Going solo with Raphael Weinroth-Browne

Raphael Weinroth-Browne. Photo: Jonathan Lorange

The Ottawa cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne is probably better known for many musical collaborations but now he’s just about to release a solo album of new music called Worlds Within. ARTSFILE just had to find out why this album now.

Q. Raphael, tell me why you wanted to do a solo recording?

A. Although it may seem like a departure, Worlds Within was actually very much a logical progression from my previous work. Over the years, I’ve been the main composer or one of the main songwriters in many of the groups in which I play. Now I’m releasing a full album under my own name.

I probably would have done this many years ago, but I hadn’t given myself permission.

I think part of me viewed the idea of a “solo record” as somehow too self-indulgent. That said, I have a lot of material written besides this album that I intend on releasing as part of this “solo project.” So Worlds Within is a hint at things to come.

Q. Tell me about the album? 

A. As is the case with most of the music I write, the material emerged very quickly in short bursts of inspiration. In 2017, the first seeds were planted. I was improvising with a looper and effects pedals and working in an unusual tuning. I recorded that writing session as voice memos onto my phone and reviewed them later. This material felt very cohesive and I thought it could be turned into a long piece made up of short loop-based variations that builds in intensity. In summer 2018, while revisiting these fragments to solidify the arrangements, I uncovered new ideas very much in the vibe of the initial demos. This complicated matters since I now had 30 minutes of music.

I decided to explore this material in greater depth by turning it into a full album. I began recording in December 2018, working through 2019 until the final master was completed this past fall. The actual writing only spanned a handful of days but was drawn out over more than a year. Realizing the record in studio was more time consuming due to the complexity of the arrangements and the through-composed structure of the music.

Worlds Within will be released to the wider world on Jan. 24. Weinroth-Browne will launch the disc in Ottawa on Jan. 11

Q. Is there a unifying theme to the record? 

A. The record is essentially a continuous 40-minute piece, built from a very simple initial seed, gradually branching out and recreating itself in different forms. I think of it sometimes as the soundtrack to a life cycle, beginning from an unending ether (Unending I), emerging into innocence and wonder (From Within), growing into self-awareness (From Above) followed by chaos and upheaval (Tumult), making peace with what is (Fade [Afterglow]), and returning to the infinite (Unending II). I wanted the bookends to feel timeless and to reflect the passing of time from the perspective of nature. By contrast, I wanted the inner sections to have a fast-paced momentum, embodying human subjectivity and impatience.

It’s hard to say why the music turned out the way it did. I honestly believe that art isn’t so much produced as rediscovered. For me, the music always comes first and then I tend to associate it with some sort of imagery or story afterwards. 

Q. You have other musical projects… tell me about The Visit. 

A. The Visit is my duo with Heather Sita Black, an amazing vocalist and also my partner for the past seven years. We began performing together in 2013 and have  released an album, Through Darkness Into Light, a single and two music videos. We’ve toured in Europe and have a second album in the works. Our first album could be described as dark chamber music with the intensity and grandeur of metal.

The Visit has been a very important part of my creative output over the years and a vehicle for me to reimagine the cello and its potential. Being in a duo with only cello and vocals has encouraged me to find ways of making the instrument accompany itself to add greater dynamic range and rhythmic activity to the music. I have also explored a lot of new tunings and incorporated various effects pedals writing for The Visit. I don’t think I could have written Worlds Within before having these tools at my disposal.

Q. The piece seems to me to be set up as a classical album might with movements. Agree?

A. The only “classical” thing about the album is the structure or form of the overall work. It became apparent to me early on while writing the initial demos that the material could be organized as a theme and variations, since all of the pieces are written using the same tuning and, by extension, the same key (D minor/B-flat Lydian), and many sections share a similar harmonic progression. The opening piece, Unending I, serves as a kind of blueprint for the album, a sort of sparse blank canvas that lays out the opening harmonic material and sets the mood for what comes next. The following tracks build on this with different permutations of the original idea, increasing in complexity. The last piece, Unending II, is a kind of companion or twin to the first. It’s almost the same piece but the underlying chords are different.

This structure is similar in a way to the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach in that there’s an Aria at the beginning, followed by 30 variations and then the return of the Aria at the end. However, Bach was definitely not the first influence that came to mind. I was thinking more along the lines of Max Richter’s releases, such as Infra or Jorane’s second album 16mm with numbered movements that feel like cues in a soundtrack that flow together as a narrative rather than a selection of individual stand alone pieces. In this same way, I think it makes much more sense to listen to Worlds Within from start to finish rather than hearing individual tracks out of context.

Q. Please explain the range of musical ideas on the disc. 

A. One of the defining features of this album is that all of the sounds were created using the cello. This was a challenge I set for myself with the objective of creating immersive sonic “worlds” (see what I did there) defined solely by the distinctive timbre and characteristics of the cello. That said, the sounds are also an extension of the cello, since all of the recorded parts feature acoustic and amplified tones blended together.

Each piece has a distinctive character and the cello plays many roles, occupying different registers and sometimes imitating other instruments. Unending I and II are perhaps the most straightforward in that they feature lush repeated chords alongside a lamenting solo voice. From Within I and II use pizzicato to establish repeated grooves and harmonics to create an ethereal ambience. Tumult (I, II, III, and IV) is perhaps the most unusual section since it involves percussion, which I create by tapping rhythmically on the bridge pickup and running the signal through a delay pedal. This results in a unique sound that reminds me of electronic/programmed drums, but with a more organic quality. There are several of these moments throughout the record where it feels as though acoustic/chamber music is imitating electronic music. I’m not really a fan of EDM, but I love this approach of acoustic instruments emulating repetitive staccato rhythms and creating an almost dancey feel. The combination of very heavy cello riffs, driving percussion, and weird textural soundscapes (see the ending of From Above and Tumult II) reminds me of some sort of bizarre cello rave-party, which I find really intriguing because it’s a sound I haven’t heard before.

Q. What make of cello are you playing these days? 

A. I play a 2012 cello by Raymond Schryer, a great Canadian luthier based in Sault Ste. Marie. He is a world-renowned maker whose instruments consistently deliver in sound and playability. I tried one of his cellos several years ago and was immediately impressed by the way the resonance seemed to flow out of the instrument so easily. I got in touch with him and he was just beginning work on a new instrument. In spring 2012, when the instrument was completed, he travelled to my home with the cello. I fell in love with it instantly. Over the years, I’ve realized just how versatile this cello is – it sounds equally good in both strictly classical and hyper modern music.

The effects pedals and amplifiers I used are also an integral part of the album. This record is unusual in that all the sounds are a hybrid of acoustic cello picked up by a close mic as well as a direct signal from my pickup into effects pedals and then pumped out of guitar amplifiers. The effects are largely produced in real time with reverb pedals, delays, and octavers instead of on the computer in mixing.

Q. Tell me about your many musical projects.

A. Kamancello is a duo consisting of Kurdish kamanche (four-string spike-fiddle from Iran) player Shahriyar Jamshidi and myself on cello. We’ve been active since 2014 and have released two albums Kamancello and Kamancello II: Voyage.

Musk Ox is a trio I play in with Ottawa-based musicians Nathanael Larochette (classical guitar) and Evan Runge (violin). I’ve been playing in this group for over 10 years now and the guys are very close friends. The music could be described as “progressive chamber folk.” We’re completing our third album, which will be out later this year. Here’s a link to our last full-length release, Woodfall.

Glass Armour is a collaboration with Ottawa recording engineer/musician Dean Watson, who recorded and mixed Worlds Within. It’s a pure art project creating music that satisfies us through both the creative process and the finished product. You can check out the video for our first release Wishful here. 

Q. We haven’t spoken since you started touring with the Norwegian metal band Leprous. Tell me about that. 

A. Since our last exchange in 2017 I’ve done five tours with Leprous and am heading out with them again in February for another European run. They are wonderful people and all of them musicians of a very high calibre. I felt very welcomed by all the guys right from the first rehearsal for the fall 2017 run and feel a little more integrated into the band, both musically and socially, with every tour. Leprous is constantly trying to improve in all aspects, from the songs themselves to the live performance as well as the production and visual package. Working in this context has been inspiring and motivating and has influenced me a lot in the way I approach other musical endeavours. 

Q. How can people get a copy of the new disc?

A. The album will be available on all formats (CD, vinyl, digital downloads, streaming) but my Ottawa release show — Jan. 11 at the NAC’s Fourth Stage at 8:30 pm (7:30 doors) — will be the first opportunity to purchase physical copies. The official release date is Jan. 24. CDs and downloads can be pre-ordered from my Bandcamp page (LPs soon). For those who prefer to stream their music, the album can be pre-saved on Spotify.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.