Talking Heads: Ryan Teague

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Asked to describe himself, Ryan Teague could easily offer the text of his website biography as a succinct summary. Here the multiple disciplines of composer, sound designer and multi-instrumentalist are listed, with the declaration that the Bristol-based artist ‘combines acoustic sources and arrangements with electronic synthesis and processing to create unique contemporary soundscapes’.

What we could add to that is that over nearly fifteen years of commercially released albums he has travelled through a number of very different styles, rarely visiting the same one twice. We have been able to marvel at his treatment of acoustic instruments in a style that allows the influences of minimalism and the gamelan to be heard. More recently, on the new album Recursive Iterations, he has started to look at algorithms and their use in electronic music.

It is a very distinctive style, as though Teague has joined up a series of different statements that travel round in circles, and each time they pass the listener something has changed. As we talk about his music, he agrees with this first point. “Yes, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. The algorithm is exactly that, a 360 degree rotation, with every variation possible within the parameters. It’s not always obvious, and some come around more often than others.”

The press release is helpful here, describing how ‘the musical structure is derived from a custom–written algorithmic system that sequences harmonic and rhythmic events in ever-shifting patterns. Hyperreal electro-acoustic phrases and digitally synthesised fragments come and go in continual rotation, re-framed and re-contextualised by their proximity to other events in the sequence as the compositions evolve. The effect evokes a minimalist bricolage, hypnotic and kaleidoscopic in nature, and calls to mind artists such as Oneohtrix Point Never, The Haxan Cloak and Ital Tek‘.

In spite of this detail there is plenty of room for manoeuvre and expression. Some of Teague’s melodies and harmonies are playful, and some are left open-ended, as though he were facing outwards. “I think there’s a sense that it’s constantly leading you somewhere but never quite arriving,” he says. Picking the second iteration as an example, he cites the use of “sounds off an old radio from the 1950s, together with a Hawaiian guitar. They kind of fit together. Getting them to work coherently together is a challenge but one that I really enjoy.”

He has a wealth of experience of music in the longer form – substantial instrumentals on his albums prove that – but also in the shorter attention span world of advertising and TV. Has that helped him with what is a concentrated approach on Recursive Iterations? “It has a bit, but I think the relationship is more derived from exploring certain aspects rather than the film or advert work. It’s getting to the bottom of sound design and pushing sounds to their limits, so that you are finding the very bottom and the very top of each. I guess working in TV stuff you have to get proficient at very broad briefs and sonic requirements, but this was more of a personal point. It helped that I have been working with a really good Hi Fi system and seeing how far I could push it. I have an ARCAM amp and B&W speakers, and on those it has been a real revelation to hear things in such a different way so it informed my work in more recent times.” It also explains why the new album comes into its own on headphones, the full range of its frequencies revealed.

Contrary to expectations, Teague’s training has not been formal. “No, not strictly”, he says. “On my very first press release someone put that I’m classically trained. I’m not, but I went to art school and studied sound intensely. I find that I’m more interested in structures, and I play classical guitar, but I’m not formally trained. I would say I have a good understanding of harmony, and also that I was always ambitious with sound. As a kid I was really making dance music, and that’s what I always thought I would be doing for a while. I have ultimately found beats to be restrictive though. There was a linear path that I had to get off in my early 20s, and I wanted to find ways I could express myself.”

Teague approaches his structures “more through clarity of vision of ideas, and I literally see them visually. I know what I’m going to do before I start. For me the timbre is very visual, so that when I’m working on a metallic piece, I am focused on achieving a particular sonic effect. It’s architectural rather than sitting down at the piano. When you get to constructing harmonies, that’s where you have to sit down and work it out.”

A common mistake from reviewers and interviewers – this one partially included! – is that Teague is influenced primarily by the music of Steve Reich. Yet while he fully respects the work of the master minimalist, Teague’s references spread further afield. “The Reich reference comes up a lot, probably in every review I’ve ever had, but if anything I was much more interested in the work of John Adams, and his sense of structure and development was much more in my early references. Colin McPhee was a big inspiration to me too, because I went on to study the gamelan myself. He achieved things more than 50 years before the likes of John Adams and Steve Reich came along, and is tragically not really credited for that.”

Post-tonal music also exerts a pull, though more in its instrumentation and concentration than its actual harmonies. “Webern is a very strong influence”, says Teague, “distilled down to his element. What he does in his music is not to be afraid of silence, and to use the space between notes to make the maximum impact. For me Webern is incredibly innovative, and massively overlooked. I would also check Morton Feldman, for his use of time, space and colour. A lot of electronic music too. I don’t tend to keep up with what’s going on at the moment, but I do have my comfort music.”

He thinks on, and another name comes to mind. “One reference especially relevant to Recursive Iterations would be Richard Skelton. He pretty much works solely with acoustic instruments, with beautiful strings, drones and treated piano. He sets up a few things that keep happening at various points, using beautiful, shimmering music without being too cheesy. That is a challenge that I set myself, asking how can I set things on their own cycles without getting in their way?”

As befits a composer of several disciplines, Teague is working on a number of different projects concurrently. “I have a TV thing and a film thing, but can’t say too much about either unfortunately. The album was only finished back in July so I’m formulating my next project, which will be very different. I am thinking perhaps of something in the live arena with a different energy. The studio can be a bit lacking on its own so I’m keen to open things up and take in a different energy. I have ideas forming in that area!”

He agrees that Recursive Iterations is very different to previous albums, “I’m never a good judge of that sort of thing, but that’s happened before. It is certainly very different to the kind of guitar-based stuff I did for Causeway or when I worked with the gamelan for Storm Or Tempest May Stop Play. That has been dance music with acoustic instruments.”

“I could almost have different audiences for different projects”, he considers, “because I go through different phases of different styles and I’m quite clear about the sonic worlds those things inhabit. Recursive Iterations sounds more electronic, and thinking back I guess Burial would be another key reference. Sometimes I think I’m not representing myself very well, with such different styles!”

At this point the music of a composer such as Beethoven comes to mind, the composer able to move between such contrasting forms as symphony, string quartet, piano sonata and song. “I think it changes as the scene evolves, thinking of the present day”, says Teague. “With the post-classical scene my involvement was back to 15 years ago, with the Six Preludes but more recently it’s gone nuts. I’m trying to do something else now. Maybe I could cash in and do loads of piano music now, so that we could play it to people in offices and pacify them! These things all get capitalised on and it becomes a business. So many labels are jumping on that and it’s a bit too late now. The album I’ve just finished was a bit of an antidote to that for me, with the idea to do something bolder sonically.”

Ryan Teague‘s new album Recursive Iterations is self-released on Friday October 25. It can be heard and purchased from his Bandcamp site below:

Stay tuned for a special playlist from Ryan, exclusive to Arcana, in the coming days!

On screen: Barbara Hannigan, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Berg: Wozzeck Fragments; Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre (LSO Live)

Webern Six Pieces op.6 (1909/28)
Berg Three Fragments from Wozzeck, op. 7 (1923)
Ligeti arr. Howarth Mysteries of the Macabre (1992)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (1913)

Barbara Hannigan (soprano – Berg & Ligeti), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO3028 [84’58’’] One DVD and one Blu-ray disc

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from its all-French programme (LSO3038), LSO Live here releases a further concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle on DVD and Blu-ray – once again a co-production with the digital channel Mezzo and in association with ARTE France.

What’s the music like?

Rattle has long been an advocate of Webern’s Six Pieces and made a fine recording of it in his Birmingham days. This LSO account is notable for its scrupulous attention to dynamics and tonal shading, even if such fastidiousness minimizes any real spontaneity in this elusive music. A case in point is the rather effortful climax to the explosive second piece, while the ‘funeral march’ fourth lacks underlying momentum on the way to its powerful though hardly unnerving culmination. Elsewhere, this music’s subdued introspection is tellingly conveyed.

The Three Fragments which Berg drew from Wozzeck follows on naturally. Focussing on the character of Marie enabled the composer to bring together three of this opera’s highlights for concert use, and Barbara Hannigan brings a probing characterization to the lullaby from Act One then the bible-reading scene from Act Three. She captures the naivety of the child at the close of the third fragment, before which the LSO comes into its own in a powerful while not unduly vehement interlude prior to the final scene – Rattle steering them through unerringly.

Hannigan returns in rather different guise for Mysteries of the Macabre that Elgar Howarth arranged from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. This present-day staple of the coloratura repertoire lends itself to all manner of parody and if Hannigan’s juvenile delinquent might be felt inappropriate for a chief of secret police, her vocal contribution is uninhibited in its virtuosity. Rattle and his orchestra enter-into the music’s anarchic accordingly, the former’s joke at the expense of Nigel Farage seeming all too ironic in the light of subsequent events.

Rattle’s association with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring goes back to the outset of his career and hearing this account is a reminder of his prowess in music the LSO has itself played many times. Yet for all the consummate technical skill, there is a nagging sense of conductor and orchestra going through the motions to ultimately predictable effect (indeed, the performance from Peter Eötvös with the LSO later that season generated much more genuine excitement and sense of purpose). Easy to admire, there is little here to make one assess this work afresh.

Does it all work?

Absolutely in terms of a programme both cohesive and provocative. Things are more mixed in term of performances – with those of the Berg and (musically at least) the Ligeti as good as one is ever likely to hear, that of the Webern just a little too micro-managed overall and the Stravinsky a reminder that superb playing and expert conducting do not necessarily make for a gripping interpretation.

As an indication of Rattle’s association with the orchestra of which he subsequently became Music Director, there is much here that is enjoyable and engrossing

Is it recommended?

Yes, in terms of a concert to which one might wish to return on repeated occasions. Sound and vision leave little to be desired in either format, though post-production means that there is little sense of the orchestra performing in a tangible acoustic – Barbican Hall or otherwise.

For more information on this release, visit the LSO Live website

Vilde Frang, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Peter Oundjian – Viennese classics in Dundee

rsno
Ben Hogwood visits Dundee’s magnificent Caird Hall for an trio of Viennese works given by violinist Vilde Frang, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and principal conductor Peter Oundjian
Caird Hall, Dundee, Thursday 12 November

Webern Langsamer Satz (1905), arr for string orchestra by Gerard Schwarz

Brahms Violin Concerto (1878)

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C, ‘Jupiter’ (1788)

What a magnificent setting for a concert. Dundee’s Caird Hall will be well known as an attraction by the locals but it bears repeating that the venue is an excellent acoustic for classical music, as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conductor Peter Oundjian observed in his brief talk to the audience before the concert.

The high ceiling was perfect for the burnished ardour of Webern’s Langsamer Satz, written while the composer was still in a tonal way of thinking and in thrall to his hero Mahler. Although normally heard through the intimate medium of the string quartet, this arrangement, made by the conductor Gerard Schwarz for string orchestra, worked extremely well, and the RSNO strings made a beautiful and clean sound that left us in no doubt as to the composer’s feelings towards his cousin – who was later to become his wife.

The Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang then joined the enhanced orchestra for another Viennese piece, Brahms’s Violin Concerto­ – and in the process she built on a relationship already established with the erte concerto last year. Frang is not a player prone to exaggerated gestures or one-upmanship on the orchestra and this was the ideal approach for the Brahms, where the two forces work together and where the orchestra often have the better tunes. Oboist Adrian Wilson, acknowledged by Frang at the end, was superb in his slow movement solo, and while this was perhaps a more ‘classical’ reading looking back towards Schubert, Frang took the difficult and extended solo passages, particularly the cadenzas, by the scruff of the neck and refused to let them go.

Completing the Viennese trio was Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, his last – with Oundjian sensibly reducing the forces in the name of clarity. This was an extremely fine performance where the rapport between the RSNO and their conductor was abundantly clear, and where he ensured that Mozart’s deceptively simple themes were beautifully communicated and developed. A graceful minuet was notable for the floated violin delivery, though in the trio the minor key harmonies sowed the seeds of disquiet.

These were emphatically blown away by the finale, one of Mozart’s greatest achievements as a composer in his successful dovetailing of all five themes in a brilliantly worked fugue. Oundjian took this at a daringly fast tempo but we never lost sight of the tunes, the orchestra working incredibly hard to keep their lines clear and crisp. The enjoyment of all – players and audience – was clear, for this was music to banish even the squalliest of November nights.