Marc Weidenbaum - Selected Ambient Works Volume II

This is a wonderful book about a mind-bending music album by Aphex Twin that I loved from my first listen. What follows is part review, part note taking for my own future use. Consider this a “spoiler alert” if a non-fiction book can be spoiled. Later in the article I call the album simply SAW2 for convenience.

The book is very thorough, in-depth, and thoughtfully narrated. That doesn’t mean it dissects the album track by track. 1 No, it’s split into seven parts that dive into various aspects of SAW2 and its wider cultural context. I’ll go through them very briefly now.

There is no Volume I

Marc starts off explaining that this isn’t a two-volume book, and there isn’t a work of art called “Volume I” either. He discusses the cultural origin of SAW2 going as far as ancient Greece, not unwarranted given track titles like “Ageispolis” or “Ptolemy” in SAW 85-92. The author addresses head-on the subject of Brian Eno who coined the term “ambient music”, and how his own music in this genre might have influenced SAW2. Most importantly, he informs the readers he will be using the fan-added track names in the remainder of the book, as otherwise discussing it would be much harder. In a fascinating turn of events, in a later chapter the origin of the fan-made titles is tracked down.

Background Beats

Marc challenges the popular opinion, started by the Warp press release for the album, that the record is “beatless”. Dealing with this misconception is intervowen with background stories on how the album was reviewed at the time it came out, including some hilariously negative or dismissive ones, some going as far as to suspect the album to be a joke.

There is some background on Richard D. James’ upbringing in his native Cornwall, “in the middle of nowhere” as he himself puts it where “there were maybe two record shops, both pretty basic, and no clubs or anything; so we had to make our own clubs, make our own music”.

Marc notes that roughly three quarters of songs on the album, for instance “Blue Calx”, “Grass”, “Blur”, or “Windowsill”, have distinct traditional beats. “Shiny Metal Rods” and “Weathered Stone” even feature loud and prominent beats. Moreover, “Hexagon” features a pumpy beat with some trap-like machine-gun hihats and plenty of other percussion. And yet, it sounds gentle and airy due to the slow (but steady) spacious high-pitched melody. Other tracks, like “Mold”, “Radiator”, “Curtains”, “Domino”, while they lack a drum machine, always have “a groove going on” (as J.D. Considine noted in his review) and pulse rhythmically. In a conversation I had with Marc he said “the pulse is the beat”.

In conclusion, it looks like the “beatless” label has more to do with being “anti-pop”, with no verse-chorus-verse structure. An album which dares to include drum-section-free tracks at all.

A Chill-out Room of One’s Own

In this chapter Marc goes through a rather detailed story of how the album came to be, starting with a discussion of “Discreet Music” and its famous liner notes which address “ambience” directly for the first time in history. In the liner notes, Eno advises for “Discreet Music” to be listened at very low audio levels, to immerse the music inside the natural environment of the listener. When experienced like that, I hear plenty of parallels between this work and SAW2, in particular the track “Lichen”.

Indeed, SAW2 sounds like the perfect music for chill-out rooms at all-night mid-week rave concerts in the 1990s. Those rooms were designed spots of the infrastructure for rave clubs, where dehydrated, overheated, and otherwise overexerted people could take a breather. Eventually music played there evolved into its own thing that people wanted to listen to at home, and later even at dedicated concerts.

This is a setting to which Marc builds a story of how Aphex Twin jumped from R&S to Warp Records (and Sire for the US market) and signed with the publisher Chrysalis. He talks of the early Pirelli ad with a Caustic Window soundtrack, and the music video to “On” (the first single on Warp/Sire). He mentions Richard D. James’ frugality, his bedroom-based work method 2, and his recluseness. All this built up to mismatched expectations when the radically ambient record arrived.

Synesthetic Codex

Now the time came to discuss the community-given track names. Marc mentions the unofficial AFX FAQ which I was very happy to read about here as it’s a document that was my introduction to Aphex Twin as well in the late 1990s. There’s also talk of the IDM mailing list at (music/chemistry/rave-culture) where in times before HTTP and HTML people exchanged information on Aphex Twin and the related scene. This was the mailing list where AFX FAQ originated from.

But the core of the story here is Greg Eden and his Warp discography page on which predated, Wikipedia, Google, and even the <img> HTML tag. When SAW2 was being added, Eden noticed that the tracks aren’y really untitled, they have photos as names. So instead of calling all tracks “Untitled”, he says “I wrote what the pictures looked like”. He didn’t expect the names to get important in any sense but they became effectively canon. Apple iTunes Music Store was using them for a while, the Gracenote database had them, and multiple producers used them were remixing SAW2 tracks. In fact, in 2017, after the book’s publication, “Radiator” became the official name of the second track on CD1 due to that name being used by Aphex Twin himself on Warp’s Peel Session 2.

Transcribing Vapor

This part of the book is about how the Alarm Will Sound project adapted “Blue Calx” and “Cliffs” (sic, they used the apocryphal name!). I happen to think that the former rendition is brilliant, while the latter is fine but not so well thought through as the other one. It tries to be faithful but through that loses some internal consistency. It tries instead of doing. Yoda would not be pleased.

The AWS story is pretty interesting, I won’t be rewriting it here. What I will address though is Marc’s insightful conclusion that Aphex Twin being brought into the classical music realm isn’t anointment. It’s also not the opposite, i.e. classical music reaching down for inspiration into the profane. Rather, it’s classical music’s teaching moment where it gains experience from the “rigor, legacy, and vitality of electronic music”. It’s a symbiotic arrangement. The result is betterment of both fields, and widening audiences through cross-polination.

The final symmetry is in the fact that the inaugural ambient record was a neo-classical ensemble, “Discreet Music”. In turn, AWS reworked Aphex Twin’s electronic masterpieces into a neo-classical ensemble. The circle is closed.

Embedding Vapor

The rising importance of ambient music in scoring films is a natural consequence of its original utilitarian, functional intention. Used as background that “sets the stage”, “dials in the mood”, “enhances the story-telling”, it is very effective as it doesn’t itself grab attention. That allows the motion picture to still be front and center, arguably even more so than without a soundtrack. Marc gives a few examples of movies using SAW2 in their soundtrack, focusing mostly on the movie “Manic” and “The Devil’s Playground”, a 2002 documentary on the Amish. The interesting insight here is that the Amish are both very conservative technologically and avoid music in their life, making the high-end electronic soundtrack feel both alien and strangely fitting to the task.

Soundtracks aren’t only used in the movie domain. The chapter’s conclusion is a discussion of Aphex Twin music used as background to modern dance choreographies, with the unexpected confession by Cori Marquis that the choreographies are being created first and the background music is selected later. She says: “[Dance] can be the primary art form and music can support that, rather than the other way round”. This means the dance isn’t based on down beats or specific counts. As Marc put it, it’s “dancing off the grid”.

Selected Ambient Works Volume III

The book’s final chapter discusses where Aphex Twin went after SAW2. Fascinatingly, the book’s concluding passage reads “Perhaps, for all we know, [Richard D. James] is releasing music under as-yet undisclosed pseudonyms. Perhaps there is already new music out there, in the ether.” What Marc couldn’t have known at the time of this book’s writing is that a mere year after its release, RDJ would start publishing work anonymously on SoundCloud under a generic name user487363530. Over 100 tracks got published that way, out of which some fans chose 15 and built an unofficial Selected Ambient Works Vol. 3. While no official record is bearing that name though (and likely never will), the ambience continues.

Some additional observations of mine

I hope it’s clear I’m a fan of both SAW2 and the book about it. My only nitpick is that Marc somehow missed that the track on “26 Mixes for Cash” is literally called “original mix” 3, suggesting that at least some pieces were created with a regular beat track at first, which was subsequently removed. This is clear in particular on the track “Start As You Mean To Go On” from Aphex Twin’s subsequent album “… I Care Because You Do”. I say it’s clear because that track is anotated as being written in 1993, in other words predating the release of SAW2 (March 7 1994 4). The pad timbres in the song clearly match the ones from SAW2. It was likely produced with the rest, just rejected from SAW2 as one where the beat is integral.

It would also be handy to have an index in the book pointing at particular passages that address a particular track, as those are sprinkled around the book in a different order from the album.

Finally, one thing I personally noticed over the years is that SAW2 clearly inspired Mark Morgan who did the original soundtrack for the cult RPG game “Fallout”. “Moribund World” is very reminiscent of “Windowsill”, whereas “Desert Wind” is very similar to “Grey Stripe”. It appears that Morgan went as far as to sample parts of SAW2 in his work.

Things I learned from this book

Quotes in the book I liked

Release the tension and the result is a flow of sound – an ebbing stream of energy-surges, waves of compression alternating with rarefaction which beat against our eardrums; taking a definite period of time before dying away to nothing.
– Daphne Oram

Subdued and somber sound paintings. On the rare occasion that beats appear, they tend to be eccentric. Apallingly beautiful.
– Simon Reynolds

Repetition is a form of change.
– Brian Eno

An eerie beauty and an almost nightmarish desolation
– Frank Owen

No beats, no tunes, no titles.
– Spin

i used to wonder
what makes this song ambient
as i fell asleep
– iNuchalHead on “Shiny Metal Rods”

Pulses dreamily.
– J. D. Consdine

Quotes from Marc that I liked

The wind chime is the original “generative” instrument: it serves dual essential purposes, as a composition and as tool. To create a wind chime is to create a musical composition in physical form.

The cover depicts a logo, a stylized A, more militaristic than corporate. It looks like the markings on a starship glimpsed in the shifting sands of the desert.

The nature of online communications at the time assisted in Aphex Twin’s murky self-mythologizing.

“Grass” (…) suggests you approaching the place from which the beats themselves originate.

“Windowsill” sounds like how one might recall the theme song to X-Files if one had not heard it in a while.

["Tree"] is the sound a boxer experiences between the punch and hitting the mat.

It is the music that represents the chaos of the modern world to the Amish, and that represents a break from chaos to rave attendees.

Much if not all of SAWII does, indeed, have a groove, albeit a quarter-speed one.

Random expression fragments I liked

  • a purposeful, willful engine of disorientation
  • beatless, nearly motionless
  • in the place of meter we have a metric temperament
  • illuminate time as an illusion
  • not truly silent, but extravagantly vaporous
  • structured in thin air
  • an intense album of fragile music
  • shadows cast by its unapologetically loose forms
  • otherworldly foreignness
  • somnolent gauze
  • a gentle fog of sound
  • neutral space of slow-burn stasis
  • plangent
  • as much wallpaper as warm embrace
  • a victory of tone over tune
  • signal from a frozen, abandoned substation
  • pushing against the overly submissive idea of the female guest appearance
  • a lilting thing
  • to be “beatless” is to be unlike the Beatles
  • missing the lattice of song
  • wallpaper, raw material, sonic abstraction, open-ended narratives
  • temporary autonomous zones
  • dislocation or disorientation
  • the shortlist is often the only list that matters
  • a space without a shape
  • doesn’t dictate too much but provides tonality
  • a nether realm between foreground and background
  • a sonic middle distance

  1. Although if you want that, Marc published a series of blog posts specifically about each and every track on SAW2. 

  2. “About a year and a half ago I badly wanted to dream tracks. Like imagine I’m in the studio and write a track in my sleep, wake up and then write it in the real world with real instruments. I couldn’t do it at first. The main problem was just remembering it. Melodies were easy to remember. I’d go to sleep in my studio. I’d go to sleep for ten minutes and write three tracks – only small segments, not 100 percent finished tracks. I’d wake up and I’d only been asleep for ten minutes. That’s quite mental. I vary the way I do it, dreaming either I’m in my studio, entirely the way it is, or all kinds of variations. The hardest thing is getting the sounds the same. It’s never the same. It doesn’t really come close to it.” – Richard D. James 

  3. Yeah, that’s “Radiator (original mix)”, re-released on Peel Session 2. On “26 Mixes for Cash” it was titled “SAW2 CD1 TRK2, Original Mix”, which, incidentally was Greg Eden’s doing. He didn’t feel comfortable calling the track “Radiator” at the time. Apparently Richard himself didn’t mind. 

  4. My ninth birthday 🎂