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!

Live review – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle: Stravinsky, Birtwistle & John Adams

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (above)

Barbican Hall, London
Thursday 2 May 2019

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original version) (1920)
Birtwistle The Shadow of Night (2001)
John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)

Written by Ben Hogwood

These days attending a London Symphony Orchestra concert brings with it a guarantee of intriguing programming and breathtaking musicianship. This one had a real ‘darkness to light’ demeanour, moving from the blacker than black recesses of Sir Harrison Birtwistle to the wide open, sunlit panoramas created by John Adams.

Before that, a composer whose influence could be keenly felt in the music of both composers. Stravinsky made many innovations in pieces other than his celebrated Rite of Spring, and Symphonies of Wind Instruments could certainly be regarded as one of his most original. With the term ‘symphony’ interpreted through its original meaning, the ‘concord of sound’, Stravinsky proceeds to build an innovative one-movement piece that contrasts busy movement with still reflection.

The instrumentation is fascinating, especially in the original version, which uses alto clarinet and alto flute. It explains the simply wonderful sounds made by the 24-piece London Symphony Orchestra wind and brass, the rich chords often baleful and downcast (the piece is a memorial to Debussy) but the faster music sprightly and energetic. A better performance of this piece would be hard to imagine, energetically guided by Sir Simon Rattle.

The music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle continues to split opinion. For this particular listener it is not an easy prospect, and I confess to having developed headaches in previous performances of Earth Dances and Neruda Madrigales, while admiring The Moth Requiem and Silbury Air. I therefore approached The Shadows of Night with some trepidation, but found it an ultimately rewarding score, its heavy darkness punctuated by relieving solos of glittering light from bassoon and E-flat clarinet, where Chi Yu Mo was simply superb.

Birtwistle’s colouring of the lower regions of the string orchestra is particularly fine, and the first five minutes were a sonic wonder to behold, as though the Barbican had opened up into a monstrous cave. Then the piccolo stated a John Dowland song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, after which the piece lumbered through a number of sections with gathering tension. Once this was released the clarinet worked its magic, and Rattle set us down in a heap for the interval.

Following Birtwistle with John Adams was like throwing open the curtains to greet a sun-splashed new morning, and the LSO sparkled with what seemed to be new-found freedom. Harmonielehre delights in tonality, politely rejecting Schoenberg’s treatise of the same name to power forward with terrific rhythmic impetus and walls of consonant harmonies. Within themselves these create some exquisite dissonance and colour, with the brass and percussion in particular shining through. Rattle has this piece under his skin, having recorded it with the CBSO in 1993, and if anything his interpretation has gained speed and electricity. as the composer himself noted on Twitter!

The audience were swept up in the cumulative power and energy of the piece, particularly in its closing section, which carried all before it. Of all the prominent exponents of minimalism, Adams has the most effective orchestral writing, and his clear signposts of influences (Sibelius Symphony no.4, Stravinsky, Debussy and even Britten) were all used to original effect. It was an invigorating close to a terrific concert.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

You can read Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s thoughts on The Shadow of Night at his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website, and John Adams talks about Harmonielehre on his own webpage

Wigmore Mondays: Augustin Hadelich & Charles Owen – Brahms, Ysaÿe & Adams

Augustin Hadelich (violin, above), Charles Owen (piano, below)

Brahms Violin Sonata no.1 in G major Op.78 (1878-9) (1:57-28:08)
Ysaÿe Sonata for solo violin no.4 in E minor Op.27/4 ‘Fritz Kreisler’ (1923) (30:31-40:44)
Adams Road Movies (1995) (43:33-1:00:24)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 10 December 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was the third Monday lunchtime in the last six weeks where BBC Radio 3 and the Wigmore Hall have been concentrating on music for violin and piano. This nicely constructed recital complemented the previous pair from Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova, and Tai Murray and Silke Avenhaus, where we had heard two of the three violin sonatas by Grieg.

On this occasion we heard a contemporary of those works, the BrahmsViolin Sonata no.1 in G major – a work written for his friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim – and one also picked up by Clara Schumann. It is a highly attractive work and received an affectionate performance here, Augustin Hadelich and Charles Owen straight into the beatific air of the first movement (from 1:57 on the broadcast) With an equally genial theme from 3:24, this was Brahms at his most radiant, with a sweet tone from the violinist and flowing countermelodies from Owen. The airy role reversal at 5:20, with Owen playing the tune and Hadelich giving pizzicato (plucked) accompaniment was a lovely moment – as was the content beginning of the coda (11:35). In between this the music was passionate and animated, Brahms developing his source material.

The second movement (from 12:34) also benefited from Hadelich’s sweetly toned instrument, shaping up to be a lovely reverie until a much more animated central section blew away the cobwebs (15:00). Returning at 16:23, the main theme gained an extra layer from double stopping on the violin (playing more than one string at once), and Owen’s piano line continued as a model of sensitivity.

Clara Schumann stated that she would happily have the last movement of this sonata to accompany her on her journey ‘to the next world’, and you could hear why in this performance (from 20:05), which brought out its bittersweet quality. Brahms moves between G minor and G major, a delicate balancing act of music that sounds a bit fretful and gentler, uplifting thoughts. Hadelich and Owen caught them perfectly here, the latter’s nicely pointed piano working particularly well on the dance-like second idea of the movement. From 25:37 the major-minor tension resumed, resolved in a serene coda from 26:20, ending quietly.

Ysaÿe wrote his six solo violin sonatas at great speed, publishing them all together in 1923. The fourth pays particular homage to Bach, incorporating the dance forms that were used in his Sonatas and Suites for solo stringed instruments. It was dedicated to the violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler, one of the very greatest string players. Not surprisingly it makes technical demands on the performer but Hadelich was brilliant here (from 30:31), careful not to overdo the virtuosity at the expense of musical communication.

The three sections of the sonata moved from a dramatic first movement Allemanda (30:31) through a slowly evolving Sarabande used by the composer as a fugue (34:50) and then a bracing Finale (37:57). The Sarabande had the most striking sonorities of the three, thanks to the inventive pizzicato techniques matched spotlessly by Hadelich, but the last movement was a tour de force with which to finish!

Following this was one of the first pieces John Adams wrote for chamber forces, his evocative trip Road Movies, after a period where he admits to ‘studiously avoiding the chamber music format’. Yet, as this entertaining three movement piece proves, his music translates effortlessly to the smaller scale. The piano (played heroically here by Charles Owen!) supplies a lot of the rhythmic impetus and the bass foundations, leaving the violin to operate more freely up top.

The first movement, Relaxed Groove, is described by the composer as ‘a relaxed drive down a not unfamiliar road. Material is recirculated in a sequence of recalls that suggest a rondo form’. Both performers got to the nub of the bluesy music straight away, and also evoked the ‘solitary figure in an empty desert landscape’ in the second movement, entitled Meditative (49:11), where Hadelich had to detune his bottom string from a ‘G’ to an ‘F’. Finally the toe-tapping 40% Swing (55:19) closed out this virtuosic piece, both players smiling as they enjoyed its grooves and motifs.

We disembarked from the Adams vehicle, but an encore was waiting to see us on our way – a rather fine arrangement by Ysaÿe of the Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor, played with appropriate tenderness by Hadelich. Owen’s flowing accompaniment, too, was finely judged.

Further listening

Augustin Hadelich has not yet recorded any of the works in this recital, but the following playlist brings together the music heard in the concert, including a version of the encore arranged by Nathan Milstein:

For those enjoying the Ysaÿe Solo Sonata, a logical next port of call would be the unaccompanied 24 Caprices by Paganini, which Hadelich has recently recorded:

For those enjoying the Adams, here is a disc including not just Road Movies but a collection of the composer’s works for keyboard:

Live review – Kensington SO / Russell Keable: William Schuman 3rd Symphony, Adams, Bernstein & Tower

Kensington Symphony OrchestraRussell Keable (above)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London. Monday October 15, 2018

Tower Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 (1986)
Bernstein Divertimento (1980)
Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007, rev 2008)
Schuman Symphony No. 3 (1941)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra‘s 63rd season got off to a most impressive start with tonight’s concert of American music (simultaneously continuing the Americana ’18 festival taking place at St John’s during this year), opening with the Fanfare for the Common Woman with which Joan Tower launched her wider reputation over three decades ago. Rhythmically bracing while not without harmonic subtlety, it provided a fitting showcase for the KSO brass and percussion as well as a pertinent tribute to this composer in the year of her 70th birthday.

Leonard Bernstein‘s centenary was marked with his Divertimento, seven succinct movements that touch upon most of his salient traits and a reminder that his latter-day creativity was one where less equals more. Highlights include a delectable Waltz (enjoying frequent exposure on Classic FM), wistful Mazurka, evocative Blues then a rousing March: The BSO Forever whose Johann Strauss take-off duly makes for an uproarious close. Suffice to add the KSO was not found wanting in a piece written for the Boston Symphony’s own 100th birthday.

As Russell Keable‘s opening remarks made plain, John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony was an altogether more serious proposition. First heard at the 2007 Proms, the rather diffuse 45-minute work in four movements was duly streamlined into a continuous structure lasting barely half an hour. Surprising, then, that the result seems less than cohesive – its reworking of material from the composer’s third opera one of cinematic contrast than symphonic unity. Some of his most virtuoso orchestral writing, which the KSO tackled with relish, is hampered by the recourse to post-minimalist gestures that remain Adams’s (unwitting?) stock-in-trade. Even the final section, a setting of John Donne‘s sonnet Batter my heart with its baritone part taken by trumpet (here the mellifluous Stephen Willcox), felt less than truly affecting.

After the interval, a welcome revival (likely the first in London for two decades) for William Schuman‘s Third Symphony. One of a triumvirate of such pieces by American composers to emerge either side of the Second World War, it evinces a formal integration and expressive panache that its composer never surpassed – not least in the way its four movements are arranged in two larger parts such as complement each other unerringly, and with a steadily accumulating momentum which emerges across the whole in what is itself a marvel of tensile dynamism.

Keable delineated the variations of the initial Passacaglia with assurance, ensuring textural clarity here and in the ensuing Fugue while underlining how the numerous woodwind and brass solos emerge naturally from the string polyphony rather than sounding laminated onto it. Nor was there any lack of emotional poise with the Chorale, its understated eloquence in contrast to the inexorably mounting impetus of the closing Toccata whose final pages are as visceral as any in the symphonic literature – not least when rendered with such verve as here.

A memorable reading of a seminal though under-appreciated piece such as the KSO has long championed. Hopefully future seasons will see revivals of comparable American works – the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions and Seventh (Variation) Symphony of Peter Mennin.

For further information on the Kensington Symphony Orchestra you can visit the orchestra’s website

Live review – O/Modernt / Hugo Ticciati at Kings Place: Looping Time

O/Modernt (above) / Hugo Ticciati (below)

Hall One, Kings Place, Friday 21 September 2018

Tüür Violin Concerto no.2 Angel’s Share (2018)
Adams Shaker Loops (1978)
Pérotin arr. Johannes Marmén Viderunt omnes (c1200)
Glass Symphony no.3 (1995)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The Time Unwrapped series at Kings Place has dealt out a number of very interesting concerts. This program from the young Swedish-based but European-sourced O/Modernt chamber orchestra combined established minimalist forebears with new interpretations of working with small musical cells – or waveforms as the program called it.

In a change to the order of the program we began with the Violin Concerto no.2 of Erki-Sven Tüür, premiered in the composer’s native Estonia earlier this year. Tüür has an intriguing past where progressive rock meets classical, and it has furnished him with a very strong sense of dramatic structure and the gift for vivid storytelling. This work, subtitled Angel’s Share, was all about interpreting the gap of air that appears in the barrel during the ageing of whisky, and how that can be applied to the wisdom of an adult as they grow older, ‘letting go of the unpleasant tastes’ in the words of the composer.

Cannily he captured this in musical terms, culminating with the release of the cork at the start of the concerto’s third movement, where the (sadly unnamed) percussionist dealt a striking blow. The start employed the other end of the percussive spectrum, with a high metallic note from which Ticciati’s solo part germinated. The soloist was superb, inhabiting the part and its distinctive figures, while the strings’ counterpoint was consistently absorbing and meaningful, right up to the affirmative finish. It would be great to hear this work again soon, and certainly those present appreciated it – among them violinist Fenella Humphreys.

John AdamsShaker Loops followed, a relatively early minimalist classic from 1978 that remains a success in concert. The near-constant tremolos require great stamina and control on the part of the string players, but that was never an issue with the 19-strong orchestra here, who danced and shimmered in tune with a sensitively handled light display. Double bassists Ben Griffiths and Jordi Carrasco Hjelm were the rock on which the three-movement piece stood, but the way the slower lines undulated over the top was particularly affecting, capturing the deep spiritual roots of the piece – which is after all a representation in music of ‘shaking’. Adams is in thrall to Sibelius when he writes for strings in this way, but the harmonic language is an extension and has a distinctly wide-open, American feel. Ticciati and his charges took us out onto that plain.

Johannes Marmén‘s arrangement of Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes opened the second half, a curiousity that showed how even in the 1200s music had minimalist tendencies. On occasion it was difficult to see Perotin’s original thinking, however, as the arrangement took hold, but the final paragraph from the double basses took us back into his world. It showed how ancient and modern can still integrate – we use largely the same notes after all – and how both are still relevant and complement each other. The fly in the ointment, unfortunately, was extraneous but unidentified noise from the roof of Hall One that threatened to disrupt the performance.

Ticciati had to acknowledge it with a rueful smile before moving straight into the jewel of tonight’s crown, Philip Glass’s Symphony no.3. The previous work in his symphonic output is on Brucknerian dimensions, running for nearly an hour, but in the Third Glass compresses his musical argument into an impressive, cohesive whole. O/Modernt got right to the heart of the small cells that are cleverly manipulated here, but also found the deep emotion of the central Chaconne, which has a dark heart but opens out with major key harmonies to find greater optimism – before going back into the minor key again. It is an ebb and flow that proves extremely affecting on repetition, and was the centrepiece of a fine performance, whose outer movements showed the virtuosity of these string players to the highest degree.

This was a very fine concert and an ideal showcase for minimalism as an extremely valid form of composition, showing also that there is a sizable library beyond the works of Steve Reich. By way of an encore we had Rufus Wainwright in the style of John Adams, his song Across the Universe played with beautiful precision and lovingly directed by Ticciati.