Brian Transeau is one of the most under-rated producers in the contemporary music landscape. With a discography that includes musical veterans, like Sting and Tori Amos, in addition to “Pop,” his radio-friendly collaboration with N*SYNC, there is no denying the range and eclecticism of Transeau’s songwriting and production talents.
As an audio technician, Brian Transeau is highly-regarded as a pioneer in electronic music and widely-credited for his development and use of the stutter edit, granular synthesis, and nano-correcting. In 2009, “BT” would channel fifteen years of professional expertise into the launch of Sonik Architects, a software company.
To date, Brian Transeau’s work has been featured in more than 40 film and video game soundtracks. And outside of his work for others, he has six studio albums to his credit: Ima (1995), ESCM (1997), Movement in Still Life (1999), Emotional Technology (2003), This Binary Universe (2006), and These Hopeful Machines (2010).
In the midst of a promotional campaign for These Hopeful Machines, “BT” managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the science behind his music, the influence of Dr. Richard Boulanger, and the global appreciation of electronic music.
As you celebrate your fifteenth year in the music business, what immediate reflections do you have on the dominance – and continued relevance – of electronic music?
I think it’s pretty amazing that it’s come to pass – this thing that a small bunch of us prophesized in the early nineties — that electronic music would actually become a dominant force in mainstream music culture. And we’ve watched it kind of blossom from the mid to late nineties; especially as far as films and other forms of visual media, video games and those kind of things. And no one will call it this, but electronic music has taken over mainstream music in general, from Indie rock to hip-hop, and that really excites me – especially since this is something I’ve long participated in since I was a kid. So to see it get the kind of critical accolades it’s finally getting is really exciting.
In 1995, when your debut album, Ima, received a proper release, the music industry’s most-expensive music video of all-time hit MTV’s airwaves. When you think about the historical legacy of “Scream” by Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, along with the rise of YouTube, what challenges do you think electronic musicians have in enticing younger members of the visual music age?
I think it’s really a natural fit for electronic music, because of course there’s a plethora of different sorts of electronic music. Things that are really kind of pushing the edge with currently available technologies, I think, that it’s a really natural fit for people to be experimenting with the visual domain.
I actually think in live performance we’re going to see more of an element of actual live performance that incorporates a visual esthetic where the performer is going to incorporate both the visuals and the music. And there have been some tools that have cropped up that have kind of aid that process. But I actually think it’s a really natural fit, because if you think about music and sort of the audio spectrum and then light as a visual spectrum, it’s very similar things; and I think people that are good at working with one are often good at working with the other.
In the liner notes of This Binary Universe, you pay respect to Dr. Boulanger, who you credit for “introducing [you] to cSound.” You also state that “all [your] work to follow would not be possible without it.” What details can you share about your professional relationship? And in what ways does his influence shine through on your most recent effort, These Hopeful Machines?
Absolutely. I’ve been really blessed to have some amazing teachers throughout my musical education which continues to this day; with Dr. Boulanger, as well. I mean, he’s mentored to me for over twenty years. He’s an amazing, amazing man, and is the first person in this country to have a doctorate in computer music. He invented convolution and impulse response. Reverbs and stuff are possible because of his doctoral thesis. So he’s done the things that have impacted music culture, not even electronic music profoundly, but very quietly.
He’s a very quiet man, and he just taught me an extraordinary amount, more than anything, about listening. One thing that my greatest music teachers have really aided me in is listening. So much about creating music is sort of changing the sort of perceptual experience that you have with hearing, because in order to unravel certain things, so you can do them yourself or expound upon them, it’s a kind of thrill to listen and take them apart. And one of the most interesting things about really learning to properly listen is you often find that things are not sort of irreducible in a way that we think that they are.
Listen to a Ramones song, or listen to someone like Jimi Hendrix, or listen to something by Depeche Mode. You can take them apart, and you can figure out the harmony and the counterpoint and the root motion and the melodic figures and the sounds and what kind of amps they use and guitars and how the drums are recorded and synths and everything. But often there’s a sort of magical thing that happens when all those things that are combined with a certain sort of intent. I know I’m being a little bit divergent, but yeah, Dr. B has been an incredible influence on me. I also had a teacher when I was a kid named Superious Wahhabalis that was very, very similar, and Dr. B sort of picked up when Superious retired.
It is very interesting to hear you break down the scientific part of the music-making process. And when I look back at this particular album, my favorite track is “Le Nocturne de Lumiere.”
After listening to it a few times, I thought to myself: “If this year was the year 2050 and I had a space-car and needed to blast a song on my stereo, then this would be my pick!” [laughing]
Oh, wow! [laughing] That’s awesome, man! [laughing continues]
What is the inspiration behind this particular track?
That was one of those ones that you come at a very sort of “heart” perspective. As a songwriter, we write at the same things, I think, throughout our whole lives. Like certainly my favorite authors and painters from Henry Miller to Van Gogh. Like these guys, they were writing at and painting at the same kind of things their whole lives. I think as songwriters we do a similar sort of thing.
And then we have things that sort of serve as an intellectual exercise. What happens if I paint something using only two colors? What happens if I write something and I limit the palette of words that I allow myself to use, the number of characters I use? You know, someone like E. E. Cummings. And this composition, particularly, is something like that for me, because it was one of those what if things.
So it really began as a what if, and the what if was, I was thinking about some of the twentieth century guys that worked with techniques such as metric modulation, which is changing meter in the middle of the song, but keeping the tempo beat. So you would move from four to five, but keep the tempo. So 5/4 obviously will sound slower than 4/4 at 120 beats per minute. So I was thinking about that a lot, especially on a flight to Brazil, and I came up with this idea of what happens if you change meter over time. So you actually morph or interpolate these two meters.
It started, really, with this proof of concept. What happens if you move from 6/8 to 4/4 over a period of time? And then I started an exercise in playing around with meter and then the melodic figures in this stuff that is like felt to it. And all that sort of glitchy kind of nanorhythmic stuff came after the fact. It was more like proof of concept in the composition than, you know, like you sit down and you write a song about something, if that makes sense.
Yeah, that makes perfect sense. As I was going through your various liner notes, I have noticed that you have allowed very few vocalists to grace your tracks. You make a special note in the liner notes of Ima, however, when you say that Tori Amos provided “vocals and fairy dust” on “Blue Skies.” How do you go about determining the voices that you will approach – and utilize – in your musical work? And when you speak about “fairy dust,” what elements do you find to be innate in the voices that you deem to be the perfect complements to your tracks?
That’s a really astute observation. And you’re right, too. Really for me, the people that I like to work with, that are singers, are people that I can break bread for, are good people. They’re people I want to hang out with. Because life is short. There’s a lot of singers out there whose voices I like. But there’s a lot underneath the kind of technical components of what I do that is about intent, so I just like to work with people that are authentic.
So I think the commonality between all the vocalists that I like to work with is whatever style they sing, and whatever the sound of their voice, and whatever their individual range, what they do is really authentic. We also have to share a similar sort of melodic sensibility. So, yeah, more than anything, that’s sort of a prerequisite. They’re friends and they’re people that I enjoy their company.
I just recently picked up a copy of Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music. In the introduction, he recalls the first time he truly began to listen to sounds embedded within music. As a producer, when did you learn to fine-tune your listening skills and become aware of the sounds that were embedded in the moments of your day-to-day life? Is there a particular album when you were growing up where you had an “eargasmic” experience?
I was really, really young when I started to notice patterns in sounds. And at the same time, I sort of started being drawn towards music. I was equally, if not more so, drawn to sort of organized sound patterns. And I used to experiment with things all over the house.
When I was in our kitchen I used to drive my family crazy. I’d take pie tins and baking sheets and bowls. I would take apart toys. I would take ball bearings and wires out of them, and tap them and drop the things, and just sit and listen for hours. That was one of my favorite activities when I was a kid. I think my parents thought I was either going to become the Unabomber or something crazy! [laughing] I don’t know what they thought. But they were certainly wondering what the hell their child was doing?
But I was very, very young when I became interested in organizing patterns and sounds. And it still to this day is, if not more, as fascinating to me than the limited twelve notes that we have to work with in Western music.
On ESCM, you collaborate with Simon Hale on “Firewater” and “Remember.” As you transitioned to Hollywood and began scoring films, did you use him – or other musicians – as a resource? Did your approach to music-making change or just a different presentation of your sonic art? What major artistic challenges were you able to overcome due to your previous experience?
That’s a really, really wonderful question, and it’s really nice to talk about someone like Simon because I value him so much. Also, there is someone that I’ve worked with here in California many times. His name is Randy Miller. He’s a phenomenal orchestrator and composer in his own right. There’s something really nice about when you’re working on orchestral works. I want to give you a really strong metaphor for this. If you were to write a piece of music and then give it to an orchestrator and tell them that you want to make it into a symphonic work, and that’s all you said to them, then the music at that point is no longer yours.
There’s executive decisions to make. Am I going to make this a low viola line or I am going to make it a high cello line? It depends on how involved you are in the process. The thing that’s really nice is I like composing for orchestra at the piano a lot. I’ll make my left hand ring finger a cello line and my pinky is contrabass. Then I’ve got a piccolo flute line on my right pinky. I’m thinking about the different kind of counterpoint lines and voicings as I’m writing, and I’ll notate things as I go; and then it will be obvious that this is a glissando violin line.
The thing that is so nice is to sit with someone whose training is different to yours. They studied with different teachers. They like different sorts of music. And to sit with them, and to really trust this person to have them look at something that you’ve written and in places take it apart and say, “Okay. This is really cool. I understand what is happening here.” I can give you a perfect example of this. I worked with Randy Miller for some of the orchestrating when I composed for Stealth. I mean, the voicings and the chords are massive. Like Wagner would have a f**ing heart attack. They didn’t multitrack recordings. So I was like, “Okay, that’s pass one.” Some of the chords are like literally thirty new chords. It’s absurd. So one of the things that was great was, Randy actually brought to my attention some interesting apertures, like sort of lip articulations that we could do with some of our brass players that I would have never thought of.
One of my favorite brass instruments is actually an early nineteenth century instrument called cimbasso. It looks sort of like if you ran into a wall with a trombone. So the bell is bent out. And they’re very brassy in general. Something that we ended up doing that was such a trip, and I really would have never thought of it, is called overblowing. And it makes this instrument sound literally like a dubbed separate drum or bassline. It’s like the most ridiculous distortion to come out of an acoustic instrument I’ve ever heard in my life. But we did overblowing with mutes. So we had eight cimbasso players overblowing with mutes in their horns, so we were able to regulate the amplitudes that they were playing. It ended up making one of the most amazing textures I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s those kinds of things that an orchestrator can bring to the table that are just fantastic.
Now, that being said, there’s lots of things that I’ve orchestrated on my own, because I’ve known what I wanted them to do and to sound like. But I love that collaborative process of working with someone like Simon or Randy. It’s amazing when they’re a fit, like those two guys are for me, because we share similar orchestral aesthetic, yet slightly different. It’s really great, honestly.
As a child, you started studying piano at the age of four — utilizing the Suzuki method. And as a young adult, you studied string writing and symphonic orchestration at Washington Conservatory. What skill or artistic practices from these early years do you think have had the biggest impact on your work?
You know, the thing that I had stressed at a very early age that I adhere to, to this day, is the idea of finishing things. I think that this is a kind of a transcendent, creative idea that applies to everything from writing to art to carpentry: This idea of finishing, as an award to your creative self that feels compelled to create things, is essential for the process. If people take away one thing from this interview, if they’re an artist — which everyone is of some sort — it’s you want to take the box out of your closet with all those unfinished projects and you want to lay them out and finish them.
The only way that you’re going to continue to be creative is if you actually finish things. The punch line to all of this is it doesn’t have to be good. A part of the process of finishing things is learning, and you can bang through twelve things that have no immediate value, it seems, that you don’t necessarily want to share with the world, but the thirteenth thing will be something that you’re proud of for the rest of your life. And it’s just a part of the evolution process of learning about yourself and the world, and how to interpolate that and make something meaningful out of it in your art. That is something that has been a real consistent with all my teachers. I remember as a really young kid practicing these hand exercises, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around why it was necessary. It was like a certain kind of simple mathematics. I found the esoteric stuff more interesting. And my teacher said to me — this is a fairly mundane example but it really is a throughline for me — that I had to work through to the end of that book, and until I did that, I couldn’t play the work of my favorite composers because I learned all these fingerings and improved my dexterity in a way that allowed me to play Chopin’s 21st Prelude in D flat or things that involved a certain amount of technical prowess that I didn’t have before I did that.
So finishing that was incredibly important, as was finishing my first string quartet and all kinds of exercises. Just really, quickly, something that just came to my mind. There is an amazing exercise at finishing things that Dr. Boulanger made us do. We had to write a composition, and we had to collect all of our notes and all of our lyrics and everything that we wrote; bits of paper. We had to burn CDs of text files and Word documents and song files and sound files. Everything had to be in one place. So that was the rule. And you had to get it off everything, after you put it in this one place. We brought it into the class to share with everybody. We worked and worked and worked on those for three weeks. Then we get to the end of that. We walk into the classroom. We play the piece for everyone and we talk about it. And then he makes you take whatever it is and put it in a shredder, and throw it in the wastebasket.
I mean, people cried. It was one of the hardest things I have ever seen artists grapple with. But I learned more from that exercise. That exercise is about a lot of things, not just finishing. It’s about attachment, too.
It was really powerful! But the major point was this idea of finishing things.
Several years ago, you were entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for your song “Simply Being Loved (Somnambulist)” from Emotional Technology. This song was recognized as using the largest number of vocal edits in a song: 6,178. You also have another song, “Sasha’s Voyage of Ima,” that has a run-time of 42 minutes and 45 seconds. When you reflect back upon the creation process for those particular tracks, and reflect on this musical philosophy of “finishing things,” what memories come to mind?
You know, I set these ridiculous hurdles for myself. I don’t know why. But something compels me. I’ll get an idea where I feel like at the end of that idea is something really meaningful, or something really creative or there’s some important personal life lesson. There’s a reason why I have to get there, and This Binary Universe is a very strong example of that. These Hopeful Machines is also an incredibly strong example of it, where’s it’s like two hours of music. This Binary Universe was this art project, where there is these short films bundled up with music. Just crazy sort of things like that.
But once I get my heart set on something, I just can’t let it go. One of the moms at my daughter’s ballet class was telling this story. She was in the Olympics competing in kayaking. And she tells this story saying, “I’m not competitive at all, really. But if your boat is like an inch in front of mine,” she’s like, “I will dig my paddle so deep into the water, I will throw up and keep going.” She’s like, “I don’t care. It just has to happen.” I understand that kind of passion. I have these ideas that just feel like they’re something meaningful.
As I was going through your discography, I was actually surprised to learn that you were the producer of N*SYNC’s international mega-hit, “Pop.” Since 2001, however, following the release of that song, you have not really produced anything that was explicitly that kind of pop. Was that a turning point for you?
In some ways, it was. It made me feel like I had license to explore some things I had wanted to explore, so I really enjoyed the process of that. But those guys had to twist my arm to do that. I’m serious. They were flying out to my shows after they’d play a stadium to House of Blues, you know? They would play for 100,000 people and then come to my little 3,000-person House of Blues show.
They’d say, “Come on, man. Let’s do a track.” My rock tour manager is like, “Hey, your boy band friends are here.” I’m like, “Shut up, man. It’s cool!” [laughing] But I got to know them and see how talented they were, and I agreed to it. It was so much fun to do, so it did open me to some other things that I wasn’t sort of open to prior to that. So many of my friends in the dance music community, before they heard it, they all were making fun of me. “I can’t believe you’re going to work with a boy band,” and all of this stuff. And then all of them, quite literally all of them, remixed the song, which was even funnier. And I was like, “Okay, whatever, you guys.” So yeah, it was a lot of fun doing that.
You are widely-credited for developing the stutter edit, the granular synthesis and then nano-correcting. How would you relay the meaning of those words to someone who’s not intimately familiar with electronic music?
All of them are interrelated. In Western music, notes basically stop at a 32nd note. So for anything that would be a duple of that, a 64th note—we actually do a 64th note but they’re very difficult to play—and then a 128th note, a 256th, 512, 1024, so on and so forth. This idea of nanorhythmic material is basically anything beyond the norm. The stuttering technique that I developed years and years ago now has just grown and grown and grown to a thing that started out just cutting quarter notes. So you would repeat a vocal going “ah-ah-ah-ah” that was just saying “ah”; into something that involves different kinds of mathematics, exponential and logarithmic hamming things, like these insane S-curves of note information. And they sound fricking amazing.
Simply, it’s the rhythmic repetition of audio between rhythmic and what we would call in programming “audio rates,” which is pitch. So it’s like the modern equivalent of a drum cell, really simply. But it’s much cooler ear candy than anything that you could play sitting at a drum kit. It’s been years and years and years of development at this things. A couple of years ago I started a software company called Sonik Architects. We’ve developed a plug-in that automates it. So if you’re a singer, if you’re a guitarist, if you’re a laptop deejay, you’ll be able to do live buffer cutting and stutter editing while you’re performing. So that is going to see the light of day sometime this year, and these are very exciting times!
For more information on Brian Transeau, visit his official website.
For more information on Sonik Architects, visit the company’s official website.