education

Rian Treanor: the producer hacking a smarter, kinder future for music


Living in lockdown while caring for someone with dementia “isn’t just like Groundhog Day”, chuckles Rian Treanor, “it’s like Groundhog Second.” The soft-spoken electronic music producer has spent a year indoors with three generations of his family – including his producer and sound-artist dad, Mark Fell, and his grandmother, Doreen, who is has late-stage Alzheimer’s. It’s certainly a change of scene for the producer of one of 2020’s most audacious and frenzied dance albums, File Under UK Metaplasm.

Instead of the pointillist rave and singeli – a high-speed Tanzanian style – that influenced that record, the Treanor-Fell household playlist is geared towards Doreen’s favourites, particularly dub reggae and Hawaiian-style steel guitar. “When she listens to that she’s completely in the zone, she astrally projects into it,” marvels Treanor. Music has a powerful effect on brains damaged by dementia, unlocking memories and opening up non-verbal channels of communication, so they tried Doreen on a piano next, knowing that she’d grown up with one. When the keys proved too complicated, Fell designed a set of blocks for her to use, described by Treanor as “squares with little notches cut out that create different chord shapes”.

Her lo-fi tools are miniature symbols of father and son’s own musical interests, which can seem egg-headed on the page – algorithmic systems inspired by neural networks and minimalist art – but deliver results that are highly accessible. “How can you condense something complex into a very simple interface?” as Treanor puts it. “If a player can be operating two simple sliders and coming out with really crazy patterns, that’s brilliant – that’s what I’m excited by.”

While Fell’s CV ranges from the ice-cold minimalism of his 00s duo SND to gamelan installations with electronic pioneer Laurie Spiegel, Treanor’s projects have their sights set on the dancefloor – or at least thereabouts. Obstacles Shattering, his new EP, dials down the absurdist humour of tracks like his Whigfield-sampling Saturday Night while still testing the outer limits of danceability, incorporating the hypnotic figures of Ugandan Acholi music, a sound that Treanor discovered on a life-changing trip to Africa in 2018. Hearing him talk about his other projects, though, one gets the impression he’d rather be anywhere else than a pitch-dark club.

A care home resident making music in a workshop with Treanor.
Older than electronic music … a care home resident making music in a workshop with Treanor. Photograph: Pierre Teulières

Before lockdown he was busy running music-making workshops, including with 100-year-old care home residents in Paris: “I don’t think they even knew what an iPod was – they were older than electronic music itself!” He also worked with 10-year-olds in Rotherham, who were willing guinea pigs for a collaborative software concept Treanor built in the programming language Max/MSP – he asked them to record sounds at home and arrange them together in a sequencer. “I even put a chat window in so that we could communicate, but they ended up using that more than actually making music,” he laughs, “so I had to delete it.”

When the pandemic wiped his diary and brought him back to the family home in Rotherham, Treanor started working more closely with his dad, thinking about ways to put on a virtual performance. There had to be something more exciting than a bog-standard livestream, with the audience “just washing pots while a stream keeps crashing in the background”. The result of their research, unveiled during last month’s online music festival CTM, was Symmetry for Five, a cacophonous collaboration with three underground luminaries located around the world: guitarist Jim O’Rourke, techno-punk performer Petronn Sphene and metallophone improviser Limpe Fuchs.

The custom software setup allows musicians to ping tiny chunks of digital information to each other instead of streaming audio back and forth. The patterns of data they send – which could be a string of binary numbers like 101000, or a single value like 0.75 – control all kinds of musical parameters, including rhythm, pitch, and dynamics. Because this information requires so little bandwidth, the latency – the gap between sending and receiving information – is reduced to almost nothing, which is crucial for live performances where musicians are constantly reacting to each other.

Treanor is baffled there aren’t more tools like this for global musical collaboration, which have been so badly needed during the pandemic. “Think about [online] gaming – shooting each other in real time, a million bullets a second. That is way more complex than what we’re doing! Why does that not exist in music?” Maybe there’s too much narcissism bound up in being an artist, he wonders – a power-mad obsession with “projecting this God’s-eye view on to what we create”.

One principle that unites Treanor and Fell’s work is an attempt to dissolve the distinction between composer, performer and audience. “Imagine going to a club and you’re actually on the drum machine that’s playing – I’d completely love that,” Treanor says. In the radically decentralised club night of his dreams, all those old-fashioned hierarchies would become redundant, “which I think is a brilliant thing.”

The end of his strange artist’s residency is now in sight; the vaccine is rolling out. He admits it’s been a surprisingly beneficial experience for the whole household, not least Doreen. “If we weren’t in this pandemic it would probably be too difficult for my grandad, and she probably wouldn’t be here, to be honest. In a way this has been a really good thing for her. I’ll just put that Hawaiian music on and she’ll dance the whole time.”



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