Photo: Jen Squires / Courtesy of Clandestine Label Services

Ambient Producer Joshua van Tassel Believes We Need More Beautiful Things

Joshua van Tassel plays a modern version of one of the earliest electronic instruments: the Ondes Martenot. He discusses the calm, beautiful album he's written for it, Dance Music Volume II: More Songs for Slow Motion.

Dance Music Volume II: More Songs For Slow Motion
Joshua van Tassel
Backward Music
11 September 2020

“I feel like really just straight-up beautiful things have become uncool. There’s this idea that sentimentality is looked down upon, and emotion is not cool,” says Joshua van Tassel, defending the undiluted gorgeousness of his latest album Dance Music Volume II: More Songs for Slow Motion. Other artists may self-consciously sabotage what’s beautiful in their music in search of an experimental edge, but not Van Tassel.

“It’s not possible for music to be too beautiful,” he says. “With this album, the idea was not to pull away from something that I felt was beautiful. I was intentionally trying to chase down a sound that was more beautiful all the time. I think partly because there’s a lot of not beautiful things in the world. We need more beautiful things.”

Van Tassel, based out of Toronto, is a conservatory-trained jazz drummer who earns a living playing percussion for a wide range of Canadian artists, including Amelia Curran and Great Lakes Swimmers. His latest album, however, has not a bit of percussion on it, instead building lush washes of interlayered sounds with a string quartet, a piano, and an unusual instrument that Van Tassel is learning as he goes.

Part Keyboard, Part Stringed Instrument

Van Tassel plays an Ondéa, which is a modernized version of the Ondes Martenot. That’s an early electronic instrument invented by Maurice Eugene Louis Martenot, a cellist, and wartime radio operator, in Paris toward the end of the 1920s. The instrument has a keyboard like a piano, but its pitch is also controlled through physical movements, like a theremin. There is a string with a ring attached to it that can be manipulated to make minute adjustments in the sound. Original Ondes Martenots are now very rare — they break easily — but several companies make contemporary replicas. The one Van Tassel plays was manufactured by David Kean in Calgary, Canada.

“The instrument I have is essentially a contemporary version of the Ondes Martenot. It takes the spirit of the instrument and the interface or how you interact with the instrument and contemporized it, so you have really stable oscillators and MIDI capabilities,” says Van Tassel.

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“I first heard the instrument when Radiohead played on Saturday Night Live for OK Computer,” says Van Tassel. “Johnny Greenwood was playing it on ‘The National Anthem’. I grew up in Nova Scotia, and I remember seeing it and having no internet and having no idea what I was hearing.”

A decade later, Van Tassel spotted one at the National Music Centre in Calgary. “I was able to play it, and it just kind of grabbed me,” he admits.

“It feels like a string instrument. It feels like a violin and a human voice combined with all the electronic potential of the synthesizer,” he says, struggling a little to get the appeal of Ondéa into words. “I can use all these effects and incorporate all these esoteric pedals that I have that I use in production with this instrument that responds so well. It works at the speed of thought. It’s just so expressive.”

Van Tassel also likes the fact that the Ondéa is a keyboard, but not a piano. “I don’t feel the weight of classical pianists on my shoulder, making me feel that I should be doing something according to convention,” he explains. Although there is a classical repertoire for Ondes Martenot, the tradition isn’t as large or as stifling as the one surrounding piano playing. “My interest lies in the fact that it’s a really exciting instrument because of all the expression possibilities, but still on this contemporary context. I can take it as far as I want it to go,” he says.

Dance Music Volume II took shape while Van Tassel was learning to play his Ondéa — which was not always easy. “It’s very hard to play, in the sense that you’ve got one finger in a ring and that ring is on a string, so as you move your hand left to right, that controls the pitch. Then your left hand is on a button, and the further down you press the button, the louder it gets. That’s why it’s so expressive because you can make these minute pitch changes and volume changes,” Van Tassel says. “But because it’s that way, any tuning, like millimeters, cause tuning problems. It feels like learning to play a stringed instrument.”

Drew Jurecka, who wrote the string arrangements for Dance Music, gave Van Tassel a few exercises to help him build his skills — like playing slow drones and really listening to the pitch. He still plays for hours every day and continues to get better at it.

Music for Healing

Van Tassel’s current album is the second in a series he wrote for his wife, who is a dancer, a reflexologist, and a sacral cranial therapist. “My wife had talked a lot about trying to find non-cheesy ambient music, essentially, that she could use in the treatment or use for her teaching practice and just in general, so I wanted to make her something,” says Van Tassel. “It was still made with that world in mind, with the idea of creating a beautiful, peaceful environment that you could move very slowly to or receive a treatment to, something in that world.”

Asked if the idea of music as a healing force made sense to him, Van Tassel was enthusiastic. “Oh yeah, absolutely. I think it’s legitimate, and I think it needs to be explored more. My younger sister is a trained music therapist. It’s something she’s talked a lot about. You can see it happen sometimes, and it’s amazing. I think it’s a very legitimate practice.”


Photo: Jen Squires / Courtesy of Clandestine Label Services

Beyond the Ondéa

The Ondéa takes a prominent place in Dance Music, but it’s not the only instrument. Van Tassel also played piano and brought in a string quartet to fill out his record’s sound.

The piano part in “Their Love Was Alive Before They Were Dead”, for instance, was the seed for the entire song. Van Tassel explains that he’s got a piano in his studio, which he uses as a compositional tool, but he doesn’t consider himself especially skilled on it. For “Their Love Was Alive”, he says, “I was just trying out shapes, you know, and trying to hear how it felt and those two chords led themselves into one another. I didn’t want to move from there. I just wanted to play those chords. I played them for about ten minutes, just back and forth, and let it grow from there.”

The Venuti String Quartet, led by Drew Jurecka, also became a key part of the album. Van Tassel and Jurecka have known each other for years. “Anything I’m involved with production-wise, just in general, he’s the guy I get,” says Van Tassel. “I consider him an actual genius. Like the dictionary definition of that word, genius.”

“I’ve watched him learn instruments in weeks, like a bandomium, which is like an accordion,” Van Tassel continues. “He didn’t play it, and he got one, and then like a month later, he was playing it in a tango ensemble, like a traditional tango group. It’s unbelievable.”

“Drew has had this quartet now for five years, and they do everything. He did all the strings on the new Duo Lipa record, and they’re the string quartet for the live Alessa Cara thing. They just do everything,” says Van Tassel. “They’re really great people, and they really got inside of what I was trying to do. We did the sessions really late at night on purpose to try and be in that slowed down mindset.”

Van Tassel has finished the basic tracks before bringing the strings in. He and Jurecka sat down and listened to them together and discussed ideas for arrangements before recording. Then Jurecka wrote out the arrangements, and the string players performed them live in the studio.

It was also Jurecka who introduced Van Tassel to the music of Claude Debussy, whose elusive, impressionistic style influenced him on this record. “Drew heard something that reminded him of Debussy early on in this process, and I spent quite a bit of time listening to Debussy just to hear its color,” says Van Tassel. “That’s what really attracts me. It becomes less a lot of notes or a really complicated thing and more of a feeling or a bit of a wash.”

“I usually feel that I don’t know enough about classical music to listen to it, but with Debussy, I didn’t feel that. I just felt like I was hearing something very new, though it’s quite old,” Van Tassel adds, noting that he also finds inspiration in contemporary artists like Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Ben Frost.

What Happens to a Tour Deferred?

Van Tassel was deep into plans for touring this album when COVID-19 hit. He still hopes, someday, to hit the road with his friend, the violinist Hugh Marsh. The idea was to hire string quartets in various cities for a single night’s performance.

Right now, in Canada, the live music is stirring into life, with a smattering of drive-in shows (“People honk between songs,” says Van Tassel) and gatherings of up to 100 in outdoor venues. Musicians are recording again, too, and Van Tassel says he’s started to get inquiries about producing work and session jobs, not just as a drummer, but now as an Ondéa player as well.

And as for his obsession with this unusual instrument? It’s on hold for now. “I broke it two weeks ago and had to send it back,” he says ruefully. “It’ll be fine, but it’s just one of those things. With esoteric instruments, you can’t just take it to Guitar Center and have someone repair it. It’s like, no, I have to spend $300 to FedEx it to Calgary and have him fix it and send it back. I realized that once I sent it away, it was like, wow, I am using this thing all the time. I’m really missing the practice.”