Prior to finalizing production on Commonwealth, the latest minimalist work from New England sound artist Brendan Murray, Randy Yau speaks briefly with Brendan about the genesis of Commonwealth and his approach to sound.

Randy Yau: What is the source material for Commonwealth?

Brendan Murray: The source material is electric guitar, analog and digital synthesis, all of which went through extensive processing with computers and phrase samplers. This is the first recording I've completed that has not used anything in the way of field recordings. I wanted to move away from having non-musical sources serve as compositional framework. I wanted the piece to be explicity musical, and not rely on extraneous "non-musical" material.

That said, I do not think of this as an electric guitar record or a laptop record. I think it follows the trajectory of my previous work, but it is by no means a departure.

Most of this material was intended for an entirely different kind of record.

This is the third version of Commonwealth.

The first was an attempt at a "rock" drone record with shorter songs, entirely in tribute to the music I heard in my 20's. This was unsuccessful. I finished it and realized it didn't work, but demo'ed it to a label anyway. I realized I was being untrue to my instincts as a composer and took a few months off from recording and playing shows to reassess what I was doing. I began working again and produced a second version based on the source material, which was not so much a completed work, more a reworking of the "rock" version of this music to make it more succinct, taking out all the deliberate changes that I felt marred the first version.

The result was 77 minutes of sound, most of which became the 50 minute piece that is now "Commonwealth".

Do you always work with this source material?

It's always been a part of what I do, but I must admit my relationship to the source material is not as intimate as my connection to the composition at large. I've used guitars and synths since I was in my early teens, but I am by no means a player of those instruments nor do I consider my work "processed guitar" or "electroacoustic".

What I've been doing is recording myself playing (or in some cases, merely activating) these instruments in almost an improvisational context and recording them. From there, I pick sounds I want to develop and spend a lot of time working them over with layering, equalization and pitch treatment. I require myself to deliberate over lots of compositional choices before I'm satisfied with the result.

What is the intent of the work and your approach to drone based composition?

My work is about drones placed within a compositional framework. Sometimes I feel there is a tendency in drone music to rely on the process to dictate the duration of a given piece. I like to force structure on drone based material and tie it to temporal constraints, which is sort of counterintuitive. Drone music is often thought of as being in the "realm of the infinite" with the goal of making time elastic. I'm a little impatient; I want to hear this material worked into something that is rigorous, something that makes musical sense beyond what sounds comprise it's makeup.

What does sound/drone mean to you?

Drones afford the possibly of focusing on multiple pitches at once without the "burden" of traditional musical progression,  That's what interests me the most. When I treat a specific pitch, I'm trying to draw out harmonic relationships that aren't immediately obvious, but reveal themselves as the listener pays closer attention.

Would you say your relationship to sound is more physical/experiential or conceptual?

Both are important. The physical aspect of my work reveals itself with appropriate playback (i.e.: LOUD!) but the conceptual notions of music and its practitioners have had a deep influence on me, especially those of the later 20th Century. My deepest influences (Iannis Xenakis, John Zorn, Jim O'Rourke and Tony Conrad, for those keeping score) all have/had conceptual concerns in their work, but sitting at the core of what they did was a strong sense of musicality, not just a proof of concept.
 
Do you perform work like Commonwealth in a live setting? If yes, how important is the sound's relationship to spatiality/spatial acoustics?

Most of Commonwealth grew from live recordings, as does all my work. I like to see what develops live and what makes sense after. I rehearse fairly rigorously for live events that I play solo and recordings of live shows often reveal intentions and solutions that cannot be reached any other way. As far as spatial concerns, I've played through every possible speaker arrangement. I've become more of a stickler for nice rooms and nice PA's, but sometimes some places (an old brewery, a Whoopie Pie factory, a recital hall in a cultural institute) offer strange and irreplaceable acoustics that contour the sound. I don't actively seek these locations out, they happen to be places I've been able to play.

What is the idea behind the title?

This will take a minute: I was born in the Commonwealth Of Massachusetts in 1972. My parents went to high school about five miles from where I currently live. However, I'm not exactly from New England. I moved from here in 1978 with my family to Orlando, FL. My parents and older brother missed New England very much, but economics being what they were, we needed to live in the South as it was affordable. I come from a working class family and economics is always a consideration.

After my parents split when I was a teenager, my mother and brother and I moved back to New England. My mom settled in New Hampshire and my brother moved in Maine. I insisted on returning to Boston after college. Why? The roots I have here are deep in the past, but they are not my experience. I never spent much time here. But it was the home I had dreamed about. And it is the home of my dreams to this day. So, the title in one way refers to a dream land of sorts, an imagined place that I wanted to be in.

It also refers to the meaning it is ascribed in the Massachusetts state constitution (thanks wikipedia): "...it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good." It's a lot to live up to, in this state or in the country that we live in, and sometimes it's hard to say we ever come close. But we can try.

Commonwealth, like all of my music, is about trying.

Music is something I do. It's not about getting ahead or getting attention. It's about creating and sharing. I was a fan for so long, always investigating music obsessively but never making my own. And now I make my own.