Seven Storey Mountain, the title of Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, is a reference to the mountain of purgatory in Dante’s Inferno. It is also, fittingly, the title of trumpeter Nate Wooley’s song cycle – meant to represent “a certain abandon found in religious practice within the confines of a composed work for instrumentalists”. Fragments and earlier iterations of the piece have been heard in various locales throughout the past year, but on Thursday night, the Issue Project Room presented the first performance of the 50-minute work in its entirety.

Nate Wooley © Bradley Buehring
Nate Wooley
© Bradley Buehring

The venue, with its vaulted paint-chipped ceiling, has the feel of an abandoned church – a secret sacred spot tucked away in downtown Brooklyn. On this night the altar consisted of vibraphones, music stands, amps, and other electronic equipment. The audience members quietly filed into the space, and with no programs to flip through, were promptly plunged into Mr Wooley’s sometimes breathtaking, sometimes frightening soundworld.

The piece begins with swishes and swirls painted onto drum tops, which are gradually joined by simple melodic lines on the vibraphones on either side of the percussionists. The gradual immersion into the piece was mesmerizing. The introduction of new sounds layered over the others resulted in a musical process that was not only captivating but enjoyable. This opening segment was carefully and skilfully executed by the four percussionists: Chris Corsano and Ryan Sawyer on drums and Matt Moran and Chris Dingman on vibraphones.

Around the time Ben Vida’s electronics made their eerie entrance, I realized that my complacency had been replaced by discomfort. For stretches throughout the rest of the work, the electronics competed in a sonic battle with Mr Wooley on his mouthpiece-less, over-amplified trumpet. The cacophony, while texturally interesting, was at times unbearably loud. A couple of audience members plugged their ears with their fingers as what sounded like someone being strangled drowned out the throbbing synthesized sounds in the background. I sympathized with these listeners, as someone who has always been sensitive to loud noises. (As a baby, one of my parents would take me outside so that the other could vacuum.)

Despite the occasionally painful volume, the build-up of sounds was truly engaging. The digital beeps and hiccups skittered over our heads and were joined for a period by the drummers striking rather than swooshing on their instruments. It was difficult to take in all of the clinks and clicks and the torrent of percussion waging war on them. C. Spencer Yeh’s violin-playing, up front next to Mr Wooley, was in fact swallowed whole by the brass, percussion, and electronics surrounding him. Mr Wooley wheedled and wailed into his instrument, creating some rather horrifying noises. Throughout these breathing acrobatics, I was convinced the red-faced trumpeter would pass out, but he continued playing (with abandon), producing very non-trumpet-like noises and blowing us all away, in both senses of the phrase.

Eventually, Mr Wooley’s blipping and blathering was joined by the six brass instrumentalists of the TILT Brass sextet. With three trumpets and three trombones fanning out behind Mr Wooley, behind the drums and vibraphones, the religious overtones were hard to ignore. The TILT musicians, a choir of brass angels, glided through some ethereal, Gabrieli-esque chord progressions as the frantic sounds subsided around them. The curious chorale ended with resolution: we had arrived at a paradisical plateau after the barrage of infernal noises. The percussionists, rounding out the symmetry, returned to the vibraphone motifs and swishing patterns of the opening before fading away entirely.

Rather than feeling like I had undergone a religious experience, I longed for a tranquilizer as I stumbled outside into the rain. The music had traveled through turbulence, much like Thomas Merton and Dante in his allegory, as it circled back to its serene beginnings. And though each performer’s delivery was spot-on, the over-amplification left me with the impression that we had been evangelized at rather than included on the journey.