Highlighting Selected Ambient Works Volume 2

The Aphex Twin book, that is — my book

My book on Aphex Twin’s landmark album Selected Ambient Works Volume II came out four years ago this month as part of the 33 1/3 series from the publisher Bloomsbury. Some friends and colleagues who’ve published more books than I have suggested that it can be informative to look at the “popular highlights” made possible in the Amazon Kindle app, and so I did just that. These are the passages my Kindle app is telling me have been highlighted most frequently, and some consideration of them as items on which people have focused their thoughts:


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.

That’s particularly satisfying, as the wind chime is to me, in terms of both the SAW2 track on which it manifests and the instrument itself, a deep well: as a music-making device; as a proto-ambient, pre-electric technology; as a cultural touchstone; as a unique sound unto itself; and as a metaphor and enactment of generative art, among many other things.


The majority of the record is of a piece with Evening Star, the collaboration between Brian Eno and Robert Fripp that dates from 1975, Eno’s great year — the same year he released Another Green World and Discreet Music.

Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, which he explained he first heard in the sound art project by Janet Cardiff, who set up 40 speakers to invoke an immersive environment, allowing the listener to navigate the choir as a ghost or a character in The Matrix might. And he recommended Richie Hawtin’s prolific Plastikman moniker.

The intervals between notes bring to mind “Silent Night,” which puts this solidly in the realm of Unsilent Night, composer Phil Kline’s secular year-end music, which manages to be reflective and seasonal without having a sectarian, devout, or otherwise irreconcilably spiritual affect.

A good number of the highlighted entries seem to focus on subsequent listening.


Hassell introduced the term “Fourth World music” to this sort of endeavor. It is future music, music from a time and place where rituals are brought to bear through unintended uses of new technologies, especially of castaway materials.

Jon Hassell’s music was on a list of potential subjects when I was pondering what album to pitch to 33 1/3. Having failed in a previous round, when I proposed to write about the debut album from the Latin Playboys, I had aimed this time around to push for a more commercially successful and more broadly culturally active subject. Had I not, something by Hassell may very well have made the final cut, and it’s nice to know that he surfaced as a point of interest for readers.


Raves were less concerts than what has become fashionable to term temporary autonomous zones, and this was especially true in the era before the predominance of the cellphone, when the autonomous aspect had as much to do with being cut off from the world as it did with being part of a self-organizing civic space built with its own internal rules.

Raves were dark, murkily architected, often expansive spaces in which sensory overload and disorientation was a common goal. One could as easily lose touch with one’s friends as with oneself.

Ambient music defines the space in which it is heard, in part simply by making demands on that space, that it be conducive to quietness. Raves are often quite a contrast to ambient, but as sonic environments they have much in common with it.


[I]t has been proposed that Selected Ambient Works Volume II on CD is intended for both sides to be played at the same time, that the track breaks align, and that parallels are self-evident, each side enhancing the other, a jigsaw puzzle with just two very long complementarily individuated pieces.

It’s good to know the old myths still have life in them.


The music of Aphex Twin works effectively in the film precisely because it need not come across like music. It sounds like neighboring power stations and internal anxiety.

The film in question is Devil’s Playground, the 2002 documentary by Lucy Walker about Amish rumspringa, a teenage rite of passage. Aphex Twin is frequently quoted as having likened the album to “standing in a power station on acid.” In the able hands of Walker, herself an illbient musician before becoming a filmmaker, that acid experience is slowed down to the emotional turmoil of rumspringa’s most fragile participants.


And that covers it. Perhaps there will be other frequently highlighted passages as the years pass. The overarching theme of my book is what came of the album after it was released, what listeners, and technology, and other artists did with it, changed how we heard it, even those of us — like me — who heard it when it was first released, before all the anecdotes and myths and knowledge had accumulated around it. It’s nice as my little book now itself gets older to see what bits have stuck.

And if you’re interested in reading more about the book before picking it up, I recommend the interview that Mark Richardson did with me at Pitchfork shortly after the book was released.

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