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andrewcsmith on 04/09/2010 at 02:30PM

Improvisation: Exhaustion

Nate Wooley, sitting in an incredibly comfortable position

The trumpeter Nate Wooley recounted at the beginning of his set this interview he administered that day with the composer Tom Johnson in which Tom said a couple of things that Nate recounted for us: 1. improvisers are awful human beings 2. nothing new was happening in music period anywhere, but especially in the U.S.

“It’s kind of freeing to know that there’s nothing that I’ll do tonight that’s new,” which means that he can do whatever he wants. Which means that anything that happens that night is arbitrary, not necessarily confined to a historical period.  Still, anything improvised that night is inseparable from the current time because of its arbitrary and personal quality. It is not an attempt to progress through history—to look to the future—and it makes no claims. Whatever happens happens, as someone could say.

Nate’s playing is a constant expenditure of energy; there is never a moment when it seems like he is riding on his chops, or playing rehearsed licks. Or, if he is, he interrupts these licks as soon as they become standard, or sub-standard. Exhaustion is theme: maybe physical exhaustion as he circular-breathes for almost a half hour straight, or maybe emotional exhaustion, as the sounds oscillate between serenity and schizophrenia, multiple voices coming from all sides, or intellectual exhaustion, where it’s all been done before anyway so anything new is old, arbitrary, and re-hashed.

Arguing the dialectic of improvisation-versus-composition does not satisfy anything. There is no dialectic if there is nothing new; if improvisation is just re-hashing old ideas, and if composition is just re-hashing slightly different (but basically the same) ideas, then what’s the difference? This, which I’ll repeat as a mantra from somewhere else, is that all the important things have become as one and the differences have disappeared.

Nate never said whether he agrees or disagrees, and this is improvisation; it is taking statements not as conveying information but as commands and as fact: the fact of the statement and not the fact of what the statement might refer to. The statement is fact because someone thinks it, or because someone thought of it once.

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