Femi Fleming’s is a YouTube channel to keep track of. It’s regularly updated with electronic music that pushes at different areas, some noise, some beat-oriented, a lot of atmospheres. In another era something like this, which falls in the atmosphere zone, might have been titled “Minuet for Cello and Piano,” but the year is 2021 and the available instrumental colors have broadened considerably. So instead, this is “Ambient Live Looping Drone with Eurorack and Elektron Octatrack.” Illuminated by a cathode-ray tube TV set to glitchily stun, the devices do all the work while Fleming remains off camera, having set it up, pressed go, and removed himself from the mise en scène. Dense tones collide like nothing so much as a fantasia of big city traffic, all muted honking and the echo of tall boulevards. It begins and ends suddenly, suggesting both it’s part of a bigger work, and also that the segment is of something automated that Fleming determined showed the overall setup in its best light.
We live at a moment during which live performance in person is nearly absent. Solace for those who prize such pleasures comes during Zoom concerts and recordings, and sometimes the solace even manages to sound like solace. That is the sense the pervades Enfin la Nuit, a beautiful live set performed by Charbel Haber and Fadi Tabbal last September at Ahm, a nightclub in Beirut, Lebanon, the city where both musicians live.
The album’s three tracks, each roughly 11 minutes or so long, are suffused with longing. The opening piece, from which the album takes its title, goes from whisper to loud sigh, layers of what appears to be guitar pushing a collective drone to higher and higher places. “Couvre-Feu” nods at pandemic life, the title being French for curfew, and the music like a sonorous mix of sirens and barbed wire (the latter featuring as the release’s cover image). Like “Enfin la Nuit,” this second track escalates over time, achieving something piercing and fierce. The closing entry, “Chaque Rose Porte en Elle Une Petite Mort,” introduces a woman’s voice, perched on the boarder between full-blooded and ethereal, and benefits from delectable glitchy treatments throughout.
Beautiful five-minute ambient jam by Pat Carroll, student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Wisps of sound fly this way and that, warped in an improvised atmosphere. Sounds turn back on themselves, tones and noises vying for lack of prominence.
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.
Settle in as Femi Fleming gets this live improv rolling. There’s time to don headphones, and you might as well follow the cue of the musician, seen doing so at the start. That’s before potting up some loops of pleasingly garbled voices, which soon enough are overlapped, one atop another, into a syrupy drone. Employing a mic admirably suited to CB radio activity, there’s some deep intoning, layering human hum amid the hum already accrued. From there on in, the pattern is set: a whir of whirling dervishes, a tornado of microsonics, a noise performance that involves repeated employment of gritty textures but ultimately bends toward atmosphere.
Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media
• July 28, 2021: This day marks the start of the 500th consecutive weekly project in the Disquiet Junto music community.
• December 13, 2021: This day marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Disquiet.com.
• January 6, 2021: This day marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.
• There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the forthcoming book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
• A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen. (Details at oup.com.)
• The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
Since January 2012, the Disquiet Junto has been an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making community that employs creative constraints as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list (each Thursday), listen to tracks by participants from around the world, read the FAQ, and join in.
• 0484 / A Movable Heart / The Assignment: Transplant the sounds of Chris Kallmyer's wind chimes to a new location.
• 0483 / Type Set / The Assignment: Use a recording of yourself typing something as the underlying rhythmic track for a piece of music.
• 0482 / Exactly That Gap / The Assignment: Make a musical haiku following instructions from Marcus Fischer.
• 0481 / Capsule Time / The Assignment: Record a time capsule for yourself in the future.
• 0480 / Ongsay Aftcray / The Assignment: Record a piece of music by employing Pig Latin as a technique.