In arena rock, the drum solo is usually your cue to go line up for a beer—or to head for the restrooms and get rid of the one you just finished. But in other traditions a drum’s message, not the motor skills of the drummer, is the point of the music. Though Mike Weis and Jon Mueller—drummers based in Chicago and near Milwaukee, respectively—have plenty of experience in rock, this Saturday they’ll delve into the spiritual and spatial dimensions of percussion when each man plays a solo concert at the Zen Buddhist Temple-Chicago in Roscoe Village.
A longtime Chicago resident, Weis is no stranger to solo playing. “I have always been impressed with solo acoustic live performers, because it seemed like such a bold move,” he explains via e-mail. “I remember witnessing Ken Vandermark playing live solo sax about 15 years ago at the Empty Bottle without any backing tapes, drones, or loops, and I was completely enthralled and engaged. I figured this was a huge accomplishment, and I also remember thinking, ‘I never ever want to try it!'” Eventually he got over that fear: in addition to his longtime gigs with Zelienople, the Chevrons, Scott Tuma, and others, since 2011 Weis has released three LPs of mostly unaccompanied drumming and performed regular solo concerts. For the past year and a half he’s also been a member of the Zen Buddhist Temple-Chicago, and an inquiry from Mueller set in motion a plan to incorporate the temple’s resources into his solo work.
“Jon approached me with the idea of putting together a concert of solo, acoustic percussion in Chicago, but he wanted to know if I had an idea for a space (beyond the traditional bar/club scene) where the acoustics would resonate well on their own without amplification. The building itself is pretty spectacular, and the main hall where we will be performing has a beautiful balance of resonance—not too echoing, not too muffled.” Weis secured permission from the temple’s senior teachers and head monk to use not only the space but also the temple’s four dharma instruments—the enormous dharma drum, the cloud plate (a bronze gong), the wooden fish (a small wooden drum mounted on a stand), and the temple bell. Though Weis has already integrated Korean instruments into his drum kit, he hasn’t used the temple’s instruments in his own work, and the music he’ll play on them this Saturday stands apart from it. “The only common ground would be the dynamics of sound—the active use of empty space and overwhelming resonant tones and rhythm clusters.”
Jon Mueller is likewise well acquainted with solo performance, and much of his practice has been concerned with existential and spiritual themes. He’s played and recorded with the likes of Collections of Colonies of Bees, Volcano Choir, Jason Kahn, and Mind Over Mirrors, and he’s released a shelf’s worth of LPs and CDs under his own name. His most recent effort is a gorgeously packaged double LP called dHrAaNwDn (meant to be read as “Hand Drawn”). It was recorded on May 23, 2016, in a large, wood-paneled meeting hall in the Shaker Heritage Society in Albany, New York. Mueller avoided using overdubs and digital tools (you can’t even buy a download), playing repetitive patterns that set in motion wave upon wave of echoes, effectively turning the room into a sounding chamber.
“I’ve been working on this material with drums for a couple years now, using just toms and using the different frequencies that can come out of a small amount of drums. In this case, I’m using four,” says Mueller. “For the performance at the Zen center, I’m going to be using these four drums. I’m going to be incorporating two large gongs as part of the piece, playing the same patterns with the gongs as I will with the drums, but the sound is completely different. That’s interesting for me from a playing perspective, because it just makes me realize the great dimension of sound that occurs when doing very simple movements—using different material within those movements and creating really different results.”
Mueller will play in the same style as he did on dHrAaNwDn, relying on the temple’s acoustic qualities to complete the music. “The piece changes depending on the situation as opposed to the material itself. It doesn’t mean I’m playing verbatim what is on the record, but it’s just that the approach to the types of drums, the amount of drums, the style I’m playing in—it’s really the same.” Mueller’s improvisational skills will come into play as he responds to the sounds’ behavior after he’s been playing for a while. “There’s no way for anyone to know what it’s going to be like 15 minutes in, with all the frequency bouncing. That’s where the sound is created, and there is no way to know that unless you’re doing it.”
Weis and Mueller play at the Zen Buddhist Temple-Chicago (1710 W. Cornelia) at 7 PM on Saturday, May 27. At 10 AM on Sunday, Mueller gives a lecture during the morning service. Both events are open to the public; the concert is $10, and the lecture is free.