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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Major Thanks to Adobe Books, Marc Kate

For last night's 33 1/3 event


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 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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RIP, Other Music

Aphex Twin makes its top-100 sales chart.


This white board shows the top 100 albums sold at the excellent record retailer Other Music in its 20 years of existence in downtown Manhattan. The store shuts this week, on June 25, and the board was posted commemoratively at the website yesterday with some light annotation. I first saw the picture when Amon Tobin tweeted about it, saying, “Peace out Other Music. There will never be another store that can move over 1000 copies of an Amon Tobin record.” There’s only one Aphex Twin record on the board, and while the photo cuts off, it appears to be Selected Ambient Works Volume 2. All it says is “Ambient” with what looks like the “2” truncated mid-numeral (a reading confirmed by that Brooklyn Vegan post).

20160620-othermusic copy

When Bloomsbury published my 33 1/3 book on Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 in 2014, one bit of feedback that confused me was from people who couldn’t understand why I hadn’t written instead about the earlier Selected Ambient Works, or the album titled Richard D. James Album, or another of his releases. My response was usually along the lines of “I wrote about this record because it’s the record that captured my imagination.” What interested me about the Other Music board is that no other Aphex Twin record made the list — not only did Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 appear on the top 100, it was the only Aphex record to make that cutoff. As the discussion at Brooklyn Vegan makes clear, Other Music had its own take on culture (“OM was more DJ Shadow or … J. Dilla than the Beasties,” writes Bill Pearis). While consumers were free to buy what they wanted at the store, the store in various ways shaped the tastes of the people who shopped there.

The store was also, in turn, shaped by time. Other Music’s history closely parallels’s. It launched in 1995, a year before did, and it was right around the corner from Tower Records. I was still an editor at the Pulse! music magazines published by Tower in 1995 — I joined the company in 1989 and left in 1996, a decision that led me to start, which turns 20 on December 13, 2016. Tower was based in West Sacramento, and I lived alternately in Davis and Sacramento during my tenure. I’d moved to California from Brooklyn in 1989 to take the job. Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 was released in 1994, a year before Other Music opened.

The culture of a record store, the way you learn about music, is something that online retailers (including streaming services) have failed so far to emulate particularly well. Rdio probably came closest among the streaming companies, and it still went out of business. When you are in a physical record store, you learn from the room, watching what others buy, conversing with clerks, reading short reviews, listening to what’s playing and asking about it. Other Music was a valuable one-room schoolhouse, as record-learning goes. Up until Tower Records closed down, whenever I went back to New York to attend a Bang on a Can festival or interview a musician, or meet with record labels, Other Music was always a stop. It felt a bit like cheating to walk across the street from Tower, but the cheating was always in service of the magazines’ coverage.

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Why We Listen

I talk with Marc Kate about surface noise, classical motifs, and the reversal of Aphex Twin

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 5.04.04 PM

Major thanks to Marc Kate of the Why We Listen podcast for having included me in its ever growing catalog of conversations. My entry, released a few days ago, is the 35th in Kate’s Why We Listen series. Previous participants include many folks I admire, including Morgan Packard, Richard Chartier, Cara Rose DeFabio, Erik Davis, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Holly Herndon, Leyland Kirby, Bob Ostertag, Geeta Dayal, and Keith Hennessy.

For each episode of Why We Listen, Kate asks the guest to bring three pieces of music, and then you sit in his studio and listen to them together and talk about them. I selected a piece of turntablism sound art by Maria Chavez, “Kids- TRIAL 18 (Unfinished),” a work of classical minimalism by Madeleine Cocolas, “I Can See You Whisper,” and an Aphex Twin rarity “Avril 14th reversed music not audio.”

A direct link to the MP3 file is here: The iTunes link is here: More on the episode at

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