Having recultivated his own roots in techno, Maelstrom discusses the recently released Rhizome and the new video for Dual Phase with METAL. The word ‘rhizome’ is derived from Ancient Greek ‘rhízōma’, meaning ‘mass of roots (of a tree)’. It was termed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), and refers to a model of thought in which knowledge is not traced from a single origin hierarchically– which they call ‘arborescent’, from Latin arborescens ‘becoming like a tree’ - but is instead like an underground root which grows horizontally.
Connections between thoughts can be permanently severed and repropagated elsewhere, forming new connections between previously unrelated rhizomes. It sounds complicated, yet this is how the humble potato grows. Nantes-based producer Maelstrom’s Rhizome enacts this model in ethos and execution, and does so with no more pretence than the ubiquitous starchy tuber.
First of all, the rhizome is an inherently anti-hierarchical model of thought, which encourages constant new connections. As such, it wouldn’t be right for me to tell you what to make of it; how have you interpreted the model for producing and releasing your latest album?
This album has been recorded and produced in total isolation, and it also happened that the first lockdown in France started a few days after I moved out from my house and my studio, which were overdue for a complete renovation. I ended up in a rental apartment with my wife and daughters, with no ability to use any of the tools I'm familiar with : hardware synthesizers and drum machines. But the anxiety induced by the pandemic and by the uncertainty of the times meant that I had to be making music, even if just as a way to meditate. I did something I had not done in years, and started experimenting with software tools, and it took me way further than I had originally imagined, so much that I ended up with an album recorded in less than 4 months.
But I very early realised that I wouldn't be able to get there on my own. I'm no computer geek. I have some knowledge of course, but nothing compared to my skills on the machines. And I also had no history with these tools, which means I didn't have a collection of sounds, presets, or routines to work from. I had to spend time going through message boards, downloading patches, presets, samples, field recordings, from various sources online. And the more I started organising these into a music that was slowly taking shape, the more I realised that my position in this process only existed because of the relationships and interactions I had with others : without the sound designers, software engineers, or even just sound enthusiasts posting their work online (I bought and paid for most of what I used, whenever possible), the whole ecosystem that my work had became would crumble and die.
In the spirit of the rhizome, you have been transparent, tracing every sound used back to its designer on the sleeve. What brought about this decision?
From the very first drafts of the first tracks, I had this feeling that I was not alone, that I was merely building upon the works of others. But these sources never get credited - even less in the streaming paradigm, where everything gets broken down to the "song" level and all the metadata gets lost - which is quite ironic for a digital environment. So that's the first level : giving credit to every aspect of the creative process, human and non-human. Letting people have a look at the inner parts of the machinery. Making it apparent that creation is never a lonely endeavour : it's always situated within a culture, a society.
There's also a second level where, drawing from Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon's "Interdependence" concept, I wanted to use Rhizome as a metaphor for our underground electronic music community. The pandemic is an opportunity to reflect on the invisible systems we inhabit, and the underground electronic music economic and cultural system seem to be broken, or on the verge of breaking down on every single level : ecological impact, economic sustainability, cultural meanings and representations. One way to start rebuilding would be to understand that the success of an individual won't ever change or mean much. There's no other way than rebuilding everything upon local, interdependent networks, where record stores, labels, artists, DJs, PR companies and festivals would all move in the same direction; the only sustainable growth should be a collective one, with a built-in responsibility towards society and the environment.
The transparency seems bibliographical to me. Do you view this album as a scholarly or academic product, in addition to being an artistic one?
Funny you mention this aspect, because I'm also in the process of finishing an Anthropology PhD thesis, so it must be having an influence of my musical productions indeed. Academic research is based on the use of references, either as quotations or field work data, which need to be traceable back to their original sources. That's what enables knowledge to be built upon, and that's what makes research a collective activity. There is no research without a collective. There is no knowledge without a library. And I believe the same goes for music, even if most artists will want to hide it behind a narrative that focusses either on genius, immanence or transcendence. I want the narrative around my work to be about processes. Because ultimately that's how it happens, that's what we all do : we follow processes ; visible or invisible ones. Consciously or not. And these processes should be documented as often as possible in order to deconstruct the false narratives around how music is made.
When pop stars release records, these songs have been written by up to 10 different songwriters, same goes for the beatmakers, the sound engineers, the graphic designers. There's even loopmakers now, feeding loops to the beatmakers who then submit their work to art directors or producers before the actual singer or rapper even gets to start singing a line. And these processes should be made apparent if we ever want to understand how music is made, and what it means. Music is collective work by essence, it happens in a society, within a culture. And these processes inform what this culture means, how it evolves. It might sound overly ambitious or optimistic of course, but I have hope that more and more musicians will start making their creative processes apparent, that they will start crediting (and paying) their collaborators, and that it will also make it easier to understand how music (or any type of creative work) is made. We'll probably need new infrastructures though, but that's another subject entirely.
The Dual Phase video, and the video for Ascender, produced by you and Louisahhh, were both directed by Dorny Sunday. Ascender largely appeared to be a dance duet, while Dual Phase is more introspective, and the dance is solo. What is the significance of this? Does the ensemble feel of the ‘Ascender’ performance reflect the collaborative nature of its production credits?
I can see where you're coming from, and I guess it does make sense from a certain perspective, but again, even if the Dual Phase video is indeed more introspective, to me it's also an illustration of this collective dimension of creation that I've been exploring with Rhizome. The video for Dual Phase is the result of Dorny Sunday's interpretation of my music, which means that listening is also part of the creative process, particularly with the kind of music I'm making which leaves a lot of space for the listener to connect the dots between different layers or timeframes within the same track. And your interpretation of Dorny's video is another creative layer in this process, because you use your own representations, cultural context, values and references, to build a narrative and a meaning from what's on the screen. And that's exactly what I'm enjoying about doing what I do: it doesn't end with me, or with the release of my work as an album or an EP. My music isn't functional, it isn't even "professional" because it doesn't set to achieve a certain effect or to induce a specific emotion in the listener. I don't have an ambition to control everything, like most pop (or even some techno) artists do. The main purpose is to set something in motion. We could call it a dialogue. We could call it a creative chain. Ultimately, if I've done things right, I'll only be one chain link in a bigger structure.
Popular music, and particularly electronic music, inflected with critical theory has received growing interest in recent years. This is best seen in the analysis of Simon Reynolds and the late Mark Fisher (k-punk), who applied Jacques Derrida’s term ‘hauntology’ to the work of certain contemporary musicians. They suggest that this music evokes ‘lost futures’ that we anticipated in the late-20th century, but which never arrived; Burial is the most immediate example. Would you say that you were inspired by hauntological music or moods in the making of Rhizome, or that lost futures ring through the album?
I don't think so. No. I'm more interested in possible or probable futures (even if as a listener, I do enjoy the specific nostalgia of hauntological works). I believe that music making, as much as every other form of creation, is at a turning point, with the advent of new technological tools that allow brand new forms of experimentation within and around format. Lots have been said about NFT's lately, but it barely scratched the surface of how blockchain technology can be used. Once the ecological aspects will have been dealt with (and it's being addressed, even though I won't get too specific here to avoid technological verbiage), there is a whole world to be explored : collective ownership (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations), programmable art, digital paintings split into "Layers", which you can use to affect the overall image, music split into hundreds of "Stems" each owned by different individuals (see async.art and async.art/music), which can be used to create unpredictable new versions of the original (if the original is even still relevant at this point), tracking and splitting ownership through collaborators, as well as putting the label back at the centre by using metadata as a mapping device. I just hope that the "celebrity" stories around NFT's won't shut down the collectives that are working on utopian decentralised futures for art and music.
Hauntological music tends to filter the euphoria, anticipation, and communion of past dance music through crackles and drawn-out reverb. It separates us from these feelings and from each other – it’s more like the uber home than the rave. It’s like an alienation from the dynamic memories of a space. Did you intend to reflect on our current climate of social distancing in your album?
Of course, context matters. The current climate has a very important impact on my music, but I guess it's been more about liberation than nostalgia. It has somehow freed me from the utilitarianism of the music I've been producing during my whole career. With clubs and festivals gone (or temporarily removed from the equation), I suddenly had an empty space to contemplate. And it gave me the opportunity to explore and experiment without the pressure of constantly thinking about how every single sound will translate when played on a sound system. I'm not saying this pandemic is a good thing. It isn't. It's actually awful. And I very much miss the clubs and the warehouses and the raves. But it's a context we have to deal with, and I guess my own way of dealing with this insane situation, with the anxiety and uncertainty of it, was to embrace it and dig into what it was offering me in terms of creative perspectives. I wouldn't say my album speaks about social distancing in a literal way. But it uses the consequences of social distancing as a starting point for what is, to me, a totally new direction.
The video for Dual Phase has a British-Persian director and features narration in Italian, and you’ve titled your album Rhizome. Are you hoping for a future full of new and unexpected connections?
I do have hopes for the future you're describing. As much as I believe in local scenes, intercultural exchanges and collaborations are vital. I've been lucky enough to be able to visit so many places around the world thanks to my music. Meeting new people, with different visions, backgrounds, skills and purposes. This type of project is also an opportunity to explore the world, even if only from my own living room. And I'm very thankful to Dorny, Caterina Grosoli and the whole team for believing in my work enough to give it so much of their time, energy and creativity.
Since the Ascender and Dual Phase videos are mostly set in dance studios, and feature dancer-choreographers, they betray an atmosphere of purity and distillation; they leave plenty of space for the focus and technique of the dance itself, while narrative and set and costume design are pared back. Does this reflect a no-frills approach by you or RAAR more widely? Does the choreography indicate an elevation from the ecstatic rave to the refined and personal meditation of dance, or is it perhaps a migration from the now commercialised and glamorised public space of the party to the private space of rehearsal, the space of mistakes?
Again, the videos are Dorny and Caterina's visions, so I'm just a part of the audience to their work. But these videos definitely share some ethos with Louisahhh and my label RAAR, where we always insist on the process rather than on the final "product". It's more about finding who you are as you are making things, than making these things to define who you are as an artist. It's not an aesthetic posture either. We don't wish to use these tropes because they're romantic, trendy, or because they somehow look good. But it just happens that Louisahhh and I both find the same comfort in trusting the process and being reluctant to compromise how we do things for the sake of how these things will end up sounding like. So yes, you could totally see the barebones dance moves of these videos as metaphors of the way we practice music-making.
Ascender and Dual Phase are both preoccupied with the human body, particularly its capabilities and limitations. Wheelchairs are prominent alongside movement, and the narration at the beginning of the Dual Phase video mentions health. Health is an extremely loaded word today – we are in the midst of a pandemic, there is an ongoing mental health crisis, and the current views on issues such as obesity and disability are being challenged by movements such as Health at Every Size (HAES). What do health and the body mean to your artistic output?
My music used to be embodied in two different ways : first because my creative process used to be based upon hardware machines, and these machines imply movement - hands twisting faders and knobs, body shifting from one synthesizer to another, fingers tapping patterns on a sequencer. This type of setup is deeply rooted in the body. Like, when I'm in a live performance situation even, it's like my brain switches off and my body takes control. I can just let go and improvise because my body has memorized all of these micro-movements that make the music happen in a certain way, and these sets of movements are what makes this music my music. You could almost make a parallel between dancing and performing live music by putting the body at the centre. My music also used to live thanks to the movements of human bodies, because it was designed to make people dance. As a form of liberation. From my experience, losing your self to the dance in a club is only possible once you truly, fully inhabit your corporal envelope. And I very much hope that this experience be available to everyone, no matter how your body looks or feels like, because it is such a joy.
When hauntological music constantly reminds us of our alienation from the optimism of the late-20th century, and the pandemic is alienating us from each other, are Sunday’s videos and Rhizome anticipating an introspective turn? Do you want them to urge viewers and listeners to forge new connections and seek ecstasy and communion within themselves?
I don't think introspection and connection are contradictory. I'm quite the introvert, but I love the unique type of loneliness you can feel when you're lost in a club, hundreds of human bodies surrounding you, in movement.
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