Looking at the
virtuoso’s 2008 Output (Thus Far).
BY CHRISTIAN KIEFER
Perhaps the limitations of human language are of
necessity. After all, we can likely all
agree that the word definitions afforded up by dictionaries are at best approximations
of meaning. Words denote and connote;
they are afforded a particular meaning in one part of the country and are
meaningless somewhere else. They jumble
together, trading allegiances and jumping borders and in doing so both
connotation and denotation change. Such
are the effects of culture and usage that language is a living, breathing
organism that changes and evolves at the behest of its practitioners. Pinpointing “meaning” amidst the changing
landscape of linguistic mutation becomes a fool’s game.
Of course, music journalists necessarily need to affix
linguistic definition to their subject matter and in doing so they play this
fool’s game. Let’s look at the word
“percussionist” for example: slightly more adventurous than the word “drummer,”
but perhaps not so different to the layperson.
Both percussionists and drummers strike objects together-a stick against
a drumhead, the beads inside a rattle, a mallet against a marimba key-and that
action tends to describe them both. The
sonic event that occurs generally begins with a sharp sense of attack and then
a varying level of decay. Of course this
is not always the case, as a good percussion can coax all manner of sounds from
his or her equipment, but one gets the point.
Person with sticks and mallets and shakers is a drummer or percussionist
of some kind; person with pick and tight leather pants is a guitarist.
It sounds simple, but then again such human pursuits as
language and music are rarely as simple as they seem upon a casual glance. There are musics that push the limit of
possibility, from the Zen-like non-action of John Cage to the onslaught of John
Zorn’s Naked City.
These are musicians who eschew the standard labels, not merely asking
for redefinition but perhaps for deconstruction of the language itself.
Here’s where Jon Mueller enters. Most journalists, and perhaps even he
himself, would call Mueller a percussionist, but the sound sizzling from Topography (Xeric/Crouton), his recent
collaboration with Jason Kahn (Xeric/Crouton), implies otherwise. The
album’s five tracks-each between eight and ten minutes in length-sound
little like any definition of “percussion” or “drumming” we could even begin to
understand, despite the fact that both Mueller and Kahn are listed as percussionists
in the credits. But then again, we’ve
already covered the concept that language changes. A fool’s game. And yet the long, repeating drones of static
offered us on Topography seem to
thwart even these warnings.
So Mueller is pushing the boundaries of percussion. So he’s redefining the genre (if it is a
genre). So he’s redefining the
word. Who cares, you say. Why does it matter, you say. I’ll tell you why it matters: Because it
does. Language moves and music moves and
Mueller is at the forefront of at least one of those two movements and perhaps
is at the forefront of both. Topography lists Mueller as performing
“percussion, cassettes” and Kahn “percussion, analog synthesizer,” although who
and what is making which sound is impossible to ascertain. What can be ascertained is this: Mueller and
Kahn have made a drone album, but unlike the long-form drones of Skullflower or
Pelt or other droners, this one contains no recognizable pitched sounds at all
(save some sub-sub-subsonic noise).
Instead, the two stack static and endless drum rolls and slowly sifting
rumbles like a nightmare circus snare drummer who has become stuck endlessly
waiting for the man to come blasting out of the cannon. As anyone who has listened to Topography will tell you: The cannon
will never fire.
indicative of one of Mueller’s major concerns these days: working with long
forms. In his previous instrumental band, Milwaukee’s
instrumental math rockers Pele, Mueller was all about precision and
instrumental beauty, and while there’s still some of that happening with his
instrumental outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees, for the most part Mueller
has spun heavily into the avant-garde.
And if “heavily” means nothing these days, at least the release schedule
for this year is heavy enough: 2008 has seen (so far) three releases with
Collections of Colonies of Bees, three solo releases, two collaborations, some
session work, and finally a stint on Rhys Chatham’s triple CD “Guitar Trio Is My Life!.” Christ.
Each one works with a kind of grammar of sound (if you’ll permit the
askance reference to Coleman). With Topography Mueller (and indeed Kahn) has
moved the period out of the sentence and has dispensed with the comma
entirely. Semi-colons, then? Not on your life. What one is left with is the Molly Bloom
soliloquy from Ulysses. But wait!
Mueller has dispensed with the nouns and verbs as well. What’s left then? Prepositions?
Articles? A few random adverbs
Lest the grammarian in you despair, let me inform you in as
calm and soothing a tone as possible that Mueller has not thrown out the verbs
and nouns, but has merely removed them to different projects. If Topography is akin to a grammar-less sentence, then his recent solo album Metals (Table of the Elements) is where
one will find the missing verbs. In
fact, Metals is all verbs, a heavy
metal album performed on a solo drum set (yes you read that correctly) that
will very likely elicit two reactions.
The first: “What the fuck?” The
second, and perhaps more importantly: “Why didn’t I think of that?” Indeed.
Mueller begins with a tone that reminds of his noun- and
verb-less work on Topography but here
it’s a trick-like a long Faulkner sentence leading ultimately to a huge list of
action verbs in 48 point type as the album explodes into speed metal (or is it
black metal) drumming that is so regular, mechanistic, and intense that it is
itself a kind of meditation. Verb. Verb verb verb! Verb!
Verb! And, lest you missed the
use of the word, this is drumming and is recognizable as such. But metal?
Don’t we need churning chunky guitars and doom-laded vocals? Perhaps
not, particularly if we look at what Table of the Elements labelmate Arnold
Dreyblatt has done much the same pummeling repetition only with double bass,
and contemporary drone metallurgists Sunn O))), who at times (many times
actually) seem to eschew rhythm altogether.
In most ways, Metals is a showcase for Mueller’s skills as a drummer as much as it is a test of his
(and the listener’s) endurance. It is
not particularly easy listening, even with drumming as adept and skillful as
this. There are neither frills nor fills
on this album. There’s no flash. There is nothing to suggest any kind of
dexterous workout. Instead, Mueller’s
bent here is to force the listener to really grapple with sonic moments,
discovering within the near-endless repetition a series of counter rhythms and
sonic overtones that demand the listeners’ attention while simultaneously
refusing to anything to really hang onto.
It is, in essence, a heavy metal metronome. This experience manages to align Metals not only with the drone metal
acts cited above, but also with noise percussionist Z’ev, an artist who has
continued to challenge our understanding of percussion, sound, and the
parameters of “noise” as music.
Metals and Topography are fine places to start
because in some ways they stake out the poles of Mueller’s solo work, although
admittedly such poles are bent and twisted and will likely blow away given the
next blast of sound. They speak to the
verb-heavy and to the fragmented non-sentence run-ons that make up some of what
Mueller works with. But then there is
another side to Mueller that at some level takes up the themes of Topography and presents its concerns in
micro-focus, as if dispensing with all words but “a” and “the” and perhaps
“and” and then writing a novel with only those.
Take, for example, Nodes
and Anti-Nodes (Crouton), a DVD+ audio track project that Mueller has
released with found sound, field recorder, and percussionist (there’s that word
again) Jeph Jerman. Jerman’s discography
is about as lengthy as a Tolstoi novel, but unless you are deeply ensconced in
the territory of found sound, field recordings, and manipulated moments it is
unlikely he’s crossed your radar.
Consider the descriptions of a random sample of CD-R releases: “contact
mic recordings of insect life,” “collage of field recordings of found metal,”
“turntables affixed with pendulums and loaded with stones and bones in concert
with cactus and other detritus.” One
doesn’t know whether to run screaming or to order everything at once. I choose
the second option.
Jerman is a percussionist in that he’s more interested in
sound events than melody so his work is set on a trajectory that fits well with
Mueller’s and indeed Nodes and Anti-Nodes is fascinating viewing, but certainly not for everyone. What we have here are close-ups of percussion
events: rattle snares on a drum head, clinking bones circulating on a
turntable, etc. These are intercut with
what one presumes to be the “anti-nodes” of the title: shifting light through
leaves, mostly. In contrast with the
nodes of sound, these anti-nodes are silent and that contrast is indeed
shocking and somewhat unsettling, particularly since the cuts are abrupt and
sometimes very far apart so that the silence of the shifting shadow play
suddenly becomes the roar of the snares.
It’s essentially an ambient film that doesn’t really want you to easily
accept its images and sounds.
Jerman and Mueller clearly have a sense of purpose here: to
document (perhaps a bit obsessively) the sources of sound and of silence and to
show the kinds of visual and auditory patterns that arise from each. It’s great in many ways, but it takes a bit of
patience (or a bongload of weed) to get through. And for those with even more patience there’s
an extra audio file on the disc in case the viewer would rather become listener
and experience the sounds of Nodes and
Anti-Nodes sans the images, a surprisingly fun listen for those of us who
tilt toward field recording and sound-as-experience.
But then the micro-focus and stacked non-chordal drones and
heavy metal drumming hardly represents all that Mueller does or is. As if “percussionist” and/or “drummer”-even
as redefined and deconstructed-were insufficient, Mueller appears as guitarist
on two single-sided clear vinyl releases.
The first, Six Guitars (Table
of the Elements), appears under the banner of his instrumental group
Collections of Colonies of Bees, the only link that currently seems to exist
between Mueller’s previous work with Pele and his current interest in the
Six Guitars appears to be exactly what it advertises: the band has put down their various
instruments and picked up guitars, both electric and acoustic. What occurs sonically is akin to a lazy
Sunday rendition of mid-1960s minimalism, an exploration of the ground that
Pelt has fruitfully tilled for many years.
Like some of Mueller’s other fascinations, then, Six Guitars is something of a drone piece. The single-side begins and ends with a long
note (perhaps played via Ebow), and then develops in a combination of electric
and acoustic guitar strummed, picked, and finger-styled into a kind of circling
pattern that, as with classical minimalism, changes slowly over time.
The second vinyl-like Six
Guitars single-sided and clear with an etching on the flip side-is less
lazy summer and more industrial in feel.
Appearing under Mueller’s name, Strung (Table of the Elements) again features Mueller’s guitar work, this time in a
solo context (with ample overdubbing).
This time, Mueller begins with a heavily distorted and compressed guitar
motif that is more rhythmic than musical and which serves to anchor the sonic
landscape in a perceived 4/4 rhythm.
Behind that rhythmic moment appear a series of drones that rise and
disappear until the piece’s midpoint, wherein the rhythm disappears entirely
and the listener is met with bleeps and blips that sound more electronic than
guitar-based. The rhythmic motif
reenters toward the end, bringing the piece around to the start again.
Strung is not the
most successful of Mueller’s recent releases, but given the context of his
interests it makes sense. In some ways,
one can imagine Strung to be the
guitar tracks missing from his Metals album and the maniacal sense of repetition, continuing interest in drones and
static, and attention to sonic detail are all apparent on this ½ album. Nonetheless, the central motif that anchors
the record is not quite as interesting as Mueller seems to find it and even if
we try to grapple with the notion that it is purposefully and willfully NOT
interesting-a clear move, in other words, towards postmodernism-such a
conceptual reading still does not make it any more aurally palatable.
On the other hand, much of what makes Mueller’s music
interesting is studying it as accumulation and as such it is across multiple
works that Mueller’s project really begins to reveal itself. Compare, for example, the recent Collections
of Colonies of Bees release Birds, which assumedly sees Mueller sitting back on the drum stool (although who
really knows). Much like his late 1990s
work in Pele, Bees takes up the instrumental rock flag and although the title
makes little sense in relation to the work-there’s nothing here that evokes
birds of any kind at least to this listener-the album on the whole is quite
beautiful, in large part because it lacks any sense of showing off. At no point on Birds will the listener notice an individual player, nor will they
note any specific moment of complexity or of musical dexterity. Instead, Birds offers a band completely of itself, understanding where it is going and what it
is doing and acting as a single entity.
If we’re still talking grammar, then this is at last where we encounter
Mueller grappling with full sentences and they are beautiful sentences indeed:
neither the basics of Hemingway nor the thorny oak of Faulkner, but something
A similar vibe exists on Rhys Chatham’s recent triple CD “Guitar Trio Is My Life!,” (Table of the
Elements) a release that features a rotating cast of musicians (amongst them
Alan Licht, Thurston Moore, and Tony Conrad) performing Chatham’s seminal work
“Guitar Trio,” a piece that bridged the gap between avant-garde/new music and
New York’s brief, shining no wave scene.
Mueller drums on the Milwaukee
recording in an ensemble that also includes US Maple’s Todd Rittman, Collection
of Colonies of Bees’ Chris Rosenau, and Joan of Arc’s Ben Vida.
It’s likely that Mueller may have learned a thing or two
about the power of endless repetition from Chatham’s piece-essentially a rumination on a
4/4 E chord in two parts. The first asks
the drummer to keep time on the high hat.
The second allows the drummer to utilize the entire kit. What Mueller does with this half (and we
don’t have the first half of the Milwaukee
set on the CD) is push that 4/4 rhythm into a malleable collection of sonic
elements that is rockist without being overly so. Here, pressed up against the churning of six
guitarists playing the same chord (seven if we include the bassist), we finally
get to hear Mueller stretch out and really play-flipping the rhythm and
punctuating a kind of staccato breakdown with his kick so that the drum sounds
approach math rock. The mathy approach
serves to press the force and depth of Chatham’s
piece and offers listeners a kind of mooring point amidst the relatively
sameness of the droning chord.
Perhaps that’s what most important to note about Mueller’s
music throughout these recent releases: never is there a sense of trying to
prove himself as a drummer, as a percussionist, or even as an avant-garde/free
improv player. Even if our dictionaries
fail us and the definitions of “drummer” and “percussionist” and “guitarist”
are rendered meaningless by Mueller’s shifting musical usages, Mueller himself
continues to do what he does best: which apparently means, simply, that he does
whatever he wants, pressing up against musical-or grammatical-conventions and
seeing what can be pulled out and what cannot.
The accumulated releases of 2008 (thus far) allow us to view what
Mueller does in ways that are much closer to the notion of Ornette Coleman’s
“sound grammar” than Coleman himself has ever been, not in terms of the music
perhaps but in terms of concept.
And concept, with Mueller, is often where it is at. With a lesser creative talent, such a conceit
would likely fall short, but with Mueller the conceptual framework of his
ongoing projects only serves to deepen the intellectual possibilities inherent
[Mueller on the web: JonMueller.net;
photo by Kat Berger]