Chris Murphy is a loopy musician. And that’s a compliment! He’s a master at an electronic technique called “song looping,” which he does right on stage in real time. He begins by playing either a note, a rhythm that might otherwise be played on a drum or a bass, or a melodic phrase. It’s immediately recorded and then played back repeatedly throughout the given song. After laying down the first notes, he can also record another set of notes to loop. This technique produces a stack of repeating musical phrases; like a cake, you can serve up anywhere from a simple one layer to a ten layer wedding extravaganza, all delicious. This uniquely layered and richly textured approach unifies all the different genres and styles in his enormous repertoire.
He writes all his music, and the first piece he played, a waltz, demonstrated looping beautifully. The first loop was a base continuum, then a drum-like beat came in, and then he played his violin above it, first on one string, then on two strings; the piece slowly evolved from pure rhythm to a lovely melody, slightly jazzy, soaring above the many harmonious riffs in the background.
But beyond electronics, Murphy is a virtuoso violinist and fiddler. Ireland looms large in his consciousness – well, Murphy! Hello! The Caves of Killala, a rousing reel, showed off his way with his flying bow. Like so many revolutionary IRA songs, it recounts the courage and the hope of patriots who hid their guns in a cave. Connemara’s Pines began as a slow air, and then quickly morphed into a reel with 16th notes hurtling by at 100 mph. As he came forward with his fiddle to the front of the stage, he made us feel like we were at a traditional music “session” in an Irish pub, where anyone who feels the spirit (and probably the spirits!) can get up and play. You can’t help but tap your toes.
I didn’t enjoy his vocals as much as his fiddling. His song lyrics are fine; they’re true to the place as in Caves of Killala or in the Kentucky bluegrass Hard Bargain sung in the voice of a coal miner; or they’re humorous and clever like in the honky-tonk Done with Diane, or the old-timey Early Grave, both wry musings on relationships gone bad. But his voice seemed to be straining to reach the higher notes.
What really blew me away was the depth and purity of his instrumental pieces. He played one piece from his new album of ambient music called “Seven Crows.” Its shimmering phrases each end in a kind of tremolo, like the flickering of a candle, caused not by finger-produced vibrato, but by the use of the bow. A flicker, and a fade-out. Overall, it reminded me of Pachelbel’s famous Canon, starting in long notes, simple chords, then adding quarter notes and moving higher up the scale, and then a series of eighth notes reaching above earth’s atmosphere, and then coming back to closely examine the beauty contained in a single held beat. It was the music of the spheres.
Chris Murphy is a unique musician, and he was generous in his gifts to us. You may prefer bluegrass, blues, rag, folk, or new age – and not only will you find those styles in his work, you will also fall in love with something new. It was wonderful to join him for another surprising and uplifting evening at Kahilu.
About the author: Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Courtesy photos were provided.