Unequal Temperament: A Review of Aphex Twin’s SYRO
Sussing out why Aphex Twin leaves so many people agog and, as such, why his new album SYRO was so hotly anticipated after a thirteen-year absence, requires some backstory that an average indie-rock/dance fan may not be conversant with. It’s still a dim recollection to yours truly due to years spent in my miscreant youth first as a clarinet prodigy and later as a classical composer, meaning there’s a book’s worth of context I’m going to try to wedge in here, so here goes.
Backstory, briefly: the Greeks hammered out what we now think of as western harmonic music e.g. all the specific keys on a piano keyboard divided into steps and half-steps but there were quite a few rules governing how those notes got slapped together for a long time (the dark ages) with strict prohibitions including the forbidden use of a melodic leap or chord involving a minor fifth (on the keyboard for example a C and an F#) at the same time or closely together. If you got caught doing this by the Catholic Church, you could be tortured for it, because it was the “devil’s interval.” Things, of course, subsequently loosened up, beginning with the somewhat stiff but spectacularly sophisticated architectural note-pliancy worked by Bach et al. in the Baroque era after the Enlightenment in Europe, after which came the Classical era of classical music, a period of formal and structural synthesis of which a guy like Mozart was arguably apotheosis, or at least a very skilled representative; this is when symphonies became symphonies and sonatas sonatas, etc. and some ossification unfortunately began to take hold that didn’t loosen until the 20th c. at, unfortunately for classical music, just about the same time that popular attention shifted to popular music.
But after the Classical era came Beethoven and the 19th c. and with Beethoven’s “I’ll do it because I feel like it” attitude and the Victorian Era’s subsequent “lurid because I feel like it” romanticism came an increasing inclusivity of all twelve steps in a given octave, so that that by the time you get to the tail end of the 19th c. you have chromaticism, in which all the notes are firing but it’s still getting done in mostly a bed-of-flowers way with soaring strings and so on (an example of chromaticism’s shift into more academic sonics that isn’t too thousand-piece-orchestra-suffocating is early Schönberg’s Verklarte Nacht). What’s notable about early Schönberg is that this is already a little too hardcore for its time (1905, when he was 25) because it contains chords you can find intuitively easily by just holding down four or five piano keys but which were not “proper” and yet Schönberg rejected even this stuff as hopelessly old-school and went on to make a lot of “interesting” music using a twelve-tone technique that imports so much rigidity into decentralizing tonality that it’s kind of hard to really appreciate on anything other than an intellectual level. Anyway:
To just compare and contrast with something a little more alien that’s also smeared all over SYRO is the work of Schonberg’s near-contemporary, Anton Webern, who developed a style of pointilist twelve-tone work so ascetic that the majority of the music is really about all of the notes that symphonic Orchestra X is not playing, the ocean of silent inactivity that surrounds the sound (and note that an entire symphony, here, is about nine minutes long). YouTube comments are mostly slush but you don’t get too much homophobia, racism, and sexism in classical music commentary so there’s one worth noting, that this (more or less a twelve-tone comp but a little flexible) was described I think aptly in the comments as “private”:
Then came WWI, and even before WWI, western (straight white male) art music was already in crisis since a maxed-out chromatic system couldn’t be maxed out any further, so what was left? The answers ended up being fragmentation, dissonance, formalism, atonality, complexity, and silence, like the Webern above or George Antheil, whose work is a YouTube rabbit hole you should go down but no room for him here. These are important because various early 20th c. composers worked the levers of these things pretty hard and fast, from complexity (early Stravinsky) to Schönberg (the good old twelve-tone row) to Cage and Feldman (silence and also aleatoric processes), plus starting in the 1950s, electronics began to their way into the mix as they became easier to work with so you have stuff from folks like Subotnick and Stockhausen:
Running parallel to this, of course, over the course of the 20th c., plenty of other musicians and music listeners were less focused on music as the outcome of a theory than on something simpler: shaking their asses. This got done in a variety of ways, all of which you’re familiar with, but the ones here you’ll want to note in particular are extension-of-jazz’s low-end and rhythmic dexterity of funk and of electronics becoming cheap enough that they could be used not just as one instrument but as the primary instrument, meaning here everything from disco and techno through house and rave and subsidiaries like jungle and drill n’ bass. It’s under this latter banner Aphex Twin’s music is usually sort of couched, though people are still left with a quandary: I can shake my ass or pogo or nod my head to this, but it sounds complex and dissonant and fragmentary. So you can see what I’m getting at here–Aphex Twin is getting it done by drawing freely both from academy and booty-shake strains of music, and synthesizing them in ways that seem alien because they don’t seem entirely like one or the other. Early Polygon Window and Caustic Window stuff was more booty-shake and personal favorite Drukqs was more contemporary hypercomplexity, a complexity that Richard D. James, being the smart guy he is, could push quite a lot further than Stockhausen and others weaned on twelve-tone rows could’ve ever dreamed of.
So why this is relevant backstory at the event of release of Aphex Twin’s newest non-semi-secretive offering in thirteen years is that you can see in ample abundance, even in advance track “minipops 67 [120.2],” two strains of music that ordinarily wouldn’t acknowledge each other colliding head-on to give you something that’s simultaneously funky, ambiguously atonal, fragmentary, elusive, and alien-sounding, even while yes, you can still, if not necessarily quite shake your ass, at least nod your head to it.
Besides the fact it’s breathtaking, as usual–and here’s your album review–what’s notable about SYRO is that whereas with jazz and classical there’s been some crossover, there’s also the I-can’t-quite-get-on-board-with-it strain of Classical Pops, as well as various other stuff floating around like the US military’s maintenance of not just one but many bands that can crank out however many Sousa marches you want. Plus there’s a creepy thing from a few years back where a guy dressed up like Sousa and you got some touring historical reenactment along with classical music’s idea of pulse-quickening acoustics. Plus also here deals like approx. every rock band on earth working with string sections, now (except maybe punk and hardcore, though that would be interesting to hear) you don’t have anyone producing what’s nominally dance music looking at classical music, esp. the 20th c. “difficult” variety, with enthusiasm, much less a probably extensive knowledge. Except Mr. James.
So now you have what are on James’s part some of the tricks devised by 20th c. composers for the purposes of Progress used here to unsettle what’s already pretty unsettled. Even in the first two tracks you have James sticking his finger in the alternate tonality pie with interesting results. Try, for example, humming the note that the various ribbons of melody curl down to, the “home base” key root note in “minipops 67”: it’s possible, but the confusing thing is that there are two different notes you can hum that are both correct, one about a step lower than the other. “minipops 67 [120.2]” is effectively bitonal, and the chords it supports are not quite regular equal-temperament keyboard chords; a lot of ethereal destabilization work gets done by James setting up the architecture of the song to hang in two keys at once. Bitonality is not new but bitonality in which two relatively less-related chords are close together and equally valid gives “minipops” the queasy feeling that, as you’re nodding your head along to it, the song never quite lands, the plate is constantly spinning, so it sounds alien and amazing. I’m not sure how much James had someone like Ives or even Ligeti in mind during this but he uses the toolkit to great effect; what’s more he adds the world’s most sophisticatedly atonal musical instrument of all–the human voice–to glide garbled over the synth gurgle, weaving in and out of “fitting” in the song’s tonal structure and, gloriously, not making lexical sense, instead offering a counterpoint to the relative fixity of an exhaustive list of gear James had to play or program.
Of course this comes and goes, gurgles, gets erased by something afterward, returns in a different shape, and is underpinned by a more sedate example of James’s usual sophisticated complexity so you’re getting 1) something that draws on 20th c. classical’s various, not always great ideas of how to move music forward, which 2) is, if not hummable, actually very pretty, melodically, and 3) is more or less a mid-tempo dance track so you can shake your ass and/or nod your head along to the post-classical complexity.
Not all 20th c. classical composers were hot to trot re: atonality, machinery and fragmentation, though, and some of the most famous “classical” music of last century isn’t the tear-up-the-manual stuff of Stravinsky to Stockhausen but the lingering influence of Debussy’s reduction of florid chromaticism to something akin to delicacy (and delicate, among other words, is an apt descriptor for SYRO), Samuel Barber’s maybe-it’s-a-little-overrated Adagio, Aaron Copeland’s catering toward hummability, 20th c. classical’s true legacy to the form–Reich and Glass et al.’s minimalism, which curiously never turns up in James’s work though it seems an apt fit––but in particular the work of Debussy’s contemporary Erik Satie, probably one of James’a biggest influences, and a guy who pre-dates Cage and Feldman’s investment in silence in an investment in quiet simplicity, single-instrument pieces that tug at you gently but don’t easily let go:
“Aisatsana” and some of the smaller pieces off Drukqs sound, to me, specifically like responses to Satie’s prompt to find a hat, hang onto it, and zoom in on something meticulous, beautiful, brief and simple all at the same time. When James swung a disklavier programmed with “Aisatsana” from the roof of the Barbican a few years ago, it was an experiment in the doppler effect’s pitch-bending but minus the hook of the huge swinging piano and absent performer, there was the simple appeal of a deliberately, calmly self-contained brief solo piano piece vs. what other classical or crossover folks are coming up with–check out Anna Meredith–which is inventive but not always memorable either as stunt or as smoke slowly curling around in the fluid of your inner ears.
The rest of SYRO proceeds in similar fashion, here and there leaning hard on this or that variant of either classical (the aforementioned Satie-recall of closing track “aisatsana”) or dance (the grumpy alternate-universe dubstep disco thump of “180db_ ”) but as an album hangs together despite great differences between songs because of James’s ability to manipulate both the vast array of electronic dance music templates and by what’s less a uniform sound palate than two specific techniques predating the 20th c. he employs in a very 21st c. way.
The first is recombinant rhythm formation (i.e. beats rearrange to emphasize different beats in the measure or else different percussion elements provide a counter-rhythm), different and new with James from nearly his beginnings because of the slim likelihood that one consistent beat will hold for very long before inverting, reversing, shading away from programmed drum sounds into percussive but non-drum sounds (like in “CIRCLONT6A (etc.)”), or otherwise transforming organically and frequently, sometimes scaling back to an amusingly dinky and simple kick/snare/kick/snare only to bubble over again in short notice. The second is arpeggiation, which shows up here a lot in place of more linear melody, and is lifted directly from Baroque and early Classical era classical, but while Bach et al. perfected the pingponging of articulating an equal temperament chord or chords in manipulatively expert fashion, James has both sped up the arpeggiation and ditched the tonality so spread across the album you can hear a curved-sounding wobble that’s sometimes quite intricate and sounds alien because you’re used to hearing that for what it is in, say, a Bach organ piece or R.E.M.’s 1980s output, nice and pristine. But what’s going on in James’ arpeggiation (and the beginning of “CIRCLONT14” is a good example of this) is that tonality refuses to sit still, so you’re listening to a chord getting outlined, but by the time those lines have been drawn four or five times the chords they’re articulating have shifted two or three, or more, which lends a distinctive “the synthesizer seems to be melting/running out of batteries” sound to many of the tracks, and you can do a lot of different things with arpeggiation (like write some organ variations that Glenn Gould will later kind of scarily nail on a piano in the mid-20th c. or construct the shifting backbone of a song off of Murmur, etc.), but the structure’s the same so it lends cohesion to a shifting set of shifting tracks.
So then, really, back to James re: 20th c.’s crisis re: how to move forward, the composers of that century came up with a lot of techniques for how to do just that, many of which I’ve named above, but what’s important about SYRO in particular and James’s output more generally is that James is interested in something escaping most 20th c. pushing-limits composers, and gets it done; the album solves a problem created by the proliferation of uneasy-listening classical last century by taking the cumulative bag of tricks put together by everyone from Webern to Satie to Stockhausen and synthesizing with it something borrowed from simpler dance music’s emphasis on pleasure. One of the many things James has accomplished with his entire output is to grab difficult ideas or methods and to make them, on a Satie level, simply and beautifully fun to listen to, and it’s no accident that the final track of SYRO is a little heavy on the person-in-a-room-with-an-instrument with the delicate piano and the bird calls. The goal here is pleasure and engagement with something that otherwise might leave you cold, and James not only achieves that goal, but makes the achievement of sound both easy and, again, like it’s a lot of fun.