Some bands make a lot more sense once you know where their members come from. With Mural, for instance, the knowledge that Australian saxophonist and flutist Jim Denley hails from rural New South Wales makes it possible to hear kookaburras and babblers and cuckooshrikes in his avian exclamations—whenever he's not summoning up the deep drone of the Aboriginal didjeridu, that is. And understanding that both guitarist Kim Myhr and percussionist Ingar Zach are Norwegian accounts for soundscapes that are sometimes so wintry you can almost hear the performers' breath freezing and falling in tiny, tinkling shards.
Mural's music exists at the abstract end of the improv spectrum, but the pictures this band paints are compelling nonetheless. They also unfold at an extremely measured pace, for Denley, Myhr, and Zach are well aware of the musical potential of silence.
Still, the notion that his band is somehow meditative is one that's mildly amusing to Myhr.
“I'm actually not such a patient person,” he says with a chuckle, reached at home in Oslo. “But I really do like music that develops slowly. It's something that I have to work on within myself, but I find it really nice to play music where every little movement counts.”
Key to the profound sense of space that Mural displays on its 2010 debut, Nectars of Emergence, is Zach's extremely unusual drum kit. His percussion setup is based on the foundation of a gran casa, an orchestral bass drum that, when hit with mallets, provides an extraordinarily deep pulse; stroked with the end of a drum stick or rubbed with a moistened finger, it can sound quite frighteningly animalistic. Turned on its side, the drum also serves as a resonator for what Myhr describes as “a lot of small percussion instruments and an abundance of Tibetan bowls and bells”.
Denley's interest in environmental sound has already been noted, and Myhr complements that by crafting an array of decidedly unnatural sonic landscapes through “preparing” and otherwise manipulating his instrument. Sometimes he'll create eerie harmonics by attaching alligator clips to his strings; elsewhere he'll craft vast drones by vibrating them with what sounds like a hand-held electric fan.
“I'm really interested in the treatment of acoustic sounds, and [with the classical guitar] you get such direct physical control of the sound,” he explains of his choice of instrument, which is rarely used in improv circles. “Since I got this guitar, I haven't played my electric guitar at all, actually. It was quite a harsh transition in the beginning, 'cause I basically just stopped from one day to the next.”
Although he admits that he may someday return to electric and/or electronic music, it's clear that Myhr doesn't miss the kind of sonic mayhem that's only possible through amplification.
“For me, I often try to strive for a certain kind of fullness in the music I'm making,” he says. “And with Mural, it seems that we can achieve a kind of fullness using very economic means.”
Mural plays the Western Front on Sunday (October 17).