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CD Feature/ Jon Mueller & Jason Kahn: "Topography"

img  Tobias
While the press has thematically tied their names to those of respected colleagues such as Günter Müller or Sean Meehan – percussionists who submit their playing to extreme degrees of electronic processing - there is a small but incisive difference in the biographies of Jon Mueller and Jason Kahn. While Kahn characterises his professional personality as a “sound and visual artist”, Mueller still decidedly thinks of himself as an “active drummer and percussionist”.

Their biographies perfectly reflect this fine nuance, with Kahn admitting he was all but exclusively drawn to drums for their inherent sound qualities and Mueller sporting a background as a Free Jazz propulsionist. Their work, however, has displayed a similar fascination for the allegorical associations intrinsic to cymbal strokes, snarling snares and metallic resonances as well as for the remains of their structural conglomerations.

There is yet another important analogy: Both Kahn and Mueller exhibit a profound dislike for replacing creative fantasy with confounding philosophies or masquerading intellectual stillbirths as complexly conceived contemporary compositions. Their music prefers the jagged edge of a chainsaw blade to the smoothly polished surface of its shining metal and the surprise of the moment to the unfaltering linear will of absolute art.

Both have therefore understood the stage as a space to make their ideas and processes transparent in and this is why “Topography” has turned out such a quintessential record. It is less a “live album” in the sense of a documented concert but rather in that it was truly born and shaped within the framework of a performance. Culled from four appearances of their American tour in March of 2007, it offers five tracks of either eight or ten minutes length, adding layers of analogue synthesizer and cassettes to a solid base of percussive sounds.

The general impression is that these concerts must have been solemn and regal group meditations. “Topography” comes across like the trains of thought haunting main character M.S. Fogg in Paul Auster’s fairy tale on chance and unpredictability “Moon Palace”: One sound leads to another, borders crumble into infinite landscapes, colours turn into rhythms and hints into concretions. It doesn’t reveal itself in patterns, harmonies or melodies, but manifests itself through flux, change and neverending transitions. Performances from different nights have been merged into a continuous piece, yet seaguing already takes place within each track as the main compositional tool.

The album is dominated by deep, moaning textures, short pulses of harmonics, rumbling drum rolls transfiguring into upper-end hiss or lower-end roars, pittering and pattering rhythmical figures and metallic reverb, waves of crackle come crashing on a shore of stretched tones and intertwined drones. It is a tactile, constantly approaching and mostly quiet sound, which many will incorrectly characterise as “ambient industrial” or “subtle”. “Discreet” would be more apt, for even though the music always seems to be building into a threatening holler, it never rises above the level of an ominous whisper.

You could try and interpret “Topography” as the last echoes of percussion after it has been guided through the chambers of digital signal processing: Layers with different frequencies are colliding, delicate feedback and dreamy granular distortion billow and ebb. These are the last remains of rhythm, before it becomes gaseous and melts into the ether.

On closer inspection, this appears to be a side theme, though. Rather, the album deals with the way sound and space mutually influence each other. If the press release speaks about Kahn and Mueller establishing an “interaction with the environment”, then this is slightly trivial as all intense performances eventually strive for this goal. But even on CD, their dialogue seems to take place within the parameters of clearly circumscribed rooms, as though a dome of air were floating on top of the music’s ceiling.

Traditional percussion as such no longer plays a role within this context. You could, of course, ask, why these two drummers are then still using their instruments at all, why they are deforming their sounds into something decidedly non-groovy. Why don’t they just play Jazz or Rock, why don’t they do things the usual way?

The answer is simple: Because this is what they do best. The labyrinthine geography and resounding richness of “Topography”, revealing new details with each listen and growing in emotional resonance with every minute, can do without post-performance justifications by its protagonists –or fruitless debates on whether they still consider themselves a drummer or not.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Jason Kahn
Homepage: Jon Mueller
Homepage: Crouton Records

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