TEN QUESTIONS WITH JAMES MURRAY
Though a number of James Murray's releases have been reviewed at textura, he hasn't been the subject of a major article or interview—until now. It's an oversight that should have been rectified long ago, but hopefully the following in-depth interview will be an adequate atonement. If anything, the interview comes at the perfect time as the London-based Murray has just issued a splendid new full-length, Eyes to the Height, which evidences the high degree of craft the self-taught composer has brought to all of his work since 2004. You never know quite what you're going to get with a Murray release, but rest assured the quality will be high, regardless of whether the focus is ambient-electronic, modern classical, or electroacoustic. We thank Murray for sharing so openly his thoughts on the album and his creative process.
1. You've been making music for many years now and issued seven solo albums (the latest included) during that time. In what ways is Eyes to the Height, stylistically and with respect to production methods, different from what you've done before? And why did you decide to issue Eyes to the Height and the earlier Ghostwalk EP on Ultimae Records rather than your own Slowcraft Records?
Eyes to the Height and Ghostwalk are both love letters to ambient electronica, and altogether different creatures from my Slowcraft albums. Those more familiar with the electroacoustic, experimental side of my work might see the new material as a kind of departure, but in some ways it's more of a return to where I come from. I like to dig into and explore styles thoroughly—as in the case of the Floods trilogy—but it's also nice to switch things around when the time feels right, and that's what I'm doing here.
Every album feels very different to produce, but it's always a challenging, unpredictable process, a two-way dialogue not unlike an intense human relationship. Loss was recorded in one afternoon, first takes only on a single synthesizer. An upcoming album was recorded during a week's retreat alone in a log cabin in the mountains with little more than a laptop. This album was developed over several years and without doubt involved more heavy programming than I've done in a while, which calls for a different kind of discipline. Detailed, careful programming can't be hurried; you just have to be patient—tweak, leave, refine, leave to breathe again.
When it comes to releases some projects sit right with a particular label and others don't. By the end of 2010 it was apparent that the right home for Trusting a Twirled World didn't exist so I set up Slowcraft Records. Floods took shape the following year. and it became rapidly clear that here was another deeply personal record I needed to issue myself. That seeded a trilogy and more besides for Slowcraft, but Eyes to the Height was from its very first note an Ultimae record. Their panoramic remit and the beating heart of this album lie on a direct intersect. I knew that if they wanted it I'd entrust it to them, and the experience of working with them again has only confirmed the rightness of that instinct.
2. On many of your earlier releases, guitar is audible, whereas little trace of it is evident on Eyes to the Height (though it might simply be present but less identifiable as such due to processing treatments). Does the new release signal a move away from guitar-based work to music of a more purely electronic nature?
The guitar will always be a key instrument for me; this is just a case of different tools for different tasks. I enjoy using, mis-using, and abusing all manner of instruments and technologies to achieve interesting results. Every project poses new questions, and it's my job to answer those questions as best I can. In this case the album wanted warmth and a coherent, personal sound that's intimate without relying too much on hands-on acoustic presence for that intimacy. The next project will most likely ask for something else altogether.
3. Impositions of genre are always a troublesome thing and ultimately hopelessly reductive--an indirect way of saying that while it's not completely incorrect to refer to Eyes to the Height as ‘modern ambient' (as per the press release), the label doesn't do justice to the stylistic and atmospheric richness of the material. How might you describe it?
I've never been keen on classifying my music nor fond of the term ambient, modern or otherwise. We tend to compromise when it comes to these press releases, try to find some terminology that allows people coming to the record to broadly understand its aims and motives. This is troublesome of course; language is usually pretty inadequate to the task, and nothing is nearly as informative as simply putting the record on.
4. The press release for the release indicates that the album aspires to capture “the fragile beauty of life and loss, memory and function,” and certainly lines from the included poem, with its images of hair turning grey and lives reaching their natural ends, reinforce such a topic. Is there anything in particular that brought you to select such thematic material for the recording, and how difficult is it to translate such emotional concepts into instrumental form?
In my creative work I'm often trying to find some kind of reconciliation with the things I find most difficult to understand and accept. These themes matter—to me at least—so I'm highly motivated to seek out elegant ways of expressing and exploring them without words (or with words, in the case of the accompanying poem). Caring about the subject instantly fuels the process, provides resolve for when it gets tough and helps to some extent keep self-doubt at bay. Music for me has always been about translating problematic and upsetting emotions into sound. I succeed when the listener, when unpacking the experience on the other end, is provoked into a similarly complex and challenging emotional response.
5. Though your recordings have always evidenced a remarkably nuanced attention to detail, the bar, if my ears don't deceive me, appears to have been raised higher on Eyes to the Height. Listening to representative pieces such as “What Can Be Done” and “Laterisers”, it strikes me that you not only dedicated great effort to the quality of the compositions and their melodic content but that you gave an equal amount of attention to the sound design and how the elements are layered. Would that be an accurate take on the material?
Thank you; I appreciate the observation, and you've made an interesting choice of tracks to illustrate your point, too. People who know me are aware that I'm detail-orientated, and I've always considered sound design and the more formal aspects of composition to be of equal importance. Some of my albums were painted with broader strokes as fits their nature; others like the Floods trilogy are to my mind defined by nuance. My work with Ultimae has its own particular personality and requires a certain degree of focus and musical density. It's a question of resolution, how tightly any particular world wants to be wound.
6. I get a real strong sense of pacing from the album, with the initial tracks incrementally building in intensity until the title track appears halfway through. Was this aspect of pacing and build also something you consciously gave a great deal of attention to?
I and the label are very respectful of the album as an art form, just as one might be of the novel or three-act play. Without arc or a considered, meaningful narrative it's really just a clustering of tracks. That idea feels very unsatisfying to me. Every full-length I release is a concept album of sorts, and figuring out how to tell the story is always an integral and defining part of the process. It's a delight, too: mediating between individual pieces and the wider whole can feel bewildering at times, frustrating even, but everything falling into place is one of most satisfying moments of the entire album experience.
7. Beats, if beats of a somewhat stripped-down sort, are also present on the album to a greater degree than before, if I'm not mistaken. Did anything bring about this newly awakened interest in a rhythmic dimension?
I always hear pulses in my music, but I'm very particular about when and how I allow them to rise to the surface. I seem to have been favouring space and silence as defining meters for a while now. That's shifted slightly with this record, but it's not a new interest: beats go all the way back to Where Edges Meet, and they never really went away. But it's fair to say that for now at least, I'm enjoying moving things along with a touch more purpose.
8. Is the music you create influenced by your immediate surroundings and the place where you live or are you someone whose music is unaffected by the physical reality beyond your workspace? If it is, could you elaborate on the ways in which your surrounding environment influences what you create or manifests itself in your work?
I'm a nester, and my preferred environment is always the one in which I feel most safe and secure. I try to minimize the influence of the surrounding environment while actually composing, and then to enjoy its comforts during the ensuing production. I've gone to considerable lengths to ensure I'm happy and relatively secluded in the space where I live and work. When I'm settled in my mind is when the best music comes out.
9. Like many a listener, I often wonder what a typical day in the life of a composer looks like, whether in your case, for instance, you create music at a specific time of the day and follow a set routine or adhere to a less rigid schedule and do creative work when inspiration strikes. What does a typical day in the life of James Murray look like?
I'm working on some aspect of music every day of the week, usually without much of a set routine. What I'm up to at any given moment depends on what's in production and what stage it's at. Mornings are usually most productive but not always best for the composition or initiating ideas. For recording and production sessions I try to block out afternoons and evenings. I've been collaborating with other producers lately, which is an interesting and rather different way to work. I do some commercial composition here and there, and a spot of teaching completes the picture. I try to keep each day fresh, bearing in mind how lucky I am to do what I love.
10. Without wishing to turn this into a ‘Sonny and Cher type of thing, has your music changed as a result of having Anne Garner as your partner? And do your respective musical lives overlap in the spaces you share or do you try to keep them separate?
It helps that we get on as well as we do, living and working together every day. Many years ago we realized that what matters is each other and our music, and we've since more or less done away with everything else in order to focus on that. Sharing space and time, co-existing, is something of an art form, one that we're continually refining both in the moment and over collaborative projects that span many years. There's no one even remotely like Anne; she's a constant challenge to make of myself a more ambitious, expressive and honest musician, artist and person.