It often feels that Chicago-based Wrekmeister Harmonies is one of contemporary music’s best kept secrets. Certainly helps to make the case the fact of J.R. Robinson being a fascinating person and artist. We were lucky to talk with Robinson over the phone about his latest album Night of Your Ascension – that has a cast of 30 musicians, including people like Lee Buford and Chip King from The Body, Alexander Hacke (Einsturzende Neubauten), Marissa Nadler, Dylan O’Toole and Ron DeFries of Indian, Bruce Lamont, Sanford Parker (Twilight), etc. – in which the death of Father John Goeghan and the life of Don Carlo Gesualdo were starting points for the two compositions on the album.
I want to start with what’s probably the beginning of Wrekmeister Harmonies. What was it with Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000 Hungarian film directed based on the 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai) that hit you so hard?
I have to tell you that what struck me the most… I remember very clearly, I was standing on a train platform, here in Chicago, and it was a very bitter, cold winter day, it was grey and the wind was blowing really hard. I was standing on a train platform waiting for a train and the night before I stayed up really, really late and watched Werckmeister Harmonies, which was suggested to me by a friend, and I can’t recall even been so deeply affected by a film. I’ve seen a lot of films, but for some reason that particular film at that particular moment in my life really resonated with me. That film at that moment in my life really, really had a tremendous impact on me, and I thought about it for days. I went back and I re-watched it many times. There were so many questions I felt that Béla Tarr was asking that I feel I was also asking. That depth was why I chose the name, but I just kind of bastardized the title and changed it around a little bit. Up until that point I think I had, like everybody, this question in my head, “What’s the meaning of God? If there’s a God, what’s the point here?” That was the meaning I took out of it, that was the moment where that idea just kind of crystalized for me in my mind, and I started to examine it. Truly, truly examine it. Not just casually just go, “Yeah, why the fuck is that happening? That’s fucked up.” Because at that point in my life I think I’d pretty much just gone along, not giving too much consideration. That film really and truly made me examine the idea.
Was it that scene where János sees for the first time the whale?
I mean, he kind of asks that question himself. Yeah, because János looks into the eyes of the whale and it’s just this decrepit, blowded thing. I mean, is it real? He’s staring at this enormous creature that’s so far removed from its natural environment. There are so many layers to that. That’s the beauty of that scene, there are so many layers to the question.
Watching Béla Tarr’s Wrekmeister Harmonies for this interview I couldn’t help but to be curious regarding the visualization that you have of Wrekmeister Harmonies’ music. Do you see it as black and white?
No, I don’t see it as black and white. I mean, there are certain elements of the music that I see as black and white in the sense that the heavier, violent parts of the music are very direct and confrontational. There’s not a lot of room for color in that. Again, just like in that scene where János is staring into the eye of the whale there are layers to the complexity of the heaviness, but I would see that as black and white. But I would say overall there are many… It’s definitely a color experience for me.
You’ve been working with a big cast of musicians since Recordings Made In Public Spaces Volume One. You have probably get used to the process by now, but how does one manages to work with so many people and still have a clear sense of direction?
That’s a very kind assessment of the process and which I could say that it’s all very clear and very easy to negotiate when you’re creating something with so many people, but the truth is that is not. It’s difficult and it’s hard, and it makes you question whether what you’re doing is staying true to your original vision as you go along trying to create these things, and there were times I was wondering if I had just gone completely mad trying to accomplish this thing. It was a very difficult in trying and exhausting experience, but ultimately it was very, very rewarding. I was very happy and very pleased with the outcome. And I was happy that I was able to work with all these musicians, and different people, and bring them into my idea and get something very positive out of it… but it was very hard. I understand why most bands have like only four people. It’s a lot easier to create something with four people, or five people, and have four or five voices/opinions where you can come to a consensus than it is with thirty people. With thirty people you have thirty competing egos and individual personalities and still you have to try and guide all those personalities and egos towards a final goal, which they may or may not completely comprehend.
Would it be fair to assume that faith is a big part of the process that guides you through all the doubts, all the problems, and all the headaches?
I would say that faith doesn’t have any real consequence. I feel that I had an idea and I really had a desire, a true desire to communicate an idea. It was that, just a desire to see this thing through. Once I started the process I became consumed with the idea of finish it and I knew I was going to finish it. I didn’t put too much faith into it, I just simply allowed it that idea to exist within me and realized I was going to complete it in one way or another. Doubt definitely presented itself many times along the year that I was creating this. Doubt presented itself from the very first recording session. Because I recorded this in different places with different people under different circumstances and there was always that idea of doubt of like, “Is this particular segment going to work? Are we going to be able to do it? Are my ideas sound? Are they good ideas? Am I able to communicate these ideas to these individuals?” I did doubt myself and I did stay up many nights working and wondering and worrying and I have just lost my mind and wasn’t existing in the real world at all. But I was able to transcend that through the perseverance of completing these pieces.
“All my life I’ve recognized this attraction to absorbing the darker impulses of human nature.”
What’s the role and importance of communication in a project like Wrekmeister Harmonies?
For this particular project the communication was a large, very huge… I had to communicate for each segment of Night of Your Ascension… For the piece that deals with Carlo Gesualdo I had to explain the Gesualdo story multiple times to many people and communicate that. I had to get a hold of the original score and give it to the string section and say, “This is the original score. This is my idea of how to rearrange this piece of music to make it fit.” I had to say the same thing to the choir director to have that particular approach, and I deposited those things in the middle of the piece purposely. And then to communicate the more idealistic, peaceful, pleasant, and wonderful aspects of Gesualdo’s life prior to committing these horrendous crimes I had to explain to the musicians how I wanted that to sound. And then to explain the musicians for the heavier part I had to explain the idea of communication jealousy and violence, and that was huge. You had to communicate that otherwise they would not understand what the fuck, at all, what I was trying to do. It would been just a pointless exercise to not be able to communicate what I wanted.
Anyone can search about this two men and know their history. What struck a chord with you about these two men? Would you say that there’s a relation between these two?
Yeah, I would say between the two men is that they both had… Both men were known for these pretty horrendous acts and they’re at almost opposite ends of the historical spectrum. Gesualdo was in the 16th century and Father John Geoghan is in modern times. The connection between them is this idea of spirituality and religion. Gesualso got away, he was sanctioned almost for these horrendous acts that he committed, by the church. He built the church, he was embraced by the church. Father John Geoghan committed horrible and horrendous acts, he was a monster but he was also sanctioned and protected by the church. That to me was the correlation and connection between the two.
One thing that seems to connect the entire Wrekmeister Harmonies’ output is your interest towards human behavior and human nature. Was there someone that kind of pushed you in that direction – to take a deeper look?
I think I’ve just been interested in exploring that people don’t necessarily want to take a look at. It’s not like I have this prurient interest macabre or dark people. I appreciate beauty and I appreciate good as much everybody else. But I’m interested in exploring some of the darker things that present themselves into the human condition, and I don’t know why that is. I can’t think of any one person that has maybe been influential for that. All my life I’ve recognized this attraction to absorbing the darker impulses of human nature. It’s something I feel that it’s just been with me my entire life.
But I think that with your music you don’t shy away from the light either. I mean, it seems to exist always a counterbalance to all your explorations of the darker side of things.
Definitely! You’re absolutely correct. With the music I definitely try to present a balance of the human condition. You’re absolutely correct because there’s light, and beauty, and I do very, very much appreciate that and seek it out. Just like human does. But I also want to balance that with these darker traits that are also part of the human condition. I feel like a lot of times there’s focus on one or the other. There’s focus on beauty and light and a complete omission of the dark, or there’s a focus on complete darkness, misanthropy, and focus on that with no attention paid to the other side. So, it’s an act of absorbing the human condition and try to present that all in one thing, one piece.
Even if you think of someone as horrendous as Adolf Hitler, who committed unspeakable atrocities… You can’t say he was 100% evil.
I don’t even understand… What’s evil? In all casually say like that Hitler is evil, Robert Mugabe is evil, all these people that walked into a school and murdered a bunch of children. To me, that’s completely ignoring the fact that there is a physiologic component to this. Somebody that walks into a school loaded with weapons to murder innocent children… those persons are not well, are not healthy. There’s something wrong with them physically and mentally. There’s some chemical or something medical that’s having these incorrect impulses to do this act, right? That’s fucked up. Hitler? That’s just fucked. There was something that Adolf Hitler did that convinced a big part of the German population that that was ok. But evil… I don’t know. Good and evil automatically lends itself to a religious doctrine which I just don’t believe in. I don’t believe in this omnipotent God force that is existing and influencing human behavior to either be positive or negative. Like you have choose lightness or darkness. I don’t get that. I never have. I never really got that.
I was reading about Father John, and even with Pope Francis condemning these kind of acts… it seems that there’s never a concern to prevent these kind of situations. What about just trying to prevent it instead of trying to fix it?
What about all the harm that the church does? What about all the wars? What about the Inquisition? What about the church selling out members of the Jewish faith during the Holocaust, the Vatican giving out names of people of Jewish descent who had converted to Catholicism? What about all the murders that have taken place in the name of religion, in the name of God? What about all of that? Father John Geoghan… yeah, that’s like a microcosm of a synthon of a greater ill. He was a horrendous person but again there was something chemically, biologically missing, his emotional development was probably stunted at the age of eleven where his sexual impulses couldn’t fire over the emotional age of eleven. But he was still protected and harbored by the Catholic Church, move from one parish to another. Concealed, hidden, and dusted over, and allowed to continue to abuse the trust of these people who putted their faith into the church. That to me is mind-blowing. This whole concept of talking about Father John Geoghan and the fact that he molested 150 children… that really makes people uncomfortable. They don’t want to talk about that. And I get that, I understand that. Yeah, it’s not a pleasant subject, but if you examine an unpleasant subject maybe you can have some sort of understanding whereas before you were just like, “I don’t want to deal with it. That’s fucked up.”