A new sound

April 10, 2019

Ludington High School senior Thomas Ryan has taken a lifelong love of electronic and experimental music and used it to form something new — not just a sound, but an identity.

As Sound Psychologist, his adopted stage name, Ryan writes, composes, records and performs original electronic compositions using computers, software programs and various synthesizers to create a sound that’s unique in the local music scene.

He’s built a loyal following in the Ludington area, and he’s hoping to bring that fanbase to the Ludington Area Center for the Arts on Thursday for his performance in the arts center’s “Intimate Evening With…” series from 7 to 9 p.m. in LACA’s main gallery at 107 S. Harrison St.

Ryan said he was first exposed to electronic music — specifically the iconic sounds of Detroit techno — from his father, Dr. James Ryan.

“My dad was into the Detroit music scene, so I grew up listening to all the experimental music,” he said. “I started playing classical piano … it’s been 15 or 16 years now, so that was a big part of who I am.”

The music he’s made as Sound Psychologist spans the genres of electronic, house music, experimental and ambient, among other styles. He’s integrated his classical piano training into his original compositions, many of which feature striking keyboard harmonies that bubble to the surface, surrounded by glitches and stuttering beats.

The music is made with synthesizers and software programs, Thomas said.

“For the most part though, it is entirely based around synthesizers, as I go up to my shed I converted into a studio, and record mass amounts of sounds on them and then sample them and edit them more on PC,” he said. “I use a program called Ableton Live as the main hub, but I use the programs VCV Rack, Max/MSP and Supercollider for synth sounds.”

He cites the work of renowned British electronic music composer Richard D. James, known by music fans around the world as Aphex Twin, as a major influence, as well as artists like Boards of Canada, D.J. Food and others outside the realm of electronic music.

“As a kid, I listened to lots of Beatles, then progressed to like Beastie Boys and Muse, then Aphex Twin and the rest of the Warp (Records) crew,” Ryan said. “(Music) has been in my head since birth.”

He cites these influences with ease, but he said the question of what his music as Sound Psychologist actually sounds like is harder to pin down.

“I never know what genre to classify it as. It usually changes a bit after every song, each better than the last one,” he said. “I guess the best explanation of what it sounds like is how I think about my influences … I listen to (artists like Aphex Twin), analyze how they made their songs and try and learn as much about their technical process as possible. Then (I) try to do the exact opposite of it.”

Ryan’s stage moniker was chosen with great care, and represents the philosophy behind his approach to music and composition.

“If you think about it, music is just combinations of frequencies, simplified and mixed down to stereo by our ears,” he said.

Ryan is fascinated by the idea of why listening to music is such an emotionally evocative experience, while hearing random noises is not. This question informed his decision on a name.

“My conclusion is because (music is) human, and has purpose. People know that when they listen to music, they are listening to a part of the person who made it. Keeping this thought in mind, I try to make music that … affects (people) in a way that could help them. In this sense I think of it almost like a type of therapy … so ‘Sound Psychologist’ is the simple idea of my music.”

Ryan rarely performs live, and he shies a bit from being the center of attention, preferring to let the music speak for itself.

He values the dynamic between performers and their audience, and that quality, along with the unique style of his music — especially in rural Michigan — made him a perfect fit for the “Intimate Evening With…” series, according to LACA Director Andrew Skinner.

“I became aware of Sound Psychologist a few months ago, and really enjoyed his music,” Skinner said. “It’s unlike anything that we have ever had at the art center. I immediately felt he would be a great fit for this series and would expose audience members to something new.

“The series is not meant to be your traditional concert experience,” Skinner said. “One of my goals for the series is to introduce audiences to different types of music genres and performers they may not have traditionally sought out … (which) … allows for audience members to make a connection and understand where the inspiration for a song comes from. Or, in the case of Sound Psychologist, the process behind creating his music.”

Ryan said he’s excited about performing in a small, intimate setting.

“The smaller space, I think will be really cool. Most electronic music shows and stuff have a definitive feeling of separation (between) the artist and the crowd, and that’s fine, but since I’ll have closer space, and the chance to talk, I can make it into a talk just as much as a performance,” he said. “It’ll probably be some pre-made stuff that I do live, but before I do it I’ll give some insight onto how I made the sounds in it.

“I’ll probably do more of an ambient or experimental set.”

Tickets are $5 each and can be purchased by calling LACA at (231) 845-2787. Tickets will also be available at the door.

For more information, find Sound Psychologist on Facebook or listen to his music on Apple Music and Spotify.