My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

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An Aphex Twin Syro Cover on Piano

One of Josh Cohen's latest transcriptions

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 [102],” 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.” 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.”

Video originally posted at Cohen’s YouTube page. More from him at joshcohenmusic.com. Found via the We Are the Music Makers message board. Cohen lives in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.

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End the Year with Aphex Twin

A new track titled “tnodvood104”

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.

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Major Thanks to Adobe Books, Marc Kate

For last night's 33 1/3 event

20161117-adobe33event

I had a great time last night yapping with Evie Nagy about our respective 33 1/3 books at Adobe Books in San Francisco under the informed guidance of the gracious Marc Kate. When Evie talked about Devo’s Freedom of Choice, I was instantly transported back to my friend Evan Cooper’s basement, circa high school. I was gonna read the part about Gracenote and cultural metadata from my book about Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, but it’s a little long at six pages, so instead I played “White Blur 1” and read the bit about that track from the first chapter of the book. It was especially timely, what with Brian Eno having come out of the woodwork earlier this week to reaffirm the definition of ambient, in his mind, to being rooted in generative processes, which is what the wind chime is all about. Thanks to everyone who came out. I met some Twitter avatars in the flesh for the first time, saw people I hadn’t seen in ages, intrigued some folks about the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, responded to audience questions about stuff like the changing nature of canonical albums and the role of description in music criticism, mentioned the upcoming Futuredraft talk I’m giving on December 1 about doorbells, and had phenomenal al pastor tacos and habanero salsa down the block from Adobe at Taqueria Guadalajara. (That’s me on the left in the photo and Marc Kate on the right.)

There were good questions last night, both from the host, Marc Kate, and from the audience. I thought I’d summarize and elaborate some of them here:

Q: What does the change in music-listening habits mean in terms of how works are defined as canonical?
A: To me, the decline in the concept of a cultural canon is an overall positive, not just a net positive. Individual works are less likely to be singled out as hulking achievements, forced to bear weight that they can’t support without consensual hallucination and received idolatry. In the place of that canon we have not only a much broader sense of cultural output, but we also look less at individual works and artists/bands, and more at scenes and communities and time periods. That’s a much more realistic and holistic way to appreciate culture.

Q: Used to be you couldn’t hear everything released, and record reviews filled that void, let you know what to expect. What role does description play in music criticism today, in the age of streaming?
A: I think the most important role of description hasn’t changed — it’s less about describing how the music sounds, and more about describing how the music works, what to listen for.

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Devo / Aphex Twin (33 1/3) Yap/Reading in SF on 11/16

At Adobe Books. Evie Nagy, Marc Kate, me.

Hi, Bay Area folks. I’ll be doing a reading with my fellow 33 1/3 author Evie Nagy on November 16th, a Wednesday, at Adobe Books in San Francisco, with a discussion moderated by the awesome Marc Kate. The event (free!) runs from 7pm to 10pm. Evie wrote about Devo’s Freedom of Choice. I wrote about Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II. It’ll be fun. More details to follow. There’s an event listing on the Adobe Books facebook.com page.

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Aphex Twin Turns on the #Learning Spout

Will his latest user18081971 be a black hole or a rabbit hole?

Aphex Twin’s user18081971 account was once home to some 250 or so tracks of artifact audio, partial takes and rough sketches from a quarter century or so of music making. It felt like a snowstorm at first, a thick, heavy blanket of material. But it was more like one of those tropical rainstorms that comes on heavy, reduces to a trickle, fakes you out with a blue sky, and then rains down again. He’d put up all or most of the tracks, and then take them down, teasing and pleasing his audience in turns. (Given that the upload dates are retained, it’s more like he turned them on and off.)

It’s been blue sky — which is to say, blank or virtually blank — on the user18081971 account for many months. As of yesterday there were just six tracks up, all many months old. But then today, just two hours ago as of this typing, three seconds arrived of new audio arrived, under the title “Inventions & ideas” and tagged #Learning. It’s a warbling, speedy sample of what sounds like computer speech synthesis. If the spoken message is garbled, the accompanying text is notably clear in its intent:

This is a place to share hardware and software inventions, I was going to publish a book of my own but im going to start slowly putting them up here instead, it’s too much work hassling people to do these things, so putting them here will hopefully reach the right people. Will start with the more simple ideas first. If you want to work with me on any of the ideas PM me with IDEAS in the subject, no person or company too big or small. If you want to make it a commercial product then talk to me but im just as happy to work on it together and release it for free. If it’s someone elses idea just PM them, no need to tell me about that if you don’t want to , although be interesting to know if I helped a hookup along the way. Discussion and refinement of all ideas very welcome, in fact thats the main idea of this space. Bring it on!

It looks like after flooding SoundCloud with archival material, largely leaving annotation up to his fans (here’s a communal spreadsheet of track details), he’s now going to be posting details about how he gets the sounds he gets.

This three-second track includes detailed, time-coded information about its creation, like this:

[[[REsonant Tuning table EQ/vocoder]]] Import of Scala tuning tables to EQ frequency amounts, so each EQ frequency band would correspond to an entry in the imported tuning table. User definable number of EQ bands. Each band should have varying resonance options AND separate built in variable delay with adjustable feedback. Live input of either fundamental with slew/portamento or chord entry for immediate multiple band selection, so you can play in your resonances in real time. Sequence mode, allows cycling through the resonant bands, amount of bands active selectable, syncable, backwards/forwards/random etc, slew/lag/transition adjustment, wraparound. Create custom tuning table from audio analysis, whereby the amount of prominent resonances of the input audio can utilised to create a custom tuning table which can then be used within the EQ and also exported to a Scala file, use audio to create tuning tables!

And when a given comment isn’t detailed enough, Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, replies to himself in greater detail:

@user18081971: Order of tuning table should be selectable, so pitches don’t always have to ascend or descend, they can be arranged/sequenced in any order. Pitch shifter must have user definable delay with sync within the feedback loop.

We’ll see what comes of Aphex Twin’s latest foray into self-publishing of his sonic experiments. It could be the beginning of his own Well-Tempered Synthesizer … or it could all disappear into the same void where the earlier 250+ tracks went. Rabbit hole or black hole, it promises to be interesting.

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