Switched On – Ryan Teague: Recursive Iterations (King Tree)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Ryan Teague’s first album release in three years is an intriguing affair. In keeping with his ability to change tack with each new record, the music sets itself within an algorithmic framework. This has been of great interest to the composer for some time, for his approach to music is as much by way of sound design and architecture as it is melody and harmony. Recursive Iterations, then, takes seven different sets of ‘cells’ and makes a suite from them, bringing together disparate styles and textures.

What’s the music like?

Extremely distinctive, and hard to pin down stylistically. Teague’s different pools of reference – music for TV and film, modern classical, urban, even grime – all come together in fascinating cells that feel like a collision of more than one style at a time.

And yet there is an older style at work, that of the ‘round’ – music like Frère Jacques, where layers would be added to a ‘ground’ bass that stays constant all the way through.

Teague takes those cells, reorders and arranges them, keeps a constant rhythm going, and makes them sound alive and mysterious at the same time. Rich bass sounds can appear – like the start of Recursive Iteration II – in a style that recalls Burial, and yet at the top is a busy, more minimal block that generates energy. Including a Hawaiian guitar adds colour too, and in the middle of the texture there are occasional swoons from a string-like pattern that could be from an old film. A stop-start rhythm holds it all together, while glitches and bugs prevent the music from ever sounding too ordered or inevitable.

At times Teague works with open-ended harmony, so while the melodies are all compact, the music can end up facing outwards. This happens in Recursive Iteration III, which turns out to be semi-orchestral in its concept. While much of the music is instrumental, Recursive Iteration IV uses vocal snippets to good effect, while Recursive Iterations V has a wordless synthesized chorus as its electronics twist and curl at the edges.

In his interview for Arcana, Teague was extremely complimentary of the composer Webern’s ability to work with silence. He uses a similar tactic very well here, effectively placing pauses between musical statements to give the impression that the algorithms in Recursive Iterations were regenerating. Given the concentrated textures it is helpful for the listener to have these slight pauses, like essential punctuation in musical sentences. Recursive Iteration VI – arguably the best iteration – uses silence within a framework of glittering keyboards, rushes of weather-like sounds, a bigger string-based chord and a wavy guitar line. The consonant harmonies give an attractive outlook.

Does it all work?

Yes, in a curious way it does. Teague’s music is definitely worth giving time and attention to, as Recursive Iterations is a lot more dense in content than previous albums. He works the source material really cleverly, despite its pre-programmed elements, and creates some interesting and very curious clashes of sound and style within his carefully aligned structures.

Is it recommended?

Yes. By striking out for something new rather than towing the neo-classical line, Ryan Teague is pushing his music forward in a very interesting way. Recursive Iterations sounds different to anything you will hear this year, part human and part algorithm, yet packing lots of detail and concentrated feeling into its core. A fascinating release which in a few years will almost certainly reveal itself as much more than the sum of its parts we think it is now!

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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!