After a year of planning, the Death Blues ‘Ensemble’ event took place on January 31, 2015 as part of the Alverno Presents series in Milwaukee, WI. Here are the notes from the program handed out at the event:
In November of 2012, Alverno Presents brought Jon Mueller’s Death Blues: No Time Like the Present to the Pitman Theater. As the sub-title states, the theme was presence. Through tasting unknown edibles and considering past experiences, walking through a labyrinth filled with individual song and various scents, interacting with movement and a bombastic musical performance, attendees considered the moment, and how present they might be within it. Journal Sentinel art critic Mary Louise Schumacher reflected:
“I was consumed by thoughts about duration, finiteness, monotony, impermanence and the rhythms of life and art. It makes such sense that a drummer, as a sort of ascetic, would offer up a meditation on the measure of time. And what it means to end.”
Now, in 2015, Jon Mueller takes a different view of what our presence within the moment involves. Death Blues: Ensemble explores variations of perception. Over two years ago, the music began with a small mallet on an acoustic guitar string. From there, it grew sonically into a small orchestra (yet actually mostly played by William Ryan Fritch and Jon Mueller). Collections of essays were gathered, featuring writing about individual experiences within the human condition. Incorporating the symbol of masks throughout, Death Blues: Ensemble became a physical thing, a book/LP, something to hold, to feel, to understand, however it might be perceived.
For Alverno Presents, we’re taking this chapter of the Death Blues project a step further. A video installation by Chicago-area artist Kaveh Soofi, featuring the masks of the late artist Lillian Rammel (mother of Wisconsin artist and musician Hal Rammel), used throughout the Ensemble book/LP, will be on display. The centerpiece of the evening will be a performance of the entire Ensemble record, featuring Milwaukee drummer/percussionist Jon Mueller, San Francisco Bay Area multi-instrumentalist William Ryan Fritch, Chicago cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, Chicago harmoniumist Jaime Fennelly, and Milwaukeeans Jim Warchol on hammered acoustic guitar, Marielle Allschwang on vocals, and Nathaniel Heuer on upright bass.
Although the words, images, and music for this performance originate from the Ensemble book/LP, they too will be a variation on those original perceptions; abstractions, second glances, new opinions, and alternate understandings, all presented in a live experience.
Things are not always what they seem. They might be something else. It just depends on how you understand them at any given time.
Given that the musicians for this performance mostly resided outside of Wisconsin, the in-person rehearsal was limited to 2.5 days prior to the event. This was both challenging and rewarding, as it put all players to the test, while helping shape what new directions the music might be able to go. This kind of shaping isn’t necessarily possible when working from scored music. In the end, we were very happy with how things turned out, and are extremely grateful to David Ravel and Alverno Presents for the opportunity, to the crew who made the work take form, and to such a receptive and captive audience. Thanks also to Erik Ljung for his excellent photographic documentation (seen here) and to High Frequency Media for their video of the event.