The right equation for music Profile: Marylander Brian Transeau helps lead the way for the new electronic dance sounds.

October 19, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

That Brian Transeau works at home is not particularly unusual. A number of his neighbors in rural Montgomery County do the same, farming or telecommuting.

It's the kind of work Transeau does that seems out of the ordinary. He makes music -- electronic dance music, to be exact. Recording under the name BT, the 26-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist is a rapidly rising part of the genre's vanguard, ranking with such cutting-edge acts as Moby, the Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method and Prodigy.

He's in demand as a remixer, and has already had several hits in Britain, including the Tori Amos-sung "Blue Skies." Early reactions to his recently-released second album, "ESCM," suggest that he may soon enjoy similar success here.

But it's hard to get a sense of incipient stardom when approaching his Blue House on a Hill Studio, about 15 minutes outside Germantown. Blue House on a Hill looks to be literally that -- a nice, medium-sized, single-family dwelling on the fringes of suburbia.

Inside, however, things are different. At the top of the stairs, where one might expect to find a nursery or den, sits a mass of electronics: synthesizers, signal processors, mixing boards, microphones and a Macintosh. This is where BT works, and where most of "ESCM" was recorded -- although, as he cheerily points out, "We recorded some of the vocals outside." He smiles, then adds, "It's great out here!"

It sure is. Sitting behind his console, looking out at green trees and blue skies, it's hard not to envy Transeau his setup. On the one hand, he lives in splendid isolation, surrounded by nature. At the same time, he can be easily connected, with downtown D.C. just a half-hour away and the rest of the world easily available via modem.

Two sides of coin

BT's music reflects this duality. There's a soothing, pastoral quality to much of it, for which Transeau draws freely from his surroundings. "Firewater," which opens "ESCM," is liberally seasoned with sounds from his back yard and the surrounding woods. Chirping crickets and chirruping frogs contribute to the sleek synth pulse. It adds a dreamy, almost magical quality to the music, grounding the song in something more substantial than mere circuitry.

But there are other tunes, like the raucous, roiling "Solar Plexus" or the buzzing, throbbing "Orbitus Teranium," that find BT glorying in the power of electronic sound.

It's not that he's a gearhead or techno-geek -- though, like most musicians, he loves talking about his tools -- so much as someone who appreciates the potential of well-applied technology.

"There's a tremendous amount of strength that comes from using electronic instruments to create music," he says. "Physical, sonic, audio strength. Focused energy. And to watch it live is awesome, man."

He particularly enjoys the spectacle of dance musicians getting cool sounds by abusing their electronics. "To see somebody who really knows how to throttle their machines is wicked to watch live," he says.

His interest in the connection between art and technology goes way back. "I've always been good at music and math," he says. He grew up in Rockville, and his musical pursuits date to the age of 4, when he began studying piano through the Suzuki method.

"It was really wonderful for me, because it cut around the kind of classical elitism that a lot of kids who study classical music get," he says.

Later, as he learned more about geometry and physics in advanced placement classes in high school, Transeau recognized how interrelated math and music were. "Like Pythagoras and the 'music of the spheres,' " he says. "Early architecture is all based on musical harmonies. The arches in most churches you see are based on the relationship of the fundamental to a fifth." (To understand what that harmonic relationship would sound like, think of the beginning of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss, heard in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." Those first two notes are the fundamental and the fifth.)

Effects of math, physics

This love for math and physics doesn't render his music coldly rational; if anything, it has the opposite effect. "There's a triangle, almost, between my favorite kinds of maths and science, music, and spirituality," he says.

In an odd way, it was Transeau's interest in science that got him into dance music. "When I was real young, I was really interested in electronics," he says. "So I would take Radio Shack project kits and build one-voice monophonic synthesizers out of those things. But I didn't ever think that there would be a practical application."

He found one in 1983, when he discovered electrofunk while listening to disc jockey Frank Ski on Baltimore's V-103. "I started getting into the stuff right back with Man Parrish and Newcleus," he says. "It was weird, because I studied music and I was very interested in mathematics, but I never saw a merger of the two until I started hearing this music."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.