Playing What He Hears: Tobin Mueller
BY CARLA MARIA VERDINO-SÜLLWOLD
“As I get older, I just want to play what I hear.” The composer/jazz pianist is talking about the creative process that has led him to produce a spate of original, colorful, and distinctively different recordings in the past eight years. “I want to get things down while I can,” Tobin Mueller confesses, referring to health issues which have influenced his decision to spend much of his time in the recording studio and to self-produce his four last albums. The resulting projects — Rain Bather, Midwinter Born, Thirteen Masks, and Impressions of Water and Light — have revealed delightfully diverse facets of the artist’s fertile imagination. Fanfare was able to speak to Mueller from his Connecticut home about these releases, his upcoming projects, and his long and versatile career as a musician, poet, photographer, and playwright.
Let’s start by talking about your most recent release, Impressions of Water and Light. You described the music in this CD as “Neoclassical Post Impressionist Pastoral Jazz.” Can you explain that moniker and talk a little about your process of creating these arrangements and compositions?
I called it that a bit tongue in cheek, but Impressionist music is essentially pastoral — gentle wind, running brooks, the play of light on water. But it also experiments with pre-jazz harmonies, modes, lack of resolutions. There is a dreamy context, and I wanted to retain that poetic aspect. I originally thought that all the arrangements would have a jazz feel to them, but as I began playing the pieces, I found myself retaining more of the Impressionist style than I thought I would. So I began to think of the whole project as evolutionary — as the combining of Neoclassical and jazz roots, Impressionism, and New Age all together. I played what I heard and let the music lead me.
I tried to pick [Impressionist] pieces that already had a potential-jazz feel to them. Ragtime was being shaped in this country while Ravel and Debussy were writing in Europe. Debussy, especially, took inspiration from ragtime on a few occasions. But jazz would take inspiration from Debussy, as well. There are sections in Gerswin’s Rhapsody in Blue, for example, that could have been taken from Debussy. Plus, the whole sense of rethinking form and harmonic resolution played into the freer thinking jazz composers. When I was a child, I listened to Debussy and Gershwin, side by side, the way other kids listened to Elvis. Debussy was my grandfather’s favorite composer and Gershwin my mother’s. Also, I heard piano pieces such as Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie orchestrated for orchestra, which, as a youth, made it easier to hear the parallels to Gershwin.
As for the process, I began by reinterpreting the actual [Impressionist] music. I attacked each arrangement by first playing the sheet music, but sometimes I didn’t get too far before I started improvising. My intent wasn’t to make it so different that you couldn’t tell what the melody was. Nor was I trying to quote exactly, but rather rearrange and expand off of the original music. For example, in Jeux d’eux, it sounds as if I am playing Ravel's opening theme, but I’m actually not. I had played the piece for about a week and I thought “How can I change anything; it’s so perfect?” So I put the music aside and began to play from memory. I tried to capture the emotion, but played a different melody and chord progression. The only place in that piece where I quote the original is in the middle section, and, ironically, it sounds as if I am making that section up.
How did you put it all together and what made you decide to produce such an attractive booklet with Impressionist paintings to accompany the music?
I included the art to help the listener imagine what Debussy, for example, might have been looking at when he conceived Rêverie. I wanted to show the kinds of inspiration the original Impressionist composers might have had from the visual Impressionists who preceded and influenced them.
I love art; it is very much part of my life. I manage a visual art web site; I am surrounded by art in my home; many of my friends are painters; I am a photographer. I have written for the stage where I am interested in telling a very specific visual story. Since I often imagine art while playing, I thought it would be nice to pair the music with paintings. Since the project was about Impressionist music, using Claude Monet, Renoir, Mary Cassatt, Jean Frédéric Bazille and Paul Signac was a no brainer. It was very enjoyable finding matching works of art.
The changing quality of light animates the Impressionist painters’ work. How is that flickering, transcendence, even transparency part of your music?
Impressionism was meant to capture a transient moment, to convey a complexity of emotions, to have the quality of an unfinished I'm-in-the-process technique. If a classical painter were to stop at a certain point in his process, his painting would almost look like an Impressionist work. By showing the transitory nature of surfaces, they spoke to something deeper. The Impressionists perfected that sense of the moment. Their work requires the viewer’s personal subconscious or pre-conscious interpretation.
The piano is a personal, single-person instrument, like being a solitary painter. It is also good at sounding like glinting light, particularly in the high notes and in the colors it can produce. I like the way some of these [Impressionist] composers understood the shifting focus of light and emotion; they looked at a theme from many angles. Much of their music seemed from a specific point of view, like painting, yet they were not merely telling a story, but also their thinking (and feeling) within the story.
Some of the choices on the disc are obvious—Debussy, Ravel, Satie, for example—but why John Alden Carpenter?
Tango Américaine is not really an Impressionist piece. Carpenter was writing ragtime and classical works and art songs, but often brought an element of Impressionism into play. In the middle of his tango there is a surprising section which could have been written by Debussy. It’s as if the two dancers stop and look at each other, share this intimate moment, and then go back to finish the tango. It shows how even in 1924, after most composers had abandoned Impressionism, it was still impacting here and there. Carpenter is also the only American composer I included.
What were the influences on your “Christmas album,” Midwinter Born?
I wanted to stay away from modern carols. I wanted to present a non-commercial non-religious aspect of Christmas, if that makes any sense. I chose old French and English carols and personalized them more than modernized them. I was influenced by modal New Age jazz and hymns, but also other styles. I think Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck were main influences, but I drew from my life's musical experiences more than any specific genre.
What is it about the music of Christmas that has such a perennial appeal?
Christmas music reaches back into your childhood, to your fundamental longings and memories. It’s about birth, starting over, forgiveness, hope. It is full of magic and mystery, tradition and memory. I worked on the project in the summer, so that made the music relevant in a different sense, not just as a holiday album. We live in a culturally fractured world. Christmas music is one of the few remaining shared musical languages we have.
Thirteen Masks jolts the listener. I used these ghoulish old German masks as a departure point, pairing a mask to each piece. I tried to write music that I might think of right before I fall asleep — at that point where I am thinking of something else and music interrupts my thoughts. I was going back to where my imagination was leading me and not to where the chord progression should go. “Chaos of the Subconscious” was my working title.
My musical imagination has always worked like that, but most musical forms require more discipline and rule-following. Thirteen Masks was my way of divorcing myself from my musical career and starting over. I listened to inner voices, ignoring all external producers, directors, collaborators and agents. It was an experiment that had lasting benefits, even if reviewers found it jarring.
When I started piano lessons in third grade, I was given a John Thompson book of pieces to learn. One was “The Fairy Court.” It had this processional quality, but I would wonder “What happens after they process in? Do they sit down and start to eat? Does the jester start performing? Do they dance or is there a fairy lullaby?” I would sit at the piano and play for hours in a kind of stream of consciousness. Even as a child, I leaned toward musical theater storytelling.
These three CDs are solo piano albums. How was the experience of Rain Bather, an ensemble recording, different?
It was much more complicated: writing charts, organizing so many people. And, of course, it is expensive to record a large group, so I had to push myself even when I didn’t feel well. (Mueller suffers from A1AD, a genetic protein deficiency disease which especially affects the lungs, exacerbated by his volunteer work in the aftermath of 9/11.) If I am writing for other people, I try to highlight their talents. Think of Count Basie: his band did not exist so he could show off; he had many clever solo moments, but he was showcasing his musicians and the arrangements, not himself.
With an ensemble, you have to capture the moment at its freshest. When you are performing solo, you can play a piece over and over, but with a jazz band, , as soon as you discover something together during the first run throughs, you have to record that before it’s lost. Never tire out your band.
Post-production for large ensembles can also be more time consuming.
Music has been part of your life from boyhood. Did you feel you were destined to be a musician?
My mother says no, but I am certain she groomed me to be a musician/playwright. My grandfather had been a violinist for silent films, and my grandmother accompanied him on the piano. With the coming of the talkies and the Depression, he lost that job and was never as happy again in other jobs. My mother saw this as a dream he would never accomplish, and she wanted me to achieve the goals he didn’t. She was also a frustrated jazz singer, exchanging motherhood with pursuing a career. Her dying wish was that I should “not worry about money, just make history.” She meant that I should fulfill my (her lost) destiny in music, or the stage.
You have been active in so many interdisciplinary creative forms—music, theater, writing. Can you talk about your theatre work and some of your favorite recurring themes? Your musical, Creature, for example was based on the Frankenstein myth.
Frankenstein is one of the great modern allegories with its themes of soul, soullessness, and science. I rewrote Creature several times for different audiences and directors and perfected the characters to represent different aspects of our modern age. In my show, the chorus members are spirits of the Creature’s body parts, creating a cacophony of noise that the creature has to filter out in order to find his own voice.
When you take a well-known myth as your inspiration, your play naturally has the element of analogy to it. The audience comes to see both the original and your reinterpretation. I am always fascinated by the meaning these contrasts can bring to an audience.
Plus, I love progressive rock, and a technologically driven theme like Frankenstein lends itself to that sort of music. Creature is a progressive rock opera.
And what about some of your other theatrical successes— Robin Hood or Runners in a Dream?
Robin Hood or Freedom’s First Light (it had several titles) was my longest-running show. I adapted the themes — how we define freedom, and how sending young men off to war (to the Crusades, in Robin Hood's time) changes people and society — to the post-Vietnam era. It was easier to discuss certain aspects of these themes within a well-known "children's" story. Robin Hood also comes at the time, historically, that the Magna Carta was written, so I wove in some of my favorite history lessons, as well.
Runners in a Dream, which is based on my collaborator’s mother’s childhood holocaust experience, is my most intimate musical. It was not “just” a story of surviving a concentration camp, but how that psychological toll affected her entire life. Living in a dream world helped her survive, but grasping reality as an adult became a burden. Ultimately, both shows are about transcendence. After mounting large several cast musicals, I needed to create something on a smaller scale. This story touched me deeply. And, in the end, the girl survives, as does her son.
What do you think the function of music theater is in the modern world, and how has Broadway and off-Broadway theater changed since you first worked there?
Musical theater has changed so much since the late 1980s.
At its best, theater can be an agent of internal confrontation. It can inspire change or fortify something inside you. At its most banal, it is merely a tourist destination. The late 1990s saw what I call the “Disneyfication” of Broadway. Then, after 9/11, for many years it was difficult to mount serious theater, which is what interests me the most. It was gotten much better recently, however, and I've attended some fabulous productions in the last few years. I think the future of theater lives in off-off Broadway and the many fabulous regional companies out there producing new works.
You are also a poet. Of all the creative languages in which you express yourself, which is the most satisfying and where does music fit?
My health requires that I avoid stress, and writing lyrics was always a painful process for me. It would take me 4 to 10 times longer than composing the music. I don’t write much poetry or lyrics any more. I still jot down ideas, poetic lines, or outline concepts for a new project, but then stress gets the better of me and file it away. I don’t even keep a journal anymore. Heck, even lengthy emails are annoying to write. I work mostly in the recording studio or at my piano in my living room.
And when you create a studio recording, what acoustic are you striving for or does it vary by project?
If I am recording a big band piece, I want to get the sense of a live big band sound in a large venue. If I am working with a combo, I want the feeling of playing in a smaller venue, like at the Village Vanguard. I’ll put the microphones closer and try to minimize the room sound. I have been inspired by the film about Glenn Gould and the way he placed his eight mikes so that he could create a stereo, reverb mix in the room itself. But when I record solo piano, I prefer it to be very inmate, as if your head is nearly inside the piano, to approximate the sound I hear when playing.
Your health has also placed limitations on your own singing and other practical aspects of music making. How difficult is that for you as an artist?
Most of my career I wrote music for someone else to sing, usually stage actors, but I’ve always liked to hear a songwriter perform his own work. I still do that at home, by myself, but I don’t have a wide range anymore, and I am limited by bouts of coughing and fatigue. Still, not singing doesn’t bother me that much. I love to sit at the piano and simply play, see where my playing takes me.
And explain what you mean when you say that your work has been colored by having “ghosts on your shoulders”?
No other event has colored my life more than my sister’s death in 1972. From the time I was 16 to when I was about 36, she was my internal audience. I flew everything I wrote by her, in my imagination. What I created had to be worthy of her. It was only after I took care of my father in his dying years that I was finally able to let the weight of death go. To paraphrase Auden, “the meaning of his death is shaped by what you do with your life.”
What future projects do you have on the drawing board?
Usually one of my albums carries me over to the next. For example, after I finished Midwinter Born, I had a chord progression I liked but didn’t get to use, and I began playing the melody of Clair de lune over it. That started me on Impressions of Water and Light. And now, I’m thinking that what I did with the Impressionist pieces, I could do with J. S. Bach. Bach was always one of my favorite composers. I worked on his music in college. A composition like “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring” is such a tightly woven, structured piece and lends itself well to my style of jazz piano. I would like to see if I can create two CDs, the first reinterpreting Bach and the second playing my own compositions inspired by him. I think I will call it Flow: The Music of J. S. Bach and Tobin Mueller. The concept of “flow” can easily be applied to Bach: When you play his works, you become so immersed in what you are doing that you lose your sense of time and space.
Letting the music lead him where it goes, traversing the boundaries of creative languages and dimensions has been and likely will continue to be the hallmark of Tobin Mueller’s protean art.
- Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, FANFARE (subsciption required to view)
To read the Fanfare Magazine review of 3 Mueller CDs, go here.