Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II (33 1/3 Series)
University of Oxford (UK)
Richard David James—known by his moniker Aphex Twin—has created an almost mythical status in music history. Albums like the fragile Analogue Bubblebath EPs and the ghostly pop of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 set James up as one of the most original and free-thinking of electronic producers. But nothing he had created previously quite compared to the austerity and ephemerality of his uncompromising 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II (henceforth SAW II). Devoid of titles or descriptions, each individual track was only marked by a thumbnail image, symbols floating between alphabet and hieroglyph. This ambiguity carries through to the music, without fixed genre, constantly hovering between beautiful and menacing, tense and relaxed, comprehensible and obfuscated.
This difficult and uncompromising nature of the album makes it the perfect object of study for Marc Weidenbaum’s contribution to Bloomsbury’s revered 33 1/3 series—a collection of books designed to shed new critical light on well-established canonical albums. Weidenbaum’s central tenet is that, despite a well-documented reputation for being ‘beatless’, the album is actually always ‘in time’ (even if perhaps a fragmented time), suggesting the work as a sonic metaphor for our technologically mediated era. Weidenbaum’s project is to help demystify and elucidate the vaporous nature of this music, to return it to a rightful place in the canon of experimental beat music, and to apply a more critical ear.
Rather than placing the ambience of James’ music in the all-too-forgiving context of sound art, Weidenbaum situates SAW II firmly in the functional space of post-rave chill-out rooms, offering sanctuary for clubbers to ‘come down’ from long hours of dance and drugs. But, rightly, he also acknowledges that the album owes a great deal of debt to the more esoteric aesthetic perspective of early electronic music, paying clear homage to the likes of Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, Philip Glass and even the grand masters of musique concrète, figures like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. In many ways, SAW II provided a new ambient manifesto for the first generation of listeners from a technological (or at least internet-led) epoch, drawing creatively from this tension between low and high art to create a truly genre-breaking work, firmly grounded in mainstream culture. Weidenbaum’s account provides an in-depth examination of the album in this context, focusing his critical apparatus on the context and reception of the album to create a space for the reader to explore the work on their own critical terms.
Weidenbaum avoids an obvious track-by-track breakdown, instead focussing on creating a narrative of the album’s history and reception through the book’s seven chapters. Nevertheless there are several highly compelling accounts of tracks from the album, providing the attentive and imaginative readings that form the book’s backbone. One such example occurs in a discussion of ‘white blur’. Picking up on the track’s opening gesture—the solitary sound of a wind chime—Weidenbaum deftly opens up his analysis into a broader discussion of how the wind chime as a generative instrument (in that it is simultaneously system and instrument) relates to systems-based compositional approaches used by James, questioning exactly where the creativity and artistry come in creating the electronic equivalents of these generative instruments.
This concept of machine-generated compositional systems is an interesting recurrent thread, and central to much of the analytical thinking of the book. Another interesting critical lens that Weidenbaum often touches on, though in less detail than systems and technology, is the notion of repetition. Much of the surface tensions in SAW II involved small-scale repetitive ostinato and sonic gestures, often involving subtle changes in timbre over the course of the track to create long-scale narrative. A particularly fine example of this occurs in Weidenbaum’s discussion of ‘Rhubarb’, which neatly analyses the relative simplicity of its repetitive surface details (moving from a five-note melody, to a six-note one, and back to five notes with a ‘missing space’) in the broader aesthetic context of early-twentieth-century modernism, in particular channelling the spirit of Erik Satie.
Nevertheless, Weidenbaum is at his best when he writes about the non-musical issues of the album; its complicated inception, the unconventional track listing method (and the interesting relationship with fans which this fostered, as they took the onus of naming James’ tracks themselves), the reception of the album in general, and its legacy both in media syncs and as an inspiration to future works. There are also nods to the issues of canonization and the creation of a ‘high’ form of dance music in the album’s invented genre of IDM (‘Intelligent Dance Music’). Whilst now the grandiose ‘high’ art connotations of IDM’s genre label might come across as snobbish or alienating, Weidenbaum makes the compelling point that when SAW II was released, such a bold gesture had an important impact on the broader public perception of electronica as either four-to-the-floor dance music or the a-rhythmic background to a narcoleptic come-down.
Weidenbaum’s journalistic tone leads the reader effortlessly through his carefully constructed narratives, always respectful of Aphex’s artistry without ever falling into uncritical hagiography. It is a shame though that he did not get the opportunity to interview the elusive producer for his book, though hints of James’ personality occasionally appear in reference to an earlier telephone interview the pair had in the mid 1990s. Indeed, the myth around James’ work runs so deep in discourse around the album that it is often hard to tell what is fact or fiction, even from seemingly reliable sources. Weidenbaum all too often skirts around these problems, avoiding discussion of James’ complicated public persona and the problems this causes in understanding his work.
One area where this is particularly noticeable is that of James’ creative process. A lot of the myth circulated in fan literature talks about his obsession with homemade synths and circuit-bending, yet Weidenbaum tantalisingly refers in several sections to the possibility of a lot of the album’s sounds being made from distortions and manipulations of off-the-rack equipment. This relationship between the album, the creative process and its technological mediators is a particularly rich one, and a more in-depth discussion of some of these issues would have benefited the broader cultural considerations at play in the book.
However, these are just small issues. In general, the grand project of this book—to demystify the layers of complexity in this seminal album and its reception—is accomplished successfully. One of the biggest appeals of SAW II lies in the invitation to find meaning in it and Weidenbaum’s account is the perfect vehicle to do this, helping the listener to connect up the disentangled sonic fragments and re-assemble them in a personal way.