Although not quite a Dr. Who episode, the following interview exists to serve as evidence of the power of time travel. There exists an old allegory of a potter from ancient times discussing the happenings of the day with his wife as his work in progress rotated across the spinning wheel. The premise being, that with precise instrumentation, the pottery could be played back, and like grooves on a vinyl surface, we could hear a conversation from ancient times like a record on a turntable. Although not quite so refined, I like to think the interview which follows (and its audio accompaniment) can serve as a similar time travel modality. The interview was recorded in the past, and transcribed in (my now, May, 2020) present, to be listened to in the future. And who knows? Perhaps some time in the far future it can be uncovered and someone with more sophisticated technology will hear this with the peripheral vision of future audiences. Strap in.
“Maybe martians could do better than we’ve done.”
Alongside the following text is the audio accompaniment for the dialogue which transpired in the Spring of 2019. You are encouraged to read, listen to, or read and listen to these in tandem, ingest them separately, or simply find something else of interest on the internet.
In between ebbs and flows of trying to find the right way to articulate the work of Stelzer/Murray, I came across a quote in which Morton Subotnick recalls Satre’s notion of music, and it resonates with this work so poignantly it seems an appropriate introduction to our dialogue:
“Music is meaningful, but it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t designate anything. It’s like a dream. You wake up in the morning. You really knew what the dream was about. Most of the time you can’t explain it – and yet there seems to be an intuition that you really do know.”
The alarm goes off and we wake up. Hit record.
Realizing the coffee I’d met Brendan Murray and Howard Stelzer for only 20 minutes prior to returning to the Inman Square kitchen of my then apartment for the interview, after visiting the local java and sandwich shop (1369 Coffee House), caffeine was charging through me as soon as we arrived at my kitchen. I turned on the recorder and stepped away for a quick bathroom break before the interview got rolling. By some divine providence I’d hit record first so we could get the real dirt on what are in many ways the Senior class artists when the Freshman is not in the room – a glimpse of how the secret societies of experimental music communicate when others aren’t listening:
Howard Stelzer: “So glad I arrived early enough to go to the All-Star Sandwich Bar.”
Brendan Murray: You get a beef on weck?
HS: I got one of their funky sandwiches.
BM: Oh, those uh… what are they called, extra funky?
HS: I don’t know…. it was like fried chicken with buffalo… it was chicken tenders with buffalo sauce. It wasn’t all that funky, but they called it funky. It was a buffalo chicken sandwich.
Murray admits to giving up bread, and self-deprecatingly points to his gut. “This is what happens when you stop ripping butts, man.” After describing the literal busting of buttons from his clothes, the two men laugh together like friends who have known each other their entire lives.
Returning to the room, and the actual interview, I begin by asking Stelzer about his relationship to his work as what Discogs describes as “electroacoustic”.
HS: Yes. I have no idea where my music fits or what you call it. And I don’t care. I make it and if it helps for someone else to put a name on it, that’s fine. It’s probably electro-acoustic? Probably? But there’s no intention to do that. For me, the music is entirely driven by the emotion of the music itself, so anything conceptual is beside the point – or comes afterwards. So how do I fit into that community? I’m not really sure what community I fit in. A long time ago, when I was really young and starting, there was a community and I was definitely part of a Boston scene. And what I did was improvised and that’s not been the case for more than a decade. Now I’m so removed from whatever else is happening that I just do it and I don’t think about what it is or where it fits… other people can do that if they want. I have no idea what it’s similar to, or even who’s listening, if anyone.
Hoping for similar insight from Brendan, I’d referenced the phrasing of an old press release’s attempt to describe his work as “compacted harmonics, field recordings, and longview compositional strategies.”
BM: I’m interested in pitch and minute variations of pitch, although I don’t have any understanding of just intonation or any of that kind of stuff. I stopped using field recordings for a while, but I’ve started using them again as a jumping-off place, or just to fast forward to the record, as punctuation or more material. I think what I do is more explicitly tonal than then say, maybe, what (Howard) does, but I think that we’ve both been informed by each other over the years. I was a little more into the idea of being a composer some years ago and I think right now I’m more “just making the sound.” I had aspirations to be like a ‘Capital C’ Composer some years ago, but I don’t really think in those terms anymore. Although my new music now, I think it’s more musical than it was then, if that makes any sense.
Stelzer interjects – “I think you are a composer.”
BM:, Well, I don’t know. The one time that I tried it was so hard, I mean composing for instruments. Just generally the way I’ve worked for quite a while has been multitrack computer composition. That’s kind’ve been my format for a long time. Previous to that I worked with tape, but not in any way that was as definitive as the stuff that I do now. And to Howie’s point the idea of electroacoustic music – I pay attention to that and I too had a period where I was trying to improvise with electronics and it was not successful. I mean it was helpful, but it was more like a learning thing than anything else for me. There were people that I saw when I was doing that 20 years ago that were really successful at it, and what I was trying to do was trying to learn from them and find my own approach. Ultimately that led me towards composition.
Because it plays such a key role in much of the experimental music microcosm, I ask the two artists about the brushes they choose to paint with, the literal hardware and software employed in their songcraft (both on Commuter and elsewhere.)
HS: Can I just say, before we even start talking about that – I have no idea what Brendan did for either of our albums.
I’ve never asked him. And we’ve never talked about it. So I’m just as curious about the answer to this question. But I think it’s also a part of the band. I have no idea what happens when the sounds leave me and go to (Brendan), and they come back. We’ve never talked about it, right?
Curiosity piqued, I quickly ask if there is something else, another magical something, a special secret sauce to their compositional strategies.
HS: It’s not secret. I’ve actually never thought to even ask. (Brendan).
BM: I think the same way and I think that we both developed a similar sort of, for lack of a better word, isolated working styles. It’s all just material. I had some music that I had almost finished that I decided to bring into this project, mainly because I was just kind of being stingy with it and I wanted to use it for something. I’ll record stuff on my phone. Like field recordings, those are mostly done on my phone. And, there’s some analog synthesis, desktop synths. There’s just a couple boxes and a lot of timeline-based editing in Ableton.
Brendan puts the question back onto Howard. “What did you do?”
HS: I’m not sure I remember. We got together over the course of both albums, but for this one, how many times did we meet up and get dinner and talk about it?
BM: Never. We said “let’s do another one”. So once… and then did we send some files back and forth, but did we sit down and talk about it?
HS: We went to Simply Khmer [Edit: “that restaurant is so damn good.”] and I think it came up then. But we just didn’t say “let’s use this track,” “I’m going to fix this one,” or “let me send you something else,” but we’ve never talked about what we were doing.
BM: It was just what it sounded like: five minutes of musical discussion and 45 minutes of eating.
HS: I don’t even remember what I did. All my stuff is with cassette tapes and players. I don’t remember what the first sounds were. There was some stuff that (Brendan) would send and there might have been stuff that I started, but I would take the sounds and dump them onto a tape and then make multiple copies of the tape and play them while I’m driving with a recorder on the passenger seat of my car and play them on walkmans, and then take the thing that was recording on the passenger seat of my car and put that tape into my car’s tape player and then record that coming out of my car speakers and I do that a lot – over and over and over. And that’s something I’ll do for most of my albums until the sound is totally degraded. While I’m driving.
BM: So wait, you play tapes in the car and then record it?
HS: Yeah. So if I know I’m going somewhere, I’ll dump sounds onto some tapes and I’ll play the tape out of my car’s tape deck with a couple of walkmans – one on the floor of the car, so it gets the road noise recording, one on the passenger seat recording, or I’ll put one in that thing on the driver’s side where you put like papers and stuff. I’ll shove a walkman in there and they’ll record and then when the original tape is done playing out I’ll press play on all the other walkmans that have been recording. So there’ll be three versions of the thing that just played and I’ll record that on to another tape deck and then take that tape and put that back into the car’s tape player and record that and so I can get a good degraded sound over like a couple of trips to the grocery store and back. And then I’ll take that and I have one of those little Zoom recorders that I got from Susanna Bolle a decade ago. And so, when I think I’ve got the sound fucked up enough or degraded enough I’ll record with that playing out of the car’s speakers pretty loud. So I can take that file and rip that into my computer and have a high fidelity, or reasonably high fidelity, somewhat accurate to the sound I heard in the car version of the totally degraded tape. And I can put that in my computer and then fix the EQ and raise the volume and layer all the different versions of it. That’s what I do. I do that a lot.
BM: That’s awesome, when did you start doing that?
HS: When I moved to Lowell, I stopped playing shows and started thinking more about what I was doing with sounds rather than just putting tapes into tape players and go play-pause-play. Because now there’s no deadline for me. I can take as long as I need. There’s not a gig I’m practicing for. So I just would explore the city and go take my dog for a walk and play and record sounds as I’m walking around Lowell.
Stelzer in fact lives in Lowell, Massachusetts’ not-so-secret noise epicenter (almost entirely due to the residency of RRRecords, run by America’s Greatest Living Noise Artist, Emil Beaulieau.)
HS: You know where I live? I live in an artist live-work loft space in an old textile factory, and so it’s by freight train tracks and across from a power plant and a bunch of auto shops. So it’s a pretty loud industrial area. All the buildings around are really big brick buildings, so there’s a lot of weird reverberances. I walk my dog and have tape decks with me. I can walk in and around the buildings and get the ambience from, there’s usually, a train idling… I process sounds that way early in the morning, you know, if I’m walking him before school at 5 a.m. there’s no one around. No one cares. So I’ll just play and record while walking the dog.
At this point I’m just bowled over with respect for an artist who so successfully integrates their approach to composition in between the hustles and mundanities of the day to day grind.
HS: That’s why it happens in bursts. When we worked on our album, it wasn’t like one continuous year. It was like… “now” and “work on it now”, right? When I had a week off of school or in the summer or early in the mornings before I had to work – I’m a teacher, so before I had to go teach.
As Stelzer approaches discussing more of the nuance of recording Commuter, I wanted to step back and ask the two about their prior material. I wanted to know more about their first album, Connector, but I also was compelled to ask about a single track they’d recorded for an old Intransitive compilation; The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (if only for its elegant title if nothing else.) The two barrel over in laughter being reminded of the early collaboration.
BM: Holy shit! That’s good. That was from a show we played at Twisted Village. That’s right. Okay, 2003 and that was for “Various”. Then Connector came out last year.
HS: Okay. There’s a 12-year or 13-year gap between our first compilation appearance and our first tape.
BM: But our first live collaboration was on WFMO in 2000 and I think it’s really poignant. That’s how I met Howie, our mutual friend Jason Talbot was in the SIM (Studio for Interrelated Media) program at Mass Art and putting on shows as part of his coursework. Jason set up this evening of chance duos that involved a bunch of people from different communities. And you put your name in a hat and they just say “okay you are going to play with you.” I got there because of the Boston Improv List, which was a way that I started to get to know what was going on around here when I moved here from New Hampshire. It was an email list that a bunch of people were on and my friend Tom Guttadaro, who I was in the band Motion Picture with at the time, asked me to. We ended up getting booked on different sets in the night. I got booked. I got paired with Vic Rawlings. And I played with Vic, and then (Howard) came up to me like “Let’s play right now. Right now.”
HS: We were randomly paired up I think, but Jason might have engineered that. And then we went and played on WFMO two weeks later.
BM: Yeah, something like that.
HS: I still have those recordings and some of them are on Connector.
BM: We did one show in Philadelphia. We did a show that the track is from, and then I kind of started doing more solo stuff, and (Howard) started working with Jason a lot. Yeah, so we were kind of working in tandem, but we never really worked together unless we were in a trio situation.
HS: Brendan and Talbot and I were a band briefly called Twin. Which was, I think, us trying to figure out… I think the idea of Twin was to do these kind of dense longform pieces. I don’t think it worked, but we did it. And then later, we did a trio; me and Brendan and Jay Sullivan, called Ouest, which I think did work. I think it was a similar idea, but I think that we were older and better at that point.
BM: I think we were trying to get away from this idea of banter-like improv. Back and forth type stuff, which I think that that was how I understood improv. With Twin we were trying to get away from that and I remember we would say to each other “let’s just play like we’re one thing and you know, we both had our individual setups. And then with Ouest, I think with Jay’s sensibility, who is very much a hands-off, kind of more of an activator-type musician. He’ll set a system and let it happen. I feel like we both kind of fell in line with Jay Sullivan a little bit. That makes sense – by the time we got this duo like we had figured a lot of stuff out.
HS: I guess we have played together a lot more than that. Wow.
BM: Just not as a duo. Holy crap, we did a bunch of Twin shows. We did a bunch of Ouest shows, right?
HS: I thought I had a recording of a Twin show and I listened to it and it was mislabeled. It was one CD-R.
BM: Yeah, so that’s kind of the long history of what led us up to the first tape. The first tape came about because you contacted me. Did Jim Haynes talk to you?
HS: I don’t remember.
BM: So our friend is Jim Haynes. He runs Helen Scarsdale and has been very good to the both of us over the years. I imagine he had helped me get ahead and get in Commonwealth released, and he’s brought both Howie and I out to California to play it. We got to play the West Coast if it wasn’t for Jim. Either you proposed a cassette to him or he offered a cassette to you.
HS: I don’t remember. But he was the one who suggested to not call it just “two guys’ names.” He said I don’t want to put out a tape that’s this guy plus this guy. He said make it Stelzer / Murray: make it a band. Well that was his idea. It was his idea. I know I did and I think it was him saying make it Stelzer slash Murray: make it a band. I sort of think of us as a band… It’s not just me and Brendan doing something. It’s “okay, now we’re Stelzer/Murray. We have to do this as an identity”. Yeah. It was totally Jim’s idea.
BM: That’s amazing. We don’t talk now. It’s a testament to… let me get my words right: We’re at a point where we don’t have to talk about the details. We just do it. And it seems natural the music just comes out and we don’t have a debate or anything about it. Let’s Do It. Let’s do an album. And there’s all these years behind us. So it’s just it just happens.
HS: Yeah, like I didn’t know that [Brendan] used Ableton.
BM: I didn’t know about the tape thing.
Editing and reflecting from the future, memory sure is a funny thing sometimes.
BM: Do you remember the time we played a show and I wanted to drop some drum and bass breaks?
HS: Yeah, I do. [More laughter.] Like… “NO!” I used to be so nervous.
I start getting curious, and ask the two to reflect on Stelzer/Murray performing as a live unit. I couldn’t help but wonder, had these two legends actually set this project to the stage?
BM: I’m going to say no, not really.
HS: We did one show in Lowell, but that was for a party basically. The sound wasn’t good and we couldn’t hear what we were doing and we turned everything on but I can’t hear what sounds I’m producing – and then we stopped.
BM: It was a gallery opening, a party, and it was a fun night.
HS: It was a gallery in Lowell run by a really super nice guy, and a really good spot, but it wasn’t an environment where we could really do it, and we failed. But we want to do it.
BM: The last time I suggested to you that the next record should be live. But hmm. Well, I have an idea.
It becomes difficult for the editor to transcribe the sound of bells going off. Carrying on…
BM: But yeah, I mean I don’t need to be mushy, but we’ve known each other a long time. We trust each other almost implicitly with a lot of stuff, music included. Like if [Howard] hands me something and I do stuff to it and he says no, it’s perfectly okay. So there’s a lot of shorthand.
Stepping away from the dialogue surrounding live performance, it seems a proper time to steer the discussion toward the topic of intention. How should these sounds be heard? Headphones? Boombox? Telepathically? The compulsion to understand how these artists envision the end product’s reception seems important.
BM: Once it’s out, I want people to use it however they want to use it. And whether that’s deep concentrated listening or a kind of passive listening, because that’s how I experience music as well. There was a point in time where I was more sold on the idea that people needed to concentrate, you know what I mean? Being totally present for something. But now I’m more into the idea of maybe the more traditional ideas of ambient, of allowing things to just kind of happen.
HS: I don’t think what we do is ambient.
BM: No, if somebody wants to leave something on in the background and not concentrate on it – I’m totally cool with that. There was a time where I wasn’t.
HS: For me, in a perfect world, if you were to listen to Commuter, it would be very loud on a system that can reproduce all the frequencies really well – and it would be BIG and room-filling.
HS: That’s what it is for for me. Obviously I agree with Brendan that once it leaves our hands we’re not going to say you must do this, but all things being equal I would like it to be big, room-filling: the sound should fill all the space for the time that it’s on.
And now things begin to get a little more focused. We begin to discuss nuances of the sounds and titles throughout Commuter, as a fully realized composition.
HS: Some of the sounds, especially on the second side… really all three tracks, but especially the last one… the sound is so vertical – and the changes that happen are so gradual that it sounds really static, but none of it is actually static – so that I think if it’s just a sound playing, – and you weren’t paying attention, it would be lost. Or rather, to go back to the question, it would just become a different thing. I would like for people to submit to it.
BM: The song titles that we chose were taken from mottos of towns where we used to live, or live currently.
HS: We’re talking about commuting. All the first tape, Connector is named Connector because of the Lowell Connector. When Brendan comes to visit…
BM: I take the Lowell Connector to his house.
HS: Commuter, the connection between the titles are, you know, commuting from places where we have lived. So, Foliage is Apopka, Florida, the indoor foliage capital of the world, where Brendan went to school.
BM: Yeah, I went to high school there.
HS: The last track – is it the Keene motto?
The track in question being Let The Children Guard What The Sires Have Won.
BM: Yeah, that was titled very quickly because we were having a back and forth over messenger one morning. I think we were both commuting into work.
HS: Yeah, I was sitting in my classroom before the kids came in. I was making up the math lesson and texting with [Brendan] about song titles.
BM: Yes, and at the same time I was looking up stuff on my phone on the Red Line.
HS: You were sitting on the Red Line?!?
[Belly laughs from the group start to become a recurring theme]
HS: Lowell’s motto is Art Is the Handmaid of Human Good, but Ron (Emil Beaulieau, America’s Greatest Living Noise Artist] took that for an LP title already – so we couldn’t use that one. Okay, so we’re thinking “where else have we lived? What are the town mottos?” Molina was one of [Brendan’s] source tracks, called Alfred Molina, and I thought that was hilarious.
BM: I stole that out from Miles Davis, like he would have songs named about people like Willie Nelson. And it’s from the well-known Alfred Molina appearances from Boogie Nights. It’s like one of the best five minutes of acting ever… and the idea of him doing that, I stole that conceit from Miles Davis which sounds ridiculous, but like just the idea that you would have a song that was named after somebody that had nothing to do with that person. That music has nothing to do with Alfred Molina whatsoever, but I got sick of trying to figure out what it was in my computer between other files. I also had a period in my life where I was pretty into the idea of getting my music out there, and even at some point not having a job and making music, and that is not where my life is at, I love my work. I work in higher ed, I’m married and have had a quiet life, where for a long time I went to everything, I played as often as I could, traveled as often as I could, if I was offered something there was no way I could turn it down. The last time I played like I was asked open for Tom Recchion. It’s like – I’m going to not open for Tom Recchion. He’s incredible. I like the idea of making it special and being with my friends. But at the same time like I’ve caught myself realizing that there is a community, and I should find a way to make a contribution in a way that’s meaningful – but that’s true to me. But sometimes, like “I can’t go out.” Like.. I don’t. I’m just not wired that way anymore. I go to sleep around midnight.
I’m curious then, where the two very busy professionals and artists even make the time to make the work.
HS: Very early in the morning.
BM: I was working late last night – late like after midnight, which I haven’t done in a long time. But a lot of times it’s like weekend afternoons. Sometimes in the early evening, before I was doing this thing for an hour and stop no matter where I’m at – it’s just when there’s a natural stopping point and it’s an hour. I’m done.
In speaking about work ethic and “keeping hours” in the realm of experimental music, it was impossible to avoid the mention of Chicago’s legend of challenging music, Kevin Drumm.
HS: I was talking to Kevin, and I said “dude how you make so much music? Have you seen his Bandcamp? There’s so much, so I ask him how he does it. He keeps office hours. He forces himself to make a recording a month. And he puts it on Bandcamp. Office hours. Boom. It’s a great idea.
BM: But the idea of late nights like fretting and sweating over something, I’m not interested in doing that anymore unless it’s warranted. If I feel like something needs to be dug into – I would spend hours and hours on solo recordings, basically doing the same edits over and over like, “oh my God I worked on this for so long!”, I was doing the same thing and over again. I can’t work like that anymore. So that’s a long way of saying that this is a level of participation that I’m comfortable with. I feel like I have a responsibility as somebody who lives here, to contribute. Not that I think that I’m so wonderful or anything as an artist I feel like I should be making art – and part of that is making it public.
HS: Yeah, I remember I remember so many years of sweating all day, setting up all my tape decks, playing a mediocre set, and waiting until 1 a.m. to put everything back in the boxes and schlep everything back to my car afterwards – and I don’t want to do that anymore.
BM: Did you ever do any Fung Wah shows?
Fung Wah, the bus that ran from Chinatown (BOS) to Chinatown (NYC).
HS: No. What? Oh, hell no.
BM: I had nights of dragging a suitcase worth of gear down the stairs to play Tonic for 30 minutes, but that was the most exciting thing in the world.
HS: There was a time when playing a show was its own success.
And with that, the written component of this interview should end.
Hopefully you have been listening along with the audio component of this interview, because we’re not done. The second half (and I venture to say, the more enthralling half,) of this interview should take the driver’s seat.
Pressing play on the tape deck, and jumping into the Tardis, I encourage you to listen along to Commuter with Stelzer/Murray. Both the record, and the artist’s accompanying dialogue, is a genuine treat. I found speaking with Brendan and Howie to be quite similar to taking in the complete sonic spectrum mapped across Commuter. At times, I’m listening to what is clearly the voice of Howie, and others what is clearly the voice of Brendan. However, when things get exciting, both as a fan – excited to ask questions, as well as a listener – was to pay mind to the streaks of brilliance where not one, but both of the players channel the third voice in the room: the voice of Stelzer/Murray.
I’ll shut up now. And let the music do the talking.