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Mundi's 'My House Is The Sky' Plays To The Ensemble's Strength

Courtesy photo
Austin-based "chamber rock" ensemble Mundi


The name of the Austin-based instrumental ensemble, Mundi, gives ample evidence of the range of their repertoire. If there's any further indication needed that their beat is world music, look them up online, where they reside as Mundiworld.com.

This is where Mundi exists today, playing a mix of styles, melodies and harmonies which is largely rooted in folk music. This should come as no real surprise. Darrel Mayers, the group's founder and leader, comes from the Old World, steeped in English folk music and rock'n'roll. His world turned upside down when he discovered medieval music of the Spanish composer Alphonse 'El Sabio,' played by an antique ensemble from Guanajuato, Mexico.

Credit James Baker
Darrel Mayers

Darrel Mayers: “Well, Mundi really began in around the year 2000. I had just finished a group called Happy Valley, a sort of world beat group, and I was looking for a new direction. I had some really strong experiences while living in England with early music, especially medieval music. I was in a record shop one day in Austin, called Immortal Performances....it's just this quaint little record shop in the back of someone's garage, basically, in West Austin, and I came across this amazing recording by an ensemble from the University of Guanajuato, in Mexico. They were playing this music, it was early music, and they were very much making it their own. It just sounded, even though it was antique, that it was very vibrant and alive. It just kind of opened my mind to the idea that this early music has all these special melodies and it's not absolutely necessary that it be played on krumhorns and viols. You can bring it to a different mix of instruments and still bring it to life. I put the guitar into an open tuning and I connected with the ancient world that way.”

But Mundi is no early music ensemble, a truth which is apparent when you see the group on stage, for in the big middle is a battery of percussion instruments, including a full drum kit, played by RicFurley. Ric, Darrel, and double bassist Mario Gonzales have been together ever since the Happy Valley days, together finding a new sound which is distinctive to Mundi of the past several years.

Mayers: “Initially, when Mundi first came together, it was like a folk group playing early music. The violinist and the cellist I had, they came from folk music. But we went through some changes and I found to my surprise that a lot of top rate players were wanting to come join the group. Before I knew it, I had two members of Austin Symphony playing with me, which completely changed the sound. Suddenly the level of making music just went through the roof compared to what it was before.”

Today, you still find two members of the Austin Symphony playing with Mundi, violinist Bruce Colson and French hornist Margaret Ayer. According to Darrel, this has changed the dynamic of the ensemble in ways beyond the broadening of the group's instrumental timbre.

Mayers: “Adding the French horn opened up a new dimension in terms of the sound, in being able to hit a sense of triumph. We've gone from what we used to be called, “Renaissance folk rock” to what we now just call “chamber rock.”

Even though Darrel cites the use of the French horn in Pink Floyd's “Echoes,” the extended finale on the band's “Meddle” album, and to the prominent use of the horn in The Who's rock opera “Tommy,” the most obvious rock element in Mundi's sound comes from RicFurley's drum kit.

Credit James Baker
Ric Furley

Ric Furley: “It's not a typical drum set part. It's just using the textures and having so many things to do at one time, it's just easier to sit down. We had thought about this, it had crossed my mind after recording Apple Howling that some of those songs could be reinterpreted almost like rock tunes, and we played around with that element for a little bit before we finally settled on this, because Darrel came from a rock and roll background and some of the other projects prior to that had kind of a beat, almost maybe a dance beat, or disco beat, and he wanted to have that feel, he wanted to have a dance feel. So some of the pieces we do now incorporate that and since the bass drum is there, it's just nice to have everything available for your vocabulary. So I've got a regular drum set, just like I would play in a rock band but I don't play it that aggressively because it's just not necessary, and then the glockenspiel, and the timpani, and a doumbek, and shakers and teacups and whatever else he wants me to hit with a stick, I will bring it into the mix.”

Much of the music which Mundi plays is original material, written by Darrel Mayers. The rest is based on arrangements of music from numerous sources, ranging from traditional Bulgarian to traditional Turkish, or North African. The ensemble spends a lot of time rehearsing the charts, but they then take pains to allow for a free flowing, almost improvisatory character to their live performances.

Furley: “For each performance, we settle on a structure, but from performance to performance those structures can evolve and grow or we'll add or take away different elements so it's never the same, it's never static, even within the course of a single day or a recording session. We'll be in a recording session and he will want to change something after we've done everything else. He'll want to add another texture that no one had thought of before but he's got this opportunity now to make a permanent record of an idea, and he takes advantage of it, so he's very wise, he's a wise man.”

Depending on who you talk to, there is a lot of improvisation within a Mundi performance, or not.... Cellist Tony Rogers welcomed the opportunity to play outside the absolute bounds of the printed sheet of music when he joined the group several years ago. Asked whether the Mundi experience was what he expected, he relived the early moments.....

Tony Rogers: “I feel like I knew kind of what I was getting into because my introduction to the band was actually Mundi had a special concert in Corpus Christi that Bruce, the violinist, could not make it to and they needed somebody to cover some of the melodies of some of these Mundi songs. They already had the gig and they were needing to outfit it, so they contacted me on a crash course of Mundi. That was about two years ago. I'd just moved to Austin about two months before, and just got really excited about the music and the wide amounts of diversity that's on each of the Mundi records. The music just falls real easy onto the ear, and it's a nice balance between all these international folk genres, I guess. It doesn't ever seem to be pigeon-holed or to be too academic.... so it's met my expectations because the music has always been there and now I'm playing with Bruce, who's a fabulous violinist, and I get to pair lines off with him and we swap improv moments throughout the show, so we don't really know what's going to happen so it's pretty thrilling, and the rest of the people in the band are just fabulous people....”

When I asked violinist Bruce Colson about the balance of playing the part versus improvisation, the answer skirted around the process, leaving the possibility that some of Mundi's improvisation is more illusion than reality.

Bruce Colson: “The violin is very prominent in this group. It carries the melody a good bit of the time and I do some improvisation as well. Actually, I think the more difficult thing for me to do is to come up with an accompaniment because the violin is used to playing the melody most of the time, and I'm not used to accompanying. So it's a good stretch for me in this group to come up with alternative things to do while someone else has the melody, to try to come up with a counterline.”

Baker: “How much of what you play is actually written out for you and how much is your flight of fancy?”

Colson: “I would say most of it starts with the written part. I do the whole show by memory. All the music that we get ready to perform, I work it out to get it memorized. But within the context of what's written out in the song, at least three quarters of it is written down. Improvisation only works well if you work on it. So the improvisational parts have been practiced and they do change, but I would say substantially they are the same from the time to time that they are played on most songs. There are two or three songs where there's more improvisational aspect to sections in those songs than in others and some songs don't have any improvisation at all.”

Credit Mundi
Mundi's latest CD

It's not easy to commit to improvisation in the recording studio. The process is such that pieces of a composition have to be cut and spliced back together to cull out the occasional miffed notes, or rhythmic irregularities. In the best case scenario, a free-wheeling ensemble like Mundi will be able to work around the constraints of the recording session, producing an end result which sounds like a perfect performance. But it goes beyond that, for not only does the listener want to hear perfection, they also want to hear the music unfold organically, in a spontaneous fashion. In Mundi's latest CD, titled “My House is the Sky,” the ensemble meets that challenge with great skill. This is, of course, a reflection of the talent within Mundi, but it is also a reflection of the work of the behind the scenes talent, the labor of engineer Tim Gerron and the joint production of Mr. Gerron and Mundi leader Darrel Mayers.

The recording was made in May of last year, not long after the band had returned from a tour of Spain. Not surprisingly, the ensemble is tight and the repertoire sounds familiar and well rehearsed. Well over half of the album consists of original compositions by Darrel Mayers. They are playful, at times folklike, and with titles which bring to my mind the lightheartedness of Alec Wilder, whose “Her Old Man was Suspicious” and “His First Long Pants” attracted the attention of none other than Frank Sinatra. I don't know if Mayers' “The Bespectacled Bears Waltz” or “Demeter's Dance” would have stirred Sinatra but they surely would have amused Wilder, as would much of Mundi's music. There is much here that speaks to the heart in a charming manner, making no pretense at anything more. There's value in that.

“My House is the Sky” kicks off with the rather cinematic sounding “Demeter's Dance.” Surely that illusion of a darkened movie palace is enhanced by the prominence of the solo horn which soars throughout much of the song's 4 minutes 48 seconds. Mayers writes that this music celebrates the Greek goddess of the harvest. It must have been bountiful, that harvest.

The world reach of Mundi's repertoire surfaces with several disparate tracks intoning an international atmosphere. “SandanskoHoro” is based upon a traditional Bulgarian folk-dance while “To Morocco with the Stars” evokes the exoticism of North Africa through the use of the oud, plucked and strummed by Mr. Mayers, and the subtle melodic thumping of Mario Gonzales' hajhooj, or Moroccan bass. The piece opens with another cinematic moment suggested by the sound of a manual typewriter, as though a lonely soldier of fortune is writing to a faraway lover. This final track of “My House is the Sky” points to one of the strengths of Mundi, the ability to sell the sounds of a distant place inhabited by non-Western modalities and landscapes unknown in the first hand to all but the most adventurous travelers.

The interplay between cellist Tony Rogers and violinist Bruce Colson dominates “Samesugas,” an evocation of the Galician Region of northwestern Spain. Darrel's introductory guitar work is clean and appealing, an observation appropriate to his work throughout the album. Also appealing is Darrel's writing for the horn, especially in “Demeter's Dance” and “The Bespectacled Bears Waltz.” The parts are executed with skill by hornist Margaret Ayer.

Margaret Ayer (harmonium) and Mario Gonzales (bass)

When Ms. Ayer is not blowing her horn, often in the upper reaches of its range, she is playing harmonium, another instrument which distinguishes Mundi from other ensembles. The harmonium is a relic of another time, when modest households which might have loved to have a piano in the parlor instead furnished their homes with an harmonium, a sort of pump organ, but on a budget. I wish the harmonium used by Mundi could be brought more to the fore in the mix, rather than being relegated to drone in the background. Nevertheless, it's one of those parts of the Mundi sound which lends to the distinctive amalgam of exotic and appealing sounds which fans of the band have come to expect.

Throughout “My House is the Sky” (both the album and the title track), RicFurley's percussion playing provides a firm foundation, enhanced by the subtleties of the various auxiliary instruments he brings to the game. And I guess that to some degree I can understand Darrel Mayers' description of Mundi's genre as chamber rock, largely because of the rock drum set played with well-gauged restraint by Mr. Furley. But overall, I still hear the folk-world-early music roots of Mundi. That is what is most interesting about the band, and I believe it is also the reason the ensemble's members have continued to invest themselves in the success of Mundi. It isn't easy selling a genre which is as distinctive as Mundi'schamber rock, or whatever it is, but “My House is the Sky” makes about as solid a pitch as can be made.

All of Mundi's albums are available via both iTunes and CD Baby. Better yet, most, if not all of “My House is the Sky,” can be heard live Saturday evening, March 21st at Urban 15, 2500 S. Presa, in San Antonio. Urban 15's George Cisneros points out that seating will be limited. Advance reservations can be made at Urban15.org.