Chatting with Wilson Shook, a January ’13 Breadline Feature

Greg: Wilson, thanks for taking some time to chat with me in anticipation for your upcoming performance at the Breadline. Can you take a moment and describe yourself as a musician, artist, and performer? How did you get involved in music, specifically the style you’re currently interested in?

Wilson: i play the alto saxophone, in a style that might be called ‘free improvisation’. the words are tricky. i’ve recently grown more comfortable describing my musical practice as avant garde, not because i am or aspire to be in the vanguard of anything, but because that phrase tends to communicate a sort of crusty utopian eccentricity that i identify with, and which might provide some very general coordinates for someone who hasn’t heard what i do.

i tend to perform a lot as a soloist, both because i find it consistently challenging and expressive, and also because it’s terribly convenient. i usually have a few too many commitments, and solo practice and performance keeps me engaged with that part of myself without having to negotiate different schedules and whatnot.

for me, the music is not so much about creating a thing or expressing/triggering a particular emotion. it’s more a means of achieving a heightened and very direct awareness of my mental and physical self, and my relationship with the world around me. and i don’t mean just awareness, but a state of mutual inspiration and provocation, not just observing reality but doing something radically different with it. i like to think that it’s possible to achieve that state in everyday life, regardless of what one is doing, but the music is a handy little shortcut that also happens to be incredibly enjoyable and inspiring in lots of other ways, as well. as for my musical history, i’ve played a number of instruments in various styles over the years, and only arrived at the saxophone about 10 years ago (though it took a few years for that to become my main axe). i think i started listening to music with pretty mundane tastes, but was always interested in what the people i was listening to were listening to, and what the real heads were listening to, and that curiosity tended to take me toward the roots and the further out reaches of various styles and movements, as well as the interesting places where different trajectories have informed each other. i spent a lot of time in libraries and used

record stores, and going to lots of shows. for a time i was fascinated with virtuosity, which is not such an interesting notion to me now, but if you’re looking for virtuosos, free improv, free jazz, and 20th century avant garde stuff are pretty good places to look.

Greg: What has your relationship been like with Seattle arts communities? Did you always identify with specific communities in the Northwest? What’s your personal connection to Seattle when it comes to being a creator?

Wilson: i moved to seattle in 2003 and was pretty hermetic for a couple years. aside from school and work, music was one of the main things that brought me into contact with people. later i got involved in some radical organizing stuff and got involved in collective living, and most of my friendships here originate in either one or the other of these communities. as far as music goes, i more or less knew what i was looking for when i came here, and it was only a matter of time before i found folks with a similar artistic and social affinity. though, like i said, i’ve been mainly playing solo for a while now, and my community of direct collaborators would probably fit in a station wagon (sans instruments). i’ve had the opportunity to work with a much broader range of local and traveling artists through my work as a presenter and an organizer than i would have as a musician alone, though i often try to use this other work as a means of finding more settings for my own music and more ways to challenge and adapt my practice.

also, i think my aesthetics and the ways i deploy them have a lot to do with my experience in seattle. this sort of connection is harder to name, but even though my music at times feels fairly specialized and even antisocial, it is profoundly social and profoundly connected to place in that i’m striving for a really immediate experience in and of the world, and i’m reflecting that experience in the music in all kinds of intentional and unintentional ways. just because no one understands it doesn’t mean it’s not pop music.

Greg: I know that you’ve gained some prominence as a local community advocate. I’ve seen you at Gallery 1412 both as a performer and host, if I can use that term. Can you talk a little bit about Gallery 1412 and your role within it, and other spaces?

Wilson: i came to seattle hoping to find a thriving music scene, especially more experimental stuff, and one of the things i found which resonated the most with me was the Polestar Music Gallery. the music was very high quality but presented in a modest way, and the physical space was great – well put together, but still really funky and independent, like some of the spots i really liked in chicago growing up. Polestar soon changed hands and became a collective as Gallery 1412. i was sort of in the fan club there – coming to lots of shows and workshops and trying to meet people and get more serious about my playing – and eventually i became part of the collective. i was invited in mainly to take on a bunch of responsibilities that (violinist) Tom Swafford was holding down before he moved to New York. in exchange i got the use of the space, got named ‘director’, and for about five minutes i even had a monthly salary until we realized that we really couldn’t afford that. those roles have been passed off, split up and recombined a few times, so i’m not taking care of quite as much stuff right now, but i’m still one of the ‘core’ folks holding it down. the Gallery has been a great project for me, combining artistic concerns with my geekiness for collectives and my interest in the strategy of undermining and replacing the status quo by building autonomous alternative and counter-institutions. also i’ve learned a lot of skills, made friends, and supported a lot of awesome creativity and community activity.

Greg: How do you feel about bringing different disciplines of artistry together? When it comes to your interests and the art you create, do you feel like you’re part of a larger conversation of art, and if so, what is it? If not, how do you see art currently confined, and potentially isolated?

Wilson: multidisciplinary shows are my favorites. i like breaking up the uniformity of a reading or a gig or a screening or whatever, and in my experience the audiences tend to be larger, more diverse and less jaded. most of the folks who come out will be more familiar with one or two of the contributors and less familiar with the others, and i think this keeps people engaged, as long as the show is thoughtfully put together. also, mixed shows are more likely to engage the space in creative ways, and i like that. you can say that there’s a conversation there, though i identify more with the metaphor of resonance – something vibrating over there might get something vibrating over here, and we can all use that energy or inspiration for whatever we want. there’s a communication there, but it’s not necessarily as linear as calling it conversation – the exchange or debate that this implies, and the necessity of agreeing on a subject to converse over. also, going in another direction, i’m curious about the ways that engaging with disparate disciplines at the same time or in succession shakes up the brain and encourages it to make new connections and in doing so expands and invigorates its creative and critical capacities. whether or not there is a larger conversation of art or artists, art (and life! for crying out loud) will always be isolated as long as we think of it and engage with it in isolated ways. so i think creative curation is important, and much more broadly and emphatically, creative living, without which interdisciplinarity in the arts isn’t much use anyway.

Greg: What are your thoughts on Seattle as a city representing its own and broader realms of culture?

Wilson: it’s crucial that we support each other. no matter what we’re talking about, arts or otherwise. support can take so many different forms, but the heart of it is building genuine relationships of trust, respect and accountability. i see this in a lot of ways here in seattle, and i also see individuals and communities within seattle linking up in meaningful ways with folks in other places to build those relationships across distance. i think both of these are key, though without the local, there’s not much sense in being global, so that comes first.

and i think it bears mentioning that ways we choose to support each other have their own politics and repercussions, as well, and can be empowering and/or disempowering. like, supporting an artist by ‘liking’ them on facebook, contributing to their kickstarter campaign, and buying their album on i-tunes are all pretty cool, but i’m always in favor of support that builds actual complex human relationships and, as much as possible, leaves the corporations and the state out of the mix. and the more physical and symbolic distance there is to surmount, the more we end up relying on intermediate and parasitic entities. maybe that makes it all the more important that we attempt to work across distance to resolve those contradictions, but in any case i think the crucial piece is to always bear in mind what kind of relationships we’re building and are those going to get us closer to the kind of world we want to live in? that was a bit of a tangent, but i hope it caught a little of what you were trying to get at.

Greg: Can you speak a little to your own projects, what has worked and what has failed, and what was accomplished in 2012? What are your plans for 2013?

Wilson: 2012 was a good year, and it bodes well for the future, though i won’t say i reached any major milestones that would mean much to someone who doesn’t know me well. i developed my playing quite a bit, realized a new composition (which is different for me), played some interesting shows (including a few new venues, new collaborations, and a few different cities), and made a lot of good connections with other artists. i guess i’m emphasizing a lot of newnesses, but it was also a good year for maintaining and deepening existing relationships and commitments. also, Gallery 1412 is still alive and thriving, despite a habit of nearly going under every six months or so. we’ve made some improvements to the space, found some solid new members, and will soon have a new website up. some stuff i wanted to accomplish and didn’t include a new recording, a west coast tour, and making any updates at all to my webpage [http://gallery1412.org/wilsonshook.html], but i’ll get around to those eventually. this year i’m going to be super busy with a few non-musical commitments, so if i can keep up a regular practice and play a few shows, that will be success enough for me. thanks so much for the opportunity to sit down and think about this stuff! see you at the Breadline!

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Wilson Shook is an improvising saxophonist living in Seattle, Washington. Wilson’s music emphasizes focus, texture, chance and exploration. It is ‘new music’ in that it explores each new moment and seeks to develop a critical awareness of the present. Sonically, Wilson’s music is informed by lower case and minimalist aesthetics, while embracing the full range of his instrument. He is especially interested in incidental or ‘between’ sounds: material that exists on the edges and in the cracks of the conventional sonic palate. Politically, Wilson’s work attempts a practical approach to feminist, libertarian and surrealist conceptions of freedom on a situational scale.

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