By Vanessa Agué February 11, 2022
Connor Armbruster enjoys playing the violin in abandoned buildings. He became fascinated with their life cycle – how one day they are full of people and the next day they are not. So he started going to play at St. Paul the Apostle, an empty church in his hometown of Troy, New York.
On a cold day in April 2020, he and his friend Rick Spataro, a sound engineer, set up microphones all around the church. Armbruster spent the day looping and layering reverberating melodies, exploring how they sounded on one side of the barren room versus the other. “It’s something that I feel like I almost can’t even replicate. That day I was in some kind of communication,” he says. not from me. Seems like it was something that was really in the moment, and I was glad we recorded it.
This record would become Masses, his debut for Dear Life Records. The album explores change: as he played, Armbruster reflected on global scale changes, such as climate change, as well as the past, present and future of the empty church he found himself in. music. The music of Masseswhich is mainly improvised on acoustic and electric violin, is sprawling and cavernous, made of echoing drones, subtle Irish fiddle techniques, all enveloped in the hollow voice of the building.
“I was largely trying to communicate with this building and see if I could glean some of the memory that it was a place that was used or inhabited, a place that was commonly accessed,” Armbruster says.
The first half of Masses takes on a darker tone, weaving in deep, melodious repetitions that gently layer on top of each other, unfolding and changing in slow motion. It’s similar to the feeling of autumn, when the days start to get shorter and the sun goes down. But with “Light Through,” things start to feel a bit lighter, and by the time “Saying Good Morning” hits, it sounds like a sunrise or a sunny day in early spring. Armbruster likes to think that these two phases of the album resemble the life cycle of the church: emptying out, then coming back to life.
Armbruster began playing the violin in fourth grade. He wasn’t very disciplined – he remembers his parents having to fake the time he practiced on his reports. He has always enjoyed listening to and learning music by ear (his earliest memories involve trying to re-enact the Star Wars theme on his parents’ old upright piano). But he struggled to find a creative spark playing the classical violin.
That changed in college when he began exploring the Irish fiddle, a traditional Celtic style of fiddle that is generally upbeat and uses different ornamentation to embellish the notes. His family is of Irish descent, so he had heard this music growing up; but when he started lessons with a local teacher, things started to click. “[Fiddling] opened my brain to the possibilities, not just that it’s a whole different language of playing the violin, but also that you can approach the violin any way you want. You could use it for just about anything,” he says.
When Armbruster started playing the violin in St. Paul, he tried playing the violin, but he quickly learned that the clarity of the melodies was lost in a church with such high ceilings and open space. So he started lengthening the notes he was playing. Each day he began by “greeting the building” with a simple melody that he repeated over and over. This “warm-up” would eventually become “In The First Leaves”, the pensive and reverberating opening track of Masses.
As he recorded, Armbruster wandered around the church playing fragments, exploring how they sounded in different corners of the building or on the balcony. It was similar to violinist Andrew Bird’s Echolocation albums, on which he walks around a place and listens to how his violin sounds in different areas. “The House Stood Empty”, the third track of Masses, highlights this technique. “I was playing that one note that was pretty loud at the beginning and I would hear it go all the way to the bottom, then back to the front, then back again, and it was so cool to witness it,” Armbruster says. “All I had to do from there was just listen and see what I could play around.”
Armbruster was raised Catholic, and although he has mixed feelings about religion today, attending masses has allowed him to explore some of the parts of religion that he still finds powerful, such as rituals and the gatherings. As he recorded Masses, he could not help wondering about the many lives of Saint Paul. He learned that Saint Paul had a practice called Perpetual Adoration, in which someone came to worship in the room 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They rotated people on a schedule. Supposedly, St. Paul maintained this for about 30 years. “How much can we hold there once the people are gone? asks Armbruster. “There must be some kind of vibration still there.”
While Masses is his first album that explicitly links place to music, Armbruster hopes to continue making music where place is a character. He sees music as intrinsically tied to where it’s made, even if a recording seems like it might have been made in a vacuum (that’s saying a lot too). As others listen to the album, he hopes they’ll hear the church in it, even if they weren’t there to experience that magical day. And he wonders how it’s gonna change when he plays Masses live in other spaces: the church will have disappeared and the new building in which he plays will begin to replace it. “For me, it’s a real communion with the place where I record,” he says.