Meta-Review: Considerations Of Musical Invention In Aphex Twin’s “Syro”


In an interview some years ago, the electronic musician Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, once said that he didn’t care much for the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. James pointed out two things: Stockhausen’s music had no groove and no basslines. I remembered both the irreverence and pointedness of that comment recently as I have been listening to–and grooving on–James’ recent return to electronic music, Syro.

Syro is a compelling listen for a few reasons. First, each track grooves hard–not in the generic, boom-boom-boom-boom 4/4 way that so much contemporary electronic music does, but in James’ distinctively loose yet hyper tight and syncopated style. Hard to put into words, but the music has its own sound. Second, each track changes constantly by morphing, developing, unraveling, changing direction, and in general, surprising the ear. Third, each track uses a fairly limited soundset of analog-ish electronic timbres. (James even includes a list of all the equipment used to make this record. Whoah.) The limited soundset acts as a constraint–maybe for the composer, and certainly for us listeners. As we listen, we can follow the sounds–including dry kicks and snare drums, squelchy bass tones, slightly out of tune pads, and delay effects–as they enact their constant changes. It’s in this way that James’ music ranks among the most satisfying out there by literally being a process in constant flux. Finally–and this relates to point two above–the arrangements of sounds and the structure of each track are lean, meticulous, and always seem to create a sensation of balance. Everything just seems so, with nothing extra or unnecessary–be it repeats or a melodic theme. Syro is inventive, groovy, well-designed, and efficient music.


What are others saying about Syro? Here’s a sampling of quotes from some reviews.

From Resident Advisor, here’s Jordan Rothlein:

“Tracks morph, pressurize and reorganize—but never break down, exactly—following a completely unpredictable if utterly natural logic.”

From Pitchfork, here’s Mark Richardson:

“Sixty-five minutes of highly melodic, superbly arranged, precisely mixed, texturally varied electronic music that sounds like it could have come from no other artist.”

From The Quietus, here’s Joe Clay:

“…a master of his machines, an accomplished musician and producer showing off his vast skills.”

From The Guardian, here’s Tim Jonze:

“…every time he playfully mangles a rhythm or throws in a disorientating series of bleeps or robot gargles just to keep you on your toes.”

Another from The Guardian, here’s Piers Martin :

“Everything he creates has a beautiful cohesion to it: whether it’s serene ambient electronica, laser-guided acid, or disconcerting, dystopian glitch, the work clearly comes from a singular mind but one that is not affected by outside trends.”

From The Washington Post, here’s Chris Richards:

“This is a largely instrumental album that creates, obeys and breaks its own rules, seemingly at random. Rhythms establish themselves through familiar configurations and recognizable timbres, then erode and regroup in new patterns. Synthesized sounds are used to signal melody, or texture, or both, or sometimes neither. Everything is tethered to a grid, but nothing feels fixed.”

From the L.A. Times, here’s Randall Roberts:

“As if by stubbornly refusing to acknowledge many aural signifiers and non-Aphex EDM evolutions of the last decade, the artist has presented an utterly human, mostly nonverbal defense of his aesthetic: atmospheric, occasionally funky and meandering instrumental electronic tones, lovingly crafted, with imaginative internal logics.”

From NPR, here’s Tom Moon:

“Where some producers set up a foundational beat and then let it repeat endlessly, Aphex Twin drops in slight changes from one measure to the next.”

And finally, here is James himself talking about musical technologies in a recent interview in Rolling Stone:

“It’s taken people a long time to work these new tools out, and now it’s just now kind of like an acoustic guitar. We’re half-cyborg already, whether we like it or not. Everything is based on computers – our whole economy, and most of our creative pursuits, as well. We’re not physically connected to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not part of our brains.”

Here is Syro‘s first track:

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. A video in which the Kronos quartet explains how its members communicate with one another in performance.

“The way you play your note is deeply affected by the way the person right before you plays their note.”

“What I should really be practicing in anything I do is…flexibility.”

2. A passage from Sean Wilsey’s More Curious that evokes the essence of performing music:

“Skating is a feeling. If you really want to get it, you have to do it” (92).

3. A concert review that illustrates the difference between a music’s intentions and the reality of its sounding.

“It’s important to remember that music has both aesthetic value and use value, though at live performances, it’s generally the first of those things that gets priority.”

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. A video showing soba noodle master Tatsuru Rai at work. The rhythms are amazing!

2. An article about about why you and your friends might like the same music.

“Whether you turn it up loudly and sing along, wearing the music’s emotion like garlands of your own inner feelings, or just use it as nonintrusive background noise while you work, your choice of music may be telling the people around you more than you realize about your personality and values.”

3. An article about the Frankfurt School’s contribution to understanding popular culture.

“One way or another, the Frankfurt School mode of criticism—its skeptical ardor, its relentless scouring of mundane surfaces—has spread far.”

On Less Is More: Lorenzo Senni’s Music

Lorenzo Senni has an interesting musical thing going on. On his recent recordings Superimpositions (2014) and Quantum Jelly (2012) he makes a kind of electronic trance music that does away with the beats, leaving only pulsing, echoing, and arpeggiating synthesizer chord sequences. Without the metrical context of the relentless 4/4 thump, the synth chords are like bird formations against a clear blue sky–darting up and down in sync, careening en masse, tracing large arcs against nothingness. It’s a repetitive music, yet it manages to stay interesting.

In a YouTube video, Senni talks about his interest in understanding the structure of trance music, especially its dramatic build-ups and breakdowns–those moments just before the beats drop back in. He also talks about his interest in laser light shows to accompany his work.

All in all, Senni’s aesthetic is compelling for at least three reasons. First, it’s a dance music denied its beats–but intriguingly, not its rhythm–perhaps so it can gain entry to art gallery performance spaces. Second, it sounds like nothing else around in electronic music. Third, it demonstrates that sometimes you have to take away stuff to reveal the shape of a thing.

For the curious, an incisive piece on how Senni’s music may illustrate philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “pointillistic time” can be read here.


Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article about the resurgence of vinyl records.
“People still want objects with personality…”If it’s just a nostalgic or hipster-elitest thing, where does that leave us in 10 years? It might be the last gasp of an expiring culture before we all get sucked into the [digital] cloud.”

2. An article about the relationship between bass in music and the sensation of power.
“Experiment 1 found that music pretested to be powerful implicitly activated the construct of power in listeners. Experiments 2–4 demonstrated that power-inducing music produced three known important downstream consequences of power: abstract thinking, illusory control, and moving first. Experiments 5a and 5b […] found that music with more bass increased participants’ sense of power. This research expands our understanding of music’s influence on cognition and behavior and uncovers a novel antecedent of the sense of power.”

3. An article about the relationship between music training and educational achievement.
“People have to actually play an instrument to get smarter. They can’t just crank up the tunes on their iPod.”

Notes On Ed Catmull’s “Creativity, Inc.”

© Disney • Pixar

“The uncreated is a vast, empty space” – Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. is a memoir that explores and analyzes the history and creative life of Pixar, the American computer animation company. Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, its current president, and an accomplished computer scientist, untangles the complex business of how to build a sustainable creative culture (xiv) that thrives by continually asking questions about its work and how to do it better (64). Creativity, Inc. brings a scientist’s rigor to the problem of how a group of creatives collaborate to make compelling animated art.

The most striking aspect of Catmull’s narrative is the strange joy the author takes in recognizing and solving problems with a clear head. Catmull seems to thrive on problems small and large, because problems indicate not only new idea terrain, but also opportunities for improvement. It’s almost as if problems are themselves kinds of creative ideas, waiting for deeper understanding, one step at a time. At Pixar, ideas don’t come out of thin air–they’re “not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions” (75). In this way, creativity is about problem-solving and takes time. Pete Docter, director of Pixar’s film Up, tells Catmull that he simply makes lists of problems: encountered in his work “Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong” (151) he says. Good advice.

A persistent theme in Creativity Inc. is proceeding in the face of uncertainty, randomness, and the unknown, and it’s in this regard that the book might resonate with many readers. For Catmull, the key is recognizing the complexity in what we don’t know and what we can’t predict. In fact, the “unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs” (148). He urges us to embrace the unknown, but not to do so with blinders on “in the interest of keeping things simple” (157). Sometimes–oftentimes–new situations are complex and layered.

Catmull revels in complexity and figuring out better ways of doing things as Pixar creates its films. One strategy used by the company is to focus on what Catmull calls microdetails–tiny elements that inform the look and feel of a work on an almost subliminal level. Microdetails are “a hidden engine” (198) of creative work that lend it authenticity and conviction. Pixar employees go to great lengths to acquire such details. For example, they take field trips to research places and things (i.e. the kitchens of French restaurants for the film Ratatouille) to build a vocabulary of mircodetails that will inform their future work. Other strategies used include self-imposed limits and tricks of perception. Catmull spends several pages explaining some drawing exercises inspired by Betty Edwards’ classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. One technique is to place an object we want to draw upside down so it can be looked at “as a pure shape and not as a familiar, recognizable thing” (212); another is to focus on the negative space around the object. These lessons are intended to help us “see shapes as they are–to ignore that part of the brain that wants to turn what is seen into a general notion” (ibid).

There are some general notions here that extend beyond the act of drawing. Catmull observes that a trained artist “is able to capture what the eye perceives (shape, color) before their ‘recognizer’ functions tells them what it is supposed to be” (212). In short, trained artists–and here I don’t think Catmull means just animators–have “learned how to turn off their minds’ tendency to jump to conclusions” (213). Catmull is getting at a technique for altering the limits of perception that could be useful to anyone who makes things: “to learn to suspend, if only temporarily, the habits and impulses that obscure your vision” (214). Speaking of vision, given Pixar’s track record of hit films, a peculiar challenge they face is how to stay fresh and nimble despite their successes. Building on the Betty Edwards drawing exercises, Catmull mentions a few pages later the Zen notion of “beginner’s mind” (222)–carrying on as if you don’t know anything, paying attention to the present moment and “trying to set up our own feedback loop in which paying attention improves our ability to pay attention” (222). When a beginner’s mind isn’t feasible, having useful mental models is. It doesn’t matter what metaphor you use. What matters is having “a mental model that sustains you” (224).

What makes Creativity, Inc. such an engaging read is that its meta-theme is ecological: the sustainability of a creative culture. To keep our work vibrant, Catmull reminds us, “we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty” (295) and the fact that “complex systems respond in nonlinear, unpredictable ways” (310). In other words, we’re surrounded by chaos. But isn’t part of the fun of creativity figuring out how we might make some sense out of it all?