February 13, 2014, is the official release date for my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

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The Virtuous Circle of Aphex Twin Fandom

An interview with Joyrex, whose WATMM forum rescued a lost Richard D. James album from 20 years ago


Last month, March 2014, marked the 20th anniversary of the release of the landmark 1994 Aphex Twin album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. I wrote a book, also out last month, about that album, as part of the 33 1/3 series. A main thesis of my book is that the Aphex Twin album’s extensive cultural afterlife has significantly shaped our understanding of its music, has changed the way it sounds, how it is appreciated. Much of that post-release change is the result, I argue, of the role played by fans of the music. This process has taken time, but it began almost immediately upon the release of the album, when a member of an email mailing list about electronic music took it upon himself to give names to the tracks on Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Those tracks on the record are, with one exception, essentially title-less. That is, they have no “word names” but are instead associated with cryptic photographs. The responsible fan on the mailing list, whom I tracked down and interviewed for the book, recognized the images in the photos and assigned names to each of the tracks based on those photos. Those fan-determined track names stuck, and in fact are to this day readily disseminated by such systems as Gracenote, which populates media services with record-album track metadata.

And now, just a month after the Selected Ambient Works Volume II anniversary, again Aphex Twin fans have not only played a significant role in an album by Richard D. James, the British electronic musician behind the Aphex Twin mask — they have quite literally taken an unreleased album and made it commercially available for the first time. And the album in question dates from the same year as Selected Ambient Works Volume II: 1994.

The story has been widely covered in the past 48 hours or so, following the April 8 report on factmag.com, and what follows is an interview I conducted via email earlier today, April 10, with the individual behind the effort to make the record widely available. That person goes by the name Joyrex and he is the founder of WATMM.com, which takes its initials from the track “We Are the Music Makers” off Aphex Twin’s 1992 album Selected Ambient Works 85–92. The track samples Gene Wilder uttering the words of 19th-century author Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy in Mel Stuart’s film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, adapted from the Roald Dahl book. Like Richard D. James, O’Shaughnessy was a British citizen of Irish extraction. The movie came out in 1971, the same year that Richard D. James was born. (Joyrex takes that avatar name — also the name of a website he founded prior to WATMM — from a handful of recordings that Richard D. James has released under the name Caustic Window. He gave me the option of employing his given name here, but I’ve decided to stick with Joyrex.)

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Remembering Kurt Cobain (Feb. 20, 1967 – Apr. 5, 1994)

Grunge, drones, and fame

This is the last paragraph of the third chapter of my recently published 33 1/3 book Selected Ambient Works Volume II, about the Aphex Twin album by that name released by the labels Warp and Sire 20 years ago last month. Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. The Morley in this part of the narrative is Risa Morley, the woman who signed Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) to Sire:

The month after the Aphex Twin album was released, Kurt Cobain of the grunge band Nirvana killed himself. Cobain’s death was in part read as a sign that music welcomed as a respite from the excesses of rock would perhaps inevitably itself succumb to those same excesses. Morley told me a story about Aphex Twin having been intended to appear on the cover of a major British music magazine and the slot being cancelled to make room for Cobain’s obituary. While Warp was demolished, in her words, Aphex Twin was if anything relieved to keep stardom at arm’s length: “I just remember him being very weirdly happy that he was not going to be on the cover, in a twisted weird way.”

I sometimes sense an inter-genre feud between grunge and electronic music, both of which were enjoying particular attention in the mid-1990s, so I think it’s worth listening back to Nirvana’s first full-length album, Bleach, and recognizing in it an adherence to repetition, a near-mechanical fury, that is of a piece with the slower of bands like Sunn O))), Godflesh, and most directly Earth, the doom rock outfit headed by Cobain’s friend Dylan Carlson.

More on Selected Ambient Works Volume II at disquiet.com/saw2for33third.

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Santa Clara U Workshop

Two projects, four pieces


Nothing may inspire music-making quite like the fear of dropping one’s laptop in the toilet. Earlier this month I had the welcome opportunity to give a guest talk at the music department at Santa Clara University, not far south of San Francisco, where I live. It was the latest in a series of guest talks I’ve been giving, in addition to ones at Stanford’s CCRMA facility and, via Skype, at Duke. This invitation came from the talented musician Bruno Ruviaro, a professor at Santa Clara who hails from São Paulo, Brazil.

Half my talk to his class was about my new Aphex Twin book in the 33 1/3 series, and the other half was a workshop revolving around Disquiet Junto projects — weekly composition prompts that embrace creative restraints. I brought two such projects to the workshop, both derived from past Disquiet Junto endeavors. As reproduced above, these were “Room Tone Song” and “Wind Chime Drum Machine,” the latter inspired by the track “White Blur I” on Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Here are four examples of student work that resulted from the class meeting, including a “wind chime” piece by Chris Rotas and three songs made from room tones by Sarah Bamberger, Heidi Hagenlocher, and Kristene Richardson. You may hear common elements in the room-tone pieces, since some of the students worked in tandem when sourcing the audio, in such places as the building’s elevator and its bathrooms:

More on Ruviaro at scu.edu and brunoruviaro.com.

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Aphex Twin SAWII Book in The Quietus, The Stranger, and More

Some recent coverage of my new book

I’ll post references to my Aphex Twin 33 1/3 Selected Ambient Works Volume II book on occasion. Here’s a batch that occurred during the book’s first week of publication. It came out on February 13, a week ago today.

. . .

The writer Ned Raggett at thequietus.com has written up an extended reflection on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II. He says, while pondering the wonderful track that has come to be known as “Rhubarb”:

If the ghost of figures like Eno inevitably hangs over anything that could be called ambient – much less a term that at the time seemed to only be a bad joke of a hangover, new age – what James did here, like others elsewhere, was to translate the impulse and suggest other ways to work with it. Miles away from ‘Digideridoo’, a whole universe away from ‘Windowlicker’ or ‘Girl/Boy’, it’s as close to ambience as gentle balm as one could want, but even then it’s not really that, enveloping in its stripped down beauty but so stately, so focused, warm and cold at the same time.

He also, thoughtfully, mentions my work:

A new entry in the 33 ⅓ book series by Marc Weidenbaum does deeper delving into the album than I can even attempt here, so I encourage you to consider that if you want something more rigorous, as well as this 2012 interview preparatory to its release, where Weidenbaum notes something key I’ve turned over a few times as well: “I want to probe the one thing that is pervasively understood about this record, the “fact” that is synonymous with Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which is the idea that it has no beats. This is commonly asserted about it, that it has no rhythmic content. I think this is, simply, false. Much of the album has rhythmic content, even a consistent beat, if not two or more beats working against yet in concert with each other. I want to explore the perceived tension between ambient sound and rhythm.”

Weidenbaum hits this point that’s easy to forget, yet is terribly clear — there is rhythm throughout the album, actual beats at points as noted, but more often creating the kind of intertwined obsessive exploration that seemed – at least to me at the time – to be matched solely by the work Robert Hampson was doing more and more via Main. Where that duo, and eventually solo act, had as its sometime motto ‘drumless space’, there was never absence of rhythms, the space was disciplined, shaped and mutated constantly, an ever shifting nervousness. James had his own approach, and comparatively SAWII is more recognisably a world of ‘songs’, shorter in length, focused on key fragments or elements that never departed. But the further you went in, the further it wasn’t drumless space indeed – it was often just space. A black cold space, seemingly antithetical to the white cold space of the sleeves, but just as alien, and just as unnerving.

There was such a strong series of reader comments on the Quietus post and over on a thread at Facebook, that Ragett did a follow-up post on his Tumblr account.

. . .

Rob Sheffield (Rolling Stone) has written what I think may serve as the first proper blurb of the book:

. . .

Over at Sactown magazine, Stu VanAirsdale interviewed me about the book. I lived in Sacramento at the time of the release of the album, back when I was an editor at the music magazines at Tower Records. The article reads, in part:

“Half, if not more, of the book is about what happened after the record came out—how it’s been used in culture,” says Weidenbaum, speaking via phone from his home in San Francisco. “It’s about how fans were responsible for putting names to the tracks, which were originally untitled. It was about how filmmakers and choreographers and comedians have used his music in their work, and how classical composers have taken the music and done things with it.”

In his book, Weidenbaum describes SAW2′s sonic quality as “vaporous”—“hovering waves of sound” that float and rise and roil in a kind of haze or passing mist. But even in its relative shapelessness, Aphex Twin (the nom de plume of English musician Richard D. James) helped shaped a perspective on music that Weidenbaum seeks to refine for the audience of novice listeners and ardent fans alike.

. . .

And over at The Stranger, Dave Segal constructed a reflection — with the absolutely splendid title “A Rusty Obelisk Made Out of Angel Sighs” — on the album on its 20th anniversary with his own thoughts (“perhaps the most interesting, strange, and affecting advancement of Brian Eno’s mid-’70s ambient strategies to date”), extended quotes from various musicians and DJs from the Pacific Northwest (including Lusine, Solenoid, and Jeremy Moss, among others), and a reference to my study:

In his new book-length study of SAW2 for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, Marc Weidenbaum accurately observed that it “is a monolith of an album, but one in the manner of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one that reflects back the viewer’s impression…. It is an intense album of fragile music.” And it is seemingly impossible to get sick of it. So many people have told me that they would play SAW2 every day for long stretches of time.

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Track by Track: Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II

All 25 posts in one handy place


What follows are links to 25 distinct posts, each about a different track from the album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which Aphex Twin released in 1994, and which I published a book about, two decades later in 2014, as part of the 33 1/3 series. I posted theses pieces in reverse order, from track 25 to track 1, in the 25 days leading up to the February 13, 2014, release of my book. This post serves to put them all in one place. Each entry includes streaming audio, alternate takes, and some initial track analysis drawn from my substantially more detailed research notes. With the exception of “Blue Calx,” the tracks are all untitled on the official release, but as in the book I employ the “fan” titles, derived from the album artwork, here:

1 “Cliffs”
2 “Radiator”
3 “Rhubarb”
4 “Hankie”
5 “Grass”
6 “Mould”
7 “Curtains”
8 “Blur”
9 “Weathered Stone”
10 “Tree”
11 “Domino”
12 “White Blur 1″
13 “Blue Calx”
14 “Parallel Stripes”
15 “Shiny Metal Rods”
16 “Grey Stripe”
17 “Z Twig”
18 “Window Sill”
19 “Stone in Focus”
20 “Hexagon”
21 “Lichen”
22 “Spots”
23 “Tassels”
24 “White Blur 2″
25 “Match Sticks”

Get the book at amazon.com (paperback and Kindle) or wherever 33 1/3 books are sold.

Thanks to boondesign.com for the sequential grid treatment of the album cover.

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