The Immediacy of the Musical Moment: A feature on Castanets
Ultimately, this is what it’s about. It’s about how the artist’s voice trembles as they bite their lip in between their measured words. It’s about how their fingers glide over the fret board, emanating that unmistakeable and deliberate squeak. It’s about how the lyrics connect with ideas and thoughts and ruminations that the listener has already dwelled upon in some unconscious form. Forsaking all of the pretentious analysing of music, name-dropping, and posturing about “music-taste”, what’s left for us to determine what music is suited to us is how it affects us. In short, music as an art-form is to be appreciated for the way it speaks to us and touches our soul.
And who can question that? Who would want to? No one can offer a conclusive argument against someone who states that a certain CD or song “moves” them. It’s a fact, perhaps subjective to others, but for us, it’s true as the fact of gravity. When a particular song connects to our soul, we know it, we live it, we breathe it.
Of course, inherent in all of this is the possibility that different songs will impact each of us in different ways. And this fact makes talking about how these songs affect us fun and enlightening, as we all have different perspectives and hear the same songs through different filters. We can argue, bicker, debate, and rage, but ultimately, the way the song makes us feel is the important thing. The artist connects with us deeply through their music, ultimately helping us to overcome the sense of isolation that is rampant in the world.
Raymond Raposa, the head of a loosely-knit group of rag-tag alternative-folk musicians called Castanets, seems to understand all of this. Through two genre-bending CD’s whose subconscious allusions border on the mystical, and through a powerfully emotional live show, Raposa and his fellow artists have found a way to consistently connect with their audience. Their music often sounds like the final moments of death, with distant rumblings quaking over the sound of shaking chains while high-pitched noises pierce the air. Raposa’s voice, equally emotive and raw, joins the dirge, singing lines like, “let’s go outside, dear, in the murderous night…” that baffle the listener’s mind while engaging the heart. Throughout all of this, the Castanets somehow forge a loose-folk feel: an acoustic guitar is lazily strummed, a semblance of a melody is pieced together by Raposa’s halting vocals, and other fragments of conventional music appear and disappear in the mix. The music of the Castanets is tragic and elusive, infinitely dark, yet infinitely resistant to succumbing to the dark. Through this myriad of elements, and through perceived lyrical themes like death, isolation, survival, bitter regret, resolution, introspection, and the nearly tangible presence of something eternal, the Castanets move me and others like me who find solace for their troubled existence.
Surprisingly, given the perceived depth and nature of his music, Raposa does not come across as a mystic or spiritual guru in person. Though he does sport an unkept beard and can often be seen wearing a faded trucker hat, in person Raposa is actually quite a humble and down-to-earth guy who is open and easy to talk to. For instance, when asked about his mysterious and elusive lyrical themes, Raposa shrugs honestly, “I have issues with making literal the things that I have made implied. If there is something that I would like to have explicitly stated in song, that is where I will do it.” In fact, Raposa turns my question around to me, asking me, “which lyrical themes do you hear?” That Raposa would even think ask this demonstrates his desire to have the listener be an active participant in the conceptualization of his music. For Raposa, it seems, the listener is just as much as part of the artistic process as the band itself, for the listener teases out meaning from the folds of Raposa’s multi-layered art. Regarding his intense live show, Raposa shares, “the songs get configured by and in the service of the people playing and hearing them that night.” It’s aspects like these that make the Castanets so intriguing, and perhaps even brilliant: the lyrics and approach to the music is abstract and vague enough to allow a varied group of listeners to interpret meaning in it.
This approach is keeping in with the humble aspect of Raposa’s personality. When I ask him how the adulation of his growing fanbase affects him, Raposa answers, “at my best, I ignore the hell out of it.” One gets the impression from Raposa’s ease of face-to-face interaction, as well as his intensely personal music, that he does not so much as hint to a divide between the “artist” and the “fan”, but rather considers them equal. On his two albums, 2004’s Cathedral and the newly released First Light’s Freeze, Raposa offers himself, warts and peculiarities all, with vulnerability to the ravenous music listener. In fact, Raposa states that, “all things internalized” are the influences that guide his songwriting process, which again points to the exposure that he puts his inner-most thoughts through on the albums. On his cavernous albums, and despite an impressive roster of guest artists like Sufjan Stevens, Rafter Roberts, Liz Janes, Orlando Greenhill, and many others, it’s Raposa’s naked and defenceless voice that’s left to dangle in the space. This is ever truer on the latest Castanets CD. On songs with sparse instrumentation and eerie sonics, Raposa’s prominent voice is the singular tie that is mixed to be the focus of the art. “The songs go where they go”.
Yet, in the midst of the sparse songs on First Light’s Freeze, the Castanets bring forth songs like “A Song Is Not The Song Of The World”, “No Voice Was Raised”, and “All That I Know To Have Changed In You” that feature a more conventional structure, while retaining the same melancholic mood of the rest of the CD. Raposa confirms what my ears tell me: “I feel like a very concerted effort was made on a couple of the songs to make them more present. Less distant. Still not a pop record, though not an ambient or abstract/ethereal one either.” In the midst of the wild explorations of the human predicament through drones and those funeral chains and rattles, Raposa also demonstrates a rare ability to unite songcraft and experimentation. But, even in these more “proper” songs, the band’s relentless assault on the conventions of music are present. For instance, “No Voice Was Raised” implodes into a chaotic rock jam, while “All That I Know To Have Changed In You” is sinewed together by strange warm warbling noises, bringing to the surface the emotions hinted at in the lyrics.
So, with such a creative and inspired take on music, one would expect this humble man with the beard and the unforgettable raw voice to have subsisted in some kind of legendary existence. Surely the man lives in caves, or at least is the product of activist-philosophical parents who earnestly trained their young prodigy in the writings of Satre, Nietzsche, Frankl and Kierkegaard. The music on the Castanets’ releases is so affective and even otherworldly that waves of music writers have tried to comb Raposa’s past in search of the key to unlock the source of the energy of Raposa’s compositions. By now, the inquisitive fan knows that Raposa tested out of high school at a young age, and travelled throughout North America on busses. But, how has this affected the man’s art? Raposa sighs when asked: “Much has been written about very little of my past. Often about aspects of it that I feel have absolutely no bearing on the work that I am doing at present…don’t look too hard”.
Raposa’s down-to-earth nature belies the fascination into his past, and in essence, points to life as a whole as the motivating force behind his music. “Everything I experience is a part of me”, Raposa shares, hinting to the answer. As a people in a strange and twisted world, Raposa simply pulls back the likeness of success and prosperity in our world, and reveals the true core of people: the hurt, the longing, the emotion, the weakness, the lack of logic in the depths of all of us who are honest with our feelings. Wreckage is one word Raposa seems to have coined to describe it, though when asked about his lyrics, Raposa is characteristically humble about the way they come about: “There is no approach. No proven method. Trains moving sometimes’ll do it. General trance-state stuff. Fixations on objects or notions and the nexus. Trinities.” Perhaps my analysis of the Castanets’ lyrics are result of my own need to find meaning in his ramblings, but I just can’t help but see profound meaning in lyrics such as, “The way we refuse to be safe” (“Three Days, Four Nights”, off of Cathedral), and, “No voice was raised. No song was sung” (“No Voice Was Raised”, off of First Light’s Freeze). Indeed, Raposa opens First Light’s Freeze proclaiming, “The war is on”, while ending on “Dancing With Someone (Privilege of Everything)” with the lyrics, “I want to get high on something. Go dancing with someone. Turn our backs to the battle”, providing a fitting end to the raging battles within and without that Raposa describes throughout the album.
So, with First Light’s Freeze now in the hands of listeners eager to soak in the pseudo-meanings of his songs, Raposa sets out on yet another cross-continent tour, wherein he nightly bears his soul. Surely his release and live show will further polarize music lovers. On the one hand are people who will complain that First Light’s Freeze is too boring, weird, disjointed, or oblique. Others will complain that the Castanets’s show deviates too far from the CD versions of the songs (“Ideally, the folks know that we will not be presenting the songs the way they have been presented on the recordings. Sometimes they don’t and fists get dodged.”) And still others will be haunted by the music on the new bleak CD, and will be moved to tears even by the live performances. Who’s right? It’s clear where I stand: Ray Raposa has, now over the course of two overwhelming albums, connected with me. This act of being truly moved by a stranger through his offerings of songs is a miracle. Raposa says that for his live shows, “My impression of the experience is often wonder.” In the end, irregardless of how others may feel and how others may view the Castanets, this sense of wonder, of connectedness, of being affected and even changed by the music of this band is enough for me.
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