The Seven Storey Mountain is trumpeter Nate Wooley’s improvisational enactment of spiritual catharsis. Taking its title from Thomas Merton’s biography of the same name, the record also features Paul Lytton on percussion and David Grubbs on harmonium. The three musicians commit themselves to the paradoxical (and perhaps impossible) task of implying a narrative of spiritual struggle with a minimalist or ‘lowercase’ improv that, strictly speaking, goes nowhere. Although the gestures are largely restrained and the performances subtle, The Seven Storey Mountain is able to evoke a pensive yet at times agonized experience of ecstasy, making explicit what in other performances tends to be a merely suggested spirituality.
Give credit to Wooley for assembling this less-than-obvious lineup. Grubbs is better known for the skewed avant-pop of Gastr Del Sol, and while Paul Lytton may be considered a legend in freely-improvised music, his work tends toward the noisy and manic. The contrasts between the approaches of these musicians are the story here: a group of lowercase all-stars would be less likely to generate the tensions, and therefore suggest the spiritual agonies, endemic to Seven Storey Mountain.
Commissioned for Dave Douglas’ FONT festival in New York, the record consists of one 38-minute piece, performed without pause (and subsequently given the four subtitles “Your Lips,” “Tip,” “Sleep,” and “Turned to Sand”). While the music focuses on the minute gesture, it simultaneously suggests a broader movement. According to Wooley this is a journey through the “dark night of the soul” toward ecstatic knowing, not so much moving as being moved, like existing on a planet that spins underneath you and carries you with it. The sonic field is occupied by a series of drones, consisting variously of Wooley’s electronics, a recording of his A/C unit, Grubbs’ harmonium or a combination of the three. These drones alternate in texture and volume, generating moods of anguish and calm as they do so. The harmonium plays a diminished chord, but these pitches enter the piece as a present fact only, suggesting no movement toward resolution. This is a music of large forces, but Lytton’s junkyard percussion is able to pierce the drones and suggest that they occur in a real (rather than ideal) space. Even though Seven Storey Mountain tells a story of spiritual and mental anguish, this anguish occurs to someone living somewhere, whether that be Merton in Rome or Wooley, Lytton, and Grubbs in New York. Lytton’s percussion also serves as a link between the mechanical drones and the human voice, which serves more as an instrument for producing sound than for articulating words. This muted, but often insistent, voice intones throughout the piece, occasionally becoming a kind of drone itself, but also punctuating the moments of stasis with urgent (if incomprehensible) declarations.
The music on Seven Storey Mountain alternates between moments of charged calm and moments of sturm und drang, the latter serving as instances of crisis largely established through the scattershot pulses of the percussion and voice. Although it’s a cliche to say it, the album demands a close listening (preferably through a decent pair of headphones) in order to focus on the subtle changes that initiate a change in the piece’s mood. The attention that wanders will fail to pick up on the force of the piece, and for good reason: Seven Storey Mountain is the story of intense self-examination, and in such meditation, wandering recovers its etymological relation with sin. Wooley, Lytton, and Grubbs have exemplarily created a space for the reflective and attentive listener, but they make no concessions. Seven Storey Mountain is the greater for their efforts.
December 21, 2009