Tuesday, March 18, 2008

JON MUELLER "Hollow Voices / Singing Hands" (Friends and Relatives)

It is on rare occasion that Free Improv music is released on cassette. The genre usually shuns the format, presumably because of the fidelity limitations. The noise floor on a cassette is usually too high for the wide dynamic range most improvisers require. Also, Improv culture is, in general, way less likely to brandish its underground DIY cred; most improvisers are too busy trying to land art grants to play in little white cubes where uninterested people drink Franzia from plastic cups and talk about "exploring issues" and "challenging preconceptions." However, improvising percussionist, Jon Mueller, keeps it real with this tape of Improv pieces for amplified bass drum. I've known Mueller's name for a while as one of the founders of the excellent Crouton music label, and by his CDs with players like Bhob Rainey and Jason Kahn. On this tape, the first Mueller solo recording I've heard, we are provided two tracks of acoustic feedback in a system between a mic'd drum head and a speaker. Mueller also seems to place objects on the drum from time to time; the vibrating of the skin activates the objects, making them rattle about.

Now. Solo Improv is tricky. Some critics claim that without other players, an improvisation cannot truly be "free." The player must be combining and reorganizing units of pre-composed music on the fly, but never achieving something until then unknown, unplayed. The presence of other musicians, and therefore the element of unpredictability, is what pushes a player to find new methods, invent new techniques, evolve his/her language. Granted, this is an old viewpoint, and one more aptly suited to the Improv world of the 1970's. Since then, improvisers have become more concerned with extended technique, the exploration of the physical limits of an instrument. In the case of Mueller's tape, the unpredictability is inherent in the system itself-- his amplified bass drum. Acoustic feedback is notoriously difficult to control with any nuance. Even in Mueller's skilled hands, the sound occasionally gets out of control, or disappears abruptly. And while the music sounds like the struggle between a player and an unruly system, these two pieces also come off as a kind of semi-composed catalogue of the sounds possible within the limited vocabulary of the instrument. And in this way, the imperfections in the performance make the piece fall flat. Solo improvisers working in this same area, like Mark Wastell, Tomas Korber, Graham Halliwell and the aforementioned Kahn, dispense entirely with the live, spontaneous feel of Free Improv, to focus on the "perfect" performance of a specific concept. Rarely in one of their pieces do you hear something that could be interpreted as a mistake. This recent trend has prompted detractors to accuse solo pieces of being boring, sterile, and "new age." This new generation is taking the aesthetics of the end result of Improv, and removing the improvisation from its production (and, as a result, the ideology that supports it). With this tape, Mueller has taken a step backward. This sounds like an Improv release from the early 2000's when we were satisfied by CDs like Toshimaru Nakemura's "NIMB" series and Axel Dörner's "Trumpet," where the skilled examination of a very narrow sound world, previously unheard, was incredibly exciting. The problem is: feedback is feedback is feedback. It sounds pretty much like what you think it should sound like, and the sloppiness of the performance suggests that perhaps this release should be viewed as a throwaway demonstration of Mueller's (admirable) technique, an anomaly in his catalogue.