Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Junk Media Review of 7 Storey

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.

Brent Mix
December 21, 2009

Holiday Greetings

So, here is a little holiday reading for you, was going to go with something between Miracle on 34th street and the Peanuts Christmas special, but just had this conversation and it seemed like I needed to write it down....oh, and there is some shameless plugging at the bottom, as always.

Keep in mind that this is a bit long and ranty, so please feel free to delete or skip to the bottom (not that you have to have my permission)

The Players:
Toby (a twenty something idealist in a big puffy down jacket conveniently zipped up to "almost" cover his Greenpeace t-shirt, and hiding his clipboard behind his back, standing right in front of my office building)

Nate (a thirty something pessimist in a big puffy amy surplus jacket zipped up to the top of his nose and thinking nasty, nasty thoughts, trying to go into my office building)

Toby: Hi! My name is Toby! What's yours?
Nate: What?
Toby: My name is Toby (extends hand for warm and meaningful shake). What's your name?Nate: Don't do that, man.
Toby: Don't do what?
Nate: Don't be disingenuous to sell me a bunch of shit.
Toby: Excuse me?
Nate: Don't pretend that you are interested in me, just to get me to buy whatever you're selling. It's dishonest. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Toby: I'm not selling anything
Nate: Oh, really? I'm sorry, my mistake. So, you're just standing out here in front of this building in the asscold to make friends?
Toby: Yup! (extends hand again)
Nate: Cool, so we're friends now?
Toby: As soon as you tell me your name
Nate: Awesome, my name is Nate. Hey, since we are friends now, would you mind if my wife and I came over for Christmas eve? Our family isn't in New York and it would be nice to spend it with some good friends.
Toby: Oh, I don't think we're quite that close (winks)
Nate: Oh, really. I thought we were friends, maybe we are more of friendly acquaintances?Toby: Yeah, that's it.
Nate: Cool, hey what do you say we shoot the shit about girls, huh? That girl is hot, eh?
Toby: That isn't really appropriate
Nate: You're right. You're absolutely right. I guess I got carried away with some locker room talk because I was just hanging here with my friendly acquaintance Toby
Toby: Yeah, well...
Nate: So, maybe we are just acquaintances.
Toby: Yeah, it seems that way.
Nate: Right, hey, what is your last name, where do you live?
Toby: Excuse me?
Nate: Well, I know the last name and general neighborhood of most acquaintances, that's usually the first things you make small talk about
Toby: I don't really want to tell you that
Nate: Oh, I see, so you know what it sounds like to me, Toby? It sounds to me like we are strangers. Would you agree? This is fine, but you see, I don't like strangers forcing their way into my personal space in front of my place of work and trying to sell me shit. I also don't like when they try and be sly and cover up their Greenpeace t-shirt and hide their clipboard. You have to admit that that is pretty disingenuous behavior. Don't you? Don't you think that maybe all the people on this street are sick of people with fake good will trying to sell us shit, like some kind of psycho-economic bait and switch? "Here, I want to be your friend, will you sign this sheet to keep whales alive?" I love whales, but I don't want to be coerced or guilted or otherwise bamboozled into anything with the promise of human warmth. Does your grandmother know you are doing this? I bet she would tan your ass. This is not the way that people interact. I have no problem with your job, I know you probably need the bread, but don't bullshit us. Just stand up with your whale flag flying and ask if I want to give money to Greenpeace, you chickenshit.
Toby: Okay, do you want to give money to Greenpeace?
Nate: Not to you
Toby: Fuck you Nate
Nate: Fuck you too Toby.

Ahhhhh, I love Christmas. Admittedly, I may be becoming a curmudgeon. My deep apologies to Toby wherever he is.

Now, I'm going to take my own advice and say this:You should listen to Scott McDowell's Long Rally. He'll soon be posting the complete live sessions that I did with Chris Corsano and C. Spencer Yeh, including a live version of the second installment of Seven Storey Mountain. You can find him at

I love you guys,