “The Complete Syllables Music” has some of the traits found in other works by Nate Wooley; extended techniques – circular breathing, mutli-phonics, flutter tonguing, amplification, droning, etc. and despite all of that I believe these pieces push Wooley into new territory. The compositions are unusual sounding process pieces that slowly unfold over time. The pieces build from sounds, colors, and repetitions that span breath durations, that sum up into longer spans of time as it builds into its form. This means that the pieces are of significant length and like much experimental music, requires some listening effort. For example, you wouldn’t listen to Coltrane in his hard bop period with the same mode of listening as you would when listening to Feldman’s “Second String Quartet”.  Plus you wouldn’t expect to really get yours ears around these examples in just one listen. The way in which pitch, duration, color, and change is presented and realized in each of these examples is radically different. “The Complete Syllables Music” requires a different kind or mode of listening. Once your ears get over the novelty of how the sounds are being produced, the listening focus needs to shift its attention to the sound that is in play and its micro detail. In my opinion, “The Complete Syllables Music” is worth this effort!

“The Complete Syllables Music” is highly recommended.

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Chris De Chiara