Limited copies of the Death Blues LP, in both silver and black vinyl, are up for sale via Hometapes. These are the final remaining copies from the labels.
There will be a new LP of material released in 2014 via SIGE, accompanied by other output and activity. In the meantime, things will be somewhat quiet here, as I spend time and focus on working with Volcano Choir, who will be touring various places, etc.
Thank you for your continued interest in this project. More to come.
This piece was originally published at medium.com
Power Reserve: The art of growing old
I’ve written elsewhere about the urgency of the moment, about focusing on what can be done right now to help fulfill our lives and contribute positive effects to others. Then I stumbled upon an interview in Believer mag with radio artist Joe Frank, who talked about getting old, and what situation that process put him in:
Things humiliate and embarrass and eat away at your pride. You remember how you used to feel when you were young and you would see old people, and you remember how unattractive they were to you, and how you would help them if they needed your help but you didn’t want to be around them much at all. They were not like the myth that old people are wise. When I was young, I thought you had nothing to learn from these people. They’ve become narrower in their thinking, they become boring, more self-involved, whatever. And here I was finding myself an old man and feeling very much diminished by it. Being an old man, what can you do?…There’s something about the feeling that you can’t stand up for yourself any longer. I would try to work my way around this—how could I deal with people? It was like wanting to be powerful. You lose all your power, but you don’t feel comfortable that way. You want to get your power back, but how can you get it back?
My definition of that ‘power’ is: meaningfulness. A quality in us that others respect, and one that when we interact with it, gives us a feeling of ownership and relevance. It might be our ability to make people laugh, or think, or simply make them feel like the day is a bit better. When we exercise these qualities, we feel empowered. However, to Frank’s point, the opportunities to exercise those qualities might change as we become older. We might not be able to dance anymore, our singing voices gone, our retirement in full swing, our families moved away, and our sense of loneliness growing. How can we maintain the opportunities where we are able to best exercise these qualities?
Let’s face it, it doesn’t do much good to worry about the future. We have no idea what things will be like, or if we’ll even be around to experience them. What I can say is that the more we do now, the more residual will be available later on. Consider a savings account. We put into it what we can afford now, and even a little bit builds up over time. There’s also some interest that collects. Likewise, whatever our power is, if we consider putting as much as we can afford into that right now, the effects of it will build.
Consider this blurb from Smithsonian.com:
Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer and co-workers interviewed about 1,200 older people for the book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. “Many people said something along these lines: ‘I wish I’d learned to enjoy life on a daily basis and enjoy the moment when I was in my 30s instead of my 60s,’” he says.
By the time we’re old, we might not be able to participate in that power the way we did when we were young, but like a savings account, there will be ‘interest’ built around it.There will be stories to share, lessons to teach, and even if just for ourselves, memories to look back upon that might inspire the will to live. That will, after all, is all the power we really need.
Life Blues, Part I by Molly Shanahan
I am involved in Jon Mueller’s Death Blues project as a movement artist. Jon asked me to do some writing along the way about how the ideas he’s exploring, the questions he’s asking, move me. I hope this is the first of a handful of responses.
When I was ten or so my school, Ludington Middle School in Detroit, offered a once-weekly, special topic elective. It was supposed to be a chance for the teachers—strung out on the Detroit Public School curriculum, I imagine—to teach something they had a personal interest in. So, history teachers would teach chess, or our home economics teacher would teach, say, horticulture, and the special education teacher offered something called: I Am Somebody. That was my pick. (Friends who know my psychological inclinations will think this is funny.) It was a weird class. Nevertheless, some of the “teachings” have stuck with me to this day. We learned, on one end of the spectrum, how our teacher, Ms. Somethingorother, had kept a would-be intruder out of her house by praying really, really hard as the door shook and the lock loosened. This was supposed to convey the power of prayer over misfortune. We learned, also, through an exchange that to this day is vague and veiled, how one of the students had been raped. At our teacher’s coaching each student agreed to privately, secretly pray for her every day at noon; I think we were praying that she’d find the courage to tell someone, or that she’d recover through the force of our communal good wishes. I still remember struggling to figure out how I was going to get away to pray when my mom and I were shopping for training bras in Hudson’s that weekend. As an adult, I question the wisdom and appropriateness of some of these teachings. But the biggest lesson, and the hallmark of “I Am Somebody’s” questionionable curriculum, is one that I have come to value with increasing reverence: the only constant is change.
It’s hard to think about death. As I grow older, though, I’m struck by how hard it is to think about life, too. Maybe even harder. When confronted with questions of life—do I have enough success, fulfillment, presence, love?—the questions I have about death feel almost comforting, calm, imbued with a peaceful silence. I’m shocked to find (indeed, to admit) that this is true for me, shocked to see these words form on the page in front of me.
These days my life is filled with processes that feel like endings, and I am watchful—like an owl in the forest of my history—of the ways my emotions land on the endings instead of the inherent, related beginnings. I am preparing to leave my home in Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. in Dance on the east coast. While I know I’ll be back, the life I’ve carefully—and at times carelessly—constructed, is coming to an end. As I prepare these endings, trivial in some important ways, and just, well, important in others, I am overwhelmed by the ghosts of former endings and, especially, losses. My body seems to remember them all with grave dedication. My tissues pay homage to old traumas like they are island Gods, my devotion to them worn into my bloodstream through practice. I am learning to see these memories as a kind of scrapbook, tied not just to their “real” stories but to the ways I tell their stories differently according to the whims of my moods.I see now that it’s heavy, this scrapbook of memories that define me through my losses. It is weighing me down. Maybe it’s one of the things I’ll leave behind in Chicago, along with the beat up antique dresser I never really liked in the first place.
I often look to my experiences in movement for teachings about how to experience life with more equanimity, more tolerance for the change that’s inherent in each moment. One of the turning points in my experience of movement—and one I teach with increasing assertiveness—is the peace of mind and body that comes with allowing each moment of the dance to pass, to be finished, released into history and, yet, to be fully present. In movement it’s certainly true that the only constant is change, and I’m learning that this is true of what we know as “body” as well. When I spend time in the studio I feel a sense of peace. I also find an ironic kind of productivity that eclipses most of the other ways in which I experience—or relentlessly, frantically pursue—productivity. The peace comes from being immersed in this process of change that I’m describing, living in the cycle of embracing and releasing and the birth and death of each specific, characteristic moment in space and time. It’s a place that is not full of thought or full of questions, even, it’s just full. And somehow this fullness comes from allowing things to pass without grasping for their constancy. Allowing, allowing, allowing and, yet, committing to the fullness as it changes shape, rhythm, even meaning. I think the productivity comes from achieving a kind of resonance with the cycle of doing and undoing, receiving and releasing. Isn’t this what “having enough” really means?
Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak
Lecturer, Dance Program
Department of Theatre, School of Communications
For those that missed the Alverno Presents event, here’s a sampling:
Thanks again to David Ravel, and High Frequency Media for the video.
Death Blues trio performance in Eau Claire:
Thanks to Aen and Jaime for putting this together.
'Impatience' performed live at Hopscotch Fest, 2012:
'Impermanence' performed live at Hopscotch Fest, 2012:
'Iron String' performed live at Hopscotch Fest, 2012:
The following text by Jon Mueller was read as part of the Alverno Presents event Death Blues (no time like the present). Partially joined by the vocals of Marielle Allschwang and the movement of Molly Shanahan, I’m posting the piece here, out of context, because it might contain points that connect with others outside the event. If anything, it gives readers a glimpse into what was, and attendees a chance to remember their thoughts at this point in the event.
As I walk into the house I feel the change of presence, of sentiment, of personal belonging, of bodies and things, of history and ideas. And I see. I see what’s been placed, what’s been treasured, and what’s been remembered. I see what exists in space and in time, and I feel the temperature you’ve set, the warmth that you’ve kept, and the cold age of our memory.
The eyes that look back from pictures, unknown faces and the lives within that scraped along like pendulums in sand, speak to us like songs played on strings of consciousness. We have arrived. We are here.
This is what we’ve been waiting for, whatever it is.
As I wait for you to join me in this room I know that you might not come because it might not be time. It might be ‘other time.’ It might be never. It might be now.
I could hear you crying, but you were laughing, and I awoke trembling in this room. Where we could be, and where we could go, will not be seen, but it will be. And maybe you did cry.
And maybe I laughed, and am laughing, and was wrong.
Look around the room. Look at what you’ve done. Look at what is.
Breathe in. Swallow. Dream.
A melody plays, or is it your eyes and how they looked? How they sought, and how they knew.
I wrote you a story to tell you that I’m sorry. I wrote you a book to tell you that I’m thankful. And I wrote you a song to tell you that I love you. But it is all things to say, it is all stories told, and it is all we know. It is in words, it is in ideas, it is in silence, and it is in movement.
But it is NOT IT. It is NOT IT. It is NOT IT.
Death Blues Ruminations by Marielle Allschwang
In the Philippines, we would stay up all night. I thought this was a cultural trait, that Filipino women didn’t need sleep.
There was little furniture in my family’s home, except for a large wooden table that to my young eyes looked large enough to seat fourteen (the idea is reasonable, as my grandparents housed three of my aunts, a number of cousins, and my uncle). We made porridge or hot cocoa on the gas stove and sat at the table. The women would talk all night, and occasionally cry. I couldn’t understand much of their Cebuano. Instead I listened to the tones and inflections of their speech, the rhythms of their dialogue. I examined not what my mother and aunts were saying but how they were saying it. And after hours of listening to their conversation as one would listen to wind over a rising tide, I watched the sun rise silently through tall pane-less windows, open rectangles in the concrete.
No one had told me that my aunt was dying. I knew something was wrong, watching her. My grandparents’ ‘villa’ was unfinished during my visit. It was just a poured concrete structure with open spaces in lieu of windows or doors, so we had little privacy. Walking through the house was like a scene from a film, the camera on a wheeled dolly introducing you to the candid moments of various little worlds, half inside, half outside. Through one open space I saw my aunt in the dark. Though it was a sweltering afternoon, she was still in her white cotton nightgown, doubled over in a chair by the square of light on the other side of the room. When I could see her face behind her black hair, I saw a silent wail as though invisible feathers sprouted from her skin. A man was rubbing her back patiently, purposefully.
My mother and I came back to Milwaukee and the night we returned, I had a dream that all my teeth fell out in a river of blood. The phone rang in the morning and my heart raced. I ran downstairs. No one said what had happened, but I knew.
Can I say it without saying it?
I am listening to “Here…” as I read Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus.” The artist is speaking in tongues while I read about the limits of language. The coincidence is meaningful and compels me to take note.
How much of art and life is centered around this struggle? There are so many visual vocabularies, vocabularies of movement, intimations of the purpose and meaning of so many forms. When Patti Smith sings, “I am not human,” what does this do to the listener? What registers in our consciousness when we hear that growling vocal tone, nearly a drone, while she is still singing, “I”? Has she already uttered the most essential part of the phrase? Are the words just physical shapes in the mouth set to house a process more magical than speech?
As a musician, Death Blues allows me to let go of instruments and focus on singing. And it’s my favorite kind of singing – the kind of singing that emphasizes the feeling of singing, the kind of singing that needs the power of your body and breath to charge forward and plunge into the music. For me, it is original singing, the kind of singing I loved as a child, where I made up words that sounded a little like my mother’s tongue but had no known meaning. I had a secret creole, which was constantly transforming. Alone in empty rooms, I sang in devotional gibberish, putting myself in a trance. Completely in the moment, a word would be created, sung, and instantly forgotten.
Take them up up up up up up
Oh, let’s go up, up, take me up, I’ll go up,
I’m going up, I’m going up
Take me up, I’m going up, I’ll go up there
Go up go up go up go up up up up up up up
Up, up to the belly of a ship. 
My perspective on the experience of singing has thus shifted, or returned. I remember now that it can be experimental, explorative; it can drive you to encounter strange forces within yourself if you let it.
The idea of “aspiration” is an inexorable part of the Death Blues project – Death Blues compels the participant to unfold the potentialities of the human experience, to actualize all that one can, in whatever form. The physical emphasis on aspiration rather than lyrical content, singing “hey,” “yeah” or “ah,” over and over, can throw one into a timeless state. Indeed, all my experiences with healing, meditation, classical music, and dance assert the breath as essential to the practice. Breath is given a specific pattern in relation to the activity or non-activity of the rest of the body. Breath is given form. And this form, when focused, can be transcendent.
My approach to the practice — the way I throw my mind into the moment, throw my body into the rhythm, into my voice, and throw my voice into the space renders me a nonattached witness to each instant, as well as a disciplined participant. Practicing ‘original singing,’ where tone renders words irrelevant, my mind is emptied and I can be aware of an entirely different world of exchanges and reverberations.
For the most part, my creative decisions have not changed as a result of my involvement in Death Blues, but rather coincide seamlessly with it. The collective energy and dialogue behind the project have an effect not unlike amplified feedback, lending strength to my practice and discipline to the momentum of ideas, melodies and movements through time.
One particularly powerful coincidence for me was that my invitation to Death Blues followed my certification in QiGong meditation, a practice to which I devoted an hour every day as a means to heal myself from certain chronic ailments.
I remember wandering about a New York apartment in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. Flipping on the television, I found a PBS special on the Dukkah Tribe, a nomadic tribe of reindeer-herders whose paths traverse what used to be, approximately, Mongolia. I was mesmerized by the magic that permeated their lives and minds. Their ancestors, the dead, walked among them, and could be summoned with song.
The tribe’s Shamaness was chosen based on her ability to heal herself, and so myths developed about paralyzed girls who proved their power when they realized their ability to walk. The shamaness, draped in ragged, multicolored cloth ribbons, beat a drum and sang her medicine.
I saw this documentary as an affirmation of so many private customs and ideas. This, too, coincided with and amplified a realm already being constructed.
And then I came home. And then I made more music. And then I found another mountain tribe. And then I fell ill, and for years I worked, slowly, to heal myself.
Physical discipline, struggle, acceptance, impermanence, aspiration, the thunderous clash of contradictions – every day, these vital elements have played their part. And every Sunday, now, they are acknowledged in Death Blues. I’ve jokingly compared Death Blues practice to “church,” where in a specific space, with a specific set of people, something concrete is happening, and whatever thunder that rattles daily is rattling through a field tactile to all of us.
Life Blues, Part 2 by Molly Shanahan
I am involved in Jon Mueller’s Death Blues project as a movement artist. Jon asked me to do some writing along the way about how the ideas he’s exploring, the questions he’s asking, move me.
Hesitation takes over in my hands and my head when sitting down to write for this project—Death Blues. I feel like I’m tackling the impossible, treading on hallowed ground, even offending “someone” to write about death. As I begin now I realize that that someone is me, and the offense happens in just sitting for a moment with the immensity of both feeling and not-feeling about death. The ultimate and forever-and-ever unknown and ungraspable.
Five weeks ago my mom died after a yearlong series of dramatic health crises that left her, at times, without a short-term memory, then regaining it only to discover the imminence of her death resulting from small-cell lung cancer. Her recent death plays on me in a way that feels symphonic—coming all at once from many, overlapping directions, different sources, merging into unfamiliar emotional harmonies. Sometimes, by contrast, it’s piercing and sudden. Eyeing a single flower (sounds corny, but it’s true, those giant giant Philadelphia cornflowers make me think there’s a spirit there). The sound of one bird’s inky call. My curious decision to slowly, grudgingly, punishingly restate to myself the reality of her death, a kind of private mental ritual of making-it-sink-in, punctuated by a question mark.
I have told friends that I am mourning not just my mother’s death, but also the time I spent not living because I was grieving her life, the tragedies that befell her, the ways she was unable or not positioned to create the life I wanted for her, so that she could be the mother I wanted her to be. (My mother’s life is another story, and one that I’ll only be able to tell over a long period of slow, meandering time. There are the stored layers of her story and my story, and my telling of her story, which is again distorted and shaped and smoothed by my own. It will take time, and it’s a task too big for this particular writing.) All of this connects to one annoying, wonderful returning-place in my mind: my life is my own and so was my mother’s. And the life I wanted for my mother was in some ways no more in my control than which meal a stranger sitting next to me at a restaurant orders.
So, this experience with death implicates me in my own life. It’s that simple.
The truth is that for the first half of my life I wanted my mother’s happiness more than I wanted my own. That is changing, now, without much effort on my part, which seems like a gift that she is giving me through my grief, through her absence. (When I arrived for the first time to visit my mom in the hospital she was very “out of it.” I hadn’t seen her in more years than I am willing to admit. She knew—my older sister told me—that my coming meant that things with her health were really bad. I find this sad in a sickening way that makes me grab my waist and squeeze myself, sternum sinking as the wingspan of my scapulae fold around me, hiding my fallen-angelheart. Anyhow, one of the first things she said was, “I want my children to have long and happy lives, whether or not I do.”)
Suddenly the ways I blamed her for failing me “as a mother” are wiped clean. And the ways in which she was a good mother are suddenly iridescent, practically perfect. It’s not that I’m exactly lighter, it’s that there’s nowhere to put my blame, my anguish. It’s all sitting here, separated out, for me to pick up or walk away from. The straightforwardness of this transaction is staggering, my choice obvious to me, which is itself a tremendous relief. The setting aside of blame and anguish opens the gates in me for tidal portions of gratitude and a sense of…is it deservedness?
I’ve been avoiding writing more because of all of this, and because of a feeling that death is too big and also too “nothing” to write about. I still don’t know.
For now, I’m at the beginning of the slow telling of a long story.
Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak
"…martial rhythms, hammered guitar, chanted vocals, and feedback in varying proportions, suggesting wordless, overdriven single-chord work songs—their vigorous, primal sounds are all about emotional release and pushing toward ecstasy. Like just about everything Mueller has done over the past few years, this record keeps sucking me in—I almost want to sign up for the whole Death Blues program."
- Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader
"In concert, they turn the record’s wordless chants and stark beats into a relentless juggernaut of Rhys Chatham-like overtones and swaggering riffs."
- Bill Meyer, ChicagoMusic
These are samples of previews from the upcoming weekend of Death Blues performances. The full articles are linked from the publication after each author’s name. We’re looking forward to playing in Milwaukee again, albeit in a different form, and finally in Chicago. New recording and writing will take place in June, followed by another Chicago performance in July. These will be the last chances to witness a performance for awhile. Details will continue to be posted here.
While both Taiga and my own stock at Rhythmplex are sold out, copies of the Death Blues LP are available at a variety of distributors throughout the world, hopefully helping with shipping costs for various regions. I’ve added a list of these options at the Buy page.
Thank you for your support of this work, and I hope you enjoy listening.