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Jon Mueller / Jason Kahn - Topography

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Artist: Jon Mueller / Jason Kahn

Album: Topography

Label: Table of the Elements

Review date: Jun. 24, 2008

There's a lot I could write about Topography, the most recent collaboration between seasoned improvisers Jon Mueller and Jason Kahn, but there's almost nothing of importance about the release that can't be conveyed by its packaging. Granted, you'd have to take it out of its wrapper, feel it with your fingers, tilt it around until the text captures light, and check a second and third time to make sure there's nothing else in there. What you'd find in the stark white casing is wastelessness, texture, careful organization and a sense of vastness built from the tiniest spaces.

The sounds are all milky white and mostly fluttering. Columns of grain and pop rise from resonant fields and there's a sense that everything making these sounds is suspended. As the title suggests, the live performances captured here are in space and with space. Rich feedback, the kind Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room seeks to define, is present and important here, but only as a part of a larger exploration. Throughout, Kahn and Mueller masterfully skirt falling into the wash of sound that might tempt, trick or screw-over less restrained players. They almost do fall, though, and it's the risk that they might that makes for a compelling listen.

If Topography sounds, for a moment, like a swarm of insects trapped somewhere between your air conditioner and refrigerator, it doesn't sound like that for long. Not that it sounds much like the synth, cassette and percussion it's drawn from either. A lone snare–– rubbed, scraped or rattling––constructs the single block of sound straightforward enough to reveal its source to the listener. Everything else is wide open and uncertain.

Of natural concern is the ability of a music so focused on opened-up space to translate well to a closed-in format. In a certain sense, it doesn't. A bit headphone resistant, Topography sounds best out loud and up loud. Its careful editing deletes any audible trace of a crowd. This creates an interesting tension, because the presence of an audience is somehow palpable regardless. If part of the collective experience is lost on disc, however, an opportunity to revisit these spaces (and perhaps gaze deeper into them) is gained.

By Sean Schuster-Craig

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