The DJ who fulfils the dream of Satie

Philip Glass appreciates his music, Karlheinz Stockhausen thinks it’s rubbish. Aphex Twin creates music using home appliances.

On his new double album Drukqs, the British musician Aphex Twin alternates between boisterous soundscapes over nerve-wrecking beats and easy-going, multi-coloured piano-tunes. The legacy of Erik Satie is safe with him, but the bully of electronic music attaches his own twisted edge to it.

Richard D. James, Aphex Twin’s real name, is one of the genre’s most eye-catching artists. Most electronic performers remain hidden behind their flickering computer screens. Often, they are nerds, abstract computerfreaks who make abstract music for abstract people.

Richard D. James is more visible. It was mostly because he used to drive around his native Cornwall in a tank that he gained some attention in the early nineties. His DJ-sets were remarkable because he used sandpaper and kitchen appliances to create his sound.

He is a rogue who scored a few hits unexpectedly. Controversial video director Chris Cunningham created frightful and disturbing videos for the tracks Come to Daddy and Windowlicker. In the sunny video for Windowlicker, which at first doesn’t seem to differ all that much from your standard R&B or hip-hop video, everyone, from the heavy black men to the big breasted bikini babes, turns out to have the bearded, grinning and hideously deformed face of Richard D. James.

James also received help from serious musicians. Famous minimalistic composer Philip Glass created an orchestrated version of Aphex Twin’s Icct Hedral. The contemporary German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, even more famous, is less enthusiastic. On Radio 3 in England, Stockhausen said the following of James’ music: “He would do well to listen to my composition Gesang der Jünglinge. (…) Then he would immediately stop doing those post-African repetitions and start looking for varying tempos and rhythms.” James’ comment: “Stockhausen should have a listen to my songs, such as Digeridoo, for example. Then he would surely stop doing those abstract rhythms you can’t dance to. Do you think he can dance?”

In a bizarre way, James puts his personality in his music, the best example of which is Ventolin, which was released on single. It is named after medication for asthma-patients such as himself. The gloomy, literally almost suffocating wheezing of someone who can’t come out of his asthma attack is present on all twelve remixes, which were spread out over two EP’s at the time. Not only asthma patients will feel uneasy listening to these harsh sounds. When has electronic music ever been so confrontational?

Yet most of Aphex Twin’s music is just a tad more abstract than many of his contemporaries’. Often, he doesn’t even go through the trouble of thinking up proper titles for his tracks. The name of his new double album, Drukqs, is a hint at drugs, a topic that remains sensitive in English society. But track-titles such as Orban cq trx4 and Petiatil cx htdui make no sense whatsoever. As if James pressed the buttons on the keyboard of his computer completely at random.

This is also the way in which his music seems to have been created.

On Drukqs, crowded, nervous songs with metallic sounds and short, quiet down miniatures in which the piano compositions of Erik Satie seem to have been draped in a bath of colourful electronic timbres complement each other nicely.

The associations with the piano-compositions of Satie is not coincidental. The cover of Drukqs features the names of the artist and the album, carved in the hammers of a piano. In an interview which was sent to the press, James says what album he thinks is the most boring record of all times; Drukqs by Erik Satie. Thus attributing his own album to his great predecessor and dismissing it at the same time – that’s Aphex Twin as we know him.

However, in the wonderful world of Aphex Twin, ‘boring’ doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation, as long as we mean ‘sleep-inducing.’ Aphex Twin claims to nearly always create his music when he is in a state of lucid dreaming, which is somewhere between sleeping and dreaming. This is why the album Selected Ambient Works II is completely devoid of strong rhythms or beats. As he once said in an interview, they didn’t occur in his dreams.

SAWII was probably the purest example of James’ ambient music. The name ambient was conceived by British musician Brian Eno, who dreamt of music that becomes one with its environment. The great misunderstanding regarding this genre is that it should only serve as easy to ignore background music. In the seventies, Eno gave this music a name, but the principle has much older roots. Erik Satie (1866-1925) was one of the precursors with his Musique d’ameublement (music as furniture). He thought this music should soften the clanging of cutlery during dinner without drowning it out. It should fill the lulls in conversations and neutralize the noises from the city-streets. Satie was somewhat stricter than Eno when it comes to the ‘ignorability’ of music. In his book Ocean of Sound, David Toop describes how Satie scattered his musicians throughout the hall during performance and let them play fragments of other composers avant la lettre (very post-modern), almost forcing the uncomfortable audience to ignore the music.

Although the term ‘ambient’ isn’t used much anymore these days, its concept has left more impressions in contemporary pop-music than just a few nice anecdotes. The entire idea of lounging (listening to relaxing, flowing music while having a conversation and consuming sushi and tapas) basically fulfils Satie’s dream; if only because of the fact that the music it is associated with is far more easy to ignore than to listen to. However, Aphex Twin’s music, partly made with home-made equipment, doesn’t fit into that category at all.

Aspects of ambient to which the music of Aphex Twin does apply are the abstract and fluent forms, which evolve to complete formlessness in the worst cases. Electronic performers no longer recognize the restricting song-structure with its limited length. Instead, they apply their own logic to their compositions. The fact that that logic is not always dealt with carefully is a matter of experience and often leads to far too lengthy albums.

Translated by: Netlon Sentinel