Audeze talks to trumpeter and composer Nate Wooley

April 23, 2021

Nate Wooley grew up in a small timber and fishing town in Oregon, where he began his professional career in his father’s band at age thirteen. He made his debut as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic in 2018 and currently resides in Brooklyn. Nate has worked with David Breskin, John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Eliane Radigue, Ken Vandermark, Fred Frith, Evan Parker, and Mary Halvorson, among many others.

Here's our chat with Nate:

Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?

I’m incredibly proud of my most recent projects, especially Seven Storey Mountain VI, which came out last year on Pyroclastic Records. It’s the sixth part of a ten-year song cycle and had, in performance, a 32-person ensemble. It created a whole lot of ecstatic sound that was recorded masterfully by Ron St. Germain. I’m also very happy with Mutual Aid Music, a double CD of small chamber music that straddles the boundary between contemporary classical music and experimental and noise improvisation. Music from my past that I still get a thrill from includes The Almond, a piece for 106 trumpets manipulated on tape, and The Complete Syllables Music, long solo pieces that twist the trumpet into all kinds of horrible shapes.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

As much as I’d like to think of myself as being a composer only—a solitary figure in a cabin somewhere putting pencil to paper, like Sibelius maybe—I never feel good unless I’m involved as a performer as well. The few times I have had to relinquish that role and sit in the audience, I’ve been miserable and the piece has been disastrous. So, at worst, I have control issues. At best, I love playing music and am happiest when on stage or in the studio!

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

My dad was a big band saxophonist, and so I started with his record collection, and by playing fourth trumpet in his band as a kid. The big moment of “becoming a man” in our house was buying my own records with my own money. It was a strange rite of passage to walk into the record store and make my own choices about what I wanted to hear. That music was 100% jazz, starting with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie exclusively. But, the owner of the record store started slipping free records of Ornette Coleman and Paul Bley in my bags and that set me off on another tangent. Listening to Coltrane was like my teenage rebellion. Nowadays, I have a hard time listening to jazz, although I do enjoy it still. I seem to have more energy for contemporary classical and electronic music. Although, when one of those original record store records comes out, I still know every note. Strange how that never leaves you.

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

My dad, and the guys in his band, were my first heroes. They were completely untaught in the jazz pedagogical sense, but had come up through Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands. So, I learned a lot about building tension and creating excitement and playing as a group just by word of mouth, and that was profoundly influential. As my listening opened up, I was really influenced by Ron Miles, a Denver trumpet player who helped me see how I could craft an individual voice out of all the music around me, not just the jazz tradition. He also was a model of behaving ethically and being a human first and a trumpet player second. In 2015 I began working with French composer Éliane Radigue and, a few years later, with Annea Lockwood here in New York. Both of them opened up a world to me that held up the human interaction of collaboration as a first principle. I think my music changed the most radically, and became the most personal, after starting my relationships with them.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

The trumpet has been a constant frustration. I’m not a natural player and have fought multiple small and large problems. That’s ongoing, though, so maybe not the best example here.

I think I have been frustrated by the barrier between performance and documentation, especially with Seven Storey Mountain. The piece is so resonant and huge in concert but, up to SSM6, we’ve had to rely on capturing it as best we can in the moment, with a couple stereo pairs and limited close mic’ing in a resonant room. It never quite lived up to the immersion of the piece. It wasn’t until SSM6, and at the prodding of some whispering angels, that I was convinced I could go into a controlled environment with a great engineer and actually achieve the sound in my head.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

I’m very basic in some ways. I play the trumpet through an amplifier in some instances. I think of this as a second instrument, like my version of the flugelhorn. I use the resonance of the tubing of the horn (playing it without a mouthpiece) to control and shape the feedback of the amplifier. For that I’ve relied on a very old, very beat up, Audio-Technica clip-on mic that is inserted all the way in my bell. It’s probably the most irreplaceable piece of equipment I own right now, sadly.

For my electronic work, I use MaxMSP as a way of manipulating sine tones and ProTools for editing and mixing. Sadly, no more actual tape for me as my machines have broken.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

I think the greatest obstacle you’ll come across as a musician has nothing to do with your skill or your career acumen; it is fighting boredom. Every thing around you—music, art, books, cinema, nature, conversations, observation, philosophy, poetry—is material for engagement in your musical practice. And if you can maintain that engagement and be honest about what it is in your music that is important, you will make something consistently meaningful to others.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I live in a small apartment with a partner who already puts up with four hours of trumpet every day, so headphones are key whenever they are possible. I use headphones now for all mixing, editing, and testing of recordings, whether they were made in the studio and I’m doing a fine-grained check of a master, or if it is a practice recording I’m taking notes on. Headphones are indispensable.

I received my LCD-X headphones in the middle of mixing a subtle sine-tone piece at home, where I was using a series of different headphones and speaker configurations, hitting a wall each time, not understanding what was broken: the music or me. One live pass with the LCD-Xs and my fingers on the faders and all was absolutely clear, shimmering, and as I wanted it. But the real test is acoustic music. My work deals primarily with resonances and overtones, much of which gets lost when I’m trying to mix at home. With the LCD-X headphones, I hear the subtle changes in timbre, the resonance of the room, and every subtle decision can be made with the complete confidence in what I’m hearing. These headphones have changed the way I work, the way I hear, and the way I make music.