They say that you only get out what you put in. Even with all of our tools for automation and infinite banks of online resources and so-called “life hacks” to make life breezy, there is still a lot to be said for elbow grease. Rian Treanor lives somewhere between these two worlds. The Rotherham artist is often pigeonholed as an “algorithmic producer” who gets generative systems to do the tough stuff for him. In reality, he is anything but a shirker.
“It’s actually really hard work,” he chuckles describing the process behind Inter-Symmetric Works. The new software programme devised alongside his dad Mark Fell (of snd fame) allows users to collaborate remotely in real time, and while it sounds deceptively simple, Treanor reminds me with surprise about how nobody had executed the idea in this way before.
The pair’s commitment to hard graft arises from the precise desire to avoid pregiven and pre-programmed processes. This work ethic has always been present in Treanor’s artistic life. Whilst studying Visual Art in Leeds, his creative projects were DIY by necessity. He and his Leeds Arts University (formerly Leeds College of Art) buddies would throw exhibitions and parties in squats or warehouse spaces on a dime, assembling everything by hand.
“To set up one project, we literally had to go into an old University building, strip it out of all the wood, get all the resources we could, and set it up with recycled material,” he recalls. “And that’s how I do most things.”
This make-do-and-mend approach seems a far cry from the clinical, hyper-digitalism of his musical output, which continues on a new EP for planet Mu in 2021. But Treanor, who proudly admits his lack of musical training, insists that his creative process is nothing but hard work and messy experimentation on a low budget.
This is no different on Inter-Symmetric Works. The system uses a customised version of Max/MSP (Treanor’s main production weapon of choice) to connect its users. Unlike Ableton or Logic, it functions using a visual programming language with editable modular patches. With formal schooling in neither coding nor music theory, Treanor has become one of electronic music’s leading proponents of techno-sonic innovation through a cut and try methodology. But how accessible can tools such as Max truly be?
“When you have got over the main cost of the computer, it’s completely accessible,” says Treanor. “Obviously there is a learning curve when you have to spend time learning to programme the thing you want, but that information is there. One of the reasons I stopped making physical artworks and getting into analogue electronic music was because of the massive costs associated with it.”
Though he has primarily made a name for himself with startling, Singeli-inspired speedfreak club tracks and early rave edits, production isn’t the bulk of his workload. The majority of his efforts are put towards educational art projects and workshops that have accessibility and meaningful participation at their core. He has engaged countless communities, from primary school children in Southend to elderly artists in a Parisienne care home, and is set to collaborate with neurodiverse children in Braga this year.
“At one workshop, I got some kids to try and draw sounds by making scribbles on an iPad,” he explains. “It was just complete chaotic noise. They were having a right laugh! I could see the look on the teacher’s face as if to say “What are you doing?! We’ve just spent the last four years trying to train them to draw within the lines!” So a lot of things I guess are about un learning ingrained ways of being”.
It is with the wide-eyed innocence of his students (or “collaborators” as he would have it) that he makes music, spending hours and hours at his laptop screen playing with sounds by “trial and error”. It is not unlike video gaming, which happens to be how Treanor started producing tracks.
“The first music I ever made was on Mario Paint for SNES,” he says. “You could use it to draw, but there was also a music game. You had a mushroom symbol, a Mario symbol, and a star symbol, and you placed them on a timeline to make different sounds. I never made anything serious but that was the first time I had ever messed about.”
“I grew up playing video games, but when I started getting into making music I just stopped. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I have never played a video game since. The time that I would have spent on video games was just spent on music. I get the same sort of pleasure out of it. Now I spend all my time of Max/MSP. It’s basically like the best game ever. I could spend all my time just sat on a computer making music. I’m weird. I think I spend more time making music than anyone I’ve ever met. But I hate the idea that video games are “bad for kids brains” or whatever. I’m sure that me as a kid interfacing with technology and getting used to that sort of dialogue is very relevant to stuff that I do now. Obviously kids should play in the dirt, too. Both are important.”
Though he is clearly a self-proclaimed screen obsessive, Treanor is acutely concerned by the problematic passivity and dangerous performer-audience hierarchy of online DJ streaming. “You are literally behind glass! It’s total disconnection,” he remarks. But the new Inter-Symmetric programme goes some way to deconstructing this, and found success when road tested recently in Bratislava.
“People could participate by going on a specific website and interacting with a button which changed the type of rhythmic event,” Treanor explains. “If you clicked it quickly, you went faster for example. So we were changing all the synthesis structure and making the music live while the audience was actually changing the rhythmic events. We noticed that, as we performed, you could sit back a bit and listen to the audience’s input. I was the listener for a bit.”
“I like making music with people so we had to create something that people were actually involved in. The question is: is there a way of getting kids to work together, not just on their own? Can you do something that is fun for people to play together? That’s the really simple
thing. But then also what forms of interactions are interesting? When building an interface, can you facilitate certain types of interactions? And then there are wider questions around: what is networked activity? Who is the author and who is the participant?”
Following a few pilot installations, including at Somerset House’s AGM 2020 series, Treanor and his father have joined a typically impressive lineup of intrepid sound artists and thinkers at Berlin’s CTM Festival. They are deploying the Inter-Symmetric Works software to collaborate with avant-garde legend Jim O’Rourke, experimental mainstay Limpe Fuchs and Guttersnipe’s Petronn Sphene under the name Symmetry for Five. Naturally, the pair won’t be present in Germany but will perform from their South Yorkshire home where they look after Treanor’s grandparents. The project itself was conceived as a fun lockdown activity for his grandma who “responds intensely to music” despite having late-stage dementia. Whilst his club music is the preserve of 20-something art schoolers and ravers, it is clear that Treanor’s daytime practices foment a heartwarming sense of intergenerational connection.
“My grandparents were my guinea pigs. I would make these little devices upstairs, then bring them down to see if my nanan and grandad could use them,” he explains. “For the project at the old peoples’ home in Paris, I was actually originally booked to play at the festival by the promoters. After it got cancelled, they told me they were doing this project about care. So I told them I’d love to do it because it was already part of my daily life and I had already been working on it.”
“I’ve done various projects with older people. In Rotherham  I did a bunch of DJ workshops for the town festival with over-60s. People said, “why do you want to do that?” I just said it’s a really underrepresented group in the scene! It’s just unusual basically, isn’t it? In terms of exploring ideas, [working with different people] makes you really rethink what you’re doing and why, and if it even makes sense to anyone other than you”.
When a new piece of tech is invented, its authors are usually keen to patent and monetize it as soon as possible. This had never crossed Treanor’s mind, not least because the information is already common knowledge.
“We’re not closed about intellectual property and have been speaking about [Inter-Symmetric Works] publicly,” he says. “It is essentially sharing messages in a network to activate pattern generating sound processes locally on a computer. I don’t have any idea how you would patent something. It’s not a bad idea though. John Chowning who invented FM Synthesis must have made millions. But I’m obviously not doing that!”
“I’m also not very interested in sharing source code that someone can download easily. I’m more interested in explaining the idea so people can come at it their own way. It’s like if you listen to a piece of music and you take inspiration from it: even if you try and build it up and imitate it exactly, it always ends up sounding wrong or different. That’s more interesting for me.”
Treanor’s work is not an exact science, but it is a science of sorts. His productions and art projects are a virtual laboratory for experiments in sound, programming and human interaction alike. And, as with any veritable experiment, the findings are never premeditated but open and ambiguous. Maybe in life you don’t simply get out what you put in. Things are much more unpredictable than that.
Rian Treanor and Mark Fell play CTM Festival on 27th January 2021 – the event is free and will take place online