As Stellar OM Source plays live she wishes the audience would close their eyes and feel sounds with the same physicality she feels. Averse to samples, the Dutch-based musician, otherwise known as Christelle Gualdi, masters destructive patterns over intense, cosmic bass lines shaped on legendary equipment such as the Juno 6, Alesis drum machine and the now infamous Roland TB-303. Each track is produced in the moment, improvised to the sound of the crowd, only to be selected into a final cut, such as new album Joy One Mile out on RVNG Intl, June 10, after its creator is sure of its timelessness and beauty.
Trained as an architect and a musician, schooled in electro-acoustic composition and visual arts, the narrative of each track takes on a fiction close to that of a scene in a movie, and in some cases, such as ‘The Range’, delicious doldrums close to the dystopia of JG Ballard plays out. Yet, to craft metaphors for listeners to decipher is never Gualdi’s prime goal, to overload their cognition with complex harmonies is.
Envelopes flip between attack and delay, low frequency oscillations’s pan out in real time and a clinical 4×4 beat is nowhere to be found. How we relate to the body is tested. Gualdi wants surrender, our cognition to give up and our inner dancer to take us higher without a care. She seeks a certain ecstasy, only known to ravers, in her own spiritual approach to performance and production; a channelling of the mystical OM syllable, together with an early-70s optimism in technology’s potential to expand our consciousness. It’s a belief, which dictates a deliberate use of instrumentation, that Gualdi feels meet a direct extension of her thoughts, with the potential to connect with an audience live.
Emotional, at times even Balearic, the pleasure is to join Gualdi in the groove, laying down her soul as she twists out effects, decays arpeggios and pushes her own control of equipment to the limit. Sun Ra, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Jazz fusion musicians of the 60s and 70s and their complex arrangements echo early techno, its innocence never lost.
aqnb: Did you always make music on drum machines and analogue instruments or were you ever using digital sequencers?
Christelle Gualdi: I did, I stopped and then I did it again. It was kind of hard to find freedom within that because you can get so directed by the instruments that you use that it actually takes time to reverse this process. You have to feel confident enough with the machines that you are using to make them your own and fight for your freedom within that. That’s why I didn’t want to use computers in this process because there is apparent freedom but there are so many things that people use that are the same, like the same plugins and the same effects and all that.
aqnb: With sequencers you also obsess over the visual a lot, which you don’t do when you play it out live…
CG: Yeah, we’re so much in a visual culture, when there are so many things happening with our ears, so I wish that music would stay within that aural culture. Music production has become so visual now… It’s something I’m aware of and I try not to work like this. There is a huge freedom to get from being away from the screen and working with the ears.
aqnb: Did you just get the TB-303 for this album or have you had it for a few years?
CG: I’ve had it for the past three years but I was not even going to buy it. The crazy story is I was buying another Roland called an NC-202, which is kind of a small version of an SH-101. In the email exchange with the guy selling it he mentioned he also had a broken TB-303 that I could buy for another 25 euros and obviously I said yes, even for spare parts. When I received the package, the original machine I bought never worked but the 303 was mint. I never wanted to buy one because the second hand price of it is insane and this one just fell from the sky. Before I was using software and I wished, of course, that I had one. I would borrow my friend’s sometimes but software was also good enough but then I had this 303. The way it all happened, I felt like I had to use it. It was so crazy for so many kids to have it and at that price, especially when you don’t look for it. It’s just a synchronicity in life, where you feel you’d be stupid not to follow the door open to you.
aqnb: It’s been mentioned that you were trained as a classical bassist. Did it have any relevance to you that the TB-303 was designed to emulate a bass guitar?
CG: I used to also play electric bass. I loved very long bass lines and that’s something I try and do on the 303 by combining patterns, so I definitely approach it in the same way I would approach playing bass guitar. I could definitely start something with a bass line and then build around it but also the way I bring the 303 lines in what I do is closer to a Jazz way. It’s not prominent and I like that, it’s rounded. It comes and goes in the same way that it would in a Jazz quartet. A bass line comes and goes and sometimes it’s just buried in the mix amongst instruments.
aqnb: Have you left music theory behind or does it still influence how you create patterns and composition?
CG: Jazz is kind of the only music that I listen to. I don’t really listen to anything after 1995, so Jazz and Jazz Fusion tracks have a structure that has a really strong influence on me, as well as any Japanese keyboard players like Yellow Magic Orchestra, they have a big influence on me.
aqnb: It’s interesting you say the tracks you selected from the album came from playing them live in a club and yet they’re not really club tracks. What did you find people responded to best?
CG: The thing is that of course there is another version of those tracks that I play live because I like to play with the machines and create these voids. The live versions have way more transitions and I do a lot more things on the drum patterns. I cut down; I change the signature and a lot of things that are hard to deliver on a record.
People really react to the live action in the same way as if you listen to live recordings. In really important live recordings, and again I go back to Jazz, you obviously hear the solo that someone is playing. You know that it’s going to be very big and the audience is going to react to that. When I play live, people also react to those moments. People always really move on the live action.
To bring it back to the album, on the first track. ‘Polarity’. there is a really long build up. There’s really long repetition and the bass is really slow. It’s only really halfway that something is going to change and happen. In the club, people would react better to this typical tension building but I still find the distance quite hard between how I perform them live and how they appear in the album. The album is great for listening to but the tracks are more difficult in a club situation. Some of them are quite old, so right now I am adapting them to the structure I gave them on the album.
aqnb: You’ve said before that you are influenced by cybernetics. Is that still present on this album?
CG: Well, you know, my influence from cybernetics and computers is a bit dated. I would say it has something more from the 1970s or the 1980s than from now. I do have a feeling, as I said, about the control that machines can have and that people can find their own freedom in not being actually controlled by the machine. A machine can be a direct extension of your ideas and that’s how I approach things. I’m actually scared of how people use computers today, generally, or with any new devices. For me it was important, when I could use a machine, that I could, perhaps not totally build it myself, but I tend to use things that I can understand and not the other way round.
I have been using computers since I was 11 years old, so I feel pretty confident about using computers but I also find them dangerous for creativity. So far, we don’t have chips implanted in our brains and we’re still like human. There are still things that resonate to us in terms of art and how beauty can be expressed. However, there are a lot of things computers are disconnected from, so I am just really careful with using computers. I like to use them when it’s really an extension of your fingers, so that’s why I also don’t use computers in the music production process.
aqnb: Why do you thing that 1980s technology or 1970s technology is still kind of pure, in a way?
CG: I think because it was just when affordable technology was made available to the people, the moment when people could get the first home computers and home studios. Industrial technology made it affordable for ordinary people and, in that sense, it was this utopian and hippy approach: that we would use those tools to do beautiful things and everybody could produce their own music. At that time, the tools were manageable; it would take you a few years to master one synthesizer or one Atari. I guess, in some kind of race to make things cheaper, competition between brands meant this nice and idealistic path of bringing technology to people actually went too far.
I mean, today technology is going out of date faster then you can learn it. That’s actually why, to me, the 1980s were these good times, when there was still hippy goodness about it and some kind of idealism about using these tools. After that, it got crazy and now you begin to hear about people being stressed about having the latest iPad app.
How much time do you have to learn the full potential of a music production app anyway? I refer to the 1980s for that, as the moment when it was possible to get closer and have this proximity with machines and tools where it would be an exact extension of your brain. Now this is gone. I know only a few people who feel adequate to limit themselves to one thing and I admire people mastering one tool. It’s still being very creative.
Stellar Om Source’s Joy One Mile is out on RVNG Intl on Monday, June 10, 2013.