Except for slow strobe lights illuminating from behind, percussionist Jon Mueller's performance was cloaked in darkness.

Sound and ritual gesture merge in concert at The Bakery

Percussionist Jon Mueller and duo Poèmes Électroniques featured in music with some mystical overtones

Mark Gresham | 22 JAN 2019

One of the defining traits of improvised music is that nothing is ever exactly the same performance to performance. Within broad parameters, there can be the same guidelines for what to play, but exactly comes out can be as much a surprise to the performers as to the audience. “This jazz execution is something we have rehearsed intensively and with intention together over the summer and autumn,” says Marc Fleury whose improvisatory duo with percussionist Stuart Gerber, Poèmes Électroniques, was the frontline act at The Bakery on Tuesday night.

Marc Fleury.

Marc Fleury

“It requires some patience on the part of the performers and the audience,” says Fleury. He likens that patience to that of surfers. “Sometimes we will wait for a few minutes to catch a wave. Sometimes we don’t find it but more often than not we do. when we do we dial it in. Through practice we have found out that wherever we start sonically there is audio bliss within a few steps and we just have to trust each other. When we dial it in it is exhilarating, for the sound is raw and unique we know it is in the moment, in that room, that acoustic, with that audience and it is done. I get goose bumps personally when we find those moments and get to share them.”

Much of Fleury’s synthesis incorporated beating effects, involving aspects of frequency, amplitude and very subtle phase shifts to create responsive resonances in the performance space. An example is taking a sine wave signal in one audio channel and summing it up with a delayed version of itself in the other, either utilizing speaker placement and the room’s acoustical properties or produced in the synthesis hardware. Either way, it creates a “beating” in the combined signal, with amplitude or timbre changes producing rhythmic variations.

Stuart Gerber

Stuart Gerber

Gerber, for his part, either followed the beat of the pulses, played against it or interjected with short bursts of energy. His virtuosic playing provided a balance of creative dialogue with Fleury’s synthesis in this free-wheeling improv format. In this performance, his drum set was miked — not typical for their duo performances, and in a small room rather than a large concert hall at that. However, The Bakery is the kind of place where this actually works, with its very high end audio system designed for techno-music raves. Surprisingly, in this tiny room with a monster sound system, it allows the finer, more subtle percussion elements an cut through the overall texture.

Fleury incorporated some of what he calls “magical ritual elements” into the performance in order to help create a sense of a small and intimate gathering. These abstract theatrics, which he came to downstage center to act out, he calls “a way for us to prepare the space for ourselves and the audience with ‘banishing’ so we can start invoking some sonic entities in the space.” Recordings of speech, sliced and diced, were processed and stewed into the mix as well. Some were hardcore insights drawn from cutting edge quantum physics while others were captured live from shortwave radio, adding yet another unique aspect to the performance.

Jon Mueller

Jon Mueller

Fresh off a gig at Neptune’s in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was part of the RESONANCY experimental percussion series, Wisconsin-based percussionist Jon Mueller performed his headline set in total darkness, with the exception of very slow strobe lights flashing behind him.

Seated in his center-stage setup, Mueller was surrounded on all sides by an array of large and small tam-tams hung around him. These served as the live sound sources in his electro-acoustic presentation. The music was oceanic in its slow, patient progress, progressing in large, fulsome waves of sound that need not hurry to produce their effect.

Reading some of his biography, the impression is that Mueller has slowly and patiently progressed over time himself, from a drummer in bands to the kind of avant-gardist who delves into a deeper personal relationship with creating sound, with the “goal of an ever-deepening mindfulness on the part of both performers and audience, joining the two as equal participants in the act of creation.”

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To that end, Mueller’s music seems genuinely, as one listener put it, both meditative and cathartic at the same time — though I would not go as far as that person in suggesting that is anything paradoxical. On the contrary: it seems a quite natural consequence of being totally engaged in creating music, whether as performer or listener. Sometimes, it achieve an ecstatic state of being — said to be another of Mueller’s goals, not unlike some older avant-gardists such as La Monte Young or much of the world’s historical music for religious ritual.

In that respect, there is certainly room for some overlap in approaching the presentations by both Mueller and the Poèmes Électroniques duo as a listener, but that’s something hard to put into a few words within a little space such as this. Indeed, the musical connections between human and universe is a whole topic we’ll have to delve into more deeply at some other time. ■

Tuesday’s concert was co-presented by Face of Knives Productions and Eyedrum.

Stuart Gerber and Marc Fleury

Stuart Gerber and Marc Fleury perform in The Bakery’s signature twilight-like lighting.