Review: Mueller, Jon, Bhob Rainey, Jim Schoenecker – “Untitled”

Not much happens between the beginning and end of this untitled collaboration between Jon Mueller, Bhob Rainey, and Jim Schoenecker, and, believe me, that’s an understatement. While the record’s liner notes list percussion, saxophone, and synthesizer as the key musical elements on the disc, what’s really on display here is space and a lot of it.
Take “Here Teething Moths Have Passed,” for example. The first half of the nearly 26-minute-long track is filled with little except dog-whistle screeching buried low in the mix and the occasional found sound, which feels not only incidental but accidental.
Around the 19-minute mark, random fuzz, and fumbling gives way to what sounds like a saw cutting through sheet metal. At 22 minutes, the sawing kicks in again, with Rainey’s saxophone — one is guessing on this one — resembling a bird either sounding a mating call or its own death knell. Around 24 minutes, the bird is joined by a mechanical whir that sounds like a table saw. And that’s about it.

There are experimentalists whose ambitious compositions are so daring or unconventional or unexpected that their work isn’t easily ingested — or even understood — for a good stretch of time, until the wisdom of hindsight can provide context. But it’s tough to buy into that line of reasoning for this four-track disc, which more closely resembles the sound a composer or group of avant-guardists would make in the moments before actually performing their work.

This is a record of a pianist pulling his or her chair closer to the keys, a writer pausing and clenching the pen tighter before jotting down another note, a jazz musician polishing a saxophone, a laptop musician running fingers over the mousepad.

It could be argued that sentiments and moments like that are the point, that CDs don’t have to be packed with structure or sentiment, that Messrs. Mueller, Rainey, and Schoenecker are cooking up some sort of commentary on the nature of recorded performances or remembered works. (For better examples of this, look to Storm and Stress, a talented group that, yes, yes, can sometimes be swallowed by its own inferences and conceits.)

It’s just difficult to believe it. The record is essentially two epic-length stretches of unmapped noise (“Here Teething Moths Have Passed” and “Holes”), book-ended with two fairly short stretches of slightly less sparse — but no less unmapped — noise (“Shredded Paper, But” and “Too Tattered to Read”). If there’s some message in this structure (or lack thereof), it may be written in a language that only the trio understands.

As for conventional definitions of “music,” there’s really little on display. The group manages to make their liner-noted instruments, when actually used, sound nothing like themselves, and — while there’s maybe something to be said for this — they also make the instruments sound like nothing at all. Even the random interjections of sound don’t have a musicality or purpose to them.

There’s no narrative. There’s no narrator. There’s no sonic element to lead the listener through the record’s 49 and a half minutes. That’s a tough prescription to fill.

So? It may occur to the listener, if only in passing or briefly, that Mueller, Rainey, and Schoenecker are drafting some audio equivalent of film Structuralism. But there also seem to be some inherent flaws in that assumption or thesis. While the trio’s CD clearly draws an oddly reflexive attention to the actual process of listening to a recording, there doesn’t feel like there’s anything learned about — or gained by — the act of listening.

Say what you will about a film like Andy Warhol’s epic Empire, but there’s a way even the static shots of building facades take on a life of their own, write their own narratives, provide commentary on the voyeurism of cinema, and point the eye toward once-unseen and often-subtle beauty. For all those hours of watching the Empire State Building, you can still be moved by the flight of a passing bird or get exhilarated by a small office becoming illuminated. On this untitled offering, there are few such pleasures, and it’s a struggle to even ponder them.

There may be someone out there who thinks this is visionary work — and, with 10 or 15 years of hindsight, maybe even doubtful critics will be forced to eat crow — but, after giving a fresh spin, the disc feels like it’s more than untitled. It’s empty. – Delusions of Adequacy, Sept. 6, 2004

About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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