“I wrote the piece,” avant-garde trumpeter Nate Wooley writes, “with the idea that it could be performed by a rotating cast of musical personalities over the tape.” This release on Important Records contains the original recording of The Seven Storey Mountain, which debuted in 2007 at the Festival of New Trumpet Music, performed by Wooley, David Grubbs on harmonium, and Paul Lytton on percussion. The nomadic ethos that underlies experimental musics, especially out-jazz, is exemplified in Wooley’s words, the collaborative spirit of this recording, and the brave sounds of the composition itself. Rootlessness is not only celebrated, but necessary given the demands of the radical creative moment, and collaboration is required so that the possibility of realizing new sound-experiences, moments, and ideas is perpetually left open.
The Seven Storey Mountain is named after the autobiography of Thomas Merton, a nomad, spirit realm wanderer, and searcher. Merton traverses the world in search of meaning, justice, and faith, constantly confronted with temptation, doubt, and a world that does not already hold the values he seeks. Through dark halls, cities, and moments of overwhelming uncertainty, Merton seeks revelation through ecstatic experience, devotion, and moral living. Most importantly, Merton understands the challenge of faith, namely the necessary task of continuously facing and overcoming the horror of the seven storey mountain that Dante constructed. In contrast, some may conceptualize faith or goodness as always already being-there, or something that one merely falls into effortlessly. For Merton, however, experience of God requires constant movement and struggle, a perpetual overcoming of the established self and of the established modes of living in the world, a constant unfolding and renewal.
This is a road album, bringing us from the foot to the summit of the mountain and then, in a Sisyphean spirit, back down again. The opening section of the piece provides a minimal, solitudinous space where a tingling anticipation dangerously builds. Wooley’s breath techniques are both meditative and terrifying, evoking a feeling of extreme isolation; indeed, every journey intended to overcome the shared values of the many must begin alone. A lingering drone pans from left to right and returns, producing a hypnotic and warm tonal path that flows beneath the deep and disjointed breaths. A distinctly dark transition begins about 10 minutes in, as we move further skyward: the harmonium drone builds, random and ghosting percussive taps and clangs intensify, and Wooley’s breathing transforms into inarticulate and unnerving whispers.
At the 18-minute mark, we reach another level of the mountain. The whisper becomes many monstrous screams of pain and struggle, voices that have come up against something beyond vocal expression, the sublime sound of drowning within vastness. Lytton’s free-percussion splatters like colorful drops of thought-paint, allowing Wooley much room to maneuver while simultaneously pushing the trip forward at an alarming, feverish pace. An evil spirit is governing, or an exorcism underway: a great disruption of being, a radical transition between selves and worlds. Then, after 29 minutes, a nuclear explosion rips into the chaotic swirl of sounds and we ascend to the next storey. Deep blasts of earth-shifting plates and spitting volcanic craters are joined by heavy winds and the whirring of daimons and other unrecognizable beasts whizzing about: lost spirits, hissing snakes, death-birds pulsing under and over waves of fire and zooming the tectonic rumbles.
The final five minutes of the performance provide a return to the tranquility of the beginning: embracing streams of running water, gentle phases of warm and welcoming sound, and signs of thriving, soft life tingling anew. However, there is enough of a rumbling at the end to plausibly suggest that a return to the violence of the higher stages of the mountain will be necessary. The nomad in search of enlightenment must perpetually overcome the present version of the self and the established structures in the world. In this way, the philosophical foundations of experimental musics connect to the spiritual journey, both to necessitate fearlessness in the face of unending transitions and as a constant moving toward unknown destinations. There is a need to forever embrace conflict in order to grow and to constantly move toward something that never fully discloses itself but is always historical and incomplete.
Wooley’s composition constructs a much darker, and arguably more realistic, picture of the road toward spiritual realization and artistic overcoming. Most notable are the violence and revolt that dominate the journey -- two aspects that are not celebrated, but concealed, within popular religious ideologies. Revolt and violence, however, are always required when one aims to transform established forms of life, and this radical claim permeates The Seven Storey Mountain. Wooley, Lytton, and Grubbs have not only produced a challenging and stimulating piece of music, but captured the most critical values that mutually animate what may strike some as strange allies: experimental musics and radical theology.
1. The Seven Storey Mountain