Valentine Wolfe interview

Formed in 2006, Valentine Wolfe is the combined effort of the Lady Sarah Black and Braxton Ballew. Imagine Sarah Brightman being backed by Francois Rabbath blowing through a Marshall stack at midnight. Having dubbed their music “Victorian Chamber metal”, the duo have synthesized a love of metal, classical and industrial, infusing them with a Victorian sensibility that evokes the likes of Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe.

The ethereal soprano vocals of Sarah Black–which call to mind not only the aforementioned Brightman, but also Dianne van Giersbergen of Xandria and Tarja Turunen–are buttressed by the thunderous growl of Braxton’s electric upright bass, and the two coalesce over pounding rock and electronic grooves punctuated by a maelstrom of synthesizers, keyboards, samples and sound design.

Sarah Black & Braxton BallewWhat brought the two of you together back in 2006?

We met each other at the University of Georgia. I told Braxton I really wanted to start a music project with him and he was shy about it at first, but we’ve been making music together ever since then and we both can’t imagine ever stopping!

That’s pretty much it. Sarah wanted to for a band, and she was amazing at really encouraging me to pursue my own path on the bass. Which is SUPER amazing. It’s a great challenge to create the haunted sound world we like with my favorite instrument.

VALENTINE WOLFEYou are both serious musicians—Sarah, you with a Master in Music composition and Braxton, you with a Doctorate in Music Arts—what spurred you to write Victorian Chamber metal?

We love writing songs and telling stories about literature from the Victorian time period. Also, we both really enjoy listening to symphonic metal so we though since there is just the two of us, why shouldn’t it be chamber metal? We have so many stories to tell and not all of them will be Victorian but that is a descriptor we started using a while back for our music and so many people liked it so it stuck.

Any composer will tell you that it is a massive challenge to get your music played. Once is hard enough, but twice? So much of it was simply taking the music we loved and deciding not to wait for someone else to play it.

There are a lot of samples in your music. What is your compositional process like? Do you use notation software? or do you work primarily with a DAW during the initial creation of your music?

My brain really is happiest when solving puzzles. To me, writing music is like solving a puzzle. I feel like all the notes and rhythms are always out there floating in the ether and whenever I feel compelled to solve a puzzle that I can just reach out and grab some notes or rhythms and start solving that puzzle. I feel a compulsion and then I act on it and that feeling brings me immense satisfaction and pleasure and even a sense of purpose. If it sounds like I may be addicted to writing music, maybe that is so!

A bit of all of the above. We tend to skip notation software these days, and I’ll write parts out in a kind of lead sheet sort of way-usually just enough for me to figure out what I want to do. I also like to take Sarah’s melodies and analyze them-sometimes, I find my fingers seek out familiar patterns and my brain will come up with alternate solutions.

The DAW functions as a sketch book. It starts with vocal melodies and a harmonic skeleton, and gradually, all the layers are filled in.

I’d say, though, things start sung/written in fragmentary form first.

The Elegiac ReposeYou’ve written for a number of Shakespeare plays (as well as other productions). What are some of the challenges (and joys) of writing for stage productions?

The biggest challenge is in trying to help the director bring their vision to life. Everyone in the whole process needs to be able to communicate with everyone else in a safe and open environment. We’ve been so lucky that all of experiences so far have been so rich and rewarding in that way!

While it’s a challenge in some ways, I find it’s actually great to have parameters really spelled out for you. I think the biggest challenge is to create music that stands on its own merit, but really is there to serve the emotional content of the drama. In that sense, some of our material has been more successful than others.

The other hurdle is to lose your ego as a composer. Really, it’s up to the director to make everything work. So we say when we deliver material “look, we think this is Act 2, Scene 3-but if you don’t, that’s fine”. So not getting too attached to YOUR idea and allowing the music to work in service to the whole vision is something I’d say helps immensely if you’re going to write for the stage.

You draw inspiration from all things Victorian. What are some of your favorite go to writers/poets?

Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Byron, Tennyson, Oscar Wilde

I’d add ghost stories-really, gothic literature of all types and eras-we’ve got quite a few author friends still living whose work we admire. I don’t want to leave anyone out, but I’ll say if you like dreadpunk/gothic horror revival, you’re reading material we find inspiring.

An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violinand have you explored death photography in your music?

Love it!!!!

We’ve got a multimedia project in mind to explore this. I’ve created improvisations live with post-mortem photography, but we’ve not really made a big project out of it….yet.

Among your inspirations, you also include The Order of the Good Death and Death and the Maiden. Both of these sites push to explore the entirety of death, pushing back against the death denying cultural attitudes prevalent in modern society. What initially brought you to want to explore this darker side of life?

Unfortunately, we both went through a period of loss in 2016 where several people close to us passed away. As we began to deal with the grieving process The Order of the Good Death had so many resources that helped us feel like we were not alone in questioning some of the accepted practices surrounding death.

This could be a whole essay. To be succinct, I’ll just say that it became quickly apparent to me, in the face of loss, that the current way to mourn would not work for me at all. I found myself reading the essays and the media on both OOTGD and DatM, nodding vigorously, and feeling that a powerful aim of our music could be functioning as a gateway to these concepts.

And, as simple as this may seem, just helping people feel they aren’t alone, vis-a-vis death and mourning…that’s also essential.

Ghosts of Christmas PastIn 2015 you released “The Ghosts of Christmas Past” a collection of songs capturing the atmosphere of ghost stories to commune with the Christmas spirits. What other songs did you consider that didn’t make the album (several Latin chants come to my mind)?

There are a lot of Latin chants that would be fun for us to do eventually. I think we were just limited by the normal constraints of a typical album length. We definitely want to record more holiday music eventually! And we would also love to do more with Dicken’s Christmas Carol.

We’ve done several holiday projects for close friends and family-IIRC, Ghosts just had material we hadn’t gotten to yet. And I think any omissions were really down to this one was one of the first holiday projects we’d decided to release.

I think of the holidays as bleak and dark, so there’s no shortage of material at all.

KRAMPUSNACHTYour “Krampusnacht” includes 18th century opera as some of the musical elements. Is there a larger piece in the works?

That is a descriptor that we use to describe our overall style and not just for that individual track.

I’d say there’s those techniques on all of the Tracks on The Elegiac Repose. In fact, I’d say between Krampusnacht and TER, the “formula” for Valentine Wolfe is something we’ve finally figured out. I’d say in future releases, the 18th century style (counterpoint, mostly-we really like counterpoint. But also, concerto grosso, form, bass line construction, and other features definitely serve as a departure point). Finally, this super geeky, but there’s quite a bit of ground to cover in the 18th century-everything from Vivaldi to Mozart. With that in mind, when we say 18th century, the Mozart Requiem is really the go-to work for inspiration.

The most recent album “The Elegiac Repose” is nine songs of grief, mourning, and loss. Is there anything else you’d like to add about this project?

Again, this could be a whole essay. The project was intended to be a conversation starter. We really wanted to create music that could start dialogues. The loss we endured…that we ALL endure…but for us in particular, caused to take a hard look at what constituted a meaningful life. And we found that many of modern attitudes about death (which is a universal experience) really can keep you from a pursuit of that meaning.

I think death positive doesn’t mean pretending loss isn’t painful, or that death isn’t overwhelming for people, or any other head in the sand type attitudes. I think it is about embracing that our moment in the sun comes to an end one day. And that can be beautiful, if you allow it.

Or, in the words of one of our favorite bands (Insomnium): “One Life. One Chance. Ephemeral.”