Major thanks to Geoff Manaugh for having conducted this interview with me on the occasion of my new book, Selected Ambient Works Volume II, part of the great 33 1/3 series. The subject of the book is the 1994 album by Aphex Twin with which it shares its title.
Bay Area sound critic Marc Weidenbaum—acoustic historian, noise futurist, music instructor, and writer of a brand new book about Aphex Twin—has been blogging about music, electronics, and everyday sounds at his blog Disquiet here at Gizmodo for the last few months.
But his writing and music career both go back nearly two decades, and can be tracked not only through his main blog, at disquiet.com, but also through the voluminous work he has produced with the Disquiet Junto, a huge, international, and amorphous group of sonic collaborators tasked every few weeks with a new musical challenge.
Marc's work has always been impressive for its deep focus on—and ability to sort through—the overlapping soundscapes of the world. His own peculiar form of acoustic journalism might include exploring the emergency warning sirens of San Francisco, a new, speculative soundtrack for the city of Lisbon, or even the background sounds of retail environments. In the process, Marc's work suggests that, as much as we need architecture, film , or technology critics, we need sound critics, people out there discussing and paying almost weirdly intense attention to the noises of the everyday world.
In any case, Gizmodo recently sat down to talk to one of our own, asking Marc about his new book. It looks back at a double album released in 1994, one that has since become a modern classic of electronic ambience: Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works vol. II. I was particularly excited to hear that Marc would be writing about this: it would be one of my favorite music writers tackling an album that more or less soundtracked my own early teenage years, with its broad swathes of beautifully alien, even deeply sinister and claustrophobic, music that seemed to me, at that early age, to be utterly and awesomely relentless in doing away with any expectations of what music could or should be.
Add to that the weird rumors circulating at the time that Richard D. James—Aphex Twin's actual name—relied on a strange combination of home-made synthesizers and lucid dreaming, not to mention the intriguing—though some might say pretentious—fact that the album uses small, textured images instead of song titles, and the whole thing had the feel of a weird, post-verbal universe of broken keyboards and off-kilter looped samples. What Marc Weidenbaum would have to say about this, not only stylistically or musically, but historically—whether he would be canonizing Selected Ambient Works vol. II or bursting its bubble—not only got me excited to read the book but to get in touch with Marc and ask him questions directly about his research and thoughts.
Let's start with the technical, gear-based side of this. I remember reading that—according to Aphex Twin himself—he would sleep in his recording studio and practice lucid dreaming, using synthesizers he had personally dismantled and rebuilt to make his songs. In terms of the instrumentation and equipment used by Aphex Twin for this album, I'm interested if you wanted to focus on any particularly remarkable or unique uses of gear.
Marc Weidenbaum: Well, the shortest answer is, simply, no. Gear wasn't really a focus for me. I'm much more focused on the culture of technology and on the role of sound in the media landscape—about the way music has been consumed, appreciated, intriguingly misread, and subsequently used by others. As the saying goes, some of my best friends are gearheads, and they provide me a helpful balance during my research, but we have complementary skills and interests.
In addition, Aphex Twin is a great misinformer. He has historically toyed with his audience, using the media as a semi-witting participant in the shadow play. He's talked up his own homebrew technological accomplishments, even when, after the fact, it's been made clear by listeners far more informed about such things than I am that the equipment is often just off-the-rack stuff. Which isn't to pass judgement, either on his culture jamming or on his use of pre-existing equipment. We need pranksters—especially pranksters who make beautiful music.
In fact, Richard D. James talked with me about his gear when I interviewed him back in 1996. He focused during the conversation in particular on the value of a limited toolset. To quote it in part, he said: "I could be quite happy working with, like, about four bits of my favorite equipment forever, 'cause it's got infinite possibilities. You're not limited — well, you are limited with some sound generation sort of things, but you're still only limited by your imagination, and getting new equipment is sort of like being spoiled, really." My take on what he was saying wasn't: "I only use these few pieces because they specifically are best," but more along the lines of "Setting the constraint of just using a few pieces of equipment is best."
This isn't to say, though, that there is no technology discussed in my book—in particular, I look at how databases, such as the massive one operated by Gracenote, mediate our experience of culture, and I talk about some early, influential email discussion groups to explore how that kind of network communication influenced our understanding of the record.
Let's talk about a specific song, perhaps one that best represents Aphex Twin's method of composition or one that otherwise stands out for you on the album. Which track seems exemplary or perhaps even particularly odd?
Weidenbaum: The record is often taken at face value as being "beatless"—as being devoid of rhythm and percussion. But I spend a chunk of the book trying to move past that conventional wisdom, and to have the album be reconsidered as a sequence of compositions, not as a collection of atmospheres.
One track in particular stands out in this regard. It's the third track on the album. It often goes by the name "Rhubarb," but it's officially untitled on the album.
It's a very simple track, even on an album of very simple tracks. It consists essentially of one single lovely melodic phrase that repeats for the full length of the song. There is no chorus, no verse, no bridge, just a phrase set to loop. It ebbs and flows, gentle as the sort of thing you might play when rocking a baby's cradle. Just because the melody is extremely simple, however, doesn't mean that interesting things aren't happening. At the surface level, with each repeat, it has a slightly different tonal and timbral presence. But that's the atmospheric part, the sound design part.
There's also a more traditional compositional element, which I find fascinating. In my research for the book I interviewed not one but two musicians who, independent of each other, transcribed this track for acoustic guitar. The melody in fact changes, simple as it may be. This is structural: when the song begins, it's just a five-note phrase and, at some point along the line a sixth note is added—it fills in a small gap. Then, toward the end of the song, that sixth note goes away again.
The idea of a song whose compositional development consists of the addition of a single note is a remarkable thing, especially because of how that eventual absence plays out: the absence of that note at the end is very different than the absence at the beginning, because we hear the absence. And what could be more ambient than hearing an absence?
How did this album set a bar for ambient production in electronic music and where is its influence more detectable today?
Weidenbaum: Just the other week, I was watching the sixth episode of the first season of True Detective. There's a moment when Marty, the character played by Woody Harrelson, ups and leaves the interrogation that he's been submitting to for much of the duration of the series. You can see the gears moving in his head, and barely a mere sine wave of sound starts playing, just a wisp of what might be considered a "score." It's the sound of a mind that has resolved itself.
For a moment, though, I was pulled out of the narrative because, having Aphex Twin on my mind for so long, I wondered if the album was used in the show, the way its music has shown up in such films as the Amish documentary The Devil's Playground or the feature film Manic, both of whose directors, Lucy Walker and Jordan Melamed, I interview in my book. It turned out not to be; but, whether or not it was specifically music from the album almost doesn't matter. The album's brand of atmosphere-as-melody has become ubiquitous. As one person reading my book put it so wonderfully in a tweet to me recently, "you can hear this shit in like, everything today."
The result of that ubiquity—of the sort of music we hear every day in TV commercials, in video games, in movie scores by the likes of Cliff Martinez and Jon Hopkins, to name just two examples—is that it takes effort to remember back to when releasing such music was still very new.
How about the album as an album, meant to be heard as a collection in a particular order, not just a nonlinear collection of MP3s—how does it cohesion as a kind of narrative unit affect the individual tracks?
Weidenbaum: Selected Ambient Works Volume II messes with the idea of what an album is. If it's an album with an overarching concept, that concept may be about the beauty inherent in willful confusion. This is what Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh celebrate in the song that Chet Baker helped make famous: "Let's Get Lost." In retrospect, the kind of getting lost that's inherent in Selected Ambient Works Volume II—an affection for treasuring the ineffable—taps into the digital era that was just beginning its logarithmic rise to power.
So much about the record's sense of confusion is overdetermined. The tracks, with one exception, have no titles. Only pictures are provided, in a beautiful spread of graphics and photographs, a format that taps into Aphex Twin's stated interest in lucid dreaming and, closely related, in synesthesia. As with his descriptions of his homebrew tech, his interest in lucid dreaming has to be folded into his myth-making with caution, but I spoke independently with two people who worked closely with him who confirmed lucid dreaming as part of his creative process.
The album comes in three different versions, with three different numbers of tracks—some with 23 tracks, some 24, some 25. Combined with the lack of titles, this makes even discussing the album quite complicated. It's an engine of disorientation.
And, of course. there is the music itself. At the time of its release—when hearing it on vinyl was not meaningfully less common than listening to it on CD—it was very difficult for the listener to discern where one track ended and the next one began. In time, as culture and technology have caught up with the record, its sonics have become more common, and thus it's more knowable than it was early on, but it still is inherently tantalizing. Ironically, now that it's available in MP3 format, and it's almost always experienced in a manner where the individual track is front and center, a new level of confusion has begun, because digital editions, such as the one on iTunes, don't generally come with the full original artwork.
That's the story of technology: for everything we gain, we lose something, too.
I always loved the fact that, as you mention, the track titles were actually photographs of textures and materials, rather than actual names. I suppose I'm curious about the role that titles play in music, and how Selected Ambient Works Volume II toyed with that convention. Autechre, who originated in a similar time frame, in the early 1990s, took this in the direction of non-sensical computer language, for example, but Selected Ambient Works Volume II seemed to suggest a more platonic, somewhat sublime possibility for titling, something beyond language altogether.
Weidenbaum: The role of titles in music is an interesting area.
To start with, I've always been jealous of the relationship that musicians have to words—especially people who make music that doesn't have words. I mean, for Oliver Nelson to be able to title a work The Blues and the Abstract Truth, and to then make the listener listen for that title? Charles Mingus with The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady? Miles Davis with In a Silent Way? Ornette Coleman with Body Meta? And those are just album titles — the specifics of track titles, and how titles shape and inform our appreciation of the abstract realm of vocal-less music, is a rich, rich subject. I like your take on this: the feedback loop of images standing for music and music standing for images and words mixed in there somewhere.
Selected Ambient Works Volume II plays with it in numerous ways. At the level of album title, it's called Volume II even though there isn't a Volume I, not in the literal sense. There was Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Perhaps Selected Ambient Works 92-94 wasn't as impressive-sounding, in terms of scope. At the level of song title, it has these images standing in as song titles. The images are only vaguely abstract. People easily figured out what they referred to, and those terms came, in written form, to stand for the image that stood for the track. Antipathy among some longtime Aphex Twin listeners for the "word titles" has confused me, because it makes a harsh distinction between saying the image out loud, as it were—"I like the track with the domino image"—and typing it out as "Domino." Internet communication remains largely text-based, no offense to all those cat GIFs out there, so it's natural that "Domino" and "Lichen" and "Rhubarb" would proliferate and take root.
Anyhow, I dig into this a lot in the book, in the "Synesthetic Codex" chapter, but that's me getting at the contours of it.
Finally, you mentioned True Detective, which reminds me of your love for Southland's score—or lack of one, rather, because it didn't have music at all. I'm just curious if you could briefly talk about the difference between composed ambient music vs. found ambient soundscapes, and where (and if) Selected Ambient Works Volume II muddies any sort of dichotomy like that for you.
Weidenbaum: My affection for the late, lamented Southland's use of sound has not abated, despite the show's cancellation. If anything, it's grown, especially as newer shows have struggled to find a balance between score and sound design. True Detective is a good example of this. The music in it, especially in the final episode, is more texture than composed music, in the sense of music identifiable by the viewing audience as music. The thing is, audiences are still more used to music than to texture, so I think, in some ways, it's even more artificial-sounding than music. These things are shifting right now, so someone's gotta push it forward, and True Detective certainly did that.
I have it in mind, if time allows, to do a post-mortem—an exit interview—with people who worked on Southland. In the course I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape, I've been assigning episodes to the students to study how sound serves a narrative purpose. This semester we handled the first 16 episodes in full, in sequence, one episode per student. It was really exciting to do that exploration, and then to watch Jacques Tati's Playtime and listen for sound in that classic film, which was even more under-appreciated in its time than Southland has been.
The difference between composed ambient sound and found ambient is complicated, and has a lot to do with context. In terms of music—that is, in terms of audio intended to be enjoyed on its lonesome—the space is blurred by the employment of field recordings in ambient sound, something a lot of musicians do, with increasing frequency.
In the context of narrative, of television and film, I think great sound design requires a point of view. When the screen shows an explosion and the sound goes away, that's because we're experiencing it from the point of view of the suddenly deafened protagonist. When we hear Cliff Martinez's music in Drive, it's partially because it's the music we imagine Ryan Gosling's character playing in his car or hearing in his head.
What I'm getting at is a psychological iteration on Walter Murch's idea of "worldizing." Murch's work, most famously perhaps in American Graffiti, involved hearing sounds, notably music, as if they were being heard in the context of the story: songs sounded like they were on a crappy car radio. The next step is how those sounds sound to the character, depending on the character's state of mind. This is what Southland did so well: the hum of a store's refrigeration unit is generally unheard in everyday life, but as a signal of an unseen threat—as a symbol of looming malevolence—it is loud during times of stress, such as if you're a police officer trying to find a murderer in the back of a convenience store.
Selected Ambient Works Volume II muddies this space between composed and found in various ways. At the level of general listening, in the classic ambient sense, it disappears into your room when you play it in the background. It melts into the thin air. And it does things then to disrupt that, like putting a relatively loud track after a quiet one, so you cozy up to the speaker, and then get surprised. In the context of film, it's especially exciting in its ambivalent, fluid state.
I think director Lucy Walker, best known for her The Crash Reel, is especially successful in this regard. I'm very pleased I got to speak with her as much as I did when researching my book. She used a lot of Selected Ambient Works Volume II in her Amish rumpspringa documentary film The Devil's Playground, where the sound of Aphex Twin's music at times seems to be the sound of electricity, of modernity, that looms at the edges of the Amish community.