On this edition of The Edges of Dreaming, we feature a single artist, Toronto-based Elettronica Sperimentale, aka Steve Castellano. His specialty is modular synthesizers, and his music runs the gamut from experimental noise to drifty lullabies, and everything in between. We’ll hear a variety of tracks across the years of his canon, including studio works and live performances using, among other things, Moog and Make Noise devices.
Steve Castellano is a musician and composer from Toronto, Canada who records under the name elettronica sperimentale (e-let-TRON-i-ka sper-i-men-TAL-eh). He studied classical piano from an early age and went on to pursue a degree in electronic music and composition from York University.
He has drawn inspiration from early electronic music composers, analogue synth greats from the 60s and 70s, five decades of synth pop, modern jazz and spoken word. In particular, the influence of “found voice” recordings like Eno & Byrne’s “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” has led to an undercurrent of disembodied voices and radio signals throughout his work.
In the 2000s his music was largely digital and often veered into the electronica or downtempo category. More recently, he’s embraced a primarily analogue and modular approach, producing music which is more squarely in the experimental electronic camp.
All of the music you’ll hear today has been re-mixed and re-mastered specifically for this broadcast.
- Death of the Planet
This is a re-imagining of a piece I originally composed at school, inspired by a broadcast of Sister Miriam MacGillis’ moving speech “The Fate of the Earth.” The original version featured a Yamaha TX816, which was a big black box with 8 DX7 engines in it, controlled by an Akai ME20 Sequence Arpeggiator, which you could program a 64 note sequence into and have it remap that sequence over a chord progression. The original recording is long gone so I had to recreate it from scratch. I started stacking up voices in Native Instruments FM8 but soon realized it was kind of overdone in the original version and would be ridiculous to duplicate. I stripped that sequence down to just piano and it came out as a kind of Philip Glass minimalist-style ostinato. I bring that synth stack in later, at the point where the tipping point is reached, and the earth sinks into chaos, with Sister Miriam’s voice sailing out overtop.
- Increased in Strength
This is the most fully digital piece in the back catalogue. I don’t think there are any analogue instruments in the mix. I had Reason on a laptop that I brought with me to work, and I would pick away at sequences and sounds over lunch or when things were slow. I got a lot of mileage out of the Prelinger Archives for source materials. This reel, from the dawn of the age of hi-fi, was a joy to work with.
I woke up one morning to the sound of Joe Lieberman’s acceptance speech for the Vice Presidential candidacy. It stuck with me for a lot of reasons. When I set it to music I got the idea of using stereotypical “American” sounds like harmonicas and electric guitars. The electric guitar sound is an Oberheim Matrix 6r through an amp simulator and some delay.
- Shame on You
This was a pivotal piece for me as it’s the first introduction of Metasonix tube modules into the mix. These were the devices that got me hooked on modular synthesis. The very gritty, organic lead sounds are created with the help of a Metasonix TM-1 Waveshaper Ringmod with a Korg Mono/Poly as a source and re-processed through the filter and amplifier of a Yamaha CS-15. The solo is performed on a Wurlitzer 200a electric piano.
- Perversion for Profit
The Prelinger Archives have all these “mental health” reels available to sample. This one mashes up a video about the evils of pulp fiction with one about the dangers of repressing your emotions. There’s some “Reefer Madness” level drama in there.
- They Want Subways
“They Want Subways” is from 2012, the “Crazy Town” years, and the found voices are from a Toronto City Council session. Rob Ford’s compulsive repetition of a handful of words made him an obvious candidate for this kind of composition. I wanted to create a chill, downtempo groove to offset his exasperated, manic delivery. I have friends who can’t listen to this piece because they hate the sound of his voice so much.
- Goats and Cats
More fun with arpeggiators, Metasonix modules and an Oberheim SEM-PRO re-issue. This composition owes a debt to Deutsch Amerikanishe Freundschaft’s “Absolute Korpekontrolle.”
- Interference I (Live)
In 2014 I was invited to play a short set at a modular synth event in Kensington Market in Toronto. I had been making what I described to friends as “strange music” for my own enjoyment, and had assumed that no one would be interested in hearing it. So the invitation was a pleasant surprise, as was the enthusiastic response from the crowd. That performance was a bit of a catalyst in convincing me to focus on the modular as an instrument for live performance. An audience member recorded it on a portable digital recorder and sent me a copy – there’s a bit of distortion off the top. Some of it may be the sound system itself. Modular performances are unpredictable that way.
- Interference II
The second in the Interference series is dark, brooding, and pure analogue. I recorded it while preparing for a live modular performance at a local drone night called “Casual Drones.”
- Interference III
This was one of the first pieces I recorded with the modular and the Moog Sub 37. For me it sounds and feels like everything I love about analogue synthesis. Warm and a bit hairy at times. This was recorded live to two-track in the studio. I would go back and dial back the delay if I could but the whole rig was running through a stereo pedal. It’s the nature of modular to live with what you get in a take – because it will never sound the same way twice.
- Interference IV
I was asked to perform a set at a friend’s birthday party, which was a wild and memorable affair in an appartment above a middle eastern restaurant. The piece I performed was so well-received that I recreated it in the studio the next day, and released the studio version of the set as my first BandCamp EP.
- Berceuse de l’espace
Berceuse de l’espace translates as “Space Lullaby.” I created this as an encore performance at a private party – the main performance being Interference IV. I wanted something gentle and almost ambient as a counterpart to the more energetic, arpeggiated opener. I heard an audience member say, “it sounds like a lullaby,” which made me very happy.
The Tranzac is a club in Toronto that I performed at as part of the Toronto Sound Festival in 2015. I composed this tune for the show and it never got a name, so it became Tranzac. I think of it a bit like a jazz tune structure with a prominent melody, instrument solos over subsequent choruses, and melody or “head” out at the end. I wanted to create really thick lead sound for the intro – I ended up triple-tracking a Moog Sub 37.
- All These Toys are Broken
This is one of the darkest techno compositions I’ve ever recorded. I started with the idea that I a toy piano can sound really evil and foreboding in a way, and I built the piece around these really dense chords played with toy piano samples. I ran an early mix by a producer friend and he said he liked everything but the toy piano. So I dialed that part way back and turned everything else up.
- Sloth to Timbre
Density is a common thread among my compositions and sometimes it’s an effort to leave a simpler arrangement as is. This is a single oscillator producing an evolving timbre and melody – a generative modular composition – that started out as a test, but that won me over and I decided to release it as a track.
- (A Robot Doesn’t) Talk Back and Argue
I have a module called a Morphagene that does all the kinds of things to samples that we used to have to do with reel-to-reel tapes and splicing blocks. Here I’ve set it loose on a snippet of conspiracy theories from ultra-conservative talk radio.
- Where Restrictions Are Imposed
A cheerful found sound composition with helpful advice for anyone planning a psyops campaign.
- Recipe for Disaster
I picked up an Elektron Octatrack which has become a consistent part of my live setup. When I first figured out how to program a patch that could sync delay, looping, and filtering on multiple modular voices in real time, I immediately realized the potential for overuse, as I already have to restrain myself from using all those things on every track. So the first composition I created with that patch was called “Recipe for Disaster.”
- Generative Voices
A short etude with granulated voice samples performing an atonal lead melody.
- Trouble Sleeping
I experienced hypnogogic hallucinations as a child, though I didn’t know what they were until much later. I would hear echoey voices speaking words I didn’t understand, and experience perceptual distortions – like the song says, “my hands felt just like two balloons.” So for a time, these were literally the edges of dreaming for me, as they would happen just as I was drifting off to sleep, often frightening me awake again. I didn’t set about to duplicate the experience when I started recording this piece, but it’s certainly where I ended up.
Reconstruction is another single-oscillator study. The generative melody evolves very slowly with a looper running in the background, and the gradual changes create an almost orchestral underpinning over time. In the middle ground, snippets of the melody are being resampled and retriggered in real time, creating a chorus of chattering insects as accompaniment.
- The End of the Beginning of Summer
I don’t know if it’s true everywhere, but here the sound of cicadas means you’re halfway through summer, or so they say. This composition is a bit melancholy, but still peaceful and comforting to me, like a warm summer night.
- What Are You Kids Doing Inside on Such a Nice Day
This piece started as a solo afternoon performance for a local Toronto modular group (hence the title). A lot of modular music tends to be inaccessible, moody, and in a minor mode if it’s tonal at all. I set myself a challenge of creating a piece in a major tonality that is still expressive and complex. This piece is also unique among modular compositions in that it’s very repeatable, and a version of it finds its way into most of my live sets. The title is exactly absolutely meant to be taken at face value! I think it’s something all electronic composers think about now and then while they work…