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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 these two realms: your musical practice and your interest in community activities. What is it about the combination of community-building and scores that attracts you?

- It's also based in anger at things not being what I want them to be, and what I think they could be. And the fact that graphic scores and non-traditional scores are often rehearsed, practiced, and performed in exactly the same way as any other score. That kind of working with these scores doesn't bring anything new to the table, but they talk about it. But only so far as "hey, this is an open score so it's more democratic." But no. The composer delivers the part to the ensemble, the ensemble rehearses it the same way that they would a traditional score, especially if there's a previous recording of it. They’ll listen to the previous recording, and try to reproduce the recording. At least this is what has happened to me in these kinds of situations. I'm sure there are exceptions. But this whole God/genius/virtuoso thing also tends to happen with graphic and open scores, even with scores that are maybe just a text score! It goes back to the genius of the composer and the profundity of the performer, and I don't like that. So the point of this workshop was to bring together a feminist text about organizing that I really like by Jo Freeman called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Her point is that even in, and perhaps especially in, situations where people are like “we can't have a structure for our organization because structures are patriarchal” or, “a structure will sully our organization in some way” - in those situations, because they don't want to bring in rules, which could imply a hierarchy––and patriarchy loves carpetbagging in with a hierarchy––so instead of bringing in patriarchy, the lack of rules exacerbates classism, exacerbates racism…

- [interrupting] It exacerbates the pre-existing power structures within the members of the group.

- Exactly. All that shit always happens anyway. This happens with open scores too. Organizing and music are related because they are groups of people doing something together. Open scores can also allow for the rule of one specific hierarchy without addressing the potential for others.

- So, for example, it could elevate the importance of virtuosity, while diminishing the importance of the score itself? Which is what happened with Cage and David Tudor. He has become the epitome of how those scores should be performed.

{A better example would be how a certain race, or class, or gender could come to dominate the decision-making of a supposedly open and non-hierarchical group, to the detriment of those that don’t share that demographic tick.}

- It also brings up secret knowledge. Like when the person who has the most secret knowledge––the person who has the most obscure David Tudor recording of that Cage piece––suddenly becomes the authority and fssssst [sound of disappearing whistle] everyone has to look to the authority. Even though everyone else is here, you don’t have any kind of new situation: it’s still the authority, the ensemble, the audience.

- What are functional strategies for keeping authority out of community improvisation and art-making? How do you do that?

- I wish I knew. That's why I have this workshop and working group, I’m trying to figure out how to do that. For me, I’m running the group. I can’t magically make it not my own group, that I thought of, and that I organized, and that I asked people to come to. So there is a hierarchy there.

- Well, it's one of those things like when you have to be intolerant of intolerance. At some point you have to have one person that says, “this authority issue is an issue and I’m going to take the lead on attempting to eradicate it.” Looking to other people for leadership is an unconscious and habitual trait that, once addressed as a methodology of thinking to be avoided, could actually be overcome.

- Here’s something that I think improvisation can teach: an awareness of what's happening. Denaturalizing authority – that is something I think improvised music can do. I can decide in an improvisation to just take over the entire improvisation. But when I decide to do that I'm not thinking “I must do this in order to express blah blah blah” I'm just thinking, “I'm just gonna take this over now, for five minutes, and then stop.”

So when I'm running this workshop, I'm also trying to be hyper-aware of my position as the authority.

Improvisation teaches listening and awareness. That is the most important thing that I think it does. When it gets obscured, or taken over by a cult of virtuosity and secret knowledge––what do they say about abstract expressionist painters? That they’re painting from their soul?––when improvisation becomes about these kinds of things, then what I think is great about it gets lost.

- Authority in the world of improvised music is granted in a number of ways: this person has been doing it for so long, so they have authority. Or, this person developed this technique, so they have a certain kind of authority. What’s funny is that the people that have been doing stuff for a long time or that did make a breakthrough in a technique – those people don’t have any interest in wielding their authority; they’re still continually trying to break new ground. The problem is the folks that look up to these people as if they have the answers, and project and impose a more authoritarian stature on them that they don’t want to inhabit!

- In that situation it behooves those artists to talk about what they're doing, and not accept it. It's difficult to do that, and it might be rude actually, but I think it's important. I think it's important to say what you're doing and why, and not just accept a projection that’s being put on you. It can also mess with the reception and distribution of your own music.

- If “it's important to say what you're doing and why,” is it important to tell that to who you're doing it with, or who you're doing it in front of?

- Both. Because what I am against is the secret knowledge and mysterious nature of abstract music-making, which can be hijacked by anyone that has the loudest voice or the loudest pedestal and therefore the ability to say “this means this, obviously.” For that reason I feel like it’s important to say, repeatedly, why I do what I do, and also how I do it. If someone asks me how I make such-and-such sound on the trumpet, I'll tell them, as plainly as I can. It's really important to me that these things aren't nebulous mysteries that can be taken over. It does really bother me that these kinds of musical expressions, but also very minimal kind of art-making, like minimalism––minimalism is amazing to me because you walk into a room, and you’re in a room with a box, and you’re like “what am I doing in this room with a box?” That’s cool! I like that. Or you walk into a room, and you’re in a room with a box, but you’re in an art museum, and you’re like, “oh I could have made that.” That’s also cool because, yeah, you could have. It’s nice that anyone can make a box. You don’t have to look at an artist and say, “Hey artist, can you make me a box?” That’s a really nice thing about minimalism. But I think the mystery that’s created by doing something that doesn’t say exactly what it is––that is abstract in some kind of way––gets hijacked by people who need to maintain this false authority, who say, “We are the people who know; we are going to make up some really convoluted theory around minimalism that no one is going to be able to understand so that we can continue to occupy the spaces of elite intellectuals. We’re gonna spin a web around this box about phenomenology and Lacan and whatever, anything, to bring it away from ‘I could make this box, I could be an artist too, without going to art school’ to something that you would have to go to art school to understand.”

Maybe I’m breaking in an old beef.

- That’s ok; people prefer aged beef.

- I think I’ve got some old beef in the fridge actually. Like a week old. I was gonna make it tonight but I think it might be not-OK.

- Speaking of Jo Freeman’s text “The Theory of Structurelessness,” the title alone is attractive to anyone that has listened with any diligence to improvised music and knows quite well that Structurelessness has severe disadvantages to all but the most rigorous of players. What is it about that text that informs your presence in a solo musical context?

- It doesn’t. I haven't thought about that text when I've been preparing a solo performance. I’ve thought about it a lot when improvising in a group. That text is very much about how it’s impossible to avoid some kind of hierarchy, so the best one can do is be aware of what hierarchies are existing in a given moment and what you can do within those, and how you can manipulate those. So I think about that in a group situation. Like when I play something to change the direction of an improvisation. Because I play the trumpet, which is a loud instrument.

A year ago claire [rousay] and Lori (Goldston] and Paul [Giallorenzo] and I were playing. Lori is in a chair; Paul's also in a chair, in front of a piano; Claire is also kind of low, pushed behind her drums. I’m the most obvious performing musician; it’s something that I have over all of them, regardless, and it’s something I can use, or not. There are certain points in situations like that where I can decide, alright, now I'm at the top of this performance hierarchy, because I'm the most visible performer: my body is the most visible; I'm also higher up than them because I'm standing and everyone else is sitting; I’m also playing a louder instrument than any of them. In a solo thing I don’t think about that at all. The only thing I think about is where am I positioned in relation to the audience. Like if there’s a stage, I don’t want to play on it because I think that that physical remove, of me being up like one to six feet is too much for the kind of emotional thing I’m going for. It would be lost in the distance.

- What differentiates your solo performances from how you play in a group?

- When I play solo, I'm looking to investigate my own limits. I'm not thinking a whole lot beyond physical challenges to myself. If I think about anything else, I go into a kind of death spiral. Like if I want to communicate an emotion, I’ll go into an anxiety loop where I’m concerned about whether I’m communicating that emotion well enough. If I think about what I'm trying to communicate, it's a dead end for me. I get lost thinking either I'm not doing it well enough, or that there’s no way that what I'm trying to communicate is being communicated. In a group setting , I'm thinking more about the kinds of things we've been talking about: repetition, decision-making, taking over. But in a solo setting, because there aren't people to play with––literally play, as in a game, with––I give myself physical tasks. It's usually about doing something until I just can't anymore. Or repeating something until it just falls apart. Which is more of a challenge for me, because It's hard for me to tell when it's falling apart or when I'm forcing it to fall apart. Solo sets are very much about my bodily limits. Me putting myself on stage, in that kind of way, automatically creates vulnerability because I'm struggling. Like if there’s spit running down my face, it's clear that I'm struggling. And this aids the vulnerability and intimacy that I want to communicate a lot more than if I thought beforehand “how can I communicate vulnerability and intimacy” Instead I actually have to do something with my body that actually puts me in that space.

- Do players like Maarten Altena and Radu Malfatti, who gave up free improv in favor of more radical composition––and who possess a more overt criticality as well––feel like forebears to you? Or do you have forebears in other mediums? Or other people that play this music that are on a path that you would like feel nurtured by?

- I don't actually know a lot about Radu Malfatti. But I do like that I emailed him once, to see if I could play in the concert series that he has in his apartment, and he said no, because he didn’t like my music. Because I was doing too much. I liked that a lot. I respect that. I respect these people for making a decision and doing something else, which is always very brave. It doesn’t make sense for anyone to do one thing their whole lives. That’s a ridiculous idea we have about ourselves. Maybe we should stop, and do something else with ourselves for a while. I think that’s totally legit.

People that I look to as forebears or inspiration are people like Lygia Clark. She was an artist making paintings and then sculptures, and then her sculptures became interactive. She liked to say that her sculptures didn’t really exist unless someone was touching it and moving it around. And then she went from these interactive sculptures––actually her life wasn't as linear as this, but, broad strokes as they say––she started leading these classes where she would lead her students to make these things that were basically sculptures, but also performances. Then she started studying with Felix Guattari, and her classes became about not only sculpture and performance, but also became a kind of therapeutic experience. Then she went from that to being a straight-up therapist. And in her private practice she brought in things that, previously in her life, would have been sculptures, but now, in this setting, were tools for psychoanalysis basically.

I think about her a lot. I don't think that I do is what she did, or anything like that, But I do think a lot about this really special thing that music does, which is bring people into a room together, and that’s for me the most important thing for me to work rather than anything else.

- A lot of work that seems to have had the most profound influence on your practice, as a musician and as an artist, are critical texts, and the work of visual artists and performance artists, rather than specific musicians. I imagine that this is due, in part, because you are an artist with a background in multiple mediums. For example, you’ve used language as a starting point for trumpet and other performances. You’ve also studied Social Practice as a medium in school. Do you see your trumpet practice as another medium within the mélange of available mediums that you engage in, or is each manifestation of a Jacob Wick performance or activity another annotation in the larger scheme of the practice of you?

- I think I want it to be the former, but it is the latter. I have an obsession with separating things. And I've always been embarrassed to talk about my own interests or practice as an artist or writer when I'm talking about being a musician. When I was getting my Masters in Social Practice, I was always super-embarrassed to talk about being a musician. In some part of my mind, all of these things should be separated, even if they’re not and are all definitely part of the same thing. What drove me to getting a Masters and studying Social Practice was being more interested in composition and improvisation as ‘people in a room doing something’ than as musical expression. And from that arrives how I’m performing now. So when I’m performing now, I’m basically doing what I consider my own practice of Social Practice work. Which is also redundant because, anthropologically speaking, music is a social practice, period. But, anyway, I think about my trumpet performances more in terms of their sociality than their musicality. Sociality and straight-up performance: what is my body doing in this space with other people and their bodies? I don’t really think about musical expression very much.

- Because of the way this has gone, I'd like to go back to the first question, which was “Is your music personal?” Your first answer was “Yes.” What makes it personal?

- Everything. [Laughs] Everything makes it personal! There's more to being personal than telling someone about yourself. There's more to being personal than throwing up your opinions about the world onto someone else. For me being a person is a lot about navigating weird social situations. For me being a person is about having very strong emotions in very inappropriate places. Or having no emotions in places where I should. For me being a person is being obsessively aware of tiny details happening and how those details affect everything else that's going on in that particular situation. I like noticing, say, a little thing that's in the corner on the ground, thinking about this crumpled up piece of paper and how it’s having an effect on the general situation. Something that I am trying to do as a person, since learning more about queer theory and feminist theory and reading more books by queer people and women and people of color is trying to be really aware of my own position as a cis white dude, especially since I live in Mexico. I know I’m from an upper-middle class family and I bring a lot of privilege anywhere I go. I can’t and I don’t want to erase that part of myself, but what I can do is be hyperaware of it, and that’s super-personal. Just because I'm talking about power dynamics, or just because I'm talking about repeating myself doesn’t mean that it’s not personal. I don’t know why that shit isn’t personal! When you first asked me that question, I felt unclear about how I was going to answer it . But now we’ve been talking for over an hour and it’s very clear to me: my music is very personal, it’s hyper-personal. And if I tried to do anything else, it wouldn't be personal, and I wouldn't want to do it.

- That was a great answer.

- Thanks.

- So I wrote down like thirty more questions that we could get to, but I think it might be better to stop, because after a certain amount of time, it’s incredibly difficult to think, or speak, coherently.

- I think I might be at the edge of that.

- Let me just say that, in relation to focusing on some little thing on the ground, when I had Jean-Luc [Guionnet] on my radio show two years ago, he played a solo. And afterwards he told me that all he did was stare straight at a flyer on the wall that said “STOP STEVE BANNON,” and that was the only thing he focused on, and he had no idea who Steve Bannon was, but he was intently concentrating on stopping this abstract man while he played.

- That makes so much sense. There are so many experiences that everyone has where you’re not thinking about the right thing while you’re doing it. And I don’t think that it’s not because it wasn’t the right thing to think about, but more because the ‘right thing’ maybe isn’t the right thing.

- How have you been keeping your unconscious healthy lately?

- Pretty poorly. I haven’t been sleeping well. I think that doesn’t help your unconscious.

- Is that a new thing?

- Yeah. Pretty much the last month, six weeks. I sleep well maybe one or two days a week. Five or six hours or less, and I wake up super freaked out.

- Is it hard to get out of bed or do you get out of bed pretty easily?

- It's hard to stay in bed. I get out of bed pretty easily.

- Have you been reading much?

- Yeah, I’ve been reading, but no fiction. Which I think is probably bad for my unconscious. Or my subconscious. Hold on, is the unconscious the same as your subconscious?

- No. The way I see it, the subconscious is more like a little voice, usually critical, of the decisions I’m making. The unconscious is more the emotional truth of what's happening, that I’m not going to be able to control. I can do things to nurture it, but I can’t go to it and have a one-on-one talk. It's not in my control.

- I've been reading The Function of Criticism by Terry Eagleton for months. It's a really short book, but I've been taking a lot of long pauses from it. And I've been reading a Calvin Trillin book which is pretty funny.

- That's probably pretty easy to read.

- It's really easy to read.

- That's why I was reading those My Struggle books, because they’re just so easy to read.

- I haven't read any of those.

- I don’t recommend them. Do you think your trumpet objectifies you?

- Maybe. Because it's a really physical instrument and I play it by myself usually. And I usually do pretty physically demanding things.

- Do you ever get the feeling that it judges you?

- No, it's a piece of metal, I never think that it judges me. But it does highlight my presence a lot more than if I was standing there without a trumpet, or with a trombone, or a cello, or something that blocks your body. There's something about the trumpet that makes your body a lot more obvious, it's like drugs or something, it’s really physical. You’re always making a really weird face. It’s really hard to look chill and play trumpet at the same time.

- It’s not particularly flattering.

- You can look cool playing it. I think Miles Davis looked cool. I don’t think I do.

- How do you deal with aggression and compassion in your playing?

- I don’t. I don’t think I do. Well, I know that I play aggressively, but I have no answer to that. When I’m being really aggressive, I’m also trying to listen. If I play solo, I try to listen to the space. If I play with another person, I try to listen to them really hard, and still make really aggressive decisions.

- You're not constantly aggressive when you play. There are moments of absolute compassion I hear in your playing.

- Yeah? I don’t think about it beforehand. I never sit and think like, “how am I going to improvise today?”

- I wonder how your emotions play into the music––before, during, or after––or are you trying to be so unconscious about it that you can’t even register those changes?

- I’m not unconscious about it. I'm thinking about what decisions I'm making and why. If I make a really aggressive decision, unless I really don't like the person I'm playing with at all, I’ll try to balance my responses so that they start being a little more compassionate, or vice versa if I’m helping out the other person for a while. Not necessarily helping them out, but being really attentive to them for a while. Then maybe I'll decide it's OK to just jump in and do something completely different. I don't think about it beforehand unless I actively dislike the person I'm about to play with, like I'm talking to them and I realize, “Oh my God, this is not going to be fun.” Then I'll take a much more aggressive approach to the situation. Afterwards I usually feel about the same, like medium drained. And sometimes frustrated and sometimes happy.

- When you went into the studio to record your solo album, Feel, did you have any aggression towards the environment, or were you in a receptive state, or did you have an idea that you wanted to get into?

- That was at the end of a month-long tour, and I had been playing basically the same set every night. It started with a noisier thing that’s on side A and it develops into a quieter thing that’s on side B. And I just wanted to record those two textures, and nothing else. I had a very definite plan. I was going to play this noisy thing as long as could. And then the next day, I was going to play this quiet thing for as long as I could. I can only sustain the noisy thing for around thirteen minutes. The record uses two takes magically put together. The softer one I can do for longer, so it’s a continuous take.

I like to do things that are really exhausting, things that I think of as really aggressive and that release a lot of tension for me. Those are the harsher noise things. Those release a lot of tension for me. Really concentrated, difficult, bodily things like that kind of playing make it impossible for me to think of anything else for the entire time that I’m doing it. I have to keep telling myself to keep breathing, and to relax my shoulders, and to sit up straight, blah blah blah. That’s really hard for my brain. It’s like a meditation almost. But then for the audience, it could be an intense, abrasive experience. But I've also done that set and been told that the really noisy part is the compassionate part, because it seems like it’s warm somehow. Just thinking about it, it would strike me as not being that, but…

- It could be because minimality is sometimes considered more confrontational than an overload, which can be more easily subsumed into a sense of catharsis. There’s something comfortable about expressing overwhelmingness. Especially now that we get news about the world falling apart in a more radical, more fast way––wherever it is––then that sense of being overwhelmed is much more common. There’s a new reminder, and a new trigger for it, every day. So, in a way, it’s more comfortable to kind of be destroyed.

- Yeah that makes sense, everyone’s so overwhelmed all of the time. I am too. At the end, it’s not sort of cathartic; it is really cathartic.

- Is that relief related to the notion of unraveling that you've talked about in other interviews, the quest to disappear.

- You sound like my analyst right now.

- I need a therapist.

- I've been going to analysis the last year, and it's been really helpful. Anyway, I think both kinds of sounds work to deal with overwhelmingness, but a more minimal sound is maybe harder to enter into as an audience member. The louder sound pools up around me, and since it’s such an intense physical activity and emotional release, I am definitely unraveling a little bit in it. The experiences that people have told me about, being in these performances of mine, also sounds like they've lost track of themselves, from the experience of an overwhelming physical experience. I think soft sounds can do that too, but requires more activity on the part of an audience member to be like “oh, nothing Is happening at this concert I went to, and I paid ten bucks to get into it, and that’s OK.”

The feeling of sound rushing into a void is also a kind of cathartic moment, a kind of unraveling-ish moment. I think that happened in the set that claire and I played in Los Angeles. I was just listening to it a couple days ago, and I don't know if it was something that claire was doing on the drums or if it was the train going by – I have no idea what it was, and I like that confusion. It’s a helpful confusion for me.

- Absolutely. She was making some really impeccable decisions in that set. And I also feel like I saw a variety of levels of your compassion displayed. Not necessarily encouraging compassion. I’m referring to a genuine variety of compassions. Maybe I’m using compassion in a bigger sense than is commonly understood, but there were moments of antagonism and indirect communication between you two that I felt were, in the bigger picture, displays of wider openness and more vulnerability, which added to the sense of a bigger safety net between you two. In the last ten to fifteen minutes in particular I felt like you were changing strategies at a different rate than I was used to. And claire was not allowing herself to be goaded into whatever direction you were trying to push things. There were moments where sounds from her were expected, and she refused to make them.

- I like that about playing with her. Sometimes if I make a staccato sound, I expect the person playing drums to be like fwap! I feel like as a horn player, if I’m like beeep, claire is like [silence] not doing anything, which is amazing.

I went to an art theory conference a week ago that my boyfriend organized. I kind of expected to really hate it, but I really liked it. The two talks that I saw talked about how art helps you realize what's going on around you rather than takes to a higher plane of existence or something like that.

- Absolutely. That's exactly how I've listened to improvised music for decades. It shows what the obvious undercurrents of the current situation are, either psychologically or socially.

- Exactly. How then do you feel about people that talk about improvisation in terms of abstract painting?

- I hate it.

- Me too.

- To me it doesn’t have anything to do with that at all. To me it’s a social and a psychological practice.

- What really upsets me is the obsession with Jackson Pollock that male improvisers, especially, seem to have. They make improvising out to be about how much emoting can be done in a short period of time. I don’t think that is what improvising is about.

- I don't want a quantity of emoting, I just want something honest. There are some players that are so caught up in their own style that, as an audience member, you know when you go see them play that you're just going to get ‘that thing that they do.’ When I go see you, I have no idea what I’m going to get. I might get a fucking march! You can be in the middle of something minimal and textural and then burst out with a sequence of Ragtime notes. And it’s still cohesive. In contrast, I get the sense that some players prefer to demonstrate their knowledge of music history, or art history, or whatever their instrument’s history is. For me that's not interesting at all. There’s such a rich history of give-and-take between mediums that let’s look at all of the ways to confuse mediums, I really like that. What's the most important non-musical influence on your music making?

- Probably things that I’ve read. Writing. Or conversing. When I’m improvising I’m definitely not thinking “I’m going to make some music right now.” I’m just trying to pay attention to everything that’s happening, and where it might go, and what I can do in that particular situation. It's more about trying to identify everything that can happen on a point-by-point basis, rather than playin’ some licks. When I was a teenager I read a lot of fantasy novels.

- When you went to record Feel, was the reason that you had such a specific thing in mind to do––a quiet thing and a loud thing––was that related to something you had read? Something you had experienced musically? Something you had experienced emotionally? Life?

- No. They’re both physical challenges. How long can I sustain those two things? That’s the thing. Afterwards come other kinds of thinking. What’s influenced the last eight or nine or ten years of my playing the most has been being interested in different kinds of participatory or social art-making, which sometimes, but not always, think very critically about the ways that people are relating to each other in any given situation. I think about that a lot. I don’t mean ‘critically’ like ‘this is bad and this is good;’ I mean ‘critically’ like ‘thinking deeply.’ For example, if I’m playing solo, there’s one person on a stage, and that stage is always there, whether it's raised or separated from the audience. Just by picking up a trumpet and sitting in a chair and being watched, I'm on a stage. If an audience member is watching me, there's a power dynamic that I have more or less control over. And since I don't think that sound can change power relations––because it's just sound––I think about something else. And that's usually a physical challenge

- I want to pause on this idea that “sound can’t change power relations” for a second. I agree with that on a practical level. But I also like to hold out the hope that you––the big, plural you––could see something happen on a stage - the way some people interact, for example. And they have some kind of disagreement. But they work through it or something else happens that communicates changing power relations between these people, some kind of overcoming. It might be indirect, but the sense of the possibility was catalyzed in an audience member through the witnessing of a musical interaction.

- I agree that that's possible, but I want to specify that the inspirational thing that's happening in that situation Is happening between people, in things that people are doing for each other. That is what is really powerful about improvised music, and performance in general: it’s people doing things. But I want to emphasize: sound traveling through the air has no intent. A lot of writing and thinking about music and art talks about just the sound or the image, and not the people that are there looking at the images or listening to the sounds, or the people who made it. And that frustrates the shit out of me. That’s why I liked not hearing those art theorists at that conference talk about “oh this sound will take us to a whole new place.” What's more exciting about performance and improvising is seeing people in real-time relating to each other. That's what does have a possibility of altering, in some way, relations between people.

- That's how I got so attracted to improvise music early on. Because the people are so vulnerable on stage and they’re trying to do this thing that is very delicate with other people, and in front of other people! And there's inevitably going to be a large amount of failure, and inability to be on the same page. I mean, my god, people that are fluent, native speakers of the same language argue all the time about the meaning of a conversation: what was said, how fast it was said, how many times, tone of voice, exact vocabulary, all of that. When you step outside of language and into a medium that's more abstract and more undefined, sound, and you're trying to make something together with others that is interesting and meaningful to yourself, your collaborators, and other people, the variety of ways it can go wrong and be misunderstood is beyond infinite. The fact that it ever succeeds is a testament to some genuinely miraculous levels of dedication, concentration, luck, circumstance, and environment.

- One of the nice things about improvising is seeing people be really vulnerable. So when I play solo, giving myself difficult tasks is a way to avoid thinking about what I'm doing and ‘is it any good?’. In lieu of thinking about that, I just think about whatever physical thing I need to do to keep going. I feel very vulnerable: I'm alone, onstage, and people are watching me; I've given myself a task that I probably can't actually do, physically. And if you're watching me perform, you're watching a person, in public, struggle and fuck up, and maybe have a total breakdown. Maybe I hope that that kind of vulnerability spreads out from there. I don't necessarily mean that I want it to be relaxing, But I like the idea that it brings other people into it.

- This goes back to what I said about the importance of insight, rather than meaning. There isn't a specific narrative evoked, But that ability to experience and withstand failure can actually be successful from an audience member’s perspective and even from a performer’s perspective, because you go to figure out “Shit, that did not work!” Especially from an audience member's perspective, that can be significantly more invigorating than seeing a completely virtuosic display of seventy-three things that you never knew could be done on an instrument. It's much more powerful to see someone run up against something that they know they can't do, but they try anyway, or try to do something that they don't know they can’t do, but try it out because that was what the moment was demanding, and then they discovered that they weren't able to meet the moment with that move.

- I think those two things suggest a very different view of people, and what they're worth. I want a performance to be an intimate experience. It’s easier to do that if I’m playing with somebody, because then the connection is easy to make. But if it's a solo thing, how do I make that into an intimate experience? It comes back to making myself vulnerable. How do you make yourself vulnerable in public so that other people feel that, and are there with you?



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