Berklee Today

Twenty-First-Century Prototype

Brian Transeau '89 is creating dance, film, and art music that's a revelation for the rising generation of laptop musicians.

 
  Photo by Travis McCoy

Because Brian Transeau (a.k.a. BT) appears regularly in magazines such as DJ Times, many think of him as a DJ. But he's quick to emphasize that he doesn't consider himself one at all. "I haven't spun records very much at all, and I'm in awe of DJs who play the turntable like a sophisticated percussion instrument," he says. While trance electronica music that made BT famous has been a staple of clubs, it's just one side of BT's artistry. It's more accurate to call him a composer with a broad palette. His music runs the gamut from electronica to contemporary orchestral music and intersects with lots of styles in between.

BT has been described as the prototype of the twenty-first-century musician. While he's at the vanguard of music makers harnessing the power of synthesizers and computers, he began his musical odyssey as a classical pianist. BT came to Berklee as a vocal performance major and added jazz sounds to his vocabulary. After leaving Berklee, he pioneered the trance electronica style (also called "dream house") and took dance clubs in England by storm in the nineties with his songs "A Moment of Truth" and "Relativity." His trademark stutter edit, a rapid-fire rhythmic repetition of a short sample, distinguished his songs and remixes from those of other electronica artists.

While in England, BT met Tori Amos. The two collaborated on the song "Blue Skies," which landed in the number one spot of Billboard magazine's Hot Dance Club Play chart in January 1997. The track fueled the success of BT's debut album, Ima, expanding the artist's reach from Europe to America and bringing BT to the attention of other superstars. His technological wizardry and skills as a songwriter, guitarist, keyboardist, and producer paved the way for collaborations with such pop icons as Sting, Madonna, Seal, Sarah McLachlan, *NSYNC, Britney Spears, and others.

In his early days, BT performed his brand of electronic music live with synths, sequencers, and drum machines. These days, you'll find him onstage playing guitar and keyboards as well as a laptop and an array of "bent instruments" that he has modified. Late last year, BT took his This Binary Universe multimedia production on the road, sharing the roster with Thomas Dolby for a tour billed as a "sonic duel for virtual supremacy."

 
Surf and Csound: Dr. Richard Boulanger (left) shares insights with BT (right) and members of the Sonik Architects staff during a beachside junket in Thailand.  

In addition to his live performances and studio work, BT has composed scores that seamlessly blend electronic and orchestral instruments for numerous film and television productions and video games. As if that's not enough to keep a guy occupied, he recently established Sonik Architects, a software company that he operates with the help of several Berklee alumni. So far, they have developed two programs, Break Tweaker and Stutter Edit, tools that will enable DJs and electronic musicians to replicate and modify BT's innovative stutter effect in live performances.

BT has an insatiable appetite for composing and diving ever deeper into music technology. His expertise and many accomplishments notwithstanding, he still knows that there is much to learn. While his career demands prevent him from returning to Berklee for full-time study, he has struck up a fortuitous friendship with Professor Richard Boulanger. Studying Csound computer programming language and modern composition techniques with Boulanger has opened up new musical vistas for BT (see the sidebar "Laptop Virtuoso"). The combination of natural talent, intellectual curiosity, humility, and boundless energy have heightened expectations that BT will continue to lead as we approach the music of second decade of the twenty-first century.

Did you have to learn about synthesizers and computers on your own when you were starting out?

I had been experimenting with synthesis since I was a kid. I took a synthesis class at Berklee, but back then, there was nothing presented that I hadn't already checked out on my own. When I was at Berklee, I was by far the geekiest kid there. I was really interested in programming and electronics. I'd be in my room in the Hemenway Street dorm using a tiny screwdriver to take apart my Roland TB 303 [a synthesizer/sequencer] to make the resonance self-oscillate, or I'd be line editing autoexec.bat files on my PC for automatic sound creation. Everyone else was ripping through the modes on their instruments at 208 beats a minute.
The kids in my dorm didn't know what I was doing. I think I missed my peer group by about five years. Now when I stop by Berklee, I see students engaged in the things I've been interested in since I was a kid. That inspires me.

  Laptop Virtuoso

"BT is a humble Leonardo," says Berklee Professor Richard Boulanger. "In addition to being a performer, he's a composer who has done academic, Hollywood, and popular music projects and [who] founded a software company."

When BT was a Berklee student, he never took a class with Boulanger; but in recent years the two have struck up a mentor-student relationship and become fast friends. BT credits Boulanger for showing him the limitless possibilities of Csound programming language. The two have worked together on many projects, including the score for the film Stealth. For that project, Boulanger collaborated with BT to craft the chorus of "She Can Do That," sung by David Bowie.

Boulanger has also become a friend to BT's extended family. "His mother once said she wished BT had met me sooner," Boulanger says. "But I told her that I'm glad he didn't and created all of these possibilities before realizing that there was more to learn. If he had met me when he first came to Berklee, he'd probably be a professor of electronic music at some college and have a much smaller audience. Instead, he's playing his music with an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl for 11,000 people. I think he's having an incredible impact and getting lots of people to think about electronic music more seriously."

BT and his staff have received personal tutoring in Csound programming from Boulanger. For one notable session, BT took his whole crew and Boulanger to a beach in Thailand for some learning and R&R. After scuba diving all day, the laptops came out and Boulanger schooled everyone into the night.

The sharing of valuable information flows both ways according to Boulanger. "I've learned a lot from him that I bring back to my students," he says. "I can tell them how things are done in Hollywood, about the role of the director or the producer, and how fast you have to turn your work around. The street knowledge I've picked up from being with BT is something practical that I bring that back to my classes.

Boulanger is not just a mentor to BT; he's also a fan of his work. "His latest album, This Binary Universe, is a crossover from groove-based electronica and songwriting toward electronic symphonic composition," Boulanger says. "He's pushing toward the academic. The first track, 'All That Makes Us Human Continues,' would be at home at the International Computer Music Conference. It features abstract video with sound triggering the video spectrum. It's a masterpiece of audio art."

To Boulanger, BT is a great role model for a new generation of laptop musicians. "The computer is his violin, and he's a virtuoso at playing and programming it."

How did you get interested in creating dance music?

I had come from a classical music background. At eight, I was at the Washington Conservatory of Music doing harmonic analysis of Debussy's piano music. It was great for my ears, and I learned a ton. My introduction to electronics came via break-dancing culture. When I discovered Afrika Bambaataa, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, and others, I thought that music represented the infinite sonic palette that the composers I'd studied as a child would have wanted to explore. Hearing these sounds and seeing a group like the Human League and Ian Stanley, who did their programming, fascinated me. He'd use a wall of modular synths to create a kick drum. I thought, "I have to learn to do this!" That was my introduction to electronic music.
I became a dance music artist in a roundabout way. When I first moved to Los Angeles in the early nineties, the electronic music I was making was beat driven but also had a sense of harmony and melody that was unlike other dance music out there. I'd just come from Berklee after studying harmony and theory and performance ear training with Walter Beasley. When I got to Los Angeles, I was playing guitar and keyboards and singing. I wanted to get a record deal as a singer/songwriter, but I was also quietly writing harmonically dense electronic music just for myself.
When I went around to different labels, I had many doors shut in my face. I finally got an appointment with a well-known A&R guy at Sony who listened to my demo with me in his office. He'd play 10 seconds of each tune and then skip to the next one. Afterward, he looked up and told me I'd never have a career in music. I was devastated and walked around in my bathrobe and slippers for about a month until I figured out that there was a lesson in this for me. I realized that to a degree, I was inauthentic in the songs I'd been writing. The music I was really passionate about was the electronic music I'd been working on. So I left Los Angeles and moved back home to Maryland.
Together with two friends, I started Deep Dish Records. We sold our cars and pooled our money. We hired recording engineer Stephen Barkin to come down from New York to work with us for the weekend in the studio. We literally stayed up the entire weekend recording my first record. After it came out, Larry Flick from Billboard magazine wrote a little piece about the record that was very encouraging. He really understood my music. I faxed the article to everyone I knew, including the A&R guy at Sony. To finish that story, I need to skip forward in time.
When the movie The Fast and the Furious came out [in 2001], I went to the premiere since I'd written the score. There was a lot of red carpet stuff with directors introducing me to different people. A guy came up to me and said, "BT, I love your work, it's so amazing! I've followed your music from the beginning." I recognized him as the A&R guy I'd met at Sony, but he didn't remember that we'd met before. I never said anything about our meeting. It made me think of the power an accomplished A&R person wields when speaking to young people. Some would have folded after hearing what I heard.

Has that experience affected how you interact with young, aspiring musicians?

When I meet kids who want to do something creative, I want to be the opposite of that guy. After my gigs, when I'm exhausted and I've signed 200 CD jackets, I'll see this one kid who just has to talk to me. I feel a responsibility to engage with that person and give encouragement. I've seen some kids over and over at my gigs, and then later I see that they release records. Mike Truman from Hybrid gave me a copy of "Finished Symphony" at a club. He was an eager kid who wanted to talk to me. Often those kids are the ones who are going to do something, and I want to encourage them.

How did you break out in Britain?

After the article came out in Billboard, I made my second record with the money we'd earned from "A Moment of Truth." We did the second one in my room at my parents' house. I had a Boss 8-channel mixer with no midrange EQ, a Voyetra Sequencer Plus Gold, and an IBM PS/2 model 70 computer with 16K of RAM. We made the track "Embracing the Future" and printed 300 copies. Guy Oldhams, who worked at a cool record store called Black Market Records in Manchester, England, got ahold of a copy. He played it for Sasha, who I didn't know at the time was a very famous DJ. Sasha called me and said, "The music you're making is important, and the people in this country are going to get it. I want to bring you here."
Sasha brought me to England when I couldn't have afforded to go, nor would I have known who to play my music for if I could have gone. I was in the studio with Sasha when Spencer Baldwin, who later became my A&R guy at Warner Bros., came in with Paul Oakenfold to see Sasha. They listened to what we were working on and asked if I had any other songs. I played them some of the tracks that eventually became my first album. They invited me to stop by the Warner Bros. offices the next day. I went with my guitar, figuring they'd want to hear something different than what they'd heard the day before. I played them about eight songs, and then Paul said, "I have no idea what you are doing, but we want to be involved." Spencer, Paul, and Max Hole signed me to a subsidiary of Warner Bros.

Did your success in England open doors for you to work with Tori Amos on the tune "Blue Skies"?

They say that overnight success takes 10 years. After my album Ima came out, I went from living in my old bedroom at my parents' house to flying to England every three weeks to be on Top of the Pops on TV and doing my own live shows. It was crazy. I met Tori in England around 1997 through mutual friends. We got together at a recording studio and just clicked instantly. She's an amazing pianist. She asked me to help on her music, and I began doing some synth stuff and programming beats.
Tori wanted to sing a song for my record. She took the song "Divinity" from Ima and improvised a vocal line over it and sent it to me. The song is about 11 minutes long. I took her vocal track off and cut it up into a million pieces and started making different words out of the syllables. I did some pitch shifting and created an a cappella song from her vocal, making words from the sibilance, implosives, and phonemes that she sang. She never sang the words "blue" and "skies" consecutively in her original vocal. I spent two weeks working on the vocals. Then I took out a guitar and wrote a chord progression for it and made a track around it. I played it for her over the phone, and she loved it.

Did the success of this tune put you on the radar for other pop musicians like Sting, Sarah McLachlan, and Seal?

I think it did. It made people in America become aware of what I was doing. I had been traveling around Europe, doing live electronic music shows with synths, drum machines, and small sequencers for years at that point. Eventually, I started migrating back to America. I signed with a manager here and then started scoring films.

Your ambient music and groove-oriented material are perfectly suited to soundtracks. Did your film work start when directors and producers heard these qualities in your music?

It actually started another way. I'd had an interest in film scoring since I was a kid after I saw the movie Blade Runner with music by Vangelis. Knowing that he played that music live-99 percent of it wasn't sequenced-sealed the deal for me. From then on, I wanted to get into electronics and write for picture. Even when I was at Berklee, I'd turn down the volume while watching the Nature Channel on TV and noodle with my synths and delay pedals.
I got to do my first film when director Doug Liman came to me while he was working on his second movie, Go [circa 1999]. He just showed up at my door in Maryland-I still don't know how he found me. He asked if he could show me his film. We watched some of it, and then I started showing him musical ideas that I thought would go with it. Next, he brought me out to Los Angeles to meet with all of these scary studio people, and they signed off on me doing the score. The film is about dance music culture, and Doug really wanted somebody immersed in that culture to do the music rather than a Hollywood film composer.
That movie fell out of the sky for me. I really enjoyed doing it and decided to move out to Los Angeles to do more film scores in addition to my artist work. Once I got here, the problem I had was that people were pitching films to me, saying, "It's about dance culture, but it's on roller blades or Jet Skis." I realized instantly that if I did anything related to Go, I'd be pigeonholed as the "dance music guy," and I wouldn't get to do anything else. It took a year and a half before I got hired to score another film.
During the time in between, I wrote string quartets and got some students to record them. I played them for music supervisors and told them I could write for brass, woodwinds, strings, orchestral percussion, and conduct and that I wanted a chance to write for a large group. Most still wanted to think of me as a dance music guy. Finally, director Stephen Hopkins hired me to score Under Suspicion [in 2000] with a 40-piece string section. After that, other people were willing to give me a shot.

Your 2006 release, This Binary Universe, is a multimedia project made in reverse. The images were created to your music.

That's true; it's almost the complete opposite of film scoring. For a composer, this is a dream. Usually our job is to suit the vision of the director and the actors and to complement the concept of the film. The ideology behind This Binary Universe was that the music would drive the visuals.
I finished the music and then found teams of people that represent communities of artists that I really like. I tried to find the best people who really got the music and were passionate about it. Scott Pagano is an artist who has done visual effects for X-Men and Spider-Man. I played him some of the music, and he said he'd love to do a piece for it. He ended up doing this for very little money. I did this project without a label and never could have afforded him otherwise. I feel so lucky to have been able to do this project.
For the track "The Internal Locus," I spent two days making the composition up of fractals. It alternates between three bars of 13, a bar of 15, and a bar of 13. I took all of the song's rhythms and compacted them into a micro-rhythm and placed it about two-thirds of the way into the piece. Every rhythm that occurs in the piece is expressed as a micro-rhythm using 512th notes, 1,024th notes, and 2,048th notes, all packed into this very dense two-bar passage. It sounds like granular synthesis.
I was able to spend more time doing things like that for this album than I have on other projects. One of the most special things was that I had orchestral parts. When I recorded the Stealth soundtrack with [Director] Rob Cohen, we hired a 110-piece orchestra for six days. On the sixth day, after the first cue, we were totally done, and there were two brass and strings sessions and a percussion session scheduled. The first-chair violinist asked if I had anything else for them to play, and I did. We took a break, and the copyist and I made parts for three tracks of This Binary Universe. This was on the studio's dime. I never would have had access to these musicians for a typical album project.

Tell me about your software company Sonik Architects.

Two years ago, inspired by what Dr. B. [Professor Richard Boulanger] has introduced me to-especially Csound-I started a small software company. I learned how great Csound is as a compositional tool for sound design, and for doing things like writing 270 controllers for one event. It enabled me to make these dense, controller-oriented movements that I struggled to do previously in my compositions. It's amazing technology. Our company has actually built the drum machine that is responsible for all of the beats, micro-rhythms, isorhythms, and all of the asymmetrical meter used on This Binary Universe. It's the first surround-sound drum machine, and it enables you to have 1,024th notes splining down [smoothly interpolating or ritarding] to an eighth-note triplet over a dotted quarter note exponentially or logarithmically. Plus, every time one of those micro-rhythmic notes plays, you can have the sound jump to different speakers. I used to have to do all of the mathematical computations to get these effects. It's insane what this drum machine is capable of.
We are also making a line of studio tools. The first is called Break Tweaker, a sequencer for very experimental music projects. It's the first sequencer where you can compose different time lines for packets in any meter you want. You can put 4/4 against 7/8 against 6/4, and the packet will always turn around isorhythmically. There is a void in the electronic music performance area, so we are creating software to enable people to create my stutter technique live. We have a cool thing going and are very excited about it.

You've been called a prototype for the twenty-first-century musician, using your laptop as your instrument. What are your hopes for the future?

When I was at Berklee, I learned a lot, but I didn't have a peer group. I was an anomalous event there back then. When I go to the college now, I am excited to see that there are more people who think like I do. They are not satisfied with the software tools that are available commercially. They want to build something to help them realize ideas that available tools won't let them do, so they are learning Max or Csound.
In the future, I hope to introduce kids who are interested in video games and electronic music to traditional instrumentation and make that exciting to them. Having the opportunity to perform for the Video Games Live Concert at the Hollywood Bowl last summer made me realize that you can show 14-year-olds an orchestra with a conductor and some visuals, and they will dig it. There were 11,000 kids in the audience. It made me feel that this is a direction I'd like to go toward. I want to produce music that uses orchestra and have it be an introduction for kids who generally don't get exposed to those sounds. I'm really interested in live orchestral music. That's a future frontier for me.