Smile Politely

Percussionist Jon Mueller invites us to the depths of existence

Jon Mueller, a Wisconsin-based percussionist whose extensive history in music has taken him from rock and roll dives to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, returned to Champaign-Urbana this October to perform his recently released composition The Future is Unlimited, Always at The Channing Murray Foundation. Welcomed by local musicians Luke R. Bergkoetter and Mateo Sanchez, it was a night of percussion-based experimental music exhibiting honed skills ripe for attentive listening.

Seated in four rows of chairs generously spaced and facing the modestly elegant stage, the audience was calm and quiet. This is a space of dark wood with high ceilings, exposed arching beams, and a back wall with circular stained glass that holds a warm light just enough to illuminate the collection of gongs, bells, cymbals, and drums on stage. The stage rises subtly from the wood floor to feel like an altar among us.

Luke R. Bergkoetter & Mateo Sanchez opened up Sunday night with vibraphone, cymbals, and drums played with rhythms both steadying and dissonant in what felt like a witnessed conversation. Played with nimble sequences, Sanchez’s drumsticks shifted to brushes whipped through the air in response to Bergkoetter’s vibraphone excavating our imaginations, together setting the fluid tone of the evening. They then gracefully removed their instruments and turned the stage to Jon Mueller.

A view from the audience of warm light shifting between gold and green with a stained glass window below the rafters and above the Wisconsin based percussionist Jon Mueller behind his instruments - gongs, bells, drums- performing his recently released album The Future is Unlimited, Always on stage at The Channing Murray Foundation on Sunday, October 16th, 2022.

Slowly, steadily the hum of vibrations rippled across gongs, echoing between walls and through rafters, growing to a roar that in Channing Murray felt like the jaws of the universe cracking open, tearing beams and shingles from the roof of the church to expose the dark night sky and let in the light of a single star. The waves of sound created by Mueller’s steady, percussive tapping asked the audience to dive into the vast richness of existence. He hammered bells, steadily lifting and dropping his arm with such consistent and sustained force that the chimes layered atop washing gongs, droning voices, and feedback until we could not be sure where one vibration ended and another began. Deep in that pool of sound, we heard a drum beat tethered to the earth and the present moment.

Photo of the limited edition CD/book Jon Mueller “The Future is Unlimited, Always†released in 2022 by Virtues.

Photo by Crystal Hartman.

There was a palpable darkness, perhaps a connotation of our inevitable deaths carried in the history of the instruments — metal and mallets; but, this reminder lacked fear. Instead, Mueller offered a glimpse of energetic life, glowing and cleansing.

The Future is Unlimited, Always is a piece that shares a specific world. Created with three elements — photo, written text, and sound — it was not originally written to be performed live, which makes it an atmospheric composition to pick up and turn up at home.
I do so recommend it.

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