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Jacob Wick: Confusion, Spontaneity & Vulnerability

Mexico City based trumpeter and improviser Jacob Wick discusses performance, narrative, improvisation and queer space with Andrew Choate of the Unwrinkled Ear. The interview was conducted in two parts on January 25 and March 31, 2019 in the lead up to the release of Wick's feel LP with Thin Wrist Recordings.

- Is your music personal?

- Is my music personal? Yeah.

- In the sense of expressing a self or something different?

- Funny you should ask, cuz I've been thinking about it a lot recently, because I'm going to do a workshop in New Orleans with claire rousay. We’re titling our workshop “Non-Narrative Communication.” What I've been thinking about is that when I’m playing music or giving a concert, I am trying to communicate something emotionally, and abstractly, but I’m not trying to tell a story. It’s instrumental music. I can’t say ‘I went to the store and I was gonna buy something but then I didn’t, and I went outside the store, and it was raining, and I took a car, and the driver drove really fast, and I was scared, and I got out of the car, blah blah.’ Without lyrics music doesn’t communicate a narrative, a beginning-and-end narrative. It’s not an ‘I did this, I mean this, I want to tell you this’ kind of thing. It’s not specific.

- That’s true but I think some people would argue that if you wanted to make an amateurish narrative out of music, you could make it superficially narrative-like. Activity, lull, sound of crashing, melodious resolution, etc.. It’s not going to be the exact same narrative for everyone with the same level of detail, but I think there are some kinds of music and some ways to play music – if you wanted to do that – that do enforce that kind of explicitness.

- I don’t know. I think there is a way of playing a thirty-minute set that starts soft and then there is a building action with a big thing that happens maybe 2/3 of the way through and then it all drops off from there so that it follows a sort of standard narrative arc; there is a beginning , rising action, crisis, climax. But because there are no actual words, there is no actual ‘Now I'm doing this, now I'm doing this.‘ Of course I could project a narrative arc, like ‘oh I'm starting off quiet because I'm sad’ and there's this climbing and I'm thinking about how I’m breaking up with my whoever, and then the breakup happens like 2/3 of the way through and then I'm coming back down to being sad again. But you could also say anything about that sequence of sounds. I could say ‘I was walking to the store and a car passed by real fast and I got freaked out.’

- Let's not get hung up on this. Why do you bring up the need for non-narrative in relation to a question about your music potentially expressing a self?

- I think because to me telling a story is an imposition. For me what’s exciting about improvising – and music in general – are moments that are a lot more complicated. Like when mistakes happen. I like vulnerability. Especially in an improvised music setting: there is the possibility for everyone, including the audience, to be vulnerable or confused about what’s going on. There’s a very basic intimacy to playing a concert, whether it’s improvised or not, where it’s you, in a room, with some people. Maybe the architecture of the room fights against that – like maybe there’s a stage. But why I like improvised music is because there are these moments of vulnerability and confusion because of the basic intimacy of being in a room with people.

When musicians or music critics are talking about an improviser telling a story, it also usually involves the story coming not from the musician's mind but from God, as if they're not actually making decisions, as if the music is arising from above, through the musician’s brain, into the audience. Which I think is nonsense. I don’t think that any improviser ever improvises without thinking about something at some point, deciding at some point ‘oh this is working out’ or ‘oh this isn’t working.’ I also really value the decision-making process of improvising and I think telling a “story” obscures that side of improvising.

- The cult of storytelling and the cult of narrative…

- I definitely haven’t avoided it but I think I’m over it now. I really wanted to do that. There was a long time of playing concerts and feeling really shitty afterwards, wondering ‘why do I feel weird?’ Because I was trying to communicate everything that ever happened to me in my life and express that in a five-second to five-minute solo, or even in a thirty-minute solo set. You can't do that, it doesn't work. Especially when you're playing with other people. It's also just ridiculous if you're playing with five people and just focusing on your own struggle, as it were. Which isn't really much of a struggle, if you're playing music, at night, and you can afford to do that with your life.

- In the past you felt like you had more of an impetus to express your personal self through the music? And one of the ways it manifested was this need to tell your story?

- Uh-huh

- Now, without the need to tell your story––or to describe yourself––now you have also relinquished the need to tell a story. Are there other stories or other selves that you're trying to get to? Or just avoiding story altogether?

- Avoiding story altogether. This is the way I go into basically anything - If I’m thinking beforehand, ‘I’m gonna do such and such,’ I’m really stubborn and I try to do that thing. And the problem is that I can’t see what may be a more exciting, or more interesting, or just better decision, given the actual circumstance. So I try not to think about what I'm doing before I start improvising, ever. In terms of a sequence.

If I’m playing a solo set, I’ll think about ‘OK I'm gonna do one thing for a while, and then I'm going to switch and do something else.‘ Some improvisers like to talk before they start to play and figure out what they're going to do in a set, and I don't like that because then I'm worried about what we've agreed to do, and I'm not able to think about what we're actually doing. For me that robs the whole experience––and the audience’s experience––of what I like about improvised music, which is confusion, spontaneity, and vulnerability. I like wondering ‘what are we doing?’ or ’how am I gonna manage this situation?’

- How much of your thoughts while you’re playing are linguistic vs. musical?

- Musical like what? Like hearing a sound in my head?

- Thinking in terms of rationalization and decision-making while you're playing?

- It depends. Do you mean thinking of music as sound or thinking “maybe I’ll play a high-pitch now’ or ‘maybe I'll play loud now’?

- Both

- It’s a mix of rational decisions and musical decisions and total impulse decisions. Like, if somebody starts doing something low, I'll start thinking about doing something in a high pitch. Or if someone starts doing something soft, I’ll think about doing something loud. I don't always do those things, but it's something that comes to mind. Sometimes I make more decisions than at other times. It depends on how comfortable I am. Actually it doesn't depend on how comfortable I am, it just depends on what's going on. Sometimes those things just come naturally, not from God, just naturally.

- How often are you going through a decision-making process ? What's the lag time between a thought and a potential for a decision and an enacting of a decision?

- Pretty instant. Because if I don't make a decision, then I worry about it. And then I don't do it, and then I've erased the set for me and I'm like ‘Oh my God, I was going to do that thing like 5 minutes ago, and now it doesn't make sense, And now what do I do? But I still want to do that thing, but now isn't the right time, so maybe I should wait, and maybe I should do something else, or maybe I should wait a little bit longer’ blah blah blah. That kind of thing.

I used to work with this dancer in New York that I went to college with. Her name is Christine Elmo. She’s really amazing. One of the choreographies she made involved giving me instructions of what to do, and what to play, and one of them was “Do this thing until you are afraid of not doing it anymore.” And I feel like if i don't make a decision Immediately, I just go into that space, of doing something until I'm absolutely terrified of not stopping and I can't figure out how to get out of it. If I was in the audience watching me doing that, I'd be super- amped and really excited, like ‘wow this performer seems super-uncomfortable And this has been going on for a long time And something has to change soon and I'm really concerned about what will happen.‘ But for me as an actual performer I'm like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’

- It’s terrifying. That’s the instruction. Do you have other strategies like that that you think about or have thought about over the years? To me, Elmo’s sounds like a good strategy.

- Super-absolute strategies are ones I like a lot, especially in solo performance. For this record Feel, both sides are me doing a thing until I can’t anymore. So that’s a strategy. Maybe it’s doing a thing until I’m afraid of not doing it anymore, and then figuring out how to convince myself to stop. Or doing a thing until I physically just can't. Trying to see how long I can do that. When I do that, my decisions aren't rational or musical, it's just about how to continue making that sound. It's more about how my body is positioned, and also trying to calm myself down. Or if my lips start hurting, how to ignore the pain. It’s also really easy to use the Fibonacci series – 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc - to just decide to start doing something 13 times or 21 times. I guess that's one of my basic fall-back strategies. Or playing a long tone, I'm really into that, to decide, ‘now it’s time to play a b-flat.’

- You were describing the space of improvisation as being a space that was open to vulnerability and intimacy; what is it about that space of improvisation that is amenable or unamenable to your notion of queer space?

- If the space is open and is vulnerable, then that is what’s amenable to a queer space. What I think of as a queer space is a space in which everyone’s identity shifts a little bit because everyone’s confused about what’s going on. And that allows you to make different kinds of decisions. Gordon Hall’s idea of ‘mutual objectification’ describes how choosing to desire someone, in this kind of space, is actually and suddenly possible. ‘I am going to desire this person.’ ‘Mutual objectification’ is anathema to a standard view of desire and love, which has something religious about it.

- The above coming down into our world again.

- Exactly. And I just can’t stand that. It’s also how I think about queer space – it’s not in a strict hierarchy, it’s more even.

- What are things in an improvisational space that hinder that level of vulnerability and intimacy?

- Explicit shows of strength and virtuosity. Obsession with your own story. Because If you're telling your own story, you're not listening to what else is happening. I think of queer sound as something that cannot immediately be identified – you can’t necessarily identify what’s going on, if it’s coming from an instrument, or if it’s coming from an object. Or, if it is coming from an instrument, you can’t necessarily identify how it’s being made. Usually, because these sounds are hard to track and are happening over a long period of time, or different periods of time––like maybe they are not constant but maybe they are happening at a different rhythm than musical sound normally happens at––that throws off the audience’s perception of time. So we're not going from A to B, we're going from A to…somewhere. It obscures the narrative time of going from A to B, or of going from my house to the store, from being lonely to being in love, with the love of my life. You’re leaving your house and you were going to the store but you got lost and you met someone and went to their house and you stayed there for a while and maybe dated them for five years and you left their house and you moved and then you went to the store. I like that kind of story a lot more. That progression changes the experience of time, and that change of the experience of time might have an effect on how you feel in a space, like if you feel you've been there forever, but you haven't, and then you're confused about where you are and what you're doing. That creates a different kind of social space within the physical space That might make you question the physical space that you're in so that you look around at the people that you're with and feel differently about them. Or maybe you don't feel differently about them at all, but you feel differently about yourself, when you come out of the experience that you're in. Does that make sense?

- Mmhhhmm.

- But if you’re sitting there watching someone play their instrument in a very strong way, or in a very virtuosic way, or in a very emotive way in a typical-kind-of-narrative way, you’re probably just thinking, ‘Damn, he's really good at that instrument. He sure plays really good. He must be a genius.’ So you're not thinking about anything differently, and you're not experiencing anything differently than you would have if you had been doing anything else. That kind of performance reinforces this kind of ‘genius from above transmitted through the virtuosic musician.‘ I can’t stand that shit.

- How does that mode of listening compare to listening to music as pure materiality? Is listening to music just as the physical manifestation of a sound a step forward or a step backward? Clearly it’s a step away from narrative, but it’s also a step toward narrowing where it’s affect could be.

- I don't know about that. Especially in experimental music, where sounds drift more towards what normal sounds and ambient life sound like - I think those also bring a ton of affect. You don't necessarily have to play a major or minor chord to feel happy or sad. Maybe a sound that sounds like the refrigerator in your grandmother's house is going to make you sad in a much more effective way than a minor chord could . I'm not one for always needing specificity, I like to keep things messy. But I don’t think that non-musical sounds or non-traditional sounds narrow affect possibilities.

- That's not what I'm saying. What I'm talking about is a way to listen where you're not putting any narrative or sense of self into the sound, you're just listening to the pure materiality of the sound. It could be a purely musical sound, it might be a perfect B flat - there's a way of listening and a way of playing to emphasize just the materiality. Is there something beyond that that your music is getting to?

- That’s hard to answer because I'm very aware of myself as a performer when I'm performing. I'm very aware of what my body is doing, and I make decisions based on the awareness that people are watching me as a performer. But when making a recording, however, you can't see the body that's producing the sound. So if I wanted to be making something beyond the sound itself, there's no way to do that, Except for the way that it's recorded, and I don't really know that much about recording. I’d have to record in such a way that brings my body into the room with the listener. I think that Alex [Inglizian] did it with Feel but I have no clue how he did it.

But I am trying to bring something different into it, I'm trying to bring a strong emotional quality through this sound, whether it's live or not. What I'm most concerned about communicating is emotion or lack thereof. I’m not talking about a specific emotion like ‘I want you to feel sad. Now let’s feel happy.’

- When you talk about expressing “the lack thereof” of an emotion – what is that like? Why would you say that?

- Because I think it's also possible to make music that's really cold. I also like that more than ‘Let's be happy, let's be sad.‘ I like super-cold music because I think it speaks to a kind of general experience that exists. Like walking into an office and the lights are fluorescent in that gross blue color, and the room is really wide and there's all of these foam, cubicle dividers that break up the sound in a weird way, and it's an uncomfortably neutral space to be in. It's an unfeeling space, and I think music should also talk about that. To me, that's a lot more real than a heroic narrative. Something more like waking up, feeling like shit, going to the coffee shop and spilling coffee on yourself – that’s more like it: ‘OK, here we are.’

- One of the ways I've listened to this genre of music is as an accurate representation of my psychological comings and goings and toings and froings. Waiting for something to happen, waiting for something to happen, and then three things happen at once. I wouldn't call it direct psychologizing, but there is an experience of what happens in this music that reflects what happens internally as I experience a day or a life or a month. A ten-minute sequence of abstractly appearing and disappearing sounds feels more ‘representational’ than any other medium. Is that sensation of representationality something that you agree with, or something that you strive for, or something that you think about, or something that is just unconscious?

- It’s something that I think about. But it’s also unconscious. I can think about it right now when I'm talking to you, or I can think about it when I'm walking around the house or when I'm writing something. But I can't really think about that while I'm playing. I can't think about how I'm going to indirectly communicate a series of non-specific thoughts that I felt earlier in the day. That's why I try not to think about storytelling and that kind of stuff while I'm improvising. That's why I try to think about other kinds of decisions like repetition, density, or duration. Not manipulating the emotional experience that's happening to other people.

The only emotions I think about when I'm improvising are humor or anger. Sometimes I decide I want to do something humorous. Sometimes I'm just mad and I want to do something kind of rude to change the situation. I don't think about anything else really.

- You say that you don't want to manipulate. Manipulating would seem to engage the religious, hierarchical, egotistical display of virtuosity – the ‘I'm going to take you here, then I'm going to take you here, then I'm going to take you here’ kind of thinking – that you reject. How does avoiding that desire to manipulate and control the narrative open yourself up to what might happen in the experience?

- As you're talking, I'm thinking about how a lot of what I do is actually virtuosic. Like playing something for fifteen minutes Is pretty intense and it is a kind of virtuosity in its own way. I don't know if it's true {laughs}, but I tell myself it's fine because it's more about a physical challenge that I'm giving to myself than controlling an emotional space. Within a sound that is more or less the same over the course of 15-30 minutes, people are going to have wildly different experiences of that sound.

I played a show in Amsterdam a few years ago and it was a constant, kind of annoying whistling sound for 15-20ish minutes. As I was packing up my trumpet, one person came up and told me, “That was a really meditative experience and I really needed that. I feel so much better now, I can breathe, I feel great.” And then I went outside and someone else came up and said, “That was the most aggravating twenty minutes of music I've ever seen. I couldn't stop thinking about this broken fan that was in my childhood bedroom, and I could never sleep because this broken fan kept on making this horrible noise.” And I thought ‘those are two very opposing reactions!’ One person had this nice, relaxing time and another person had a horribly bad time. That's the nice thing I think about using these other kinds of sounds - they bring a lot of affect, but it's not clear what they're going to do.

- You use traditional musical sounds and you use the trumpet to make non-traditional musical sounds; how does the blending of those two sound worlds play out over the course of an improvisation?

- When I play traditional kinds of trumpet things, it's to break the mood a little bit, to bring it back. When I'm not playing a long tone, I'll play Dixieland stuff. That stuff is part of the history of the trumpet. It carries a very different kind of emotional weight than sounding like a washing machine. I like that discrepancy.

- What are things about your playing that you think it's difficult for people to pick up on?

- I don't want to talk about that. I'm usually thinking ”what am I gonna do now? What should I do now?”

- Is there anything to your music that you feel like might not be that obvious, or hasn’t been understood or picked up on, as of yet?

- That's why it's important for me to include stuff that I've been writing, and focus on the packaging of each record. I also feel like it's kind of obnoxious to do that! I'm sure, if you're watching me play, you’re not thinking, “obviously this person has read a lot of queer theory and is really interested in creating, via sound, spaces that are horizontal and a little bit confusing, and that confuse identity, and maybe a sense of time. And maybe what he’s looking for is creating a queer space, and, maybe, even though this music is very emotional, maybe he's not wanting to dictate an emotional state” blah blah blah. So there's a lot of stuff that I don't think is immediately legible with the music that I play, ever. But that's also the thing with music. When I was 19, I went to this Jazz and Creative Music workshop in Banff, Canada. One of the faculty was George Lewis. And he was giving this presentation, and he said, "music doesn't speak for itself." And I was so mad. Because I was 19, and I was like, [whiny voice] “I’m telling my story! I'm speaking for myself! It’s gonna be clear!” I was mad about that for a long time, and now I'm not. Because it doesn't, music doesn't communicate. It doesn't matter what I do, it can't communicate all of my interests, and what I'm trying to do with the decisions that I'm making in the musical situation. Those won't be legible.

- But music can accomplish other things that critical texts can't accomplish. What are things that music can accomplish that those other mediums can't accomplish? In other words, why include the practice of music, as a medium, among others – because you also practice writing, teaching, and visual art or performance art – so what is music doing for you that these others can’t?

- Music deals with raw emotions in a way that I don't think any other form does. Music and performance. Like what you do, when you perform. There’s something very emotional about it. Live performance in a room with other people does something that writing doesn’t do. Ummm, I don't want to say something weird about other art forms, but there's this raw emotional characteristic that I think is what I like about music. I also like that, to play a trumpet concert, it's not like I just pick up a trumpet, arrive at a concert, and play a show. I can't play a concert if I haven't been practicing every day for an hour or two a day for two weeks to a month beforehand. So every thirteen-minute set that I play is coming from at least twenty-eight hours of practice beforehand. And I like that. Because music––and I also think this about spoken word––music and sound carries things with it. It’s not just happening in a way so that you hear each sound as if it's coming to you from a vacuum. Every sound comes with its own baggage. So it can relate to a broken fan, or meditation, or whatever. It always comes with something.

- Or a purely hit note. That carries its own baggage.

- That’s true. That's something that I think music does that is important to me. That's why I like to perform. That's why I like to do it.

- You currently have a project where you're looking at non-traditional scores with other people. It's connecting