In creative work—creative work of all kinds—those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook—a different set of priorities.
•Mary Oliver “Of Power and Time”
My relationship with Éliane Radigue began with cat stationery. We both love cats; that has always been one of our points of shared interest. Carol Robinson had talked to me about the possibility of working with Éliane on a solo trumpet piece and had told me the best way to start some correspondence was by letter. After searching for half a day, I found a small box of cards to be used only for this now-possible, recently-unimaginable, correspondence; their cats were watery-grey. I was elated to have a chance to remind her of our short time together—we had met when I interviewed her in New York for a pre-SA radio project—and to better express my admiration for her and her work. I carefully wrote a legible note and sent it along with a copy of a solo recording I had put out that year as a gift.
A few weeks later, I received a reply—on floral stationery—from Paris. It contained hints of Éliane’s foundation: warmth (she was extremely pleased about my love of cats), honesty (she enjoyed most of the solo recording), and decisiveness (she told me it was time to come to Paris and get to work). I called her the next day.
Our first meetings were nerve-wracking. She had told me to come after noon so she could have the morning to herself, so I spent the morning practicing as softly as I possibly could in the thin-walled hotel I had found near her apartment. I arrived a few minutes late after getting lost and running around her neighborhood looking for the correct number; heart palpitating, sweaty, a bearded, thick, American brute. I was sure she’d take one look at me, slam the door, and call the police.
Instead, everything remained open: she greeted me with a warm smile; her ARP was behind her, still sitting on the desk in her living room. We sat and had tea, and she asked me about my life while I calmed myself down. Where did I live? Was I married? Kids? What was my wife like? Did she like my music? How was I able to make a living? I tried to answer these questions and respond with my own, which seemed to just devolve into fan boy ramblings about Adnos or Trilogie or Naldjorlak.
When the tea was gone so was my anxiety—and the small talk. She asked me to take out my horn and play some sounds I liked; sounds I considered important to my language. What could I play that fit into her world? I was already second-guessing my language and started to circular-breathe the most complex multiphonics and white noise/feedback sounds I had available to me that day. I felt like I had come to a gun fight with a knife, but if I waved the knife fast enough no one would notice. Once this was over—and I was sweating all over again—she smiled and said, “how about just playing a single note?” I was both embarrassed and relieved, and played an Eb in the staff. Something easy. Something I could manipulate. I held it for a while, then let it fade out.
In hindsight, this Eb was the moment when our work began. All the musical histrionics were just me getting the nerves out, perhaps proving to myself that I had the skills to be there. I played an Eb all afternoon as we talked about different mutes: how pulling them in-and-out of the bell affected overtones and how they could be used as separate resonators for pieces of sheet metal. Each time I moved to a more complex sound, she steered me back toward that pure Eb.
We worked like this for about two hours, took a break, and then worked another hour. At this point, I wasn’t completely sure what was going on. I would play notes, she would ask questions; I would make adjustments and play again, which would prompt more questions. It felt like a conversation, but one in which the trumpet was an active participant. Near the end of the first day, I noticed Éliane beginning to take notes. She stopped writing—after an extremely low tone that produced sweeping overtones with the rising and falling of the back of my tongue—and said “Okay, I think we can work together.” She handed me the notes she had been taking, which turned out to be a list of the OCCAM pieces that were currently being rehearsed or performed. At the bottom: OCCAM X for trumpet – Nate Wooley.
The rest of the evening was a long, steady exhale. We had a beer and small bowls of snacks as she told me about the OCCAM concept: about Occam’s razor and how the pieces were made without scores. At this point in its development, she already understood how the music would be passed between her and the performer and how, hopefully, that performer would someday pass it on to someone new. She had already put together a few OCCAM Rivers, but I don’t know if she already had in mind the ultimate interconnectedness that would eventually become OCCAM Ocean.
The following days consisted of me arriving around noon, a period of work followed by a nap break during which I would lie on her couch, too buzzed by the morning’s work to sleep. We would follow that with a shorter period of work, beer, snacks and chitchat, then dinner at her favorite restaurant down the street: an early night at the hotel, then repeat. We refined a lot of the first day’s sounds over the rest of that long weekend—getting rid of those that were too predictable or not predictable enough—and started to talk about how one type of sound should flow to another. When I would propose the return of a sound—in the sense of a theme repeated—Éliane would remind me that her music always moves forward; it never turns back. She watched carefully for too much exertion. If my hands began to shake, or I would start sweating, she would suggest changes to make it a little easier. She gauged how long it would take me to get a relaxed breath and how long that breath could sustain the sound. The only time she asked for circular breathing was on that very low pedal tone from day one, which she decided would end the piece.
By the time I had to return to New York, we had set the materials and form for OCCAM X. It was up to me to internalize and open them up before the piece could be considered finished. This ended up being the most difficult work. The piece is more technically challenging than it ends up sounding; in the most basic analysis, it is Eb played over-and-over, filtered by varying mutes, before ending on a Bb below the bass clef staff—played without a break for as long as the performer’s embouchure allows. Every single element requires precision, focus, and immense amounts of strength, but the most difficult aspect is simply starting and ending each sound. The trumpet was invented to get your attention, not sneak up on you; it takes a lot of devotion and energy for it to lurk. For hours, I practiced fading in and out of pitches, stumped multiple teachers trying to figure out a good technique, and it is still the aspect of OCCAM X that I concentrate on in the weeks before a performance.
Once that Eb is centered and vibrating, however, there is a more abstract level of work to be done as you try to listen deep into the sound’s components—how the overtones are moving, and what may be possible to unlock—before reaching the end of the breath and beginning to fade out. The decisions you make inside each sound inform how the next ones unfold. It’s an extension of an improvisational practice of manipulating and building upon what is given, and I think this is why so many in this issue talk about the importance of their experience in that practice.
A small digression. The interviews in this issue function as a picture of each subject before, during, and after their experience with Éliane and OCCAM. My “before” is quite different than the rest, but it is a good example of how divergent roads—perhaps with some of the same landmarks—led us to the same place.
I grew up in jazz music, with little or no interest in classical, experimental, indie rock, or pop music until I was out of college. I didn’t own an orchestral record until I was in my mid-20s and hadn’t heard Pink Floyd until I was in my 40s. It was a specific and unusual musical education, but there are two aspects I share with most of my fellow chevaliers: the study of improvisation and an education that was rooted in an oral form of learning. I learned to decode jazz chord changes and to construct an improvised musical language through the verbal course correction of my father and the people in his band. I memorized the phrases played at me to form head charts and was asked to remember those phrases from gig to gig for years. Writing down ideas was frowned upon, being viewed as a sign of a weakness. Whether I believe this as unquestioningly now as I did then hardly matters; how you learn, how you are taught, is part of you.
So, learning OCCAM X felt natural. It was a deeper immersion in a different language but was, fundamentally, no different than learning head charts and taking solos in a big band. The benefits of that experience, however, had its limits. After working alone for months, I returned to Paris for a few days with Éliane. I played my version of the piece, and it was immediately clear that I was on the wrong track. In practicing, I had let myself fall prey to the idea that the openness of the form—the number and manner of repetition of each sound and the overall timing of the piece are open to be discovered in performance—gave me tacit permission to improvise upon it; how you learn is part of you.
At the same time, I was trying to respect the Éliane Radigue I knew from the electronic pieces, so my version of the piece became part improvised-solo and part acoustic-Adnos: I rushed through the parts that didn’t highlight virtuosity and introduced circular breathing to others in an attempt to recreate the long, evolving sounds of her earlier work. When I was finished, she got up to make tea and, as we stood in the kitchen waiting for the water to boil, she told me that what I had just played was not her work; I had improvised something that she would never compose. She reminded me of our first meetings and the care that had been taken in making sure I could remain comfortable, and that the piece would unfold like the river I had picked as my central image. I had thrown that away in the ensuing months.
The mistake I had made was to approach OCCAM as fuel for my own, personal, statement. It was what I knew; in the composition/improvisation dialectic, I had always steered away from written music that had to be exactly reproduced, preferring the ease of changing the music to suit my ability in the moment. Éliane helped me understand that composition and improvisation are not on opposite sides of an unbridgeable gap; not a zero-sum game in which one ceases in order for the other to exist. This realization changed everything about how I think about music, but more on that later.
With Éliane’s help, I found my way back to our original version of the piece. Once we were back on familiar footing, she made some small adjustments to the piece, including adding some of my own suggestions. Small tweaks were made to the sounds and questions of how to balance the large sections of the piece against my physical comfort were discussed, and the piece was played again and again—always complete without stopping—until it existed on its own with a feeling that each sound had existed there forever. A balance had been renewed and, at the end of this session, she was convinced that the piece was ready for premiere.
I premiered OCCAM X at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room in 2014 as the start of a tour across the US with Carol Robinson—we performed our solo pieces and Occam River III for trumpet and birbyne˙, as well as a work by Denis Dufour. The first night went beautifully; the acoustic was perfect, I felt fresh, and the adrenaline of the event made the playing feel easy. The next night we played the same program at Baltimore’s iconic Red Room and everything had changed: my embouchure’s response was slow and I had lost the strength in my shoulders from holding up the horn and mute in an awkward position for 20 minutes. The sound of the space was completely different and it threw off my own mental focus. I was devastated.
During the course of that tour, though—and in the subsequent twenty or so performances of OCCAM since—I learned that this music is not an end, but exists as a container for a practice. The sounds and their order are the material for expanding the collaboration between Éliane, myself, and the trumpet. Each time I perform, I am negotiating the relationship with my instrument through the practice that we agreed upon for these pieces. When I get together to play a larger piece from OCCAM, I recognize that the other players are doing the same thing, and that we are all trying to find a place in the musical whole using our own personal negotiations. OCCAM is about these moments of partnership as much as the sounds that ensue.
The importance of this cannot be over-emphasized, but it is hard to describe except as a series of contradictions: it is not hierarchical ensemble playing in the sense of working together to re-create the concepts of the composer, and yet we are always trying to be true to Éliane’s sense of sound; it is not improvisatory, but the flexibility of someone who has practiced improvisation is essential to performing it; it is too individual to be truly communal, even while the OCCAM Ocean describes and creates a community. This is something different. Whether OCCAM as a composition will be recognized for its revolutionary quality in the history of experimental music is not of concern to me—nor does it seem to be a concern for Éliane—but the interviews in this issue make clear how it has changed the working paradigms of many of the players that are engaged in making its music.
Learning OCCAM X opened me up to rethink my priorities for making music. At the time I began the process I was very caught up in a desire to be recognized as a soloist; someone unique and, therefore, special. Although I was already questioning this need, it was during the process of working with Éliane that I developed a new ethics around performance. The idea of social music: creating structures to harness the complexity of people-making-decisions-as-a-social-group became a first principle of how I wanted to make music. My improvising focused on engaging with the group as opposed to showing off techniques. Things changed.
This brings me back to the idea that is present in one way or another throughout this whole issue: everything must move forward. This concept, beyond Éliane’s sonic language, the idea of Occam’s razor, the guiding images of waterways, the sense of collaboration, and the oral transmission of music lies at the heart of OCCAM Ocean. Once the sound you make is out there, you cannot take it back. You make the best of it and move to the next. Each is its own entity and, as such, deserves care but is also part of a whole that is moving through time. Sometimes you move with others, sometimes alone, but you never stop, and you can never return.
I’d like to thank all of the participants in this issue for their time, openness, and care in the interview and editing process. I’d especially like to thank Éliane for her constant support in this issue and for bringing this group of people, and this music, to the world.