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 Invention—bring 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.