Subway to Studio: Paul Juba Mueller and the Art of Recording Unusual Instruments

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Want to know the power of music? If you’re lucky enough to come across Paul Juba Mueller and his hammered dulcimer in the New York City subway system, you’ll experience it first-hand.

Paul Juba Mueller makes up the New York City's subway soundscape.

Paul Juba Mueller makes up the New York City’s subway soundscape. (photo: David Weiss)

The people of New York City – we-with-no-time-for-anything-ever – stop and listen. They feel something deep, beautiful, dark, entrancing, energizing, and serene, emanating from a historic instrument that’s perfectly in synch with our 21st Century city.

Mueller has transformed countless passersby into audiences as part of the famed Music Under New York program, which allows MTA-sanctioned artists to perform in the NYC subway. It’s a sprawling transit system that can put him in contact with any one of the 5,597,551 people who ride a train every weekday.

Whether playing solo or as part of the adventurous rhythm ensemble Mecca Bodega, Mueller performs with a Zen focus, totally in the zone while still engaged with his surroundings. His hammered dulcimer – a trapezoidal percussion and stringed instrument — has a nice attack, then quickly evolves into a fuller, pleasing sound that seems to cushion the claustrophobic air of the train tunnels.

And that’s just live. Albums featuring his work, such as Mecca Bodega’s Hammered Dulcimer, Rhythm Rail, and Raise the Tent, are all gorgeous records, essential tools for energetic meditation. Got a tough mental project to tackle? Need your hands and muscle to get an extensive outdoor job done? These albums will help you focus right in, with the rare ability to be played again and again, end-to-end.

Mueller takes all this to the next level with his new self-released record, Floating on Land. Each song offers its own particular transcendence, merging Mueller’s masterful skills on the instrument with guest musicians like Dr. Djo Bi Irie Simon, who brings expert djembe and conga partnership to the tracks. Cello, harp, banjo, tiple, mountain dulcimer, native Lakota flute, and bass are also on hand.

In addition, Mueller recorded drum kit and an arsenal of world percussion for the record. All of it was tracked at his upstate NY facility, Sound Tree Studio. In this interview with SonicScoop, Mueller shows the studio side of being a subway performer, sharing techniques and tips for capturing unusual acoustic instruments – especially percussion – in a recording session.

How would you describe your own particular musical approach?

"Floating on Land" is an elevating experience.

“Floating on Land” is an elevating experience.

I like making original music that features drums and percussion in the forefront of the music, and I’m open to try any sounds or instruments to accompany the rhythms and melodies that are created.

I’ve played drum kit supporting singer/songwriters before in situations where the drum’s role in the song is sometimes an afterthought, and I’m more interested to enjoy making new music that is more exciting for me to play and have listeners move their bodies, be transported and feel good because of the presence of drums and percussion.

Over the years I’ve tried to be a part of musical situations where rhythm is understood to be important, and while creating my new CD Floating On Land I found out that my experiences and improved musical abilities allowed me to try things I couldn’t have before, and create rhythms and melodies with better musicians because I now have something more to offer.

I have more confidence in my understanding of using polyrhythms while writing melodies which gives me freedom to try writing in different keys and overlapping time signatures that I never tried to write in before. Now it’s easier for me to realize quickly when an idea or instrument is working, or when I should let it go because it isn’t working and try something else.

How would you say that the experience of playing in the subway has evolved for you over the years – what’s the best part about it, and makes it stressful?

The playing experience in the subway changes over the years as the economy changes, security and political things change, and the technology commuters carry around with them change.

In general, as years pass there are more and more distractions people have while they commute like iPhones, video games and other devices with ear buds that cut people off from their immediate physical surroundings and block spontaneous experiences people can share in person.  A lot of the overload of technical information people are exposed to pulls them out of truly being in the moment, and being completely present.

This makes it more challenging while playing subway music to get people to stop and listen, because so many people are cut off from their environments and their attention spans and ability to focus on one thing or have a spontaneous experience has been lost.

I now play the hammered dulcimer standing up, have added lights to my merchandise display, added downloadable music purchase options, and keep trying to make eye contact and smile with people to make a connection with them as I play.  All these things help spread my music to people, and have them buy CDs etc…when the window of time to get through to people keeps shortening.

The expansive NYC subway system provides its share of opportunities and challenges.

The expansive NYC subway system provides its share of opportunities and challenges. (photo: David Weiss)

What are the unique ways that the many instruments and musicians on “Floating On Land” play off of each other and work together, to provide both harmony and contrast?

The hand drums and drum kit drive the rhythm with help from a low-tuned bass drum played with a soft mallet while standing, and then there are shakers and metal percussion parts that are played on upbeats or on top to lock in the rhythms.

I percussively play melodic hammered dulcimer and West African balafon which is the bridge between the other stringed instruments and the drums/percussion. The Colombian tiple Chris Merwin plays is a little like a mandolin, and sounds like it was specifically made to be played with the dulcimer even though the tiple and dulcimer were invented during different time periods and in different parts of the world. The tiple and dulcimer play off each other naturally, and weave through the rhythms exchanging leads as the dulcimer locks into the drums and does call-and-answer responses with the hand drums.

Mueller's music encompasses a vast repertoire of traditional and non-traditional  instruments.

Mueller’s music encompasses a vast repertoire of traditional and non-traditional instruments.

Some of the metal percussion and low end drums are a great contrast in texture to the generally sweeter sounds of the hammered dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, harp and cello. The polyrhythms are often syncopated and the long sustain of the dulcimer, cello and nature field recordings glide on top or provide atmospheric open space for the songs.

Paul, you personally have developed a deep relationship with the hammered dulcimer. Why do you continue to gravitate to it? What are the unique properties of this instrument in your opinion?

I love playing the hammered dulcimer because I can express myself melodically at the same time I am drumming on it rhythmically. It’s like playing the inside of a piano with sticks, and it seems more natural for me to make music through my hands rather than using just my fingers like I would be doing playing the keys of a piano.

Mueller's hammered dulcimer, miked at Sound Tree Studio with a Neumann KM 184.

Mueller’s hammered dulcimer, miked at Sound Tree Studio with a stereo pair of Neumann KM 184’s (photo: Ian Sheridan.

The dulcimer is versatile and can be played intimately and softly, but it also has the rhythmic strength to play off a drum kit, hand drums or any powerfully deep groove. I love the mesmerizing quality of the dulcimer, and when drums hit you in the gut and make you move your body, the dulcimer can help send your mind into a trance — so when drums and dulcimer are played together, you can have a full mind, body, spirit release.

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