Instead of Heaven
2021 / Tobin Mueller
Review by Kathy Parsons
Once again proving his unpredictability as a composer, pianist and musical storyteller, Tobin Mueller's Instead of Heaven is a collection of ten solo piano meditations inspired by Greek mythology and arranged as an instrumental song cycle. The stories and myths vary from well-known to more obscure, but Mueller has also assembled a series of music videos that illustrate and tell the stories in a very interesting and relatable format. Mueller also has extensive liner notes on his website that offer even more insight into the myths and his interpretation of how they relate to the present day. Quoting his site:
"The music is fluid and modal, melding Romanticism, Impressionism, post-bop Jazz and New Age. Mueller freely takes from many genres, folding them into his own unique style. Instead of Heaven is, on one level, a statement of quiet joy - a pianist's existential replacement for heaven. It is also a testimony to how ancient stories continue to guide and inform contemporary creativity.... 'Many of these stories are tragedies,' Mueller relates. 'But optimism grows out of tragedy. Not just by counting our own blessings, but through lessons learned and heroism earned. This is what my music tries to uncover: hope and wisdom resulting from each choice honestly confronted. The Hero's Journey is fundamentally about redemption.'"
Each piece and its story could take chapters to describe and explain, but I'll give a short sampling of some of my favorites. Instead of Heaven begins with "Apollo's Lyre," a tribute to the Greek god who invented music as well as being the god of sun and light, truth and prophecy, poetry and more. Written in 5/4 time as an homage to the lyre's five strings, the piece is often playful and has a melodic theme that weaves in and out of the piece. Some passages of "Daedalus' Gift of Wings" have a fluttering quality like the movement of wings, and others soar skyward with a feeling of freedom. Still passages express feelings of loss and perhaps regret at the loss of Daedalus' son, Icarus, when he flew too close to the sun. "Morpheus, Prelude to Emancipation" begins in a piano blues style and "morphs to a dreamier impressionistic trance." Morpheus is the god associated with sleep and dreams and this piece illustrates "the moment just before sleep when the world falls away and illusions find their own wings." Much of "Reflections of Narcissus" shimmers like the subtle movement of water on a lake or pond, an obvious reference to Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection. Mueller's meditation on "Sisyphus Cheating Death" is in tango form with variations on the theme throughout the piece symbolizing Sisyphus' endless quest to push a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll back down just before reaching the top.
As I've said many times in previous reviews, Tobin Mueller's creativity and musical ideas know no bounds and Instead of Heaven takes us in a different direction from most of his other work. The album is available as a CD, download or to stream on Amazon; to download or stream on Apple Music/iTunes and to stream on many other sites such as Spotify. The videos can be viewed on YouTube or on Tobin's site. If you're in the mood for something different, give this album a try!
June 1, 2021
with Woody Mankowski