Mueller Tunnel, a fire road constructed in 1942, loops through the Angeles Mountains of southern California. The 100-yard passageway hides behind brambles and spiky desert brush, beneath the mass of a rocky cliffside. On their newest release for Full Spectrum Records, Mueller Tunnel, Tasting Menu — comprising violist and improviser Cassia Streb, composer and bassoonist Cody Putman, and percussionist and improviser Tim Feeney — make poignant music within the tunnel’s cavernous, rumpled walls. In exploring the tunnel’s sonority, they take solace in the ordinary: the crunch of footsteps on soft ground, the sudden booms of objects falling, the distant caws of gulls. The record is organic and subtle, like a picture in sound, highlighting the compelling nature of simplicity.
“Windward,” the first track on the album, sets the tranquil scene from the first few seconds, where a faraway pitter-patter buzzes underneath a series of thuds. The sounds are reminiscent of our every day: upon listening to these first moments, it’s easy to imagine rifling through the pages of a book, or glass scraping against a smooth countertop. The layering of sound becomes more detailed as the improvisation continues. There’s a constant flapping underneath the beat of a gong, the random plucks of the viola, the crescendo and decrescendo of foot steps moving closer and farther, but the disparate types of sound link well into one, cohesive piece.
The record is accompanied by a booklet that shows a crude map of the hike to Mueller Tunnel, a series of breathtaking images of the scenery by Eric Basta, and easy-to-follow visual scores for each of the album’s pieces. The music itself is enveloping and visceral, oscillating between stillness and motion to bring us into the world of tunnel, but listening with the score and images is even more entertaining — you might hear the bird calls at the beginning of “warren,” for example, and the score depicts them flying overhead. It acts as a guide for each of the varying sounds you hear as you wade through the tunnel with the trio, while the images provide breathtaking context for the sublime solitude you feel when listening.
“Warren” is the most moving of the pieces on Mueller Tunnel. Like “windward,” it is set up such that sounds weave together above a foundational layer. This time, that foundation comes in the form of a hypnotic, continuous swishing. As the music progresses, vigor builds; twinkling chimes and droning viola accompany the ever-increasing pace of the stomping feet, and heaving breath eventually becomes audible. It’s here that the organic resonance the trio aims for is its most enticing. In the ebb and flow of the natural sound Tasting Menu creates, they find the heart of what’s compelling about the natural, every day — that which is fundamental.