Mike Munson’s space/time traveling machine

Words by Mai’a Williams, photographs by Lydia Velishek

Mike Munson debuted Perihelion Day, a month-long photography exhibition and experimental story/music performances, at Engage Winona in January 2024. The invite said, “Perihelion Day is an exploration and celebration of the time when Earth is closest to the sun.” Officially, the perihelion of 2024 was January 2nd at 7 p.m. Central time. Mike’s first performance of the Perihelion Day series was on January 3rd — close enough.

The exhibited photos were mainly of open vast skies, light shooting through disparate clouds, the blueness of overarching heavens, the way the sunlight breaks into a spectrum of colors as it hits the Earth’s atmosphere, the flat and rolling horizons of the North American continent.

And there was Mike standing in front of an intimate and curious audience, telling us facts about outer space. Honestly, I don’t remember the specific facts he shared with us when I attended in late January. What I do remember is Mike’s almost-nerdy enthusiasm, reading from pages in his notebook — an amateur astronomer astonished by the spooky vastness of the cosmos, by the way that time and space converges but also cleaves apart, by the way that the universe is infinite and yet deeply embedded into the cells of each of us.

After he talked for about 20 minutes, he sat in a chair, turned some knobs and dials, picked up his guitar and slowly started to play. The audience members leaned back in their chairs, closed their eyes, and relaxed their limbs. I too started to drift away with the music, floating on waves of sound vibrations to another time and space — beyond this room, beyond this evening, beyond beyond beyond.

An hour after the performance, I sat down with Mike as he explained the impetus for the Perihelion Day installation.

“So, as a part of my time driving around playing music–taking pictures is a natural part of it. Most of them just go to live on my phone and then nothing happens with them. So, originally the idea of doing a photo show was exciting to me.

Most of my photos are of landscapes or three-quarters sky with a little bit of land. And so after flipping through my photo reel and seeing that most of my photos have a feel to them or a look to them…There are so many commonalities even though the places themselves are really spread apart and really different — from Yucca Valley to Montreal, Canada to the Superior Hiking Trail to the Mississippi to Lake Superior.

So just connecting all of those (places) and we are all connected — even though it looks different and we talk different — we are all looking at the same sky.”

He went on to say that usually when he plays music, it is “music as entertainment as opposed to music as intense sharing, trust-building.”

Perihelion Day was a move in a different direction: “There is more of an element of trust here…With an arrangement like this is to say ‘I am going to make myself uncomfortable’ — even though it’s not necessarily stated. I say that by saying, ‘I am going to talk about science … I am going to move beyond my comfort zone and hopefully you will join me there by taking part in this.’ And listening to music that is made up on the spot, because that is generally not how people engage with music — here in Winona, at least.”

It was looking back at these photos on his phone that made him realize that “they told a bigger story … that we are all connected and ultimately that this place that we inhabit is small. Even though it has great diversity, we’re still just this tiny piece of the bigger picture of the solar system, the galaxy and on and on and on…that is why these are looking outwardly — sky shots.”

When I think about the music Mike is most known for, an exploration of the Mississippi blues, I think of time travel — of the ways that his work is not only about touring across the space of the United States, but also about going back and forth in time to listen to and learn from the blues greats and traditions.

“Traveling to Mississippi feels like time traveling, which isn’t traveling back in time, but is traveling to a different time…which is the same feelings I get in Yucca Valley California. It’s another place and another time,” he said.

“But also in the context of music, a lot of the great blues music feels like it’s very old, but it’s not. A lot of it was made at the beginning of audio recorded history. But it existed plenty before that. And that is an exciting space to visit…And it made great leaps — technology and music became better. We aren’t talking computers — we are talking guitars that stayed in tune and were louder…And electric guitars being invented is an exciting time. Because everyone was just flipping out on them. So the history of music is that sort of time travel and to have the luxury to visit those times through recordings. While living in the present — you can go to 1950 in your head for a little bit and then you can reproduce it on your own and manipulate it.”

“That blues music is, in my opinion, some of the best guitar playing that ever happened. The creativity that went into developing those techniques. And to be able to supply enough musical information to get the story across and to get people to dance even though you are just one person with one instrument. That is an incredible feat of creativity. Everything I am aiming to do is trying to match that feat of creativity. And everything I’ve learned to do has come from those players and those people who made it up.”

And what’s next after Perihelion Day?

“I have a new musical project that is called upup/OVER. It is about being able to play more contemplative music in spaces where people want to contemplate with me — instead of entertainment. And it can be both, but I don’t want it to be solely entertainment from the outside. So upup/OVER will be more contemplative music for contemplative spaces. The name itself implies the idea of transcendence.”

I asked him about what has been the audience’s reception to Perihelion Day, considering it is different from what most people have come to expect from his musical performances.

“People want to engage with something that they kind of know about but they kind of don’t, but they are willing to come and try. And they can do that with (outer) space. And if they can do that with space then maybe they can do that with other people.”

“We’ll make it as hard as possible (for people) and if you are willing to go that far, okay then maybe …”

I chimed in, “Maybe you are willing to understand another human being?”

“We are vast, right?”

“Yes, every person is their own universe.”

“So maybe that is part of what is happening here…it’s been heartening to see people stretch their brains. And for myself, I'm obviously stretching my brain — beyond its capacity. But I think we hit wonderful moments. So the whole thing isn’t great or polished or whatever but inside of it, there are these great moments that are super wonderful. Like these snapshots — great moments from a horrible tour or a long weekend that was really tough but there is a beautiful moment.”

During Mike’s improvisational, contemplative, experimental playing, I thought about Sun Ra’s film Space is the Place, and the ways that Afrofuturism has infused itself into the heartbeat of everyday small town America, the way that Mike’s installation and performance series was not only indebted to the work of bluesmen from a century ago, but also indebted to jazz experimentalists who created an entire lexicon of music as a means to communicate with other planets and temporal realities. Sun Ra also looked to the open skies and saw the potential for Black freedom through musical freedom.

After Mike finished playing the guitar and we, the audience, returned to the present evening, to the warmly-lit room on 3rd Street, he invited questions from the audience. The last question came from a child. “Do you believe in aliens?”

I couldn’t help but grin. That was the question I had wanted to ask Mike.

Mike nodded and smiled. “I think that there is more than just us in the universe.”

Learn more about Mike at www.mikemunson.net

Learn more about Mai’a at www.maiawilliams.net.

Learn more about Lydia at lyvedesign.myportfolio.com/photography.
Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.