A conversation appeared online this week between an esteemed Japanese engineer of musical equipment and a beloved British musician who exploits that equipment to its unanticipated ends. The engineer is Tatsuya “Tats” Takahashi, who recently stepped down from a senior role at Korg, the Japanese instrument manufacturer. The musician is Aphex Twin, born Richard D. James, who returned to active public duty in 2014 after a long quiet period. The discussion might have been between one person fading out and another person enjoying a highly mediagenic resurgence. But career matters play virtually no role in the lengthy discussion. Instead it is two men well into life geeking out in public. It reads more like something we’re eavesdropping on that it does like something initially intended for public consumption. They dive deep, quickly, into matters that are certainly esoteric to the general public: microtuning agency, hardware economics, aftermarket software, 440 Hz politics, and polyhedra synaesthesia, just to name a few of the subjects.
The full piece, published warp.net, the website of Aphex Twin’s record label, is very much worth a read. One major topic in the article is the Monologue, a monophonic synthesizer recently introduced by Korg. At the time of its release, about a year ago, news broke that Aphex Twin had consulted on its development. In this new conversation, Takahashi and James talk a lot about the microtuning that the latter inspired the former to add as a feature. Says Takahashi at one point:
“Well, my initial impression was that microtuning is a really niche thing that wouldn’t be needed for a mass market synth, especially a monophonic one, but if you try shifting the tuning while running a sequence, you can hear that it gives it another dimension even if it’s subtle. I’m not super-sensitive to pitch or anything, but you can still hear it change. To me, it feels like casting light on a rough surface and seeing different patterns as you move the light.”
Yep, on a monophonic instrument, what you just described will be more pronounced if you use a delay with plenty of feedback or reverb, so you can hear the differently tuned notes overlap each other.
As if the interview wasn’t enough of a treat, Korg uploaded to its SoundCloud account six tracks that Aphex Twin made with its equipment. Five of the tracks are deeply ambient, some of them quite reminiscent of the great Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 album, which Aphex Twin mentions briefly at one point in the discussion, again in reference to microtuning:
I was always interested in sound and how it affected me, especially the tuning. It wasn’t until my Selected Ambient Works Vol. II album that I actually made my own full custom tunings, although there were a few scattered things before that.
The sixth of the new tracks is something of a banger, so I excluded it when adding the five others, which are suitable for background listening, to my longstanding playlist, Selected Ambient Works 3 (beta). The list initially was comprised of a dozen or so tracks Aphex Twin uploaded to SoundCloud when he renewed his public activities back in 2014. Most of those tracks have since gone offline, but I add to the playlist occasionally, such as now, when new ambient Aphex Twin audio surfaces.
Pitchfork has published a list of “The 50 Best IDM Albums of All Time.” I participated in the voting, and wrote up three of the albums: Mira Calix’s One on One, which came it at 47; Plaid’s Not for Threes, 36; and Aphex Twin’s … I Care Because You Do, 13. Aphex Twin also topped the list, with Selected Ambient Works 85-92 coming in at number 1. These are my first Pitchfork bylines, though I’ve been written about on the site twice: Mark Richardson generously interviewed me about my Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works Volume II book, and my book was included in the site’s list of the 33 best books in the 33 1/3 series, as compiled by Stephen M. Deusner. I can’t link directly to the individual “IDM 50” reviews, but the Calix is on the first page, the Plaid on the second page, and the Aphex Twin on the penultimate page.
IDM is shorthand for “intelligent dance music,” and it played an influential role in my life. It’s on the IDM discussion boards that I made friends and participated during the early, proto-Internet 1990s in discussion of music that the music press often was unaware of, and I say that as someone who was at the time a full-time employee of the music press, working as an editor at Pulse! magazine, published by Tower Records. (It’s on an IDM discussion board that Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II’s tracks got their titles, as I recount in my book.)
I was delighted to be asked by Pitchfork to participate, and I should also note that I was conflicted. For one thing, I don’t give much credence to genre. Genre was a somewhat useful tool in the age of brick and mortar record stores, back when someone had to decide where to put Nina Simone (pop, jazz, jazz vocals, oldies). In our hypertextual present, genre is at best a flavor, one among many. A recording today can and should be tagged: situated at the nexus of an associative Venn diagram, not stuck in a genre box. Boxhead Ensemble’s Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back is country and it is ambient; Mason Bates’ The B-Sides is classical and it is electronic. I can count on one hand the number of musicians outside of hip-hop I’ve interviewed who expressed firm alignment with any specific genre. We should follow the musicians’ lead. I’m also not a big list-maker. I know people who make lists of everything, favorite films and favorite books and so forth, but that’s just not how my brain works. All of which said, it’s not a coincidence that after several years of not feeling inclined to produce top 10 lists at the end of the year I suddenly this past December made several such lists. It was, indeed, my participation in the email discussion for the Pitchfork IDM list that convinced me that, in essence, if you don’t make lists, someone else will.
The way the Pitchfork process worked was that a bunch of invited critics were asked to help flesh out a sizable collection IDM albums for consideration. We discussed these via email. Then we filled out our own ballots, selecting a subset of the complete set (we were allowed to list up to 50 albums, and mine felt complete at 33). Math and the Pitchfork editors’ inclinations produced the final 50.
I think my ballot was probably among the more conservative submitted. One wise participant described IDM as more of a period than a genre. After I flirted with a far wider aesthetic net, certain constraints got me to 33 entries. I stuck in the end to a working definition I posted to the discussion list: IDM: A genre of electronic music that foregrounds beats in the exploration of the arrhythmic, abstract potential of hardware and software, often but not exclusively tools originally designed with dance music in mind. Touchstones include chaos, entropy, digital decay, and technological intentionality.
As I thought through the material, I kept coming back around to the distinction between “bebop” and “hard bop,” between music that was explicitly challenging to its audience, and music that built on the codified understanding of bebop and then layered in something more soulful, more r&b, more, for lack of a better word, “pop.” A “best bebop” list isn’t going to include hard bop, even hard bop by people who earlier on recorded bebop, and my “best IDM” list didn’t include whatever the equivalent of “IDM hard bop” is, or “IDM pop” for that matter. That explains in part the absence of more contemporary acts.
In addition, there were a lot of albums tossed around that sound like techno or dub (or dub techno, or minimal techno) or microsound to me. If it sounded prominently and consistently like those, all I could think was, “Well if there’s going to be a best techno or best dub or best microsound list someday, why include this here?” Same for trip-hop, and for (instrumental) hip-hop. I’d love to have included early Kit Clayton, but in the end it sounds like great dub techno to me, as does so much Monolake, and even a lot of Sun Electric for that matter. I love Prefuse 73, but he’s somewhere in the post-trip-hop/proto-EDM realm, like Flying Lotus, with a lot of instrumental hip-hop in there. Even Prefuse’s One Word Extinguisher doesn’t strike me as IDM. (Note that I was considerably outvoted: Both One Word Extinguisher and Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles made the final top 50.)
As the discussion proceeded, we all added records to the pool. Among others I added Mouse on Mars’ Iaora Tahiti, Bedouin Ascent’s Science, Art, and Ritual, Matmos’ Matmos, Blectum from Blechdom’s’ De Snaunted Haus, Bogdan Raczynski’s Boku Mo Wakaran, and Greg Davis’ Arbor. I’m disappointed in particular that Arbor didn’t make the final top 50.
There was a lot of music on the collective list — some of which made the final list — that I love, including records that effectively shaped the course of my life, in particular Wagon Christ’s Throbbing Pouch (truly a landmark recording), but that I didn’t include in my ballot because they lack the chaos and entropy that I see as inherent in IDM (the slurry quality of Throbbing Pouch has the entropy, but there’s zero chaos). I mean, if I included Throbbing Pouch, then why not Kid Koala, and Funki Porcini, and DJ Krush, and Pierre Bastien? They’re all of a piece, along with Prefuse 73 and Flying Lotus: politely swaggery, introspectively soulful, hip-hop-informed, cautiously dramatic. They’re funky wallflower music. But they’re not, to my narrow mind, IDM.
Instrumental hip-hop was a subject of discussion. Why not include the more experimental realms of that beatcraft, the logic went. I was thinking about the production of some earlier Destiny’s Child singles, the scattershot (in a good way) beats in particular of “Say My Name” and, syncopation heaven, “Bills Bills Bills.” I wasn’t sure how to fold into the IDM list-making the producers largely associated with hip-hop and r&b whom I’ve followed (er, collected) for their rhythmic invention (the 45 King, Just Blaze, Alchemist, Kev Brown, and of course Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Neptunes, DJ Muggs, and so forth). Various realms of more dance-oriented electronic music also popped up, and when someone mentioned Larry Heard’s Alien I responded that it feels more Tangerine Dreamy when it ventures out. I was also not enticed to include Björk’s Vespertine because of the remarkable scope of the album. There’s a lot of non-IDM on Vespertine, like “Undo” and “Sun in My Mouth,” among others. (And I declined as a guy who had an e.e. cummings quote in the high school yearbook.) I was disinclined to include Photek in the mix, as to me it’s simply great drum’n’bass — and in fact to think of it as IDM is to, in essence, accept drum’n’bass as being not particularly explorative. Likewise, I was utterly flummoxed on how to characterize Amon Tobin, very much to his credit, though tellingly he didn’t make the final 50.
While doing research for the project, I looked back on my recent employment of the term and recognized that I often say “IDM-ish,”seeing it as a flavor, not a constraint, or use it to characterize an earlier period in music production. In any case, the discussion ended, the ballots have been cast, and the full list is at pitchfork.com. The process was highly enjoyable, and I hope people enjoy the result.
This first appeared, in slightly different form (e.g., no streaming videos), in the January 24, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.
Back on January 14 I wrote about the Australian pianist Josh Cohen’s fantastic cover of Aphex Twin’s “Aisatasana,” the quiet closing track from the 2014 album Syro. Cohen captured not only the understated melody, but the way distinct silences frame and bisect that melody. Now he has put his nimble hands to a far more famous Aphex Twin piano work, “Avril 14th.” It’s a beautiful rendition, paced appropriately, to neither bliss it out nor rev it up. Cohen’s version hints at Erik Satie’s proto-minimalism as much as it does at mid-century (that is, mid-1900s) popular music. It’s parlor music: nostalgic, personal, touching. The real pleasure of the performance is the presentation. Like all of Cohen’s videos, it’s shot from above, his hands in full view, each of them playing its distinct part, the left doing its routinized duty while the right edges at various roles.
Perhaps Aphex Twin will follow Brian Eno’s recent lead and, as with Eno’s Reflection album, revisit if momentarily the art of long-form ambient recording. Since returning to action in 2014 with a birthday blimp, a well-received full-length (Syro), a live DJ set in the U.S., and a massive SoundCloud presence, among other activities, Aphex Twin hasn’t released much ambient music. On the recent Cheetah EP (2016), there were two short tracks, 27 and 37 seconds each, “CHEETA1b ms800” and “CHEETA2 ms800,” both segments of synthesizer drones that seemed like test runs of film-score sound design. Syro ended with “aisatasana ,” a beautiful, plaintive solo piano piece that in its hushed quietude balanced the often frenetic beatcraft of the rest of the record. That’s about it.
Josh Cohen has built something of a YouTube following for his piano covers, and now he’s brought his powers to bear on the Syro closer. The song is lovely in its initial form, and unlike Cohen’s other covers (of Radiohead in particular, but also Beck and Father John Misty, among others), what he’s covering is essentially the original, rather than an 88-key reduction of the original. It’s an appropriately sensitive rendition, gentle and considered, reflective and tentative. You can see it in his hands in the video, how they pause between segments. I’m reminded of videos of instrumental hip-hop production on the Akai MPC, where you can see people crafting beats and tapping or, in their muscles, counting out the moments they want to leave silent. In the Aphex Twin piece as in those beats, the silence is part of the beauty; in the videos, the inaction is part of the performance. (The main thing the Cohen cover dispenses with is the sonic capaciousness of the original, how the recordings seems to take place in a large room, and how that dimensionality renders Aphex Twin’s playing softer than it might have sounded otherwise.)
There’s a telling back and forth in the video’s running comments. One individual, who appears to be the person who requested the cover in the first place, says, “The pacing on this song seems difficult to master. I imagine it’s tempting to rush through many of the long rests.ï»¿” Cohen replies: “This is true. It’s very tempting to play the next phrase, however I’m actually counting in between phrases ”“ it’s not just random silence. For some reason, I find the rests really challenging.”
In the United Kingdom it’s nearing midnight, so as I type this in San Francisco mid-afternoon it feels fairly safe to say that the track “tnodvood104”is the last bit of music that Aphex Twin released to the public in a characteristically — well, newly characteristically, after years of his quasi-silence — eventful 2016. It’s a refreshingly straight-ahead, 4/4 piece. There is no chaotic, entropy-loving IDM to its beats, and though there’s an ambient miasma in the background, the track as a whole is in no particular way ambient techno. Even in his ambient work, Aphex Twin rarely has suggested a strong influence by Brian Eno, but here, around the midway point, when layers of slightly nasal, casually atonal singing appears, it sounds very much like a bit of Eno’s slow-motion pop music. Otherwise it’s entirely instrumental, and a fine, understated way to ring in the new year.
Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/user18081971, the account where Richard D. James initially unspooled heaps of archival audio when he returned to active public service in 2014.
• December 13, 2018: This day marks the 22nd anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• Ongoing: 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.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.
The Disquiet Junto is an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making space in which restraints are used as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto. There is an FAQ. ... These are the 5 most recent weekly projects: