.:.TO CAST OFF THE VEIL AND LEARN TO LISTEN.:.
An Interview with the Visit
by Jonathan R.
Cellist and composer Raphael Weinroth-Browne is somewhat of a lateral thinker when it comes to music. Formally trained as a professional cellist, his interest does not stop at so-called ‘classical’ music for the cello but goes as far as jazz, neofolk, and even metal. For Woods of Ypres, Weinroth-Browne played the cello on their famous farewell album Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light, and since 2009, fans of calmer and softer music know him from his work with Musk Ox. However, when he met singer Heather Sita Black and founded the Visit, Weinroth-Browne again went in an entire different direction and composed a mixture of classical and so-called world music with a thoroughly dark and gloomy atmosphere. The Visit were kind enough to talk with Heathen Harvest about the mystical and esoteric vibe of their art, the necessity for a rational and intuitive approach to music, and how it is to emotionally expose oneself on stage.
Heathen Harvest: Hello Raphael, and many thanks for giving me your precious time for this interview! I hope everything is alright in Ottawa and your new year started well. Do you have any musical and/or personal resolutions for 2016?
Raphael Weinroth-Browne: Hi Jonathan, and thank you so much for interviewing me. At the beginning of 2016, I resolved to spend considerably more time focusing on improving my craft as a live performer and studio musician, while also taking more time to compose new music for future releases. Although we are now well into 2016, I am still working to arrive at a point where I feel like I am doing this regularly. I put a great deal of time and energy in 2014 and 2015 into networking and creating new opportunities for myself and my projects, especially the Visit. While I will always be doing this, this year I wanted to focus on reaching a higher level as both a creator and performer of music.
HH: A couple of weeks ago, you released a new music video for the song ‘Through Darkness’ in which one can see you and Heather Sita Black perform your composition in the studio. Although you seem to be extremely focused and concentrated while playing the song, also a very calm and content atmosphere seems to be present. What kind of emotions and moods come up when you are in the studio playing your old and new compositions?
RW: Working in the studio is a very different experience from playing live and, as such, it requires a rather different mindset. Unless one is doing an improvised take (especially in the case of long, unaccompanied improvisations), one has to maintain a much stronger conscious awareness of fundamental musical elements such as rhythm, intonation, and sound. Particularly with a group like the Visit, where the music is so exposed, I focus on delivering clear and precise takes. In a live context, I prefer to lose myself in the intensity and emotional landscape of the music. Playing a piece in real-time for an audience involves an exchange of energy between performer(s) and listener(s)—it doesn’t originate from one party but from the collective energy of the room. Once it is flowing continuously, it has a profound impact on the performance. In the studio, one is typically alone (with the engineer behind the glass, of course). This can make things more challenging as it’s easy to get self-conscious being alone with only one’s thoughts and one’s instrument. I try to approach recording with confidence and a high level of awareness of my performance as I’m tracking. It’s important to be listening critically while playing. This saves a lot of time listening to takes and evaluating later. Technical talk aside, I also try to reacquaint myself with the original inspiration for the music I’m recording and to truly believe in its power and effectiveness. It’s much more difficult to deliver a convincing performance if in the moment you don’t love what you’re playing.
HH: You are not only formally educated as a musician, but you have also played the cello for very different bands and artists (ranging from free jazz to neofolk). For your project with Heather Black, you are now also composing a very unique form of music. Concerning the songwriting: Is it more helpful to be a trained and educated musician to write songs, or did you learn more from the various artistic endeavours you were involved in? What did the formal and the informal education teach you about creating art?
RW: I absolutely believe that both formal and informal education have been essential in enabling me to create music for the Visit and all of my other current projects. I’ve been lucky to have been exposed to a wide variety of music from an early age. Metal is definitely a cornerstone of my musical personality, and I feel deeply rooted in it, to the extent that its language and energy permeate most of my compositions and even my style of playing. I also feel a great affinity for Persian, Arabic, and Indian music, all of which I listened to frequently while growing up. While I always imagined that these influences would somehow be synthesized in my music, I never originally thought that they would converge on the cello.
I’ve been playing cello for almost fifteen years, and I’ve studied classical music for a long time, but I only really began to approach the instrument seriously when I entered university to study cello performance. Going to music school for six years and working with many other musicians, teachers, and conductors gave me a lot of perspective and awareness with regards to various performance practices and traditions but also musical forms from early Western music to the present. Around the same time that I began university, I joined Musk Ox and became very active as a live performer. This led to me doing a considerable amount of hired work as a session musician on recordings and at live shows. I never expected myself to be involved in so many collaborative projects (often in styles I never imagined myself playing), but I wanted to be able to make a living and develop a network, so I said yes to everything. This broadened my horizons as a cellist and forced me to figure out how to sound like virtually anything on this one instrument.
Developing cellistic technique and knowledge of the instrument, past traditions, and musical forms has been essential for me, but what has benefited me the most is having had the chance to apply all these elements to unusual and new situations, which has forced me to use my creativity in unexpected ways. Ultimately, I would say that I have been fortunate to work in such a wide variety of musical environments, and that has given me the versatility and perspective to write music that hopefully appeals to everyone; I want it to be interesting and stimulating to classical musicians and music nerds, but at the end of the day, it just needs to sound and feel great. Otherwise, no one will want to listen to it.
HH: Maybe you could elaborate a little bit more on your affinity to Persian, Arabic, and Indian music. Two questions seem to be very interesting here. First of all, do you see a connection between these musical traditions or between the different traditions of ‘ethnic/world music’, per se? And secondly, it is necessary to also, in some way, leave the typical patterns of ‘Western’ thinking in order to better understand such musical traditions? Do you need to think and listen in a different way to understand the music of these traditions?
RW: I’ve always felt that I resonated more with Eastern musical idioms than with Western traditions. The modality and rhythmic structures of this music have always made sense to me, and I gravitate towards them naturally while composing and improvising. There are definitely connections between different forms of Eastern music as a result of a long history of cultural exchange on the Silk Road. This is why you will find variations on the same instruments and sometimes the same musical themes in different countries. I think the most basic commonality between Persian, Arabic, and Indian music would be that these traditions do not use the harmonic structures of Western music. Instead, they use modes which behave differently from Western scales. The use of microtonality and ornamentation is a huge part of what makes Eastern music so expressive. Rhythmically, things are much less square and even than in Western music. Odd rhythms are very common, and patterns are not broken down into subdivisions but rather organized based on strong accented beats and weaker beats. This approach to rhythm can be found throughout Middle Eastern music, Greek and Balkan music, and in Spain, particularly in flamenco.
I think that for someone learning about these musical traditions for the first time, it’s a good idea to explore them from a neutral standpoint and not to judge them on the terms of Western music. With every genre, idiom, or tradition, one has to listen for the right elements to fully appreciate what is being said. I believe that, often enough, people don’t enjoy certain types of music because they are looking for something that might not be there. One’s ear has to be flexible, so to speak, and open to appreciating different methods of musical expression.
HH: If one reads various reviews about the Visit and looks at comments on Facebook and YouTube, then there seems to be something present in your compositions which touch peoples’ hearts directly. Your sonic art resonates with the souls of people from various and very different musical backgrounds. What do you think is the common denominator of all these people? What is the universal aspect of the Visit’s music?
RW: It sounds a bit cliché, but when we are creating and performing this music, we are always speaking from the heart and showing a deeper part of ourselves than what we could express through words alone. We also don’t censor ourselves musically in this project; although I think our pieces are cohesive, we’ve never tried to streamline them in the way that would be common in pop music, and I personally have never tried to adhere too closely to classical forms either. I think that unpredictable, asymmetrical, through-composed pieces have a more organic flow—one that imitates the beautiful shapes found in nature, and one that mirrors the ever-changing, fluid course of life. I think that most people connect with our music on a deep level, especially in a live setting, because we are not holding anything back. We are allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable, and to show a wide range of musical techniques, sounds, and forms of expression. It takes energy and commitment to play this music, and I know that its physical demands have pushed my limits as a cellist. I believe that audiences really feel the energy we bring to our live performances and are very affected by it. On a more general musical level, I don’t think that we would ever write a piece of music that seems more appealing on paper than through sound. While many aspects of our music are complex, we always gravitate towards memorable motifs, melodies, and passages, and a strong emotional pull is in everything we create. Even in a fifteen-minute track, I feel it’s essential to ‘get to the point’ right away and build around the emotional potency of that idea. On a conceptual level, the album deals with very universal issues such as mortality, renewal, despair, hope, superficiality versus truth, and the collapse of modern civilization. Heather’s lyrics are very effective in this way as they are extremely visual; I think the strong imagery of her writing helps the listener to experience the narrative and its emotional landscape more vividly. Instead of listening to a song that describes personal experience from a subjective viewpoint, the lyrics use imagery in a more cinematic way that anyone can relate to.
I think the ensemble of all of these elements has enabled our music to touch people in a meaningful and memorable way.
HH: Just in order to view your answer and statement from a different perspective: You say that you aim at ‘mirroring the ever-changing, fluid course of life’ which I personally find a very beautiful description of music. However, especially at Heathen Harvest, we also listen to and feature a lot of art which tries deliberately to break with the natural flow, to create ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ music so to speak, to work with dissonances and challenge the listener not only with lyrics, but also especially with music which seems to exist on the outside of the fluid course of life. What do you think about such art? Do such musicians and their works also inspire you?
RW: Yes, definitely! I listen to a very wide range of music, and not all of it is necessarily ‘fluid’ or congruous in sound, at least on the surface. A good example might be Canadian black metal band Thantifaxath. Their Sacred White Noise record is probably my favourite album in the ‘black metal’ genre; it’s extremely punishing and abrasive, in keeping with the spirit of early black metal, but the architecture of the rhythms has much more to do with progressive metal while the riffs and melodies remind me of the serialism of Schoenberg. It’s a unique combination that I resonated with instantly. I also absolutely love the work of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, whose work evokes the utmost pain and despair, but I derive great pleasure from listening to it. I am a huge fan of groups such as Meshuggah and Dawn of Midi. I enjoy the way they are able to distort the listener’s sense of time and create a sort of trance-induced catharsis almost solely through rhythm.
While the Visit’s music hasn’t ventured too far into realms of chaos or dissonance yet, it’s likely that we will court these elements more frequently in the future.
HH: On your Facebook page and in interviews, you mention yourself that, lyrically, Through Darkness into Light is about a form of dualism; there is a lot of bleakness present, but also light and hope. Now, when reading lyrical lines like ‘Find our way through this darkness, wrapped in limbs lovers will transcend‘ or ‘We will meet again, maybe not in this form, without this flesh, our spirits will dance‘, there is quite some spirituality present and, also, some mysticism. The Neoplatonic or mystical path which teaches the soul to ascend from the darkness of the matter and the body to the pure light (often associated with God, or the Beloved) and the spiritual home seems to be present in your music. How much is your art (and, especially, your lyrics) inspired by mystical and esoteric traditions?
RW: Here, I am turning the question over to Heather, as she wrote the lyrics on the album.
Heather Black: Throughout my life, I have been drawn to esoteric and mystical traditions; however, I wouldn’t call myself a Pagan, a Wiccan, a mystic Yogi, or any denomination of a religious sect. I do resonate deeply with earth-based spirituality and elements of esoteric traditions such as pantheism and animism. These ideas, particularly pantheism, can be seen in the lyrics of Through Darkness into Light, and it is true that these lyrics are deeply spiritual. The lyrical content does exemplify many dichotomies in life such as grief and joy, growth and decay, shadow and illumination, creation and destruction, and life and death in a physical and a spiritual sense. Although the duality is evident, part of the intention is to convey that this duality is an illusion and that all of reality is synonymous with divinity, if you will. Another intention of the lyrics is basically to say, ‘life is short, we’re all going to die, so how do you want to live…and wake the fuck up.’
HH: There is also one less abstract topic very much present in your lyrics: namely, the greed and the uselessness of the narrative of always wanting more, of being constantly in stress and in a hurry because one wants to achieve more and more, etc. (very present in your song ‘Cast Off the Veil’). Can your art also be seen as an attempt to show the value of calmness, of slow yet still very intense moments?
RW: I think that through our music, we are attempting to reach a deeper level of meaning that we and others can resonate with. So much of the contemporary modern world is based on the societal construct of business and progress, but ultimately, this ideology is synonymous with superficiality and illusion. ‘Cast Off the Veil’ definitely touches on this issue and makes reference to the relentless noise of twenty-first-century life, embodied in the physical world through billboard advertising and shopping centres, and in the virtual world through the internet and social media. In this way, we find ourselves always peering through a veil of tantalizing lies which shape our perception of the world.
As a result of recent advances in technology, such as rapid digital communication and dissemination of information, I think people often forget that our natural rhythms are much slower and require greater patience. There is something to be said for remaining focused on a goal for a long period, and persevering despite any challenges or setbacks along the way. Such is the journey of being an artist and, in turn, it is the artist’s responsibility to inspire others to live fully as well.
HH: You have played cello on one of my absolute favourite heavy metal releases, namely Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light by Woods of Ypres. It’s deeply saddening that David Gold was neither able to see his masterpiece released nor was he able to talk to the press about it. How did you experience the collaboration with David Gold? And when you first heard the songs, what kind of emotions came up?
RW: I met David Gold through my friend and Musk Ox bandmate Nathanael Larochette, who had been asked to write a short interlude piece for Woods IV (‘You Are Here with Me…’). There were a couple of melody guitar lines that we swapped out for cello, so it was through recording on this track that I became aware of Woods of Ypres. I began following the band and not long after, I met David at a Musk Ox show in January 2010. We stayed in contact, and he asked if I would be interested in working on Woods V. The album that Woods of Ypres recorded in the summer of 2010 was supposed to be Woods V and contained five tracks, but was eventually released as a 2-track single (Woods IV.5). The real Woods V was recorded the following summer. I wrote a lot of string arrangements for this record and became very well acquainted with all of the demo material. I had not heard any of the lyrics before recording my parts. When I received the first mixes about a month later, I was definitely struck by the conceptual thread of the record. I had chills listening to parts of the album, but what really came as a shock was his passing in December 2011. It was particularly disturbing to me as I had heard the whole album months before his death and was familiar with all the lyrics. David’s songwriting hits people very directly on an emotional level; I think his lyrics in particular are able to touch on thoughts and feelings we all experience but sometimes have difficulty expressing in words without veiling their meaning or treading lightly around the subject.
HH: You once mentioned in an interview that playing live with the Visit is quite exciting and also scary because you two can’t hide behind anything or anyone. Is this something that changes after having successfully completed some gigs? Or is the fearful magic still present?
RW: I think, given the nature of our instrumentation, we will always feel very exposed on stage since there is nothing really to hide behind, sonically speaking. Many bands have more members, a dedicated rhythm section, more effects and processing, samples, and other elements which make it easier sometimes to sound full and convincing while demanding less of the individual musicians. In our case, if one of us is out of tune or out of time, it shows immediately. On my end, I have to cover all the riffs and the rhythmic flow of the music single-handedly, so I have to keep going no matter what. Also, many sound engineers underestimate the difficulty of balancing our sounds and frequencies correctly; getting the right blend is a subtle and delicate art. We have had to cope with less than ideal sound on many occasions; nonetheless, it’s our job to deliver a great show for our audience, no matter the conditions. Playing this music has been a great test for both of us, and it forces us to be immersed in and committed to our performances, regardless of any issues that may arise mid-set. We have played nearly one-hundred shows with the material from Through Darkness into Light and have been receiving continuously great feedback at shows. This combination of experience and confidence has helped us to trust that we are on the right track and that our performances will be met with positive responses.
HH: Since we haven’t touched this question yet, are you already working on any new material and dare we hope that the Visit will release a new album any time soon?
RW: Yes, we are working on new material! We have one completed piece which we premiered at Toronto’s 21C Festival last month, and I’ve composed the skeleton of a handful of other pieces. The plan is to release a second full-length album during the first half of 2018. We will post updates when we enter the studio. Stay tuned.