Attention Through Invention And Intention: Notes On Aphex Twin

Recently I was listening to Aphex Twin (Richard D. James)’s music—tracks both older and more recent—and was struck by the ways the music held my attention. James is legendary, in part because of the consistent musicality and inventiveness of his work, and also because his assets as a producer are all-encompassing: his productions are both listenable yet complex, and every track is its own original sound world. If there were a scale by which to measure creativity in electronic music over the past three decades, only the work of Autechre can match James’ weight of originality. To choose just a few from the hundreds, on tracks such as “Xtal” (1992), “#3” (1994), “Flim” (1997), “QKThr” (2001), and “mini pops 67 [120.2]” (2014), James’ music is playful, inventive, shape-shifting, rhythmic, and suffused with constant variation that makes it sound alive where other producer’s tracks are often not as compelling. What are the elements of this attention-holding music?

Work with a limited palette. Although James’s arsenal of instruments—hardware and software, commercial and homemade, alleged and maybe mythical—is vast, the timbres he uses on any given track are usually limited. A kick drum, hi hat and snare, a pad or two, a squelchy bass line. With just a few sounds, James creates a world. On the early “Xtal” listen to the strange boomy kick, a second boomy kick, open and closed hi hat, faint vocal samples, pulsing chords, and how everything is drenched in a lo-fi ambience.

Or on “QKThr” (2001) listen to what sounds like an old harmonium, its wobbly workings resuscitated just enough to play some tentative chords. It’s just one (probably acoustic) sound, but the chords and their phrasing are magnificent. Like a little film score suggestive of a narrative, conjured in just over a minute.

Stay in a zone for a while. James’ “#3” is an ambient classic, but one that doesn’t adhere to Brian Eno’s leave it or or take it / “ignorable as it is interesting” ambient dictum. The music, which is all gentle pad sounds, is deceptive in that it seemingly repeats and repeats, but that repetition is always with differences that come and go—a hanging high note here and there, or a thickening of the texture. By staying in the zone of its own making for a while, “#3” plays with your attention, keeping you in a state that feels between being relaxed and being alert. 

Practice Inventionbring sounds on a journey. With a palette in place, James plays with each of the sounds over a track. If you can, listen and focus on a single part and mute in your mind’s ear the other parts. You’ll hear the focused-on part as a self-contained mini piece, full of phrasing and line. On “Flim” focus on the delicate melody and its accompanying chords, or the beat and how it conjures a (talented) drummer at a drum set dynamically playing a breakbeat, changing up the kick, snare, and hi hat parts not every measure but almost every beat. Here, James’ programmed rhythmics are very much alive. Notice how the hi hat stutter and plays with a triplet feel, and how, even though the track has no bass part per se, the kick sometimes oozes into a bass note then slips back into a kick: a momentary metamorphosis.

Practice inviting attention through intentionality. On “minipops 67” James combines a limited palette, repetition with a difference, staying in a zone, and invention into a playful, self-referential music. Made several decades after his early work, “minipops” is a masterclass in zigzagging through variations on a theme and seamless blending disparate sonic materials into a whole. Listen to how the track’s beat evokes a whole drum section tossing the rhythm around like a drum corps, how the double bass parts interweave, how the echo-ing, slightly out of tune piano comes and goes, and how James’ own formant-bent, pitch-shifted singing is retrofitted into twisted lead melodies. In this music, every part has a purpose, no sound is wasted, and the result is a thrilling perceptual ride. 

Resonant Thoughts: Benedicte Maurseth’s “To Be Nothing: Conversations With Knut Hamre, Hardanger Fiddle Master” (2019)

“Ah, but what is inspiration, exactly? Is it something that comes to us spontaneously? Or is inspiration something that helps the flow of spontaneity? Or perhaps the only way of creating something spontaneous is by using the knowledge we gain from hard, methodical work? I would lean toward the latter. I have never understood people who stand about waiting of inspiration to come to them.”

– Knut Hamre in To Be Nothing

Sound Fishing

“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”

David Lynch, Catching The Big Fish

One production problem we continually encounter is not knowing where or how to start a piece. What instrument do I chose? What sound do I work with? How long should I spend searching for either the instrument or the sound? Should I finesse the sound into something compelling before I use it to play something, or just get on with things? Related to these unanswered questions is how to think about randomness. It often happens that I’ll be searching through sounds, stop on the first one that sounds promising, and then begin making something with it. I’ve done this enough to know that it works, yet it also feels haphazard–as if I haven’t spent sufficient time planning out what I’m going to do. But maybe there is nothing to plan because I couldn’t have foreseen the promising sound that inspired me to make something with it in the first place. There was an element of randomness that I just went with.

Randomness brings us to the metaphorical idea of fishing for sounds during the production process. It’s like fishing in real life, except here the fish are sounds, and you need to stock your sound “pond” with these sounds ahead of time. The easiest way to do this is to set up a few instruments, each of which is an entire world itself (which is astonishing when you think about it). For example, I have used the synthesizers Serum, Zebra, Omnisphere, and the sampler Kontakt. In each of these instruments I have made my own sounds which I can search through, but there are also thousands of other sounds I’ve not yet encountered, as well as endless ways to alter these sounds into new ones. Stocking your sound pond with a few instruments gives you ample sonic waters in which to fish, and saving different combinations of instruments as templates will set you up for your next session.

As far as fishing in these ponds, the workflow is to start somewhere—anywhere—by opening an instrument and reacquainting yourself with what it offers. Deciding on which instrument to open first is the hardest part, but after committing to a double click I’m always surprised to hear sounds I’ve made, saved, and then forgotten. And as with an acoustic instrument, you never get to the bottom of music software–you never learn all that it might do. Like a musician’s sense of touch, sounds are never finished: once you’ve made a sound in an instrument, you can morph it more towards ever more sensitivity, uniqueness, and enchantment. To take one example, the popular software Omnisphere is less of an instrument than an ocean of possibilities compressed within your sound pond. Here there are layers upon layers of hidden sound-mangling tools awaiting discovery. You might go in with a harmonium and come out with an electrified mbira, or start as a soft chord and become a pulsating rhythm. The more you try things, the more you reveal the instrument’s possibilities. Sometimes a sound suggests ways of playing with it, where you play a part to explore the sound and your sound fishing becomes composing. Sound and ways of playing and composing are inseparable in this way: what you play and write is shaped by how the sounds sound.

With one sound you like, you can fish for others by opening another instrument, or another instance of the one you’re already using. Each instrument has not only a distinctive sound, but also a GUI design that may steer you in novel ways. (For example, Serum’s eight LFOs on its main page invite freewheeling modulation routings.) You’re looking for something that “goes with” what you already have, but of course, going with can mean a lot of things. It could be a euphonious relationship between the sounds, or it could be a severely contrasting one. The second sound can be thin where your initial sound is fat, reverb’ed where the initial sound is bone dry, pulsating against a stasis, and so on. You don’t yet know what you’re looking for, which is why you’re fishing to see what comes up. When you find something interesting, you can play a new part with it, or use the part you already played with the first sound as a trigger. Unusual musical textures are often created when different sounds play the same part together to form a composite (what producer Ben Lukas Boysen calls “dynamic layers of sound“), which is a key part of electronic music production orchestration.

Once you have two sounds that get along playing contrasting or similar parts, you have a timbral dialogue happening and are on your way. You can scale up these two parts, or keep fishing for more sounds by opening other instruments in your template. In sum, rather than try to control what you’ll find before you find it, set up a sound pond and then fish in it.

Resonant Thoughts: Richard Evans’ “Listening To The Music The Machines Make” (2022) and Dan Leroy’s “Dancing To The Drum Machine” (2022)

“I thought electronic music was the next logical step. A synth was no longer an elitist instrument, and that was an important point. You didn’t have to be a musician; if you had good ideas, you could make music out of electronics.”

– Daniel Miller in Listening To The Music The Machines Make 

“I want my music to sound like machines talking to each other. I don’t want it to sound like a ‘real’ band. I want it to sound like a technician made it. That’s what I am: a technician with human feelings.”

– Derrick May in Listening To The Music The Machines Make 

“The discipline that the machine operates by allows other emotions to come through on the overdubs. It can allow for other flavors to flourish.”

– Daniel Lanois in Dancing To The Drum Machine

On The Musically Untried

The more musical things I try, the more I realize I may not be trying as much new stuff as I could be. The very workflow habits that get me results also keep me in ruts of my own making and returning to my go-to strategies and techniques keeps me from new ways of doing new things. How then, do music producers innovate and ratchet up the level of their invention? Here are three approaches:

Try sound combinations you haven’t tried before. While we know how well-known musical timbres get along (e.g. the string quartet, the jazz trio), we know little about how lesser-known timbres do. Each track is an opportunity to try new sound combinations. How about a pristine bell with a fuzzy bass? A cold ambiance with a warm pad? Not just musical sounds, but effects too. How about wide stereo stuff with mono narrowness? What if you chained those ambiance reverbs together to make a hybrid monster space? Or modulated the pristine bell with the bass fuzz to make a fuzz bell? Every sound combination is an opportunity to generate a new one, and then a new one from that. Stop only when you’ve arrived somewhere truly strange. 

Amplify and scale up what’s already there. A music’s generative moment may have been very brief, but this moment is extended over time as you amplify and scale up what you did. For example, say you improvised a short chord sequence. Now what? You could repeat the sequence, but alternatively you can develop whatever it already contains, including the pitches of its chords, their timing and phrasing, and the sound. The chords can trigger other parts, their timing and phrasing can become a rhythm, and their sound can generate other sounds. 

Be intentionally naive. At any workflow moment stop at the first compelling thing that catches your attention–before you understand how that thing works exactly. For example, if I come across or design an interesting sound I’ll make variations of it immediately to kaleidoscope it out, to get a sense of its potentials. Resist understanding the reasons why you like the compelling sound and instead move quickly to build something with it. Building–not theorizing–acknowledges that while your ear got you to here, there was also a randomness to what caught your attention. In sum, try new sound combinations, amplify what’s already there, and be intentionally naive to embrace the musically untried.