Photo by Kat Schleicher
The Pitman Theatre lobby is warm, well-lit and half-full of people, standing around and chatting in groups of three or four. It’s 8 p.m. on Friday, and we’re the lucky hundred who are here to see the opening night of Jon Mueller’s Death Blues, a somewhat mysterious project that I’ve been describing up until tonight – for lack of better words – as “performance art.”
According to its website, Death Blues “addresses the inevitability of death as impetus to become more present in each moment.” That sounds like pretty heavy stuff, but when you consider the source, it becomes a bit less surprising. It’s the newest project of Jon Mueller, a respected local musician with ties to the ambitious, genre-bending Collections of Colonies of Bees and Volcano Choir. Mueller’s interest in sound goes deeper than music. He’s interested in context, acoustics, the personal experience of the listener. There will be sound tonight; but there will also be food, choreography and a labyrinth – an all-encompassing performance with a purpose that goes beyond entertainment.
The murmur in the room fades and Jon Mueller is standing with us. Tall, thin and serious-looking, dressed in a crisp white shirt, his presence is quiet but commanding. He folds his hands, scanning the audience with steadfast eyes, and begins to tell us about Death Blues. The idea for the project came from his own experiences – a series of health-related scares beginning in New Orleans in 2011 that caused him to re-evaluate his life. What sticks out to me most about his short speech is an insistence that we spend some time with our own thoughts tonight. For this reason, he asks for complete silence throughout the performance. With that, Death Blues has begun.
As the evening proceeds, Death Blues simply presents us with things: Strange, wonderful, sometimes opaque things that ask nothing of the audience and reveal very little of themselves. A labyrinth, the scent of lemon, a soothing hymn sung by a hooded choir – it’s like walking through some kind of new age haunted house. Because these things are presented without disclaimer or explanation, our imaginations are allowed to run wild. At the same time, there is always a nagging feeling that I’m missing something – that I’m not “getting it.” A lengthy solo interpretive dance proves to be a real stumper. The dancer weaves in and out of the crowd, twisting her body into uncomfortable poses, struggling against an invisible weight, parting the small sea of people like a contorted Moses. I don’t know what to make of it – but to feel discouraged is to assume that there’s anything to “make of it” in the first place. To try and pin down any kind of objective “meaning” behind Death Blues would be missing the point. Our perceptions and interpretations are an important part of the performance. We just have to trust them.
An hour and a half after we first saw Mueller in the theater lobby, he seats himself behind a drum kit and seems transformed. He’s looser, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, eyes closed, beating a steady rhythm on the rim of his snare with a studious intensity. Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick… While parts of the performance have felt forced or uncertain, Mueller is in his element now. As he plays, his mouth forms indecipherable words, bringing his drumsticks behind his head and slamming them into the cymbals with so much force that bits of wood are sent flying. His band has joined him on stage – two guitarists (the guitars are laid flat on a table and played with hammers), an upright bass player, and several backup singers and percussionists. The band represents a cross-section of Milwaukee musicians – including members of Juniper Tar, Group of the Altos and Field Report. The music is dark and blues-tinged. It is driven by the repetitive force of Mueller’s drumming and the resonant drone of the guitars. At times, when waves of vocal harmonies break over the dark surface, it is jubilant and beautiful. Suddenly, the room is filled with white light, and a curtain rises behind the band to reveal a choir, which joins the band for the climactic finale – a wonderful release from the deep, existential ruminations of the past couple hours. The performance is over, and I find my way back through the labyrinth, through the lobby, out the doors and into the cold night.
Death Blues is a unique and ambitious project that, at the very least, reveals Jon Mueller to be a visionary fully capable of bringing his dreams to life. Whether or not it succeeds in its multi-dimensional trek towards mindfulness is largely up to the individual. What it offers is time and stimulation – an opportunity to remember, if we choose, that we’re going to die and consider what that means for our lives, right now.