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Aphex Twin on Nylon

Simon Farintosh talks about arranging classic tracks like “Avril 14th” and “Alberto Balsalm” for classical guitar.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Almost three years ago, back in April 2018, Simon Farintosh posted a two-minute video of himself performing an Aphex Twin song in his own arrangement for classical guitar. The video was 10 days late. That is, it was posted on April 24, 10 days after April 14, the date from which the song in question, “Avril 14th,” takes its title.

Since then, Farintosh has more than made up for that slight delay. In a little more than half a year, he has posted to YouTube one by one a half dozen live video performances of Aphex Twin tracks, including an updated version of “Avril 14th” (see above), mixed in with what might be expected from a classical guitarist (Bach, Scriabin, Villa-Lobos), plus more modern works by Philip Glass, Thelonious Monk, and Nils Frahm, and even “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)” from David Lynch’s Eraserhead (humorously, Farintosh opted to do this last one in black and white).

The additional contemporary material gives some aesthetic context for what Farintosh is up to. I was intrigued by his Aphex Twin project and sent him an email. He had mentioned online that he was collecting the six pieces into an EP, and replied to my email with an advance copy. I spent time listening to the tracks and comparing them with the source material. I grew interested in the decision-making entailed in Farintosh’s effort, and we agreed to do the interview that appears below.

There is no shortage of Aphex Twin covers, from post-classical ensembles like Alarm Will Sound to adventurous jazz groups like the Bad Plus to countless amateur piano and guitar players who post videos of their homemade performances. I wrote about several of these in my book on the album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Few have the sustained attention to detail that Farintosh’s exhibit. As he explained, “I think that in a sense, every transcription is a cover. … The reverse is not true, however.” (There’s quite a bit in the book about the correlation of the music of Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, and classical music, so I won’t go over it in this brief introduction.)

“Arranging electronic music for guitar is similar arranging orchestral music,” he told me our back and forth, “as there are so many moving parts and subtleties within the textures.” Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, which took place over email. Farintosh, who is currently pursuing his doctorate in music at the University of Toronto, talks about learning difficult time signatures, what tracks didn’t make the cut, keeping in mind that pianos are a kind of percussion instrument, and branching out into his own electronic music.

Update: The album is now on streaming services, as of February 5, 2020, including Spotify and YouTube Music.

Marc Weidenbaum: How did this project come to be?

Simon Farintosh: I arranged “Avril 14th” back in 2018 as an encore piece to use in concerts. Upon uploading a recording to YouTube, I quickly became inundated with requests for tabs and sheet music. This outpouring of interest encouraged me, so I invested in better recording equipment and began to work on “Kesson Daslef” and “Flim.” Before I knew it, I had the better part of a digital release arranged and recorded.

Weidenbaum: I believe that you were born in 1995, the year “Alberto Balsalm,” one of the tracks you perform here, was released. How did you become exposed to Aphex Twin’s music?

Farintosh: I don’t remember exactly when I discovered Aphex Twin, but the music has been with me for a long time. The song “Rhubarb” was definitely my gateway to playing Aphex Twin. I’ve had bad insomnia for a while, and I used to listen to this track for up to an hour on repeat in an effort to fall asleep. I quickly became entranced by the more cacophonous side of Aphex Twin, as well, and listened to the album Drukqs in its entirety many times. As a classically trained musician, I was extremely impressed by the harmonic and rhythmic ingenuity of Aphex Twin’s music. His synthesis of the minimalist classical aesthetic with modern hip-hop elements bridged two seemingly disparate worlds, and helped me imagine the nylon string guitar in a non-classical setting.

Weidenbaum: If I’m hearing the sounds correctly, “Alberto Balsalm” is the one track where you multi-tracked, and added what seems to be percussion. What are the components of this track, and what made you approach it in this manner?

Farintosh: Yes, that is correct. I had initially planned to take a more minimalist approach, with solo guitar and no electronics. I did this with “Flim,” a famously percussion-heavy track, and was quite happy with the newfound simplicity of the song. “Alberto Balsalm” is so groove-based, though, and I felt that it was really missing something without the drum track. I am fairly new to digital audio workstations, but have been writing original music for guitar and electronics since the beginning of the pandemic. The drum track I made for “Alberto Balsalm” is pretty bare-bones, and doesn’t have nearly the same intricacies as the Aphex Twin version. I kept it intentionally simple to avoid overshadowing the nuance of the arrangement. The guitar was not overdubbed, and all of the synth textures were fused into one extremely difficult guitar part. The melodies in this song are so jagged and syncopated, and I think my sense of time improved as a result of playing this so many times.

The original “Flim” above (from Aphex Twin’s album Come to Daddy) and below the Simon Farintosh transcription

Weidenbaum: Let’s focus for a moment on “Avril 14th,” since it’s been performed by so many people, usually on keyboard instruments. What was your experience transcribing it for guitar?

Farintosh: Richard recorded this song on a Disklavier, a type of mechanised player piano, and there are moments which could challenge even the most competent pianist, if played note-for-note. The wide leaps in register are not at all guitar-friendly, and I had to resort to using artificial harmonics in order to facilitate the sudden changes in pitch. I really wanted my rendition to be in the original key of A-flat Major, so I wrote it in G Major and put a capo on the first fret to raise the pitch a semitone. As a result, I had to think simultaneously in the two keys. Whenever harmonics appeared in the texture, I had to think in A-flat, as the harmonic overtones of the guitar shift with the use of a capo. The final measures of this arrangement are particularly tough, since the harmonics become more rapid and syncopated. In order to record this track at a desirable speed, I had to practice this very slowly with a metronome and carefully chosen fingerings. The sixth string is also lowered to C, which changes the orientation of the fretboard. With the exception of a few necessary octave transpositions, I managed to insert every note exactly as it appears in his recording.

Two measures from Simon Farintosh’s guitar arrangement of “Avril 14th”

Weidenbaum: Have you played much British classical or folk music? Do you hear connections between the Aphex Twin work you’ve done and those repertoires?

Farintosh: I don’t have much experience playing British music at all. As a classical guitarist, I am certainly familiar with that side of our repertoire, however — particularly the large body of contemporary works commissioned by the English guitarist Julian Bream. Much like Aphex Twin rerouted the trajectory of electronic music, Bream reinvigorated a guitar repertoire that was bogged down by stereotypes and strict precedents set by Andrés Segovia. Musical progressivism is certainly a trait shared by both artists. I suppose you could draw parallels between Aphex Twin and Peter Maxwell Davies, as well, since both artists inhabit a space that is both immediately accessible and avant-garde.

Weidenbaum: Are transcriptions “covers”? Are they something else entirely?

Farintosh: I think that in a sense, every transcription is a cover, although it’s a term classical musicians tend to avoid. The reverse is not true, however. Transcription usually entails some form of musical notation and extreme attention to detail, whereas a cover is simply a take of a song by an artist other than the original. There are many guitar “covers” of Aphex Twin on YouTube, but most of these don’t have the level of detail or musical accuracy you’d expect in a concert setting. I’ve approached each of these songs as a jazz musician would approach transcribing an improvised solo, notating every pitch and rhythm exactly as it appears in the original recording. Of course, there were many instances in which I had to edit or even recompose a passage in order to make it playable. Arranging electronic music for guitar is similar arranging orchestral music, as there are so many moving parts and subtleties within the textures. In reducing this music to a single acoustic instrument, I hoped to illuminate its compositional brilliance.

Weidenbaum: Were there any tracks you wanted to do, but that proved too difficult, or didn’t yield results you found satisfactory?

Farintosh: Yes, definitely. I actually managed to accrue most of the piano compositions from Drukqs, but there were a few that evaded me. Unfortunately, the haunting “Petial Cx Htdui” was one of those. This one looks simple enough on paper, but it wasn’t possible to maintain the triadic movement in the lower register while playing the melody. I actually ran this one through all 12 keys, albeit to no avail. I almost gave up on “Jynweythek Ylow” a few times, as well, and would have released this EP sooner had I not found it so difficult to transcribe. Wide registral leaps were a recurring obstacle in the arranging and recording of this music. I also thought about adding the song “Fingerbib,” but its complexity unfortunately supersedes the harmonic capabilities of the guitar.

Weidenbaum: For readers interested in the details of your process, could you focus on one particularly difficult passage of another piece that challenged you, and how you in the end solved it?

Farintosh: Although it sounds relatively idiomatic, “Kesson Daslef” had some challenging moments. As a guitarist, I don’t encounter polyrhythms often, and the opening measure combines a two-against-three rhythm with some unfortunately timed shifts in the left hand. In order to secure this passage, I had to first choreograph it at a very slow tempo, looping it over and over with the metronome. Eventually I sped it up and the speed and fluency was there.

Weidenbaum: Is it fair to say that certain guitar techniques lend themselves to certain types of synthesizer tonalities, and if so could you give some examples?

Farintosh: Absolutely. The guitar is a vividly colourful instrument when played correctly, and I tried to emphasize its textural versatility in these arrangements. For instance, I played the syncopated bass line at the end of “Flim” over the fingerboard with the right hand, creating a mellow tone similar to the synth bass in the original recording. In order to imitate the soaring high notes at the beginning of the same track, I incorporated natural harmonics. This technique creates the illusion of having better sustain and allows certain pitches to continue to resonate without being fretted. Due to the longer decay rate of these notes, pitches often bleed into the next, creating a spacier atmosphere.

Weidenbaum: I have to ask, since I wrote a book about the album, did you consider doing anything from Selected Ambient Works Volume 2?

Farintosh: I thought about attempting “Lichen” or “Rhubarb,” since these are some of his most beautiful compositions. Unfortunately, sustain is an omnipresent issue on the guitar, and most of the ambient works involve drawn-out pitches and expansive resonances that don’t fit within the instrument’s modest constraints. It would definitely be more feasible with a looper pedal and effects.

The original “Jynweythek Ylow” (also known as simply as “Jynweythek,” from Aphex Twin’s album Drukqs) and below the Simon Farintosh transcription

Weidenbaum: I’m always intrigued with the material in sheet music that isn’t just notes, but is descriptive language above bars and in the margins. Did you employ any such language in your transcriptions, as a means to get at the tone, the timbre, of the original work?

Farintosh: I didn’t write as much as I should have, since I tended to memorize these arrangements as I was notating them. I did indicate a few things, though, mostly just as reminders to myself. At the beginning of “Flim,” I indicated “tasto,” which refers to the technique of playing close to the fingerboard to achieve a warmer tone. This was partially by necessity as a means of reaching the harmonics, but I also wanted to approximate the floaty, ethereal soundscape of the original track. In “Jynweythek Ylow” I wrote “mechanical” at the beginning, since the title means something along the lines of “machine music” in Cornish. The robotic groove of this track would be completely lost if overly romanticized, and I wanted my interpretation to have the same rhythmic drive as the original version for prepared piano. In “Hy a Scullyas Lyf a Dhagrow” I used the expression “antiquated,” as the recurring perfect fifths and simple melodies create a sound that is decidedly medieval in character. In “Kesson Daslef” I indicated “desolate” as an expression marking. To me, this is one of Richard’s most poignant works, and I wanted to emphasize the cold starkness of the composition.

Weidenbaum: Did you try out any prepared guitar techniques? It occurred to me while revisiting the original versions that something like tinfoil — and please forgive my suggestion — might have gotten at the raspy rattle of some of “Jynweythek Ylow” and “Hy A Scullyas Lyf Adhagrow.”

Farintosh: I considered this for a while, and actually practiced it with muted strings most of the time. This sound paid a nice homage to the prepared piano, but lacked the same nuance and clarity. With this piece, I wanted to showcase the incredible polyphonic writing and unusual tonality, A-flat minor, and the muting ultimately detracted from this. With stopped strings, the initial attack becomes more prominent than the ensuing pitch. This is great for practice, and I used this technique to zero in on the rhythm and approach the piece more as if I were a percussionist. By preparing a piano you are converting it into a more percussive instrument, so it is helpful to think in this regard with guitar as well.

Weidenbaum: Do you have any plans to publish these transcriptions?

Farintosh: I would love to, but I’m not sure about the copyright legalities. If only the sheet music industry would hatch a Spotify equivalent…

Weidenbaum: The original “Alberto Balsalm” is about twice the length of your rendition, and that’s the same case for “Flim.” Did you think about extending your takes on them?

Farintosh: Both of these arrangements were longer at first, but I decided to abridge them so that I only cycled through the core material once (ABA in the case of “Alberto Balsalm”). I found that they lacked variety at these lengths without the highly intricate percussion elements of the originals. I am going to try “Flim” again someday with more of a jazz approach, and hopefully a solid percussion track. I have an eight-string guitar coming soon, which will be great for walking basslines and self-accompaniment.

Two measures from Simon Farintosh’s guitar arrangement of “Alberto Balsalm”

Weidenbaum: If I had to think of one thing that seemed particularly difficult in the original you’d selected, it’s some of the timing on “Flim.” There’s a point early on, right after a bit that always reminds me of “Pure Imagination” (from the 1971 film of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), where it sounds like it alternates between being ever so slightly before or after the beat. In the original, it almost sounds like mistakes. In yours, it feels more composed, but still quite tricky. Was that difficult to master?

Farintosh: Yes, those little “accompaniment” notes are just slightly ahead of the beat. This was tricky to get, but I just practiced with a metronome at short subdivisions. These moments sound slightly more rhythmic on guitar because of the sharper attack. I was able to play along with the original recording as well, since I didn’t change the key.

Weidenbaum: What did you learn in your own time as a music student that prepared you for this transcription effort, and what did it not prepare you for?

Farintosh: I spent my undergrad years at the University of Victoria really getting to know the instrument and its repertoire. I didn’t do much arranging, but I navigated difficult concert works and quickly learned what was possible and what wasn’t possible on the guitar. When I was in grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I focused more on refining my technique, and often practiced scales, exercises, and etudes for several hours every day. I began arranging a set of piano preludes by Scriabin during this time, and found the creative process more enriching and fulfilling than anything else I’d done up to that point. Arranging piano music for the guitar involves a lot of problem-solving, so it’s really satisfying when an arrangement works. My primary teachers, Alexander Dunn and Rene Izquierdo, have been very supportive and encouraging throughout the years, and I credit much of my success to the high standard of instruction I’ve received from them. My time in school has mostly been occupied by the study of Western art music, so I suppose it’s possible that I haven’t been exposed to a wide enough influence of styles. Eurocentric tendencies have long been a blight upon the conservatory and university systems, and more contemporary styles such as electronic music, hip-hop, and jazz are often dismissed as undeserving of academic attention. Currently, I’m in the beginning stages of a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree at the University of Toronto, and am hoping to overlap my interest in arranging contemporary music with my research.

Weidenbaum: You mentioned you’ve begun making music with electronic elements during the pandemic. Could you describe it a bit?

Farintosh: I’m working on another EP for guitar and electronics called Seascapes. All of the tracks are original compositions, incorporating elements of minimalism, ambient electronic, jazz, impressionism, and classical music of the late-romantic era. You might be able to hear some Aphex Twin influence, which is no surprise considering how much I’ve been playing his music lately! The electronic elements in these tracks are fairly subtle, and only exist to compliment the natural sound of the guitar. I wanted the space to feel more expansive, since each of the tracks encapsulates a descriptive oceanic image. Essentially, the whole album is meant to sound like it was recorded underwater, or by the sea. I found that I was able to achieve this effect by using soft ambient pads and samples of ocean sounds. Now that I’m finished with the Aphex Twin project, I’m hoping to roll this out in the coming months.

The album is on streaming services, as of February 5, 2020, including Spotify and YouTube Music. More from Simon Farintosh at simonfarintosh.com and his YouTube channel.

Tags: , , / Comments: 2 ]

One Comment

  1. w craghead
    [ Posted February 4, 2021, at 7:00 am ]

    Thanks for this great interview. As someone who (in visual art) has done work based on another artist’s work (one-sided collaborations is one way I think of them) it was great to hear his take on doing that. I also loved him sharing that he learned to do the complex songs by going slow with a metronome. That peek into process is heartening.

    One funny thing – while listening to the embedded pieces, one of the AT pieces moved to the next track while I was listening to Farintosh’s version of “Jynweythek Ylow” and it added a layer of crazy percussion which at first I thought was part of Farintosh’s piece!

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