"Death Blues" shows there's no time like the present
The inevitability of death. A grim topic, almost taboo, and yet, ubiquitous. Death is all around us. Perhaps the only way we can reasonably be expected to process the concept is through the medium of creativity – art, music and movement, those languages that are so much more adept at interpreting the mysteries of the human condition.
For percussionist and composer Jon Mueller, the reality of death was heightened after spending time in post-Katrina New Orleans. In an interview via email, Mueller told OMC he learned that "on some level, we're all seeking fulfillment with the undetermined time we have. Who's to say that we all shouldn't be running from where we are, to someplace 'better?'"
His time in New Orleans inspired "Death Blues (no time like the present)," a multi-sensory performance (incorporating music, dance and even food) that will be presented at Alverno's Pitman Theatre for two exclusive shows on this weekend. There will be performances on Friday, Nov. 16 and Saturday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. for an audience of only 100 people each in order to preserve an intimate atmosphere.
The performances will feature top-notch Milwaukee musicians, including members of Altos, Juniper Tar, Field Report, Testa Rosa and The Celebrated Workingman. Pop-up restaurateurs And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Crumbs will also participate.
OnMilwaukee.com: This looks like a really fascinating, all-encompassing experience. The press release said that it engages all the senses – even taste? Could you elaborate on that?
Jon Mueller: The aim is that it provides a multifaceted experience. Because the concept is pretty universal, I wanted to create situations that could be interpreted on a personal level, based on one's own experience, so that the concept moves from outside in.
OMC: It's very interesting, the limit to 100 people per performance.
JM: There are two reasons for this. First, because of how we've restructured the space. By not using the theater in a traditional way, this is physically what we can fit reasonably. Secondly, I want the performance to be a personal experience, and I think the typical performance situation has an inherent divide that often limits that. Being in closer proximity allows the chance to experience a wider range of senses – and intensifies those that were already being used.
OMC: It says on the website that the project addresses the "inevitability of death" to encourage people to be more present. How is a message like that conveyed non-verbally, through music and dance?
JM: On one hand, this is certainly a state of mind, and if one has it, anything can 'help' them realize presence. Yet, I think that experiencing a series of consecutive situations that by their nature, raise ideas and questions in people's minds, exercises something within them that makes this almost involuntary.
We constantly receive input in our lives, and much of it we don't understand, yet it's not interesting enough to consider it any further. Some of the input at this event might also be mysterious, but will hopefully raise questions. None of it is meaningless, whether it seems to be or not. Everything involved in this event speaks to the point of personal experience and how one addresses that in the finite time they have.
OMC: What effect did post-Katrina New Orleans have in the creation of this piece?
JM: When I was there in April, multiple people talked about "when" the next Katrina would occur, not "if." I found this really perplexing, as those who mentioned it seemed almost passe about it, instead of following up with, "so, I'm leaving town..." After spending some time there, and thinking more about this, I recognized that, "Yes, why run?"… Accepting the risk of pursuing one's happiness is something we all share. This is largely what "Death Blues" is about: we have a limited time to do and understand the best of what life offers us. There are symbols of this throughout the event.
OMC: Can you talk about the collaborators who helped you create this piece?
JM: There are many. For one, (Alverno's) David Ravel should be recognized most here. Nearly a year ago, he and I met for coffee and I asked him about professional dancers. I had not worked with any before and wanted to. I knew he had experience with them and could help direct me to some good people. Then, he started to ask what the project was about. From that moment on, he has helped me develop many different ways of executing this project, including the events next week. He also connected me to Molly Shanahan, from Philadelphia, the movement artist who will be in the events, and who has become closely connected to the project beyond dance.
Dylan Schleicher is someone who I thought of early on, and he instantly identified with the work and wanted to be involved. He's helping with a variety of things and I am always pleased to work with him. All the musicians are absolute saints. I've asked so much from them, and feel I've offered so little in return. I'll forever be grateful to them for their time, hard work, and friendship.
The folks at And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Crumbs were literally a perfect fit. They immediately understood what we would do, and why we would do it. I'm not sure I could have pulled this off without them. And everyone else, the writers, helpers, supporters and old and new friends that have contributed even in thought, helped shape, define, and lead this project to where it is, and is going. There is no way I could have done all this on my own. I'm so thankful for everyone involved.
OMC: Is it true people have been coming from all over to see these performances?
JM: From what the box office has told me, there are at least people from Chicago and New York who've bought tickets, and possibly South Carolina. This is beyond humbling, and inspiring to put on the best event we can.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online or by calling (414) 382-6044.
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