Lucid DreamingMusic is finding new ways to simulate dream states, the latest being the twilight zone sonic reveries of Richard James, aka Aphex Twin. Words: Rob Young
A Writer's dream I am descending upon a distressed landscape of mud and dung. It is a muddied and muffled dream - shapes pushing up through the sodden, shapeless turf; cows' heads, body parts, boxy shapes, sludge and slush, all brown-coloured, embedded in a slurry of shit and mud, rain bucketing down overhead; no visible sky. Very close-up vision, as if I too am being drawn down into the muck. The feeling is not desolate, but promises impending revelation.
I dreamed the above dream nearly a year ago, after a week of solid listening to David Toop & Max Eastley's CD Buried Dreams. Being the first dream I could recall for months, it seemed more than usually significant. With hindsight, it appears to bear some relation to the particular impressionability of the best current music; both foreign and recognisable forms visibly moulding into its fabric. In the early days of recording, taped music consisted of what went on on one occasion in the single room of the studio; now a few square feet can contain all the equipment that's needed to turn the inside of your head into a theatre of complex sonics.
This has much to do with the instruments that now let us generate music from almost any material source (footsteps, plimsolls, wind, TV, a day in the country, light). When music is built from sampled fragments of other musics, and noises bearing no relation to recognisable physical acts, recording's previous relationship to the solid presences of notes and melodies, strings and skins, crumbles. The microphone, stylus, wireless, scanner, aerial, portable DAT: these too have become instruments, nets in the trawl. The process of making today's electronic music mirrors the parallel lives of waking and dreaming: the conscious activity of researching and gathering sounds - the learning part - followed by the retreat into the studio to manufacture the track - the stitching together of fantasy.
This adaptability, this malleability, resonates in other areas. Now that power has melted out of its previous, fixed headquarters to be encoded in the flux and transmission of information - political, monetary, or that which relates to the individual - artists' most effective combative action is to learn the language, join the flow.
"I think music is more flexible than any political system," says David Toop, "because any political theory accumulates bureaucracy and corruption as soon as it emerges, whereas music can turn on a whisker. It can change with circumstances."
This mobility registers loudly in the music of - to name a handful - Scanner, Bedouin Ascent, Omni Trio, Oval, and perhaps most compellingly, Aphex Twin (who we will meet presently). On the 12 mixes of the Aphex Twin's new "Ventolin" EP, you can hear the music's armature creaking and complaining; it wheezes and groans like an asthmatic forced to run for his or her life. (Ventolin is, indeed, the drug prescribed for asthma inhalers.) From his early, influential "Didgeridoo" track onwards, Richard James has been combining abstract and familiar elements to hallucinatory effect. His latest releases, "Ventolin" and the ensuing album, I Care Because You Do, are packed with incident. The music flickers between synthesized textures and domestically recorded location sounds, while at other times pollutant blasts of distortion seem to blow in and scrage the music's skin like a burst of roadworks through an open window. It's a highly plausible suggestion of the borderline state between dreaming and waking.
The first movies were little more than flickbooks of Muybridge stills: in a silent riot of movement, they explored as many physical and physiological phenomena as it was possible to engineer. The static camera recorded whatever stood, walked, danced, fell, flew, or fought in front of it. Yet the passive recorder also set in motion the closest conscious simulation of a dream, which has steered the imagination of the last 100 years: audiences were fixed in front of a tableau where nothing could deviate (as in the theatre) from the original version; their vision filled with outsize images, faces, action; and underwent a symbolic waking as the lights came up at the end. 100 years later, movies are all about noise; Sensurround; the verbiage and wall-to-wall rock of Tarantino's world. Or, as in Derek Jarman's Blue, sounds alone: memories, whispers, music, noises all billow through the filtering gauze of the screen. Some stick in the mind, others drift out of reach: the choice of what to latch on to is determined by the viewer/listener.
There are recollections of Debussy sitting down at the piano and playing the impression of an ocean wave into the instrument, much as a painter might sketch the scene on the spot in watercolour. Much of the music peculiar to the 20th century, from Debussy and Ravel's chromatic palettes to more open ended forms such as improvisation, have been concerned with the struggle to make the instrument as transparent as possible, so as not to obstruct free expression. Composers such as Scriabin and Debussy extended the overripe, Romantic notion of expressiveness to take into account the mechanics of the instrument and performance, to achieve a kind of gestural music. Scriabin, unable to perform his own "Black Mass" piano sonata because it gave him nightmares, conceived the first (never performed) large-scale multimedia event, Mysterium, a giant orchestral work which was meant to include a flashing, coloured light-wheel and a barrage of smoke and smells. These intuitive attempts to move beyond the technical and temporal limitations of instrument and performance connect with modern electronic music; both bypassing the figures of iconic rock star, existential jazz soloist and hermitic avant garde composer that pepper the mid- to late part of the 20th century.
"The more delicate the constitution of the music, the more risk there is," says David Toop. "When you're doing complex music, which is organised with a kind of principle of a disintegrating skeleton - bones could fly off at the slightest tremor - it's very difficult. Especially when you're dealing with chaotic principles, where the music has a life; the harmonic and electronic variables build and create their own organic substance, with distorting likenesses and rhythmic accidents.
A Singer's dream She is standing in front of a conveyor belt, on which objects of unrecognisable shape pass along in front of her. These turn out to be component parts of a whole which she must assemble to make up pieces of music. No sense of where they are coming from, or where they go on to if she does not choose them.
"Lack of clarity is always a sign of dishonesty" - Celia Green
Every generation has its dreams and its dream weavers. For most of the century that's now coming to a close, dreams have reflected time-honoured symbols and myths back to us through the work of Carl Jung. But there is a secret history for most things this century, and in the study of dreams it has been manifest in the research into 'lucid dreaming'. Freud called dreams "the royal road to the unconscious", but lucid dreamers occupy that road and set up a toll booth.
In Oxford in 1961, a disillusioned research student called Celia Green founded the Institute for Psychophysical Research. As she later documented in books such as The Decline And Fall of Science and Advice To Clever Children, the Institute devoted itself to the study of experiences that can be perceived, remembered and described afterwards, but which do not tally with established scientific explanations of the workings of the world, such as out-of-body experiences, parapsychology, extra-sensory perception and lucid dreaming. Green's highly single-minded approach was, and remains, pragmatically sceptical of all accepted beliefs and theories, taking nothing on trust, especially the luxury of authority which the scientific establishment has enjoyed for so long.
In 1968 she published Lucid Dreams, the first examination of the paradox of consciousness during sleep. Drawing on the 1930s research of psychologists Moers-Messmer and Embury Brown, as well as her own work at the Institute, she expounded, drawing only tentative conclusions, the phenomenon that some subjects who had put their minds to it had discovered and could develop a way of realising that they were dreaming in the midst of a dream, and seize the reins of the dream in order to test out its properties and limits. Subjects reported being able to hear and taste in a more vivid way than in waking life; deaf dreamers heard sounds clearly; the blind 'saw' colours.
David Thompson and Chris Allen, the partners behind Nottingham's Em:t label and long-time admirers of Green's books, established contact with the Institute in 1994. Next month, they plan to release Lucid Dreams, a CD of spoken word recordings by Celia Green made especially for the label, set to an electronic soundtrack created in their own dream factory, the Time Studio, which incorporates a 3D digital sound imaging system. On one track, Green offers specific instructions on how anyone can achieve lucid dreaming. For Thompson and Allen, the project demonstrates one way in which music could engage with, confront and detourn entrenched belief systems. "Lucid dreams raise questions about perception," says Thompson. "If a person is aware they are dreaming, our definitions of consciousness must be inadequate. Music also raises questions of perception. How does a sequence of notes, patterns and tones, essentially just vibrating air, evoke such complex suggestions? We're encouraged to think of music as 'entertainment', just a diversion, but music can obviously be used to explore and define parts of our psychology which we usually ignore - perhaps at a price."
When You Wake, You're Still In A Dream
The air is thick with fudge, although no one's handing any out. In the adjacent rooms lie the skeletons of redundant camera equipment. Richard James stands impassively having his last few pictures taken. As we leave the fudge factory in search of a cup of tea, Richard, walking at half my pace, stops to peer into a paper shredding factory, kick bags of rubbish, and is pulled up short by the sign above a Chinese take away. "'Good Friends!'" he scoffs, more with bewilderment than scorn. "What does that mean?"
This is Richard James, Aphex Twin, Polygon Window, Caustic Window, Dice Man; his musical emissions made of pure trace elements and raw materials, where that of most Twinspawn is expendable by-product. We enter a quiet cafe, the only one visible on this long East End street, but as soon as I switch on a tape to record our conversation, the air fills up with braying TV sets, a loud radio news bulletin, hammering and Chinese waitresses singing along to pop songs. We are the only customers.
The Aphex Twin's dream "I was trying to work it out over my cornflakes this morning. I don't reckon it would make any sense if I explained it; it wasn't a story, not like I was here, doing that - it was just conversations with I don't know who? I don't know exactly what was going on, but it was quite fucked up. And there weren't any sounds in it at all."
Richard James's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works II was a sprawling dawnscape whose vista was obscured by gas, mists, distressed textures, smeared lenses. With hardly a guiding beat in earshot, it was a prime example of the lucid dreaming recordings that James had been talking about in interviews. The new Aphex Twin album, I Care Because You Do, although recorded 'consciously', has more characteristics of the popular image of a lucid dream than any of James's previous work. The track "Alberto Balsam" magically jumps from its original percussion loop - which seems to consist of drums and camera shutter-clicks or snipping hairdresser's scissors - to a passage of percussion on a domestic radiator, then back to the drums again; a split-second leap from the preset world of sequenced rhythms to a hasty, amateurish tapping on domestic fixtures. At the beginning of the next track, a door slams and James's voice is heard shouting, before the rhythm track kicks in. It's been taped with a portable DAT from bedroom speakers, and you can hear James shuffling around in the room before jacking the desk sound into the mix, so that the music can be heard 'properly'. It's an unsettling alchemy, this constant shifting between machine acoustics and realtime experience.
As suspected, Richard James isn't hugely interested in debating in depth the implications of what he does, although he graciously answers all my questions without hesitation, offering so much information, then stopping. It's a cliche, rarely true, that most of the answers are to be found in the music, gut it seems more than usually applicable in this case, especially in the music he says he keeps concealed in his private archive. He claims to operate according to a prickly yet somehow admirable logic, not caring who hears his music, only releasing records and doing the promotional rounds in order to make a living. "The only reason I'm putting records out is to make some money, and I don't reckon people would get into it if I released some of the more unconventional stuff that I do. My friends want to hear things that I've done, and that's cool, but I don't particularly want to hear it again, I just like making new stuff."
We pause and listen to the hammering, and the cars swishing past in the rain outside. Does he hear music all the time, I wonder out loud; is he hearing the street as music? "Yeah." Is that a problem? "Yeah, fucking pisses me off badly, but there's nothing I can really do about it."
The process of creating music electronically could be seen as a correlative of dreaming. The musician creates a mosaic out of sonic fragments, but the mosaic exists in more than two dimensions: sampled snatches of music are snippets of other people's experience; location and environmental recordings hold personal memories, sense-impressions, emotional associations. All these are recombined and arranged in the mixing desk, in the dub (and here we might as well consult the dictionary definition of 'dub': "an alternative soundtrack, esp in a different language").
The secret, for musicians as for lucid dreamers, is in trying to find a balance point between when to control and when to let go: does becoming too aware of what you're doing dispel the magic? "The grade changes," says Richard James. "You'll be on another planet, thinking, What made me get myself here? And those are the best ones, when they're in the middle. More interesting, because it's really unexpected. But when you're totally in control it's usually more boring, because nothing really moves around, you don't get all this weird shit going on. It's quite like being awake, and that's not all that interesting."
I ask him if his dreams seem more real than waking life. "I think dreams are a bit more honest, because you don't lie to yourself in dreams. I don't think you have an ego and all this business; it all seems to disappear. The way you are in a day is basically the way you were shaped the night before when you were sleeping; and when you're asleep, that's when all your thoughts are put into order - it's when your brain does all its filing; prepares you for the next conscious day. You could argue that when you sleep that's when all the shit goes down."
Richard James claims never to have heard of Celia Green or her writings; he discovered he could lucid dream "when I was little", and was only able to give it a name after he watched a QED programme about three lucid dreamers meeting up in each other's dreams. Except that you can't help feeling that he's exactly the kind of prodigy Celia Green was addressing in her Advice To Clever Children, especially when he answers my parting question: whether he considers himself a mystic. "That's not me at all, I'm much more logical. I'm pretty old school when it comes to things like that. I have to see things before I believe them."
Dreams have traditionally been used to illuminate waking lives; the new Aphex Twin music illuminates the way waking visions can start to spill back into unconscious reveries. Here, as in so many other areas, the borders are fuzzing. The convergence of all these strands at this moment registers a wider conflux of information and global communication; music is taking its own share of this great learning. The lines are converging, focusing, and stretching ahead to their vanishing point.
Interview copyright Rob Young/The Wire. This article originally appeared in The Wire 134 (April 95). Used by permission from Rob Young.
Photo by Dean Belcher
Digital Enhancement by Robin Hawes