Aphex Twin has gone analog. More specifically, the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound is about to release a full-length set of Aphex Twin covers, arranged by various composers, including some of its own members. Titled Acoustica, the record is due out July 12 on Cantaloupe, the label associated with the Bang On a Can All-Stars. That group set the stage for Alarm Will Sound’s album with their ensemble interpretations of Brian Eno’s ambient classic, Music for Airports, released on Philip Glass’ label, Point Music, in 1998.
For a taste of Alarm Will Sound’s project, try the free promotional download “4” (MP3), in which the first track of Aphex Twin’s 1996 Richard D. James album is broken down into its constituent parts, and then those parts are each replaced with a sonic analog.
That’s analog in both senses of the word. Almost the full complement of Alarm Will Sound’s palette is acoustic (i.e., analog, as opposed digital), including not just standard classical instrumentation like bassoon, viola, English horn and piccolo, but also curtain rods, kalimba, cocktail stirrer and water hose, all the better to approximate Aphex’s sonic eccentricities. Acoustica is also an analog in that all these tools that Alarm Will Sound has employed were patiently selected and honed to serve as analogous sounds for everything that Aphex Twin initially programmed on his computer.
Indeed, to compare the two “4”s side by side is to invoke that paranoid Steven Wright joke: “I got up the other day and everything in my apartment was stolen and replaced with an exact replica.” Except that what Alarm Will Sound is up to is no joke. The effort here was a painstaking one, even if the original “4” did provide a head start, in that it featured a violin-like sound right from the outset. The original ran a sinuous melody over a rubbery stretch of percussion, the line always a little apart from the beat, which gave it the sense of something hovering. In Alarm Will Sound’s rendition, that rubbery sound is approximated with expert drum rolls, and the violin is brought to life with a real string instrument. The group even inserts the little spoken back’n’forth that sounds like studio chatter in the original. (If you’re really interested in comparing ’em, you can quickly purchase the original track for $1.35 at bleep.com.)
That at times Alarm Will Sound’s “4” sounds like Steve Reich is no surprise (though Aphex’s “4” never did in particular); the group’s last album was an all-Reich program, and that precision comes in handy here. Nor is it a surprise that “4” brings to mind the band Tortoise, which has always made itself comfortable in the no man’s land between chamber music and rock’n’roll. What is a surprise, though, is how much, at times, “4” sounds like something by Aaron Copland, with its wide, warm melodies that hang like low clouds. (“4” was arranged by Jessica Johnson and Payton MacDonald.) Despite Aphex Twin’s advance billing as a leading technologist, listeners new to his music who encounter him first here will be taken aback by, and then taken in by, his emphasis on melody. Given Alarm Will Sound’s interest in the progressive edge of classical music, this may end up being simply some of the prettiest music they ever play. More info on Acoustica, with brief MP3 samples of all 15 tracks (including two remixes by Dennis DeSantis), here. More info on Alarm Will Sound at alarmwillsound.com.
(PS: This review originally included the following pair of sentences: “Tellingly, Alarm Will Sound’s version is titled ‘Four,’ where the original employed the numeral ‘4.’ Such is the group’s attention to detail.” It turns out that Alarm Will Sound retained the numeral for its rendition, and that the spelled-out version, “Four,” was just a typographical error in early press materials. Nonetheless, the group’s attention to detail is remarkable.)