DIGITAL UNDERGROUND: Cephas Teom’s “The Automata” takes a trip through sound and vision.

Cephas Teom’s debut album, The Automata, sounds like something that can be seen. In that sense there is something cinematic about it. It’s not so much in the sweeping orchestral sense. Rather, the visual quality of the album comes from the diversity of layers, textures, and rhythms that ebb and flow through out the work.

The Automata is an exploration of automatons – mechanical moving machines, puppets and models that appear to move under their own steam – charting a path between Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s famous, clockwork automata, today’s procedural art, machine learning and AI networks – pondering their implications for human society. Exploring this overarching theme the tracks Automaton I and II emulate wind up / clockwork automata using quasi-folk-classical melodies to evoke music boxes – a musical, mechanical embodiment of algorithmic process. Taking inspiration from the wooze and hiss of warped VHS soundtracks Primordial Forms and Visions of The Inner Eye combine distant, degraded melodies with the faded sheen of technological optimism, recalling the haunting soundscapes of Boards of Canada. Scientism, again, reflects on the modern tendency for musical nostalgia in its combining of classic 80s acid bass and subby 808s.

Cephas Teom discussed The Automata with SCINQ.

Where did the idea for this album come from? What was your vision before you hit the studio?

As an avid reader of music psychology, I’ve been fascinated by the idea that patterns and pattern-making form the basis of both our low-level perceptual faculties and our higher-order creative activity. In order to make sense of our environment, we search for pattern structures to impose order on incoming sensory information. Perceptual grouping prohibits sensory overload and we build meaningful relationships between smaller units to enable larger structures to emerge. 

I’m an adherent of Anthony Storr’s work, who believed that, “[w]hat is universal is the human propensity to create order out of chaos”. Art can therefore be understood as an extension of perception; patterns – be they constructed, manipulated, recognised or imposed – are the raw materials with which the artist creates and the audience derives meaning. If, as artists, we can uncover the formal principles of such patterns, then automated processes can be developed to aid the creation of increasingly subtle and sophisticated musical pattern structures. 

This is far from a new idea, and automatons have been created throughout history that could self-determinedly create patterns – be they musical, visual, or even movements on a chess board. Even if some of these were illusory – designed to thrill and entertain rather than make a substantial, empirical claim – what is certain is that humans are fascinated by the premise of breathing life into the inert.

The album – Automata – is an exploration of these ideas, taking the listener on a journey from wind up music boxes, to dystopian, automated societies, through an underlying manipulation of algorithmic pattern.

Can you walk me through your process? How do you begin building songs?

As I listen to music, I keep a playlist of tracks that have excited me in some way. Usually, I take one of these tracks and ask “how did they do x?” and I’ll see if I can recreate it. Happily, the process of replication leads to its own ideas and, before long, I’ve been pulled off on a tangent and the outcome no longer resembles the source.

I work with a range of algorithmic processes – usually in Tidal Cycles, a functional language that allows you to make musical patterns with code – a practice commonly known as ‘live coding’. I’ll work with this fluidly, shaping the algorithm in real-time in response to what my ears are telling me. 

This blurring of performance and composition is a key motivation behind my work, for the simple reason that this amalgamation results in an intensely pleasurable creative mode. In my experience, the expansiveness of the sonic palette that is the unique promise of electro-acoustic music has often been in sharp relief with the narrow focus required of its processes and techniques. Cutting and splicing in a DAW, or writing verbose scripts to achieve a particular end, can be onerous and lead to a loss of inspiration and perspective, even before such activity has borne fruit. 

By contrast, live coding may return interesting musical results from the execution of a single line of code; yielding sonic patterns that can be extended, shaped and molded through real-time interaction with the underlying algorithm. This emancipates the compositional act from a preparatory activity to one that keeps pace with, and further stimulates, my ideas.

For someone like me, many of your songs have a fleeting aspect to them. There are bits of it that I can cling on to (like little melodies here and there) but only for a few moments before it dissipates or is overtaken by other sounds.

There’s a child in a sweet shop element to some of my work – in that ideas can be so quickly generated and worked using code that it’s an effort not to shoehorn in as many as possible! I could kindly describe this as a knowing reflection of our culture – innumerous amounts of content constantly vie for our time – but it could also be that I’m afraid of losing your attention amidst all of the noise.

The soundscape you create contains so many layers. What tools and instruments do you use?

As above, I use Tidal Cycles to organise my work and I use its concurrent synthesis engine to generate the sounds. These could be manipulated samples and field recordings or digitally synthesised. I also build synths and interfaces from the ground up, using SuperCollider – an OOP language primed for musical synthesis – and I have a solitary Nord Piano and Synth for when I’m fed up with typing code into a keyboard.

As a jobbing jazz and folk musician in an earlier life, I flit between working with real instruments and algorithms as the mood takes me, and both approaches are important influences on my work.

Do you ever record or create sounds from scratch?

I’ve been a keen field recorder in the past and have a growing collection of ambient soundscapes and interesting noises that I draw on when needed. Although I tend to source my samples from a number of interesting foley artists who sell their packs online, a different relationship emerges with sounds that you’ve recorded yourself – as they contain memories of places and times. 

Did the finished album come close to the vision you had before starting out on creating it?

An excellent question. I’d liken this to the images you create in your head before going to a place you’ve never visited before. These can be very clear, but as soon as you arrive at the place, they’re replaced by what you’re seeing, and can be hard to recall. So, if you’re asking whether it sounds like the music I heard in my head before I made it, I’d reply that these memories have faded. If you’re asking me whether the outcome lives up to my hopes, I’d say that it never does. I always fall short of my aspirations, yet inevitably learn so much through the process of making. Each time, I know that the next thing will be better and more adept and that spurs me on to keep making, time after time.

There are aspects of your music that can be challenging. For people accustomed to more MOR type music, how would you suggest approaching your music?

I’m always interested that a lot of film music can be out there and leftfield – lacking the kind of clear structures and conventions that popular music demands – yet it rarely faces the bafflement that people can experience when listening to more experimental music. I can only attribute this to the support of the accompanying moving images. 

I personally find the act of listening to music very visual. Making a track or an album, therefore, is akin to storytelling, with different fictional worlds finding their way directly or indirectly into my musical world. Music, for me, is the creation of psychological spaces, best imagined as physical landscapes – ones that you can climb into and inhabit, albeit fleetingly. Ursula Le Guin, an author and human being I find incredibly inspiring, suggested that the ability to create works of pure imagination allows us to discover what may be hanging around in our subconscious, just out of reach of our everyday thought. As such, it’s a faculty worth developing.

So, when listening to my music, I encourage you to take note of what your imagination is up to. If that faculty needs a bit of stimulation, put on an interesting film with the sound off or sit before a picture that you love. Listening can be so much more than a passive activity (if such a thing exists) – one that flexes and sharpens our creative abilities.

Finally, what’s next for you?

I’m currently studying a research masters at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research under Eduardo Miranda, looking at the potential applications of quantum computing in algorithmic composition. I’m currently developing a web app that would allow people to live code using quantum calculations that they’ve requested from IBM’s quantum prototype, with circuits that they’ve designed themselves – all in the context of a web browser. 

This has meant a pause in music production for a time, whilst I build up new skills, processes and tools. Life responsibilities permitting, I intend to take this research further and complete a PhD. And once that’s complete, I hope to release a new album of work – beamed directly into your mind, from the quantum realm. Wouldn’t that be fun?

To learn more about Cephas Teom visit his website. To hear more of his music, including The Automata, check him out on Bandcamp.

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