Brendan Murray’s attention to the little things
TRADITIONAL? For Commonwealth, Murray went beyond his usual electronics to conventional instruments like guitar and organ.
For Brendan Murray, heaven often lies in the smallest of details. Commonwealth, which comes out this month on the San Francisco experimental music imprint 23Five, is a single 49-minute drone that unfolds at a leisurely pace. It’s devoid of the sharp bursts of noise and rapid accelerations of tempo that characterized his previous full-length, 2006’s Wonders Never Cease (Intransitive), and yet a drama emerges in subtle slow motion through extended, tension-filled shifts in texture and harmonics.
Murray has always labored over his releases, often working on individual pieces for months, if not years. Even so, Commonwealth took an unusually long time to come together. As he explains over the phone, the album went through numerous drafts, and the finished product bears little resemblance to his initial experiments — “It was the first album where I completely threw everything out.” He says that what ended up as one massive drone began as a series of short, guitar-based pieces inspired by bands like Labradford and Flying Saucer Attack. It was an attempt to pay tribute to the music that had inspired him early in his career, but he came to see this experiment as “a side street that maybe I didn’t need to follow. . . . I took about a third of the material that was in that first draft, and I started taking it apart and stripping it down to its basic elements until I had about 78 minutes of material.”
After Jim Haynes of 23Five (a label that Murray describes with typical self-depreciation as “way too classy for me”) expressed an interest in releasing the finished album, work began in earnest. “From there I continued distilling and expanding and distilling and expanding until I came up with the final version, which took an additional six months to finish.”
Commonwealth marks a departure for Murray in its use of traditional instruments like guitar and organ as opposed to the electronics and field recordings of earlier albums. “I’m kind of going backwards,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve been dealing exclusively with electronics, processed sound, non-musical sound. Now I’m sort of pushing back toward the instrument world.” This impulse has manifested itself in some of his collaborative projects as well, among them his post-rock band Paper Summer (who open for Mystery Palace at the Middle East upstairs on April 15) and his slo-mo improv trio Ouest with Howard Stelzer and Jay Sullivan. Whatever the project, however, he continues to tinker and experiment and sweat over the minutiae. And he says of Commonwealth that “it’s my most personal record, although there’s no extra-musical structure. I think I’m going to continue trying to find myself in all of this, but I don’t want it to become something that I feel that the listener has to decode. It should be something that you can just listen to and appreciate for its musical qualities.”
PAPER SUMMER + MYSTERY PALACE | Middle East upstairs, 472 Mass Ave, Cambridge | April 15 | 617.864.EAST
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, Brendan Murray