Prepare for an uptick here in mentions of Aphex Twin for the coming six months to a year. I’m signing on to write a book about Aphex Twin’s landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol II, for the excellent 33 1/3 series.
If all goes according to plan, the book should be out in time for the album’s 20th anniversary.
The opportunity to write this book for 33 1/3 is a very welcome one. The series has a great following, and tremendous contributors. I am blown away by the opportunity, really, given both the ranks my book will join, and the rigors of the application process. There were, apparently, 471 book proposals submitted to Bloomsbury, the publisher of the 33 1/3 series (it was previously handled by Continuum, and maintains the same editor, David Barker). Those were whittled down to a “short” list of 94 (initially it was suggested the shortlist would have “around 125” or so entries). For the past few weeks, Bloomsbury has run a contest to see who could guess which 18 would make the cut. And finally, today, August 31, 2012, Bloomsbury announced the 18 books that 33 1/3 will publish. The full list of 18 titles is as follows:
• Andrew WK: I Get Wet, by Phillip Crandall • Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Vol II, by Marc Weidenbaum • Beach Boys: Smile, by Luis Sanchez • Björk: Biophilia, by Nicola Dibben • Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe, by Tara Murtha • Danger Mouse: The Grey Album, by Charles Fairchild • Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, by Mike Foley • Devo: Freedom of Choice, by Evie Nagy • Gang of Four: Entertainment! by Kevin Dettmar • Hole: Live Through This, by Anwyn Crawford • J Dilla: Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson • Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, by Kirk Walker Graves • Michael Jackson: Dangerous, by Susan Fast • Oasis: Definitely Maybe, by Alex Niven • Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation, by Pete Astor • Serge Gainsbourg: Histoire de Melody Nelson, by Darran Anderson • Sigur Ros: ( ), by Ethan Hayden • They Might Be Giants: Flood, by Alex Reed and Philip Sandifer
Here, for reference, are the first 69 in the series. So far there have been 86 books from 33 1/3, most recently Jonathan Lethem’s on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music.
The proposal process for this Aphex Twin book included several steps, among them a request for a rough draft of the introductory chapter. I’m posting mine here (at the bottom of this post), with the understanding that it’s the introduction to a book that it is yet to be written. Almost certainly the introduction to the finished book will read differently.
A bit about the application process: This isn’t the first time I’ve submitted a proposal to 33 1/3. I did once a long time ago for a book on the eponymous debut album by the Latin Playboys, a quartet consisting of two members of Los Lobos (David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez) plus Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. That proposal didn’t even make the shortlist. This time around I thought about a variety of options, including Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ, and albums by Monolake (Hong Kong) and by Oval (94 Diskont). They were all quite tempting, but the Monolake and Oval fit into another long-term, long-form project, and I couldn’t convince myself that, much as I love Gabriel’s Passion (as the album was titled), it was the best subject — either as a focus on his work, or on the sort of film music it helped exemplify. Also, Peter Gabriel was a strong mutual favorite of a very close friend since high school who died several years ago, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me at this stage to explore that emotional terrain. (And very very briefly I considered Boxhead Ensemble’s Quartets and DJ Krush’s Kakusei, which are, along with Gabriel’s Passion and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, the albums I have most often given as gifts.)
As documented on my goodreads.com/disquiet “author” page, I have had pieces in a variety of books (and a vast number of magazine issues and website posts), but this will, barring some unforeseen SNC (i.e., sudden novel contract), be my first book as sole author. I kind of like that my first book will be listed as “volume II.” That feels fitting. I also like that, down the road, I might publish a collection of previous writings and — who knows? — title it Selected Ambient Works Volume I. Or, heck, Volume III. Just kidding. Well, partially kidding. (Speaking of titles, I was a bit concerned by how the long title might work on a 33 1/3 volume, as the design is admirably standardized — but heck, the publisher has handled the significantly longer The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.)
I almost certainly won’t be starting a separate Tumblr for this project (which is what I did at sound.tumblr.com for the class I’m teaching at the Academy of Art this autumn), just posting here at Disquiet.com on occasion, and of course on various existing social-network satellite operations (twitter.com/disquiet, facebook/disquiet.fb, etc.). I’ve added the tag “saw2for33third” to Disquiet.com track the book’s development. There’s a good chance I’ll be visiting England at least once if not twice to research this book, so if you’re there and want to meet up, let me know. I haven’t been to England since 2009, and I will try to schedule a Disquiet Junto concert during my visit.
The writing process will be an engrossing one. In the meanwhile, here’s a link to my mid-1990s interview with Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin: “Eponymous Rex.” And here is the introductory chapter that was the core of my proposal to 33 1/3:
At the near midpoint of Aphex Twin’s 1994 collection, Selected Ambient Works Volume II, a wind chime peeks through the album’s lush and pervasive haze and makes itself heard. The chime appears as a sequence of routinized figments in the final track on the first of the album’s two sides. That’s track 11 of 23, for those listening along at home to one of the U.S. editions of the album’s post-vinyl era. With just one exception, the works that constitute Selected Ambient Works Volume II are untitled, and this wind chime track is not the exception.
We hear the wind chime, but we don’t hear any actual wind. There is a brief, passing moment of whizzy, slipstream, sci-fi ether; it’s like something that might accompany the jettisoning of waste — or of a fallen colleague — in deep space by the Starship Enterprise. This ethernoise is synthesized, fleeting, “false.” The wind chime, by contrast, sounds “real,” even in the absence of wind. It’s a wind chime resounding in a closed chamber, a specimen on clinical display.
The chime introduces its characteristic rhythm. The device itself is nothing special. It’s standard issue. It’s the same wind chime that dangles from a neighbor’s porch, situated fittingly right between a dream catcher and a flycatcher: between the mystic and the functional.
The chime introduces rhythm, but the rhythm is loose at best. It’s a rhythm-less rhythm, in that it lacks a discernible downbeat. The chime cycles through, its pattern a marvel of a unique phenomena: the very pattern-less-ness reveals itself as pattern. There is no beat in the traditional sense of a beat. What there is is a series of beat-like segments that collectively suggest a kind of whole: in place of meter we have a metric temperament. The track depends on a droning, slowly developing tonal center for any sense of compositional structure. Yet in its beat-less-ness and its tonal drift, the track still feels like a song. And like any proper song, it has a vocal, but such as it is, the vocal is merely snippets of voices in plausible conversation, “plausible” because the voices are garbled, as if heard through the wall from a neighboring room. Even when this strange music agrees to speak, it muffles its message. Such is the nature of the remote pleasure — and an often delirious pleasure it is — of Selected Ambient Works Volume II.
The wind chime originates from a distant time, a time even further back than 1994. The wind chime was known to the ancient Greeks as an aeolian harp. The harp was named in honor of Aeolus, the god of the wind. The wind chime is, by most accounts, the original “generative” instrument. It is the original device that serves dual essential purposes: as composition and as tool. To create a wind chime is create a musical composition in physical form: it is to set down rules (the relative number and frequency of notes) that when enacted by a player — by the wind or, if you tend toward the mystic, perhaps by Aeolus himself — result in something sonorous, something melodic, something song-like. The remoteness of this something is, to borrow from another Greek myth, tantalizing.
The wind is just half of the beat’s equation: the wind creates the rhythm as a pattern-like sequence, but it’s the human imagination recognizes that pattern-like sequence as a beat. In one of his Oblique Strategies cards, Brian Eno informed us that “Repetition is a form of change.” The wind chime tells the opposite story. If the chime had its own Oblique Strategies card, it might read: “Change is a form of repetition.”
Eno, born 1948, is the man who named and codified ambient music, a form — generally from the realm of electronic music — that works intentionally as both foreground and background. Aphex Twin is one of several monikers employed by Richard B. James, born 1971, and James is the man who resuscitated, who re-envisioned, ambient music for our beat-pervaded time. His is ambient music for the digital era, an era of countless synchronized millisecond metronomes. Selected Ambient Works Volume II, released at the outset of that era, is his masterpiece.
When we speak of masterpieces, of canonical record albums, we speak frequently of them as being “timeless.” But in the case of Selected Ambient Works Volume II, this timelessness is as much a factual matter as it is one of collective, consensual, received affection.
That there is something “timeless” about the music of Aphex Twin on Selected Ambient Works Volume II is a matter of authorial intent: it was a compositional goal, a functional goal, a practical goal. It was a compositional goal born of a desire to explore the ambient quality of the beat, to take that which was considered anathema to ambient-ness and to subsume it in an ambient milieu. (The piece of music that follows the wind chime one has a consistent, static pulse, pixel-wide and pixel-deep, as if someone had forgotten to remove the production click track before sending in the tapes for mastering. The beat is so repetitive it becomes invisible if not inaudible while the music, otherwise gauzy as passing clouds, proceeds.) It was a functional goal in that, as ambient music, it sought to create an illusion of time, or better yet to illuminate time as an illusion. And it was a practical goal in that the music had a specific utility: it was intended to be played in “chill rooms” at raves, safe sonic spaces for the exhausted, spaces set apart from the intense sounds that dominate such events.
Selected Ambient Works Volume II may be timeless music, but it is still very much a product of its time. I will, in this book, try to simultaneously celebrate its timelessness, and also to delineate the time period in which its creation was predicated.
In this book we’ll listen closely to the album, and we’ll listen closely to those who have themselves listened closely. We’ll benefit from their concentrated imaginations and their diverse perspectives. The book draws from interviews I have done with Aphex Twin himself, and with musicians closely associated with him. These range from electronic musicians who have remixed his work to classical composers who reverse-engineered the record’s textures so they could be performed by chamber musicians on “traditional” instruments. It also checks in with filmmakers and with DJs who have infused Aphex Twin’s music into their own work, and with various of his labelmates (from Warp Records, which has released the majority of his music, and Rephlex Records, which is his own concern) who witnessed firsthand the era, the time, during which this music took shape.
As an album, Selected Ambient Works Volume II persistently evades the sort of consensual understanding that is usually accorded full-length recordings of note. There is no agreed upon favorite track. There is no remotely satisfying cocktail-banter pithy summary. It’s a monolith of an album, but a Kubrick-style monolith, one that reflects back the viewer’s impression.
As a sonic artifact, the album isn’t truly silent, but it is extravagantly vaporous. Unlike Kubrick’s monolith, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II is built from thin air. It is an intense album of fragile music. This book is an attempt to document that very fragility, to collate its fuzzy meanings, to make note of the shadows cast by its unapologetically loose forms. The music is messy, blemished, and muddy, and often feels incomplete. The album’s absence of track titles (with one exception) means that its abstract sounds are not even abetted by the associative meanings that titles might provide. In the place of those titles are images, but the images vary by the manner in which the record was released: in the U.S. versus in its native United Kingdom, in digital versus physical form, on vinyl versus on compact disc. Like an especially delusional conspiracy theory, these images offer more questions than answers when they are probed. The cover depicts a logo, a stylized A, more militaristic than corporate. It looks like the markings on a spaceship discovered in the desert.
For a largely instrumental album whose limited verbal material is more syllabic than verbal, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II tells many stories:
For one it is a tale of the populist flowering of British occultism, a rave-era echo of the Summer of Love. When I interviewed Aphex Twin in 1996, he described the Cornwall of his youth: “It’s got a really sort of quite mystical sort of vibe to it: Lots of sort of folklore and folk tales and it’s full of stuff like that, and there’s lots of strange people, lots of sort of weird hermit people who live out in the middle of nowhere and there’s a lot of witches and sort of magic, black magic, and stuff like that.”
For another, it is a tale of unintended consequences. Electronic music is often depicted as antagonistic to the natural environment, but by Aphex Twin’s own telling, it was the very cultural remoteness of his youth that necessitated his electronic endeavors: “There were no record shops when I was growing up,” he said, in the same interview. “There were like two and they were pretty basic, and there were no clubs or anything, so we had to make our own clubs, make our own music.”
And those are just the stories in which Aphex Twin, in which Richard D. James, is himself complicit. Like any record, great or otherwise, even one as formally intentional as this one, Selected Ambient Works Volume II tells stories beyond its own intention. To understand the moment in which the record was released, it’s essential appreciate how at that moment the record industry was betting on electronic music as the “next big thing,” and it’s essential to note how despite the quixotic nature of that quest (“quixotic” may be an indelicate term, because this was a quest born of nothing but commercial self-interest) electronic music managed to become the ubiquitous cultural force it is today. It’s essential to note how uncommon, how unfamiliar, the term “ambient” music was at the time of the Aphex album’s release. It’s essential to understand how the then-nascent World Wide Web was not the dynamic communal discographical engine it is today, and how the nature of online communications at the time assisted in Aphex Twin’s murky self-mythologizing. And it’s important to focus on the pre-MP3 world of music, and what it meant for such ephemeral sounds as those that comprise Selected Ambient Works Volume II to have been encased in the cultural Carbonite of vinyl and compact disc. These are just a few of the things I’ll be digging in to.
And with some two dozen tracks as sprawling as they are remote, lush as they are reticent to reveal themselves, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II is an album that readily serves as background music to its own telling.