Electronic Music History: Aphex Twin ‘Selected Ambient Works Volume II’ – Let’s Sleep On It

Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau investigates the creative process and inspiration behind Aphex Twin’s legendary Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 album.

Aphex-Twin-Selected-Ambient-Works-Volume-II

Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II is required listening for any person in the field of electronic music. Its influence on composers, producers, and sound designers is incalculable. Not only did the 1994 release by Richard D. James (a.k.a Aphex Twin) peak at #11 on the UK albums chart, it was ranked #96 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Albums of the Nineties, an incredible achievement for an instrumental album without song structure, and minimal use of melody and rhythm. The tracks of the album were not even named (except for “Blue Calx”). Instead, the album artwork includes six pie charts with various images assigned to them. This is how listeners later put names to the individual tracks.

original_collection_Aphex-Twin_SAW-Vol-II_02In this article, I will examine the creative process behind Selected Ambient Works Volume II and discuss how it relates to an album I made several years ago. I’ll also give examples that might enlighten your own creative process.

Like many great albums,  Selected Ambient Works Volume II has a unique and cohesive sound throughout. However, the technique for attaining this cohesion is not immediately apparent, because the record has several different compositional tones:

1. Meditative:  “Rhubarb” / “Blue Calx” / “Lichen”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVvjXJentik

2. Nightmare: ”Grass” / “Hankie” / “Tree” / “Spots” / “Tassels”

3. Eerie/creepy: ”Curtains” / “Domino” / “White Blur 1″ / “Parallel Stripes” / “Grey Stripe” / “Matchsticks”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jls5jACc-6I

 4. Otherworldly (rhythmic): “Mould” / “Cliffs” / “Radiator” / “Blur” / “Weathered Stone” / “Shiny Metal Rods” / “Windowsill” / “Hexagon” / “White Blur 2″

Before this album was made, Aphex Twin decided on an underlying process that involved lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is being aware during the dream state, with the ability to alter events within the dream. James developed this ability and used lucid dreaming as a creative catalyst for the making of the album.

“I badly wanted to dream tracks. Like imagine I’m in the studio and write a track in my sleep, wake up and then write it in the real world with real instruments. I couldn’t do it at first. The main problem was just remembering it. Melodies were easy to remember. I’d go to sleep in my studio. I’d go to sleep for ten minutes and write three tracks – only small segments, not l00 percent finished tracks. I’d wake up and I’d only been asleep for ten minutes. That’s quite mental.”   Richard D. James (Aphex Twin)

On this record, we are listening to dreams: happy dreams, scary dreams, sexy dreams. However, when listening to the album, one does not immediately think “Aha! This is a series of recorded dreams.” Instead, we are transported to a place that is familiar but not of this world. James never hits you over the head and tells you that you are listening to dreams. He follows a singular path of creation and invites the listener to enter into his world, without explanation.

On a technical level, the main focus of this album is on textures and timbres. There are simple melodies and drums at times, but they never override the washes of sound created by swirling pads. Like the album, dreams are often more about mood and tone than content. We may remember the events in our dreams, but it is the feelings one has while the dream plays out that have the greatest impact.

How can we use this example to further inspire our own works? I am not professing that you should develop the ability to lucid dream (although it does sound cool), but instead to consider how you can alter your mental state, decision making process, and work habits to enhance your creativity. By making strong conceptual decisions early in the creative process, we can hone our production skills and make music with greater impact. I will start with a personal story:

In 2004 I made an album called MNO Sleeps…Marimba Sessions.

I had two reasons to make this album. First, I had always wanted to make a solo marimba CD because I love the sound of the instrument. Second, I wanted to make an album that was felt instead of actively listened to: music that you would not notice until it was no longer playing.

To answer both these needs was a challenge, because I wanted to showcase the sound of the instrument, not my ability to play it. I needed to remove my ego from the creative process. My ego would say to me, “play fast and do hard things so everyone will know you are a good musician.” Unfortunately, my ego is rather strong, so I needed a way to mitigate its power and attain my creative goals.

I would have to alter my mental state.

To do this, I decided to perform all the original tracks for the album while in a state of extreme tiredness–too tired to consider whether I was playing well or not. I set up all the recording gear, record enabled the DAT player, and stayed up all night. In the morning, I entered the recording studio, hit the record button, and played the marimba until I could no longer stand up (four to five hours). I did this two consecutive nights. The process was horrible. I felt like crap the entire time I was playing, but the recordings were what I was looking for; I think it is the purest, most honest playing I have ever done. The resulting album succeeded far beyond my imagination.

So how can you alter your mental state to define and hone your creative skills? There are many ways, but the key is consistency. If you are trying to create a unified sound or concept, a consistent approach will be more likely to lead to a successful conclusion.  Here are a few ideas to get your head in a different state:

  • Take a 30-minute bath in complete silence before each work session. Dry off, then head right into the studio.
  • Take a two-minute break to read a novel every 15 minutes during your work sessions. Stop reading at exactly the two-minute point and return to work.
  • Compose standing up (you will need to alter you workstation for this).
  • Wear an itchy tight hat for one hour. Take it off and start working (this will probably lead to some rather unpleasant music).
  • Listen to The Moth, or another storytelling podcast before each work session.
  • Hop on one foot until you fall over. (No cheating!)

It does not matter what you choose to do. Find something that puts you in a different mental state and stick to the plan. It may be annoying, but it will alter how you create. And anything that gets you out of your comfort zone and pushes you in a different direction will spur creativity.

Follow the lead of Aphex Twin: get to sleep and start working!


Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO has worked professionally as a musician (vibraphone, percussion, laptop), producer, remixer and arranger for 25 years, playing such diverse genres as, jazz, rock, drum’n’bass, salsa, techno, country, Hindustani, gospel, baroque and orchestral music. He has recorded on over 150 CDs, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. Michael was the house studio mallet percussionist for Sony Records (Japan) in the 90s, was a founding member of the award winning “Jazz Mafia” as well as working as a producer/remixer for Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, arranged and produced contemporary multimedia productions of the 16th-century composer Henry Purcell in Paris and is now writing a musical based on the life of Dionysus and dividing his time between Montreal and New York.


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