Crate-Digging: Jürgen Müller – Science of the Sea

(Digitalis, 2011)

For better or worse regarding my public image, I’m a huge fan of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the quintessentially and oft-maligned Wes Anderson film. I found the story of the Cousteau-like Zissou, portrayed by Bill Murray, poignant and entertaining, and I was able to connect with the emotional undercurrent inherent in the stylized delivery particular to Anderson’s films. It’s romanticized the profession of marine biology and documentary filmmaking, two things I never would have believed I’d feel an emotional connection to. Life aboard the Belafonte would be like living in a dream – and tooling around the Mediterranean wouldn’t be half bad either. And yes, I’ve got the red cap and Speedo, the glock, the Adidas Zissous, the stationary, the official Team Zissou certificate – my only wish is that I could attend just one Loquasto International Film Festival. Then it would all be complete.

But alas, it never will be, because Zissou is a fictional person – so no matter how dearly I wish to simply be one of his interns, it will never come to pass. And so I must look elsewhere for my oceanographic fix, and this is how I’ve come to discover the wondrous world of Jürgen Müller, a man whose musical history is as elusive as the Jaguar Shark. But a little background on the man before we get to the record. Müller studied oceanic science at the University of Kiel, but had a bit of an experimental musical streak in him, as he’d taught himself how to play a variety of electronic instruments. He was inspired while on a week-long mission in 1979, where he and a film crew documented sea-water testing procedures, by the “mystery and romance” of the ocean, and it worked its charm on him at a creative level. In 1981, he began work on Science of the Sea, his personal ode to his muse. Less than 100 copies were ever pressed.*

*Info taken from Digitalis’s Science of the Sea bandcamp page

See, Digitalis somehow got its hands on the lone set of master tapes, and has remastered and reproduced it for our consumption in a modern context. And that’s just fine by me, as Müller’s output is a treat for those who want to stick their heads underwater and listen to what happens there. I guess that’s not a terribly romantic way to put it – but it’s apt, and Müller really taps into the beauty of the sea in a naturalistic way that, were it not obvious that you were listening to man-made music, could be easily misconstrued for a found-sound collage of submerged sounds. Buoyant tones and melodies are sculpted, via synthesized instrumentation, to mimic the feeling of undersea discovery, and the track titles here really paint the story in full: “Beyond the Tide,” “The Elusive Seahorse,” “Dream Sequence for a Jellyfish,” “Marine Technology” – all perfect complements to whatever film Müller and team shot during their 1979 voyage. We’re at the point where I’m probably going to start using colors as adjectives for the music, like azul and cerulean, and there’s even a track here called “Sea Green,” as good a descriptor as any. “Sea Bed Meditation” may as well describe the whole thing as its translucent lullaby unfolds.

There’s barely a ripple of rhythm, save for the bubbling synth patterns, on Science of the Sea, and that’s just fine. The closest Müller comes is on “Waterworld” and “Chasing Submarines,” wherein the synths become a bit more rambunctious than on other tracks, but they’re not out of place in the slightest, much like Mark Mothersbaugh’s score for The Life Aquatic ran the gamut from tranquil to manic. But even as the mood shifts subtly as such, Science of the Sea remains the perfect accompaniment to anything pertaining to the deep, its reverence for its subject apparent in its careful and subtle execution. It’s like Müller was his own Wolodarsky in the field, composing original soundtrack material for just-shot sequences.

Wait … this can’t be right – Müller isn’t a real person ? He’s actually a … fictional person? The whole story was PR spin? Apparently so – there was never a Jürgen Müller, nor did his story ever happen. And you know what? Turns out that’s OK – you can still fully enjoy Science of the Sea even with that knowledge, and the fact that all this trouble was undertaken to concoct such a rich tale makes the conversation around the album even more enticing. “Müller” lends so much more credence to the record as illustrative tool that the lie outshines the truth in this case, and that’s a rare feat to pull off. Kudos to whoever was behind it – you got me to listen, didn’t you?

RIYL: Dophins into the Future, Sven Libaek, Phillip Glass, Stellar OM Source


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