British musician, composer, and DJ Richard David James is Aphex Twin, one of the dark overlords of electronic music. Aphex Twin has never succumbed to genre specificity but has remained in orbit, appearing on the horizon periodically to shine something unexpected into the ears of both the mainstream as well as underground music scenes. He laid dormant for the most part for over a decade, releasing 2014’s “Syro” thirteen years after “Drukqs.” His previous releases have ranged from straight-up techo to ambient music, but he has never taken the easy approach to sound design, instead building things from the ground up.
With his late January release, “Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2,” he pays homage to some of the great American experimental and minimalist classical composers whose groundbreaking work paved the way for the entire music industry. While there is little information available as to the recording process, it seems not only implied but likely that this album was performed by robots.
I’m joking, right? Nah.
The concept of the orchestrion dates back to the early 1800s. Generally speaking, it’s a contraption that plays music, and they actually existed. More recently, as if the Google Glass weren’t already too close for comfort, the interface between the human mind and technology has become so intimate that it’s possible to connect robots—feasibly hundreds of them—to acoustic instruments and control them either via programming or directly. In 2010, jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny released “Orchestrion,” a studio album created in this manner. He toured with a four-tier cybernetic instrumental apparatus that allegedly required several days to set up. Imagine a marimba with a robotic arm, attached to a mallet, hovering over every bar; imagine zithers, drumsets, keyboards, guitars, various percussive instruments, etc., all played by robotic arms commanded by a single CPU (and in Metheny’s case, controllable by both MIDI and in real-time through his guitar).
Appearing to have employed similar means, James is able to achieve a level of precision that some instrumentalists would have been challenged to duplicate—although the idea of transcribing parts of this album for the purposes of live human performance is intriguing. (It’s been done before, which I’ll discuss momentarily.) While some virtuosi have successfully recorded seemingly unplayable music (like the piano music of Iannis Xenakis or some of Charles Ives’ orchestral works), select moments do seem necessarily inhuman.
Then again, over half of the 28-minute-long album consists of beat-oriented eight-bar-phrases. The element of human phrasing and expression would have been largely superfluous, not that dynamic variety or nuance are absent … sadly, I’ve heard too many drummers who just can’t hang with JAphex Twin’s robots. Intrigued readers might investigate Conlon Nancarrow’s experimental player piano works, or John Cage’s various “construction” pieces, which seem to be referenced by this work.
Aphex Twin also extensively uses the “prepared piano,” a concept originated by Cage. A piano is opened up and “prepared” by the insertion of various objects (screws, erasers, pennies, whatever) between the strings of the piano, creating buzzing sounds, muffling the tone, or—with precise placement—manipulating the overtone series. The potential sounds that can be achieved using this process seem infinite, and it has since been used by contemporary pop musicians like Tori Amos (“Bells For Her,” for example). James is able to create what sound like synthesized sounds using this method, sometimes melodically and at other times rhythmically, using the piano as a percussion instrument. At times, he’s able to create some uniquely creepy moments, almost blending some of the uncomfortable swamp music of Tom Waits (“God’s Away On Business,” etc.) and the dry funk of Medeski, Martin and Wood. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine John Scofield and Dave Holland sitting in on tracks like “Diskhat ALL prepared1mixed 13” or “diskhat1.”
It’s not clear exactly how much of this is truly acoustic, as some of these beat-driven tracks could have been easily created through sampling technology. James does have a reputation for irreverence and comic dishonesty (where is “Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt1”?). But if the album title is to believed, this isn’t the case. Rather, it could be a response to new music chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s 2005 release, “Acoustica,” in which they reinterpreted fifteen of Aphex Twin’s recordings. This album could simply be a part of that dialog: “Ok, humans can play computer music, but computers can play human music, too. Nyah.”
Some of the tracks are less than a minute long (the shortest clocking in at nine seconds), appearing as brief snippets, undeveloped statements of musical ideas that are barely presented and then immediately abandoned. In keeping with the overall minimalist approach, track names—like “hat 2b 2012b” or “hat5c 0001 rec-4”—seem to be taken directly from the hard drive. “snar2” is simply a robot briefly executing a buzz roll on a snare drum—that’s it.
Then there are pieces, like “piano un10 it happened” and “piano un1 arpej,” that aesthetically counterbalance the rest of the album, the former sounding like a Rachmaninov piano etude and the latter coming across as a simple, pastoral piece: just James whiling away a rainy afternoon at the keyboard … or, I guess, a melancholy robot, whiling away a rainy afternoon at the keyboard.
Despite Aphex Twin’s “Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2” unsurprising refusal to comply with any expectations or conform to norms, it appeals to a wide spectrum of listeners, including the EDM scene, the IDM scene, the academic community, techies, DJs, androids, child prodigies, bands comprising animatronic bears that play at child-oriented pizza parlors, the Hubble telescope, long-time Aphex Twin fans, and recent dabblers. We might see a track from this record appearing in music appreciation textbooks in a few decades. We will definitely hear someone sample, filter, loop, and compose, improvise, or rap over it.