Since its 2009 debut album, Recordings Made in Public Spaces, Volume 1, Wrekmeister Harmonies, the musical collective headed by J.R. Robinson, has produced increasingly powerful albums that serve as a kind of manifestation of the horror and beauty of human existence.
Robinson borrowed more than his project’s name from Werckmeister Harmonies, the 2000 masterpiece of critically acclaimed Hungarian film director Béla Tarr. Tarr’s cinematic output explores human behavior in its extremes, employing a realistic perspective that makes works of fiction seem like cinéma vérité. When Robinson first saw Tarr’s film, it resonated with questions that were very much at the forefront of his mind.
“‘What is mankind’s existence about? Is this random? Why do we treat each other so horribly, and why is that augmented by so much beauty?’” Robinson remembers asking himself. “Then I saw Werckmeister Harmonies, and it put those ideas into a format I could relate to. I wanted to put together a musical project that would explore those emotions as well.”
Working with several musicians from Chicago, where he lived for 25 years, Robinson has produced albums that embody that search for understanding with rare courage and honesty. Although Wrekmeister’s music is often lumped in with metal, its compositions are more in line with the modern classical approach of bands like A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Robinson and longtime collaborator Esther Shaw even recorded an album with Godspeed, slated for release in summer 2016.
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For the recently released Night of Your Ascension, Robinson pulled together more than thirty musicians to realize his dark vision, including Chris Brokaw of Codeine, Alexander Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten, avant-garde singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, Bruce Lamont of Yakuza and Sanford Parker of Minsk. Inspired in part by the music and controversial life of Renaissance-era composer Carlo Gesualdo, as well as John Geoghan, the Catholic priest who was shielded by the church despite numerous accusations of child molestation, the album is an unsettling yet transcendent listening experience. In no way does it glorify horrific acts; instead, its exploration of the human psyche brings into question the greater immorality of culture and religion that give a pass to monstrous impulses.
Since November, Robinson and Shaw have been living in the peaceful town of Astoria, Oregon, but the pervasive violence in Chicago was more than mere psychological background noise for the music they created. In exploring inhumanity, has Robinson come to any conclusions about what Jung called the duality of man?
“I’m always just completely fascinated with human behavior, positive or negative,” Robinson says. “I think there’s such an element of randomness to the universe. The universe is not something that we can actually understand: why we’re here, why we behave the way we do, why events transpire. In my thought process, there is no code mechanism for 'Do x and get y.' I’m always surprised by the amount of attention people pay to negativity. The really interesting human behavioral trait is depravity. Why do we slow down to look at a car wreck?
Everybody likes to think they’re too evolved to stop and do that — except for when they do. We all do negative things. I feel like I can say I’m not going to kill somebody with some degree of certainty, but people are fascinated by people who do. It’s part of our culture. Our entire country was founded on violence — on exterminating another group of people to take over. And we did it with guns. So it makes sense to me that as a society we would be interested in violence. We love to look at the carnage. That’s fucked up. That’s basically what I’m trying to say [with my music].”
Wrekmeister Harmonies performs Sunday, December 20, at Marquis Theater at 7 p.m. with Bell Witch.