The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Sarah Neufeld

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Interview with Sarah Neufeld.

“Hero Brother is a character that emerged during the writing. I like the universality of it; we have someone in our lives that’s stoic and fights for us or we are that person, or we need someone, or we lost someone like that.”

Sarah Neufeld

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


‘Hero Brother’ is the solo debut album from violinist and composer Sarah Neufeld, released towards the end of the summer on Constellation Records. Best known as a member of the indie-rock giants, Arcade Fire, the Montreal-based composer is one of the founding members of innovative instrumental group, Bell Orchestre, in addition to collaborative work with The Luyas, Esmerine and Little Scream. ‘Hero Brother’ is the sum of all these parts: forming a wholly fulfilling and deeply meaningful experience through the sonic radiance of Neufeld’s beloved violin instrument. Certainly, the collaborative nature of the composer’s artistic output to date lies at the heart of ‘Hero Brother’s sublime violin compositions, honing into one very distinct energy that inhabits a deep, special and otherworldly space.

The solo pieces contained on ‘Hero Brother’ originated from 2011, where Neufeld began to write the songs during ‘The Suburbs’ tour, as Arcade Fire traversed the world’s vast plains and seas. What is immediately most striking is the sheer scale of captivating emotion that pours from these sublime compositions. An intimacy radiates from the embers of the recordings, and remains there: lingering in the air’s atmosphere for the listener to quietly absorb and savour in. The primary influences of Bela Bartok, Steve Reich, Iva Bittova and Arthur Russell is adorned across ‘Hero Brother’s remarkable sonic canvas, yet Neufeld – like all good artists – soaks in these disparate influences, creating in turn, something truly unique and transcendent. The songs are born out of Neufeld’s undying love of minimalism, pop music and improvisation. In the words of Neufeld, the violin instrument is “a natural extension of my voice”, resulting in music as natural and vital as the air you breathe.

In addition to Neufeld’s violin, small touches of harmonies, harmonium and piano are effortlessly woven throughout ‘Hero Brother’. The effect is nothing short of magical. For example, ‘Forcelessness’ – the album’s breathtaking penultimate track – can be seen as a duet between Neufeld (violin) and Nils Frahm (piano). The ambient space is beautifully arrived upon here. Elsewhere, Frahm’s harmonium is added on the album’s centerpiece – and longest cut on the record – ‘Breathing Black Ground’, creating the ideal counterpoint to Neufeld’s brooding violin melodies. Several movements are present in this spellbinding piece of music: opening with slow, meditative solo-violin, before a nervous tension encapsulates the sonic terrain. Neufeld’s voice is drenched in reverb, and feels as though a longing for survival becomes unearthed from the depths of despair. The song in question was in fact captured in a dark dome during the raging storms inflicted by Hurricane Sandy. It is these very depths of despair and sense of the abyss that emanates from ‘Breathing Black Ground’, that in turn creates something deeply cathartic.

‘Hero Brother’ was recorded in Berlin by pianist and composer Nils Frahm. The tracks were recorded in an old orchestral recording hall. Later, Frahm and Neufeld spent a couple of days driving around Berlin with a portable set-up, capturing random happenings in locations with site-specific acoustics. Some of the locations included an abandoned geodesic dome, an underground parking garage, and the legendary Studio P4 orchestral recording hall at the broadcast complex of the former GDR. The sound of the rushing wind – that raged around the dome – became the noise floor throughout the record. The variations of Neufeld’s violin-based compositions is staggering. At times, the mood is calm and reflective, and moments later, cascading violin notes evoke a foreboding atmosphere of a looming darkness.

Similarly, the range of musical styles, rhythm and emotion conjured up by Neufeld’s solo violin is nothing short of staggering. Title-track ‘Hero Brother’ contains layers of soaring violin coupled with Neufeld’s stomping feet as percussion. This breathtaking piece taps into a distinct energy, like that of an approaching storm. In contrast, ‘They Live On’ is a bright folk lament that conjures up the sound of Andrew Bird. Like Bird, an openness and honesty exudes from this gorgeously delicate composition. The wordless harmonies of Neufeld brings forth limitless rays of hope, as a brightness ascends onto the record. Album closer ‘Below’ is a Neoclassical gem that inhabits a hidden realm of sound. Cinematic brilliance. The ebb and flow of Neufeld’s hypnotic harmonies maps the rushing wind that is present as field recordings throughout. The majestic violin sways, like that of the wind, and serves a compass to your heart’s core.

In the words of Neufeld: “Hero Brother is a gathering of characters in our collective mythology – the strong and weak; the secret buried underground, played by one instrument, echoed by my own voice as a plaintive companion.” ‘Hero Brother’ becomes just that: an unfailing, trusted companion.


‘Hero Brother’ is out now on Constellation Records.



Interview with Sarah Neufeld.

It is a real pleasure to ask you some questions about your incredible music. Congratulations on the exceptional solo album, ‘Hero Brother’. There is a wonderful variation within your solo violin recordings, from Reichesque movements and pop sensibilities, to avant-folk and modern-classical infused ambient realms of sound. The pieces of music feel as if they were floating in your head for quite some time, that inhabits a deep, special and other-worldly space.
Please discuss the music of ‘Hero Brother’, and the space and time these pieces of music were given its wings, and where the seeds were sewn for these breathtaking sonic creations?

Thank you for the kind words! The music came together during 2011/12. I started writing pieces while touring The Suburbs. I had a lot of creative energy I needed to work with. There was so much going on in life at that time that it seemed necessary to go very internal and make something personal.


The recording process for ‘Hero Brother’ must have been an enriching experience. The album was recorded by composer/producer Nils Frahm – someone I’ve been obsessed with for several years – and performances captured in various locations with site-specific acoustics. Please recount for me your memories of working with Nils, and the different locations you used for recording? Was there a particular place you feel captured your music the best?

Working with Nils was a treat. We recorded everything in an old orchestral recording hall, and then spent a couple days driving around Berlin with a portable set-up, capturing random happenings in extreme acoustic settings. The most extreme atmospheric space we used was an abandoned geodesic dome on top of a creepy hill. Dark, forbidden, the longest reverb I’ve ever heard- we had to work quickly in there, and it was mad cold. These things really affect how you play and how it comes across. We used the sound of the wind rushing around the dome as a noise floor throughout the record.


My favourite piece at the moment is ‘Breathing Black Ground’ – the longest cut on the album that seeps slowly into your consciousness. I love the different movements inherent in the spellbinding piece; opening with slow, hypnotic solo-violin, and halfway through the piece evolves into a large canvas of enveloping sound. The addition of harmonium and touches of harmonies creates an utterly beguiling atmosphere. Congratulations! Please discuss for me the construction of ‘Breathing Black Ground’ and memories of writing this piece?

I wrote Breathing Black Ground during hurricane Sandy, holed up in a cabin in the mountains in New England. I had gotten out of NYC as the storm was coming and then got kind of trapped in the mountains waiting for it to pass. The nervous tension in that piece wove itself into the rest of the album and settled, becoming a main character in the whole story, evolving out of the storm and into more of a meditation on burrowing underground, like a mole. I added the vocal line in the dark dome because singing in there felt wonderful, and then while in Nils’ mixing studio, the harmonium line felt like a big fuzzy blanket that needed to be wrapped around the piece.


What makes ‘Hero Brother’ such a special record – like any great artist’s work – is how personal the music feels; coming from the beating heart of the composer. I would love to gain an insight into the album-title, and indeed the themes of this debut album?

Hero Brother is a character that emerged during the writing. I like the universality of it; we have someone in our lives that’s stoic and fights for us or we are that person, or we need someone, or we lost someone like that.
Some of the themes are characters in a story, others are textures, others are feeling based.


Can you take me back please to your earliest musical memories? What age were you when you first played the violin? I can only imagine your family were always immersed in music, that seamlessly rubbed off you.

I started playing at age 3, the Suzuki method starts kids young. My family was into a lot of folk music, they played banjo, guitar, fiddle, flute etc. My mom was into Classical minimalism as well. My dad listened to a lot of Bob Dylan and Hendrix. So all that was music to me and I thought learning classical repertoire was one-sided, since there was so much music out there.


What I love on ‘Hero Brother’ is the gorgeous instrumentation – delicate and subtle – of harmonium, wordless voice and piano, that complements the solo-violin so well. Was this a decision made from the outset, or something that naturally blossomed during the recording? I feel the piece ‘Forcelessness’ epitomises the truly transcendent nature of your music, as Nils’s piano blends so effortlessly with your soaring violin melodies; the instruments are in deep communication – it’s a true joy to witness.

I wrote Forcelessness last summer with a duet in mind, and its evolved many times with different friends. I knew it would be Nils on piano on that song when we agreed to work together. The other minimal instrumentation emerged during the recording process, feeling as natural as salting food, as opposed to a departure from sticking to one instrument.


Can you please discuss how collaboration has inspired the creation of your own solo music? It is amazing to think you are part of so many vital artists, from Arcade Fire and The Luyas, to Bell Orchestre and Esmerine. I have been deeply immersed in all these projects of yours, and it’s a real privilege to now listen to the solo works of yours. How does your mindset change (if it does) between the art of collaboration and the art of making your own solo music?

Solo writing is such a different animal. I’m naturally a very collaborative person, which is perhaps why it took a while to commit to writing alone. I’m so inspired by playing with other people- collaborative composition through improvisation in particular has always been really satisfying. It’s the way Bell Orchestre has always written. I suppose I took that method and applied it to myself.


Finally, I love the eclectic nature of sounds distilled on ‘Hero Brother’. It is obvious your love of pop/indie music and improvisation shines throughout. For example, the bright folk lament ‘They Live On’ is reminiscent of Andrew Bird, and several of your pieces belong in the magical realm of divine Neoclassical spheres of sound. Can you please discuss your primary influences, and what records you are listening to most lately?

My formative influences as a violinist would be Bartok, Bach, Hendrix, Arthur Russell, and a hundred more. These days I’ve been listening to a lot of west African Blues, Peter Gabriel, electronic musicians like The Field and Burial. It’s a really mixed bag.


‘Hero Brother’ is out now on Constellation Records.



Written by admin

October 3, 2013 at 10:24 am

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