In Session: Connor Armbruster
TROY – In releasing Masses on January 28th, Connor Armbruster (who goes professionally by Armbruster) has created a collection of work that weighs heavy on the mind while also providing room for solace. Interweaving a collection of bowing techniques (such as tremolo bowing) as a bedrock for many of the album’s tunes, Armbruster combines a minimalistic approach with melodies that portray a multitude of feelings quite easily. There’s a clear distinction between the first and latter half of the album; both convey strong emotions, though to this listener each is vastly different. While the first half has more wistful thoughts emanating from the overtly sparse strings, the latter half is much more concerned with nostalgia and hope for the future.
It’s clear there’s an inspiration for classical music in this album. Though it might not be quantified as a distinctly through-composed piece, it certainly is rife with intention, and I appreciated, for example, Armbruster’s use of motifs and variations therein to convey various ideas.
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Armbruster to discuss his work, the creative impetus behind such pieces, and more. Continue reading for our interview as we delve into the heartfelt and the esoteric. To support the artist, please view the link at the end of the article!
Lucas Garrett: Connor, thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk about your album, Masses.
Connor Armbruster: Of course! My pleasure.
LG: It’s a very unique, niche sound. How did you go about creating something like this?
CA: For me, it really started out with the building, itself. This was recorded in what is now a big, empty church in Troy. It started out with me just playing around in there with my violin – first with my acoustic and then the electric. I was looking for textures that would sound cool; it was such a huge, empty space. I could play, you know, one note on my electric…
LG: The tremolo bowing, you mean?
CA: Yeah, the very low pulse, also. I could hear it go all the way to the back and then come back toward me, again. It would last for ten seconds. It was really quite amazing. So, I slowly discovered the textures that worked the best in there; the ones that really sang. I wrote those down, and that’s kind of the “score,” you could say, for the pieces. I wrote down on a piece of paper these textures. For that tremolo part, I was scribbling and I was like, “That’s the first piece, there.” I drew pulses for the next one. I used that as a map and I played it differently every time. I was always trying to play in the moment.
LG: A lot of it is very rubato, you know? When I was listening to it – I think a lot of us try to feel the pulse, you know – I don’t think you wrote the album that way, right? It felt very free-form.
CA: Yeah. I wanted it to be “quasi-live.” We recorded the whole thing in one day. I met up at the church with my friend, Rick Spataro, who’s an amazing recording engineer and musician. We did about three takes and we took the best one. That’s how I wanted it, because it really is music that is supposed to be “in the moment.” I would use the textures I described as a map, but every time I played it, I was feeling it out. I was trying to establish communication with the building itself, which was helpful to me to remember when I started playing it out live again. If I’m going to tour the album around, I can’t always be in that same church. It’s going to be in different rooms; smaller rooms; bars; things like that. At first, I was banging my head against the wall, thinking, “How can I pull this off?” Until I remembered that it’s really – at its core – about being in the moment and listening to the space.
LG: Now, let’s talk a little bit more about that, because I feel oftentimes you have these rock bands; these folk bands; these country bands – whatever kind of band you’re talking about. A lot of it is about the performance, but especially with what I heard here, it really… not that it wasn’t music – it definitely was music – but it felt like more of a performance piece than strictly music, you know?
CA: Yeah. I think it sits pretty gently between being tonal, written music, and an exploration of textures and sound, in general.
LG: It’s nice to hear you do this. When I met you, it was at Caffé Lena…
CA: I remember that!
LG: When I got this album, that’s what I was expecting; that kind of folk music. It wasn’t like that at all!
LG: It was neat to listen to. Speaking of buildings and stuff like that, have you ever read David Byrne’s book, “How Music Works?”
CA: Yes! I have! Very important book for me.
LG: He’s talking about the buildings in Machu Pichu. It’s really interesting that you brought up the church; I don’t know if a lot of people think about the room, they may just think about the notes.
CA: Yeah, exactly.
LG: That book was really important to me when I read it.
CA: Same here. I was really impacted by what he said about spaces, especially. And, how places really form music more than we think; the relationship between where music is played and what the music is, is huge. It’s everything.
LG: You take the record that you made, and if you put it in the room I record out of – it’s pretty small. I think if you did something like that in the room I work out of, I don’t think it’d work; it’d all clash onto itself.
CA: Yeah, I wouldn’t have been able to write the same music in there. It would’ve been something completely different.
LG: It’s cool, because I don’t hear that a lot; people write music in their heads but I don’t hear people talk about the room, so that was really nice.
CA: That’s a cornerstone of my musicianship, I think. I’ve always really liked the idea of communicating with a place.
LG: Do you feel communicating outside is – for me, every time I’ve tried to write outside, it hasn’t worked. I feel the sound goes away, how do you feel about that? Have you ever done that?
CA: Oh, yeah! I haven’t written outside before, and I used to practice my fiddle playing outside, a lot. It’s one of those things where you realize why the violin or the fiddle was such a popular street instrument because it feels uniquely designed to cut through ambient sound. You’re playing outside in a crowded area, or something with many voices, and you can pretty clearly hear a violin playing.
LG: Yeah, absolutely. But, If you’re on an acoustic guitar, what you’re playing just goes right out the soundhole. I don’t think it works the same, at all, on a guitar. At least for me, it didn’t. The sound goes away from me instead of being encompassing.
CA: Yeah, it gets sent out into the ether. It’s funny because the violin is vibrating next to your head; you can feel it in your skull. For me, that was a unique challenge when learning how to play the electric violin, because there’s less of that.
LG: What made you go to an electric violin from an acoustic one?
CA: Well, I’ve been playing acoustic for most of my life; it’s what I learned on. Around in college – when I was really starting to get into avant-garde music and different kinds of listening – I got this pretty cheap pickup that I could install into my acoustic violin. Not like a contact mic but an actual pickup you sand into the bridge. That led to experimentation with my friends’ guitar pedals and amps and things. From there it really took off – I loved being able to manipulate the sound that way. I started to shop around to see if I wanted to go the hybrid route or see if I should go all-in on an electric instrument.
I found this instrument that was made by Tucker Barrett, a luthier from Vermont. He made a bunch of electric violins, violas, and cellos in the 90s. One of his instruments I discovered is in the movie, Starship Troopers, and is a similar model to mine. I saw this one and I found it for sale in a shop down in Florida. My instrument is a five-string so it encompasses the viola register as well.
LG: So, you have the low C on there, too?
CA: Yeah! I fell in love with the sound of it ‘cause with enough manipulation you can really get everything from a cello up through violin.
LG: Is that what we’re hearing on Masses?
CA: Yeah! The whole album is recorded with two instruments: my acoustic and electric violin.
LG: OK, that makes a lot more sense! I was listening to that thing and was like, “Alright, that’s violin.” Then, I was like, “Wait a minute, how’s he hitting that note?” My brain didn’t know what the hell was going on.
CA: Haha. I used some octave pedals and a pedal that can split into chords. I’ll choose intervals and that’s how I get the built-up orchestral sounds.
LG: OK, because I was like, “Is that a contrabass? What’s going on here?”
CA: Yeah, hahahaha.
LG: That makes a lot more sense. It wasn’t sounding like a violin; it wasn’t sounding like a bass; it wasn’t sounding like a viola. “What’s going on right now?”
CA: Yep! It’s the electric through a bunch of pedals and a loop pedal, as well.
LG: That’s really neat, man. It’s thought-provoking music.
CA: I’ve been trying to describe the genre to people, because it’s been placed with a lot of ambient music which I can totally understand and I can see how it’d go there. But, it’s also not exactly ambient; it’s clearly composed music that goes places and is intentional. I think somebody listed it under contemporary classical music, which I can agree with, as well. It’s got film score-y parts to it.
LG: It seemed very bucolic; you know?
LG: I think the title of the songs match really well, and I think in that sense, that… I don’t know if I’d say classical. I’d definitely say the ethos is there. In classical music, for a lot of it, they based the piece off the title. In that sense, the album works that way.
CA: Yeah. I definitely drew from, and am a big fan of, the jazz philosophy. I read Herbie Hancock’s book. I was really inspired by his take on music and anecdotes on playing jazz. And, how that has very much to do with the place it’s played, as well.
It’s funny, people often ask if I’m classically trained or went to school. I really wasn’t, exactly. I didn’t go to a conservatory, and I didn’t take private classical violin lessons. But, I am just a huge fan of classical music. Especially the early modern composers like Igor Stravinsky. I’m very inspired by that kind of music.
LG: Debussy and that type of stuff?
CA: Yeah! I love early explorations in atonality. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a big piece for me.
LG: I feel when people make music like this, that it’s the most authentic. You and I know it’s not going to be for everyone…
LG: But I feel like when we make the art in such a unique way that we’re really making our most honest, truest art, really.
LG: Because we’re not worried about who’s going to like it.
CA: Yeah, exactly.
LG: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered today?
CA: I’m often asked about the subject matter of Masses; what it’s about. I struggle to answer that question because it’s meant to be pretty open. But, I did think about it as two pieces; two long-form pieces. The first half and the second half. The first half mostly has to do with fall, or waning. Death, perhaps. The second half I was thinking more of spring, or renewal, or resurrection.
LG: Thank you very much for your time!
CA: Thank you, it was my pleasure!
LG: Great talking to you, man!
CA: You too!