Push Me, Pull You: Nate Wooley

Push Me, Pull You: Nate Wooley

Nate Wooley. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

This is the ninth entry in Act I of Push Me, Pull You, the Center’s series on (co-)authorship. For a full list of posts in this series, visit the main Push Me, Pull You page.

Nate Wooley is one of the most in-demand new music, noise, free improv, and jazz trumpeters working today. In addition to his trumpet work, he is an active composer and editor for Sound American, a quarterly online music journal that provides a platform for discussion of experimental music. He is also the manager of DRAM (Database of Recorded American Music), an online music resource of recordings, liner notes, album art, and other related material. Wooley’s rigorous study and extensive performance of a wide variety of musical scores offers us an expert musical perspective, as well as unique insight, into our questions of (co-)authorship.


Across musical genres and at various points in the compositional process, indeterminacy can take on multiple forms and frequently allows performers to share directly with the composer in the construction of music. This collaboration often takes place in real time, where the performer relies on spontaneous decisions. Many scores require the performer to act in the moment as composers—to make the same expressive decisions to help design the music.

The process of defining a score is inherently linked to the performer. To some it seems that dividing the composition and performance of music into two separate processes is counterintuitive and, at the very least, non-musical. Should the composer and performer share authorship credit?

This is dependent on the composition and on the performer. Unfortunately, I think it is so subjective to these two parameters that you couldn’t simply apply a single hard and fast rule. The composition must give enough leeway for broad interpretation, either through an extreme simplicity of material (e.g. folk-based forms, Arvo Part); techniques that openly involve the performer (graphic notation and open form structures are two of the most obvious examples); or an extreme complexity of material (where the performer’s virtuosity takes part in interpretation of the work). The performer can transcend these issues and “make a work their own” but ultimately they are still only coloring the information given to them. In most cases, the information is what inspires the interpretation, either through physical and technical limitations or the performer’s preconceived connections to specific parts of the musical material. There just isn’t enough objective evidence in that process to say that co-authorship is necessary in every case.

Composers have extensively researched how graphic notation can augment traditional notation. How do we distinguish the authorship of scores, graphic notation, and conductions?

In this case, the parameters change slightly. If the graphic notation has no specific connection to a consistent bit of musical material, then the performer is every bit as responsible for the creation and authorship of the piece as the composer. Pieces of paper with geometrical shapes or pictograms that are then freely interpreted are tantamount to improvisation. Thus, the interpreter should be treated as a co-composer of the work. As the level of semiotic connection between the graphic symbols and a reproducible and definable piece of music material gets stronger and more defined, the case for co-authorship weakens. In conduction, the idea is the same. If a conductor develops a series of hand signals (e.g. Butch Morris) which are broadly open to interpretation (i.e. the performer provides all of the musical material which is then shaped by the composer), there is an argument that the performer should receive credit for part of the composition. In an example of conduction like John Zorn’s game pieces, the musical material and form has been set in the production of the game, and therefore, it is more difficult to put as much emphasis on the performers creating the coherent musical statement.

In the jazz tradition, the brilliance of a soloist often gives a “standard” its defining character. What if the performance excels or overshadows the composition? How do credits define the relationship between the composer, improviser, and performer?

Co-authorship happens in the jazz world in a cultural way. For instance, the composition “My Favorite Things” is defined by the John Coltrane performance or “Summertime” by the Miles Davis performance. In a way, the co-authorship exists within this substratum of society without any official recognition. Due to the improvisatory nature of the form, co-authorship seems more natural as the performer is given latitude by jazz’s history and philosophy to make drastic performative choices with the given material. That same history and philosophy, however, provide the cultural idea of co-authorship without official recognition, due to the consistent practice of improvising on “standards” since the inception of the musical form.

Many contemporary composers create scores that demand the highest degree of virtuosic performance and many times this exceeds performer/ensemble capability. Often, if the performer is unable to execute the score accurately, s/he must design an alternative performance solution. Should these performance outcomes be considered products of co-authorship? How should they be defined with credits?

The abilities and limitations of the performer to execute a hyper-complex score can provide a drastic difference in interpretations. It is difficult to say if this is enough for co-authorship. Again, it’s a very subjective situation. For a work by [composer] Brian Ferneyhough, which is designed specifically to create a situation where no amount of virtuosity will produce a perfect reading, perhaps the performer is a viable candidate for co-author status. However, there will always be a performer that will rise to the technical challenges and create a “perfect” rendition of the piece at some point. Are they, then, given a higher or lower level of co-authorship? This is where the question becomes very difficult. It seems to point towards the idea that the less “successful” performer is given co-authorship credit by adding more material than the composer, while the performer closer to the composer’s actual concept is given less co-authorship credit by staying closer to that concept. This may be the idea of the composer, but it is so open to the musical taste of the arbiter of co-authorship that it lacks the objective criteria to become a hard and fast rule.

In conclusion, Wooley provided the following video, which demonstrates his synergetic musical relationship with fellow trumpeter Peter Evans:


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