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Music Review: Jürgen Müller – Science of the Sea

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I would have to say that a German oceanographer would be one of the least likely I would have expected to have recorded an album as beautiful as Science of the Sea. Not that I have anything against oceanographers, and I am of partial German extraction myself, so there is no prejudice here. It is just that I never considered a man of science would have composed such a marvelous set of music. His name is Jürgen Müller. The 12 tracks that comprise Science of the Sea flow together so well, they constitute a 36 minute “undesea suite.” Moreover, the story behind the album is almost as compelling as the music itself.

Back in 1979, young Jürgen Müller was studying ocean science at the University of Kiel and joined a crew on a deep-sea mission. For someone who had been fascinated by the ocean all his life, the experience was a profound one. When he returned, he attempted to document the various emotions he had felt during the enterprise in music. Outside of some early childhood piano lessons, Müller was self-taught. He bought some early electronic instruments and borrowed others from the university’s music department.

Between school and other activities, he did not complete Science of the Sea until 1982. He pressed up less than 100 copies and his musical career pretty much stalled out afterwards. Most of the records were eventually given to friends and family. I have no idea how the folks at Digitalis Records discovered Jürgen Müller, but they did and released Science of the Sea on vinyl last year. Surprisingly enough, it became one of their best-selling titles and has just been issued on CD.

What Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and others did for “space rock” in the 70’s is what Jürgen Müller did for the sea. Anyone who has seen a Jacques Cousteau documentary has heard music that sounds something like Science of the Sea. But Müller achieved much more than simple soundtrack music. Rather than simply evoking murky, underwater sounds, the songs contained on this album have a unique and quite distinct beauty.

While one could categorize Science of the Sea is a “concept” album of sorts, each track is a separate entity. “Beyond the Tide” is the opener, and it nicely eases us into Müller’s musical vision. At five minutes and 28 seconds, “Beyond the Tide” is one of the longest pieces on the album. It perfectly sets the tone for what is to follow.

Some of the titles evince the whimsical side of the artist, which is often reflected in the music. “The Elusive Seahorse” is one example. At two minutes and 15 seconds it is short, and perfectly suited to the mental image of catching a glimpse of one of these splendid creatures before they quickly swim off. Perhaps the ultimate instance of Müller’s playfulness is “Dream Sequence for a Jellyfish.” It is a wonderfully mysterious piece. With such an imaginative title, the song allows for any sort of journey one might conjure up.

Actually, the same can be said for every track. The most “technological” song of the set is titled “Marine Technology.” But my personal favorite is the brief (one minute and 40 seconds) “Oxygen Bubbles.” I kind of wish he had pursued this one a bit further, for it is a delight. “Oxygen Bubbles” is followed by “Coral Fantasy,” which is much more fully realized at three minutes and 32 seconds.

As a side note, the reason I am mentioning the times of the individual tracks is to try and convey how Müller has managed to perfectly evoke the imagery of his titles with such brevity. It’s important to distinguish what he has accomplished from those earlier “space rock” references I made earlier. Many of Müller’s fellow German musicians were famous for producing LP side-long tracks. I find it significant that the self-taught Jürgen Müller was able to get past that sort of tendency towards lengthy pieces, while still producing such gloriously picturesque music.

Science of the Sea seems programmed to tell a story, and does it exceptionally well. The second to last song is “Vast Worlds Beneath,” and it really does offer a musical vision of wonder. Finally we come to “Lonely Voyage.” I am not sure what Müller intended by the title. It could be an underwater parallel to the classic scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where one of the astronauts loses his tether, and is sent spiraling into space. Or is it just that a trip like this is in the end, a solo one? In any case, the song evokes a feeling of ever-expanding vistas, so vast as to probably never be fully explored. Yet as the insistence of the track makes clear, Jürgen Müller is going to see as much of it as he can.

This is a wonderful album, truly a lost gem, and the people at Digitalis should be commended for giving it a proper release. For more information, I recommend checking out the distributor, Forced Exposure. They have quite a number of intriguing items in their catalog, but Science of the Sea is a jewel.

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