Living a musical life: Metal meets cello in the hands of Ottawa’s Raphael Weinroth-Browne

Raphael Weinroth-Browne; Have cello, will travel.

When you think of the cello, you think of, perhaps, Pablo Casals playing the Bach Cello Suites. You don’t immediately think of the Norwegian Progressive Metal band Leprous.

But Raphael Weinroth-Browne does … a lot. You may know him from one of his many musical incarnations: The Visit, Kamancello or Musk Ox, all of which are regularly performing around the city and beyond. In fact The Visit is at Pressed on Friday.

The Ottawa native will embark on a tour of northern Europe with Leprous this fall and in many ways it’s the culmination of a music journey that began when he was nine.

“My parents asked if I wanted to take piano lessons and or learn a musical instrument. I thought, ‘Everyone learns piano, guitar, violin’ and so I said ‘I want to learn the cello.’ We had cello music at home. We would listen to the Bach suites and I was exposed to a lot music growing up.”

He got into metal music early. “I bought my first Tool record at 10.”

At the same time, he says, the idea of creating music and playing as a live performer was present.

“I have always had a performing instinct. All that was very nurtured from an early age. Even though I am not one of those people who started performing at four or five. I’m not a prodigy, but I think there is something to be said for just listening to a lot of recordings and developing a sense of composition.

“People associate me with cello, but I associate myself with creation. When you put yourself out there, you get branded in a certain way. But the cello is also a really great vehicle for being expressive, innovative, versatile, communicative. I think it speaks well to people in general. I also think there is a huge untapped potential.”

Weinroth-Browne admits that even as a child, “I was always trying to mess with things. I always wanted to play well, but I was never OK doing it by the books.

“There is a huge culture in place where people are expected to learn a very fixed and narrow repertoire and everyone plays the same pieces. There is the idea that you have to extend the tradition or just play it better. It’s like turning music into the Olympics.”

He grew up in Ottawa, took private lessons, went to Canterbury High School and did his undergrad at uOttawa and graduate  studies at the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto.

“It’s weird because when you start playing you are already in a position when you are purely yourself. As a child or someone approaching music from a point of free creativity, you are already yourself and you know who you are.

“The more you study and work and become part of the music industry, the more you feel like you are expected to be this or you have to be this.

“I was always trying to mess with things. I always wanted to play well, but was never OK doing it by the books.”

He would perform classical pieces and play them as if they were his own compositions.

“It was in this kind of work that I discovered my own language with the cello. It’s a mixture of a lot of 20th century unaccompanied cello music and earlier music such as solo Bach and (from the) Baroque.”

But he was also innovating, he says, seeking virtuosity on the cello as a solo instrument and mixing it with a passion for metal and music from the Middle East and India.

“All that stuff came together as it always kind of does for me.” He reached a point “when I figured out how to get it all to fit and I had the chops to make it work.” That was about five years ago.

“Now I am ready to build something with the instrument.”

One of the avenues he is exploring involves retuning the strings on his cello.

“We see altered tunings on the guitar quite a bit but on cello it’s very unusual. I really got into it.  Youtube was a big thing for me. I discovered a lot of the weirder folks out there. There were a few that I really connected with.” An they were playing different instruments.

“That’s important,” he believes, “if you really want to be a good composer and have a creative palette, you have to think on an orchestral level. If you are writing for one instrument or 20 you have to hear musical colours.” And that means associating with different instrumental capabilities.

When he tunes his cello, “I don’t change all the strings the same amount.” He is looking for different combinations of intervals.

“Sometimes everything will be lower, other times some parts will be lower and others higher, that’s usually how it is. I’m really trying to make the cello an extended range instrument. So the lowest string is tuned into a bass range.”

He’s been trying to see “how far I can take that.”

You can see what Weinroth-Browne is up to in his various regular ensembles. In The Visit, which is a cello-soprano duo with Heather Sita Black, he is extending the range of his instrument and his composing. In Kamancello with Shahriyar Jamshidi, “we are blending Persian and Kurdish music” with western styles. In the trio Musk Ox formed by guitarist Nathanaël Larochette and which also includes Evan Runge on violin, he is more connected to a traditional “neo-folk” language with, he says, minimalist and cinematic 20th and 21st century classical music influences. And then there is a lot of solo performance which often includes electronics. He also plays other instruments including guitar and drums. He’s even dabbling in more exotic things such as the Viol da Gamba. But the cello is his main tool of choice, in no small part because it gets him work and always has.

Also, “I feel I have lot to express with it.”

As with any performer today, Weinroth-Browne spends a lot of time on promotion and other aspects of the business of being a working musician. His main focus, though, is putting out a lot of content in the form of music with high quality video on the video services Bandcamp and YouTube.

“I invest my own earnings back into it.” He is intent on having a regular supply of good material for people who like his music or may stumble across it. He’s on the map and he plans to stay there.

In five years, where does he want to be?

“It’s hard to think that far ahead. I would like to have a lot more stuff out … four times the personal discography out. I want to have lots of music out in the world.

“In terms of live performance I want to be touring more, touring abroad and playing in more countries.”

So his tour with Leprous is an important milestone.

“It’s my first really intensive tour of Europe starting in late October and running for six weeks in 15 countries.”

How he got the gig is a classic story.

“They heard me playing live at Mavericks. They were touring North America last fall. And there are opportunities to rub shoulders with musicians like these at mavericks. I was doing a solo performance.”

They approached him after the show and basically offered him a job playing cello on their latest album and then touring with them.

“It was impulsive but it all worked. They flew me into Sweden for the recording and are flying me out to join the tour. It’s always been a dream for me to play with a big metal band and for the cello, well, it hasn’t been done a lot.”

He’s even taken his love of metal and the cello into the classroom at Orkidstra where he is a part-time teacher working with a collection of teenaged cellists. They even played a gig at Music and Beyond in July.

Marateck & The Visit
Pressed, 750 Gladstone
Friday, Aug. 18 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $10 at the door. For more information click here.

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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.