We all wear masks. Some are masks of calm, meant to hide unrest. Some are forced smiles, meant to disguise resentment. We put on happy faces for the kids. We charge forward in battle, pretending to be brave. We apply face paint, makeup, and most of all, expressions: the poker face, the stage face, the game face. Every Halloween, masks are used for amusement, role play and empowerment. College students try on different personalities, trading masks along the way. Criminals value masks for the anonymity they grant; superheroes feel the same way, but on a more benign scale.
Masks can have meaning and value; they can also distort the truth. When a child in an abusive home learns to wear a mask of contentment, the mask can remain through adulthood; when it “gets stuck that way”, acquaintances may wonder at the incongruity between smile and tone. Few phrases are as frightening as “masked intentions”. The mask of anonymity is liberating in gaming avatars and damaging in online commentaries.
As the essayists write in the Ensemble liner notes, masks are often used to cover up unpleasant facts; but they can also be used in a more positive fashion: for example, the practice of praise in eulogies represents an implied group contract “not to speak ill of the dead”. The irony of Death Blues is that it is as much about life as it is about death, as many arrive at the same conclusion: life is fleeting, and a truthful life is a better life. When looking at the phrase “death blues” and the word “masks” on the cover, the obvious mash-up is death masks, a way to keep the memory (or at least a memory) alive past the point of a person’s death. We may not interpret the lives of others as they would like, but neither do they afford us the same favor. And therein lies the quandary: we’re not even sure of who we are. Are we defined by our masks? Do we even recognize when they are being worn?
This is a lot to tackle in a single project. Jon Mueller writes, “each essay here is a mask, each song is a mask, and this project as a whole, a mask.” He’s in a perfect position to say such a thing, as he has appeared in different guises, as the percussionist for Volcano Choir and Collections of Colonies of Bees, among others; as a collaborator and as a solo artist. Even these recordings are based on the guitar parts from the original Death Blues album. We write, we revisit, we reevaluate; the past grows fluid beneath our hands. As one essayist notes, it’s easier to say that one was present for the Shot Heard Round the World than to explain why one wasn’t there.
As the title implies, Ensemble is a team effort. Mueller’s main collaborator is William Ryan Fritch, whose 10-album subscription series Leave Me Sessions has just entered its second half. By sharing in both composition and performance, Fritch leaves an indelible mark. The sonic space is also occupied by Craig Feazel and Drew Ceccato, whose sax, pedal steel, clarinet and flute round out the recording. The music is dense, yet approachable; credit Jeff Lipton for the sonic clarity.
A secondary irony to the set is that it sounds so little like the blues. If anything, it sounds like a slightly slowed version of a New Orleans funeral. Opening track “Consonance” proceeds at march pace, along with wordless chants, stately percussion and the rhythmic shaking of a tambourine. It feels joyful, despite a somber ending. Flute, horns and plucked strings seldom sound mournful in tandem, and this entire album proves the rule. Even “Loss”, the track with the saddest title, comes across as something found. The magnificent strings that emerge in the center of the track speak to something larger than ourselves: the sea that swallows the droplet, the universe that incorporates the loss. What now of the mask? If only one mourner progresses to a later stage of grief, should that mourner still wear the mask of the former? Do masks have responsibilities to other masks?
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the resurgence of vinyl, and commented that one way for the format to quicken its rebound might be the production of tactile-pleasing works. Ensemble is one of them. The hardbound book is pleasing to the hand and eye; the essays are creative and well-formatted. Those who purchase the vinyl edition also receive two extra digital tracks, each of which fits the timbre. It’s a great production all around: cerebral, emotional and spiritual in nature. In this particular instance, the mask matches the contents. (Richard Allen)