in Opinion | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

The Sound of Music

Mike Paradinas, Richard D. James and Luke Vibert

in Opinion | 04 MAR 97

Richard D. James and Luke Vibert

Can music mean something? Does it describe the world? The intimate relationship between music and the body makes it hard to answer such questions; the experience of music is somehow a far more direct and unmediated one than the visual. You can look away and you can close your eyes, but you can't close your ears. Sound is inescapable: you feel it resonating through your skull, in the pit of your stomach and in the air vibrating against your skin. Listening to music, you perform complex mathematical analysis instantly and instinctively - searching for resolution, looking for repetition as the rhythms and frequencies of music interact with those of the body and brain, modifying them, manipulating them. Music is a mood-altering drug in a way that visual art just isn't, though often wants to be. The way memory deals with music seems to be very different to the way it copes with the visual. Music is elusive: it is almost impossible to consciously recall an entire musical experience with all its texture - we are usually left with just colourless fragments. As with memories of taste and touch, aural memories seem to spring out in dream or during the strange moments of lucidity between sleep and wakefulness, but once jarred into life, an entire state of mind is recreated in one disorientating spasm.

How can this powerful emotional manipulator be harnessed? Over 40 years ago, composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Edgar Varèse conceived a music that would break free of the orchestra's limitations, escaping the restrictions of individual instruments through the power of electronic synthesis and the ability of tape recording to capture real sounds. In a way, Varèse was the Manet of contemporary music, producing compositions that were grounded in the urban aural experience and which embraced the dissonance, multiplicity and accelerated tempo of city life. Like the video technology that emerged in the same period as the first synthesisers and sequencers, it has taken several decades for the technical means of producing electronic music to filter down from hugely specialised and academic research centres, such as IRCAM in Paris, to a level that renders them generally accessible and affordable. Over the last few years, this technology has undergone a further evolution from hardware to software: all you really need to produce extremely sophisticated electronic music now is a low-end PC, a mixing desk and a tape recorder. Luke Vibert's first album, 'The Phat Lab. Nightmare' (1994), was famously produced with absolutely minimal equipment and his second, 'Weirs' (1994), with 'hundreds of quid's worth of equipment rather than thousands'; 'Tango N'Vectif' (1993), Mike Paradinas' first full-length recording, used comparatively basic tools which he exploited to create an extremely rich vocabulary of sounds; while Richard D. James, alias Aphex Twin, initially built most of his equipment himself.

What has evolved from this accessibility, as with video and photography, is the emergence of music as a language with a richer vocabulary and greater possibilities for manipulation than ever before. Artists like James, Paradinas and Vibert have assumed the role of the traditional composer: freed from the need to be able to operate an instrument, their music is not bound by the idiosyncrasies and limitations of mechanical sound production, but simply by their imagination. While the huge increase in bedroom recording has produced a glut of sad techno that never escapes the factory presets of the equipment, in the right hands it is a liberating phenomenon. James, Paradinas and Vibert share a notion of directly manipulating sound and its referentiality. James, for example, has a huge collection of sound samples and recordings ranging from speech to children's songs to television adverts; Vibert mines popular music history, splicing together the most unlikely genres; Paradinas slips in and out of different musical styles under assumed names, playing a sophisticated balancing act between metallic collisions, wheezing pneumatics and inventive melody. What is apparent from the three musicians' work is an understanding of the texture of sound and the ways in which the structure of music and our perception of it have changed.

Some of the earliest work recorded by James, 'Selected Ambient Works 85-92' (1992) and 'Selected Ambient Works Volume II' (1994), is structurally extremely minimal but texturally complex. James produced much of his own equipment at this time in order to gain the maximum control possible over the shape and texture of the sound. Many of the synthetic sounds of SAW Volume II are distantly reminiscent of natural instruments - strings and woodwind for example - with which they share characteristic envelopes and harmonic signatures, as on Parallel Stripe, with its electronic background hum and vocalised melodic overlay, or Blue Calx where an echoey pop punctuates a quiet, string-like sound. But although these sounds do not feel out of place in the world, they never appear to be 'fake' instruments; they have their own depth and complex timbres. This is in part why the record is so convincingly evocative. 'SAW II' is a kind of pastoral, but it describes a 20th-century landscape rather than a lost rural idyll. The huge amount of echo and harmonic reverb on tracks like Spots play with the listener's perception of space to evoke enormous, empty, but ultimately contained, architectural spaces.

In the 90s, the sounds most familiar to us are those of urban spaces and mechanical or electronic phrasing - even dialling a phone number creates a musical sequence. Our understanding of the structure of music and its meaning has changed through this gradual increase in the use of sound to affirm our physical actions and provide feedback - knowing when to leave a message on an answering machine, setting a digital watch, making a mistake on a computer. The emergence of the games console has had a similar effect on the way we respond to sound and the way that it develops significance. The musicians writing the loops on cartridge-based computer games have had to adapt to the constraints of memory limitations and embrace repetition and modular structure to a degree that was inconceivable before the digitalisation of the world. Games music has also developed a kind of shorthand operatic narrative of changes in timbre and tempo that occur when certain events take place, or are about to take place, and repeated motifs that set the atmosphere or provide clues as to what to do next. Tracks such as Cuckoo on 'Analogue Bubblebath IV' (1994) by James (and also his 1992 'Pac Man' EP) and Paradinas' Lux on 'Makesaracket' (1995) incorporate structural and melodic elements, as well as the characteristic harmonic simplicity, reminiscent of game music. Cuckoo reads like a deranged drive through a kind of rapidly disappearing SuperMario Land: a chirpy woodland innocence is set up only to be demolished by something like the Newbury bypass cutting a swathe through everything as it emerges from the back of the mix accompanied by a medley of heavy-industrial impacts.

Radio and television advertising, with their limited duration and frequent reliance on irritating but unforgettable jingles, have also played a part, along with programme theme tunes, in shaping the way that we understand music. Their banality and endearing familiarity is something that James and Paradinas in particular have toyed with. On 'Girl/Boy' EP (1996), James included vocal tracks for the first time, but both Milk Man and Beetles have lyrics that are rigorously bland: 'I wish the milkman would deliver my milk/In the morning/I wish the milkman would deliver my milk/When I'm yawning' and 'Beetles in my carpet/They come out in the heat/Beetles in my carpet/They like heat'. The simplicity and constant repetition of the words - half-sung, half-spoken with plaintive melancholy - recall the nagging soft sell of a Hovis commercial while their forced mundanity implies that the text of the lyrics is inevitably subsidiary to the music in creating meaning. Paradinas, recording under the name of Gary Moscheles on the 70s-Disco-Funk meets Tijuana-on-acid album 'Shaped to Make Your Life Easier' (1996), similarly exploits the role of vocals as a kind of gratuitous musical filler in mainstream popular music and advertising. On the tracks Gary's House and 12345678 generic, up-tempo disco ejaculations and we're-having-a really-great-time vocal samples are used as musical motifs to establish atmospheric references to particular genres of music. On 'Drum'n'Bass for Papa' (1996), Vibert uses speech fragments as quirky narrative keys to evoke atmosphere as strongly as the musical samples themselves. But the human voice is used in more abstract ways too. Mr Angry on Paradinas' 'In Pine Effect' (1996) uses a hugely distorted, full-throated baby scream as a disorientating melodic element, while the disjointed speech that appears in the background of tracks on James' 'Selected Ambient Works 85-92' and 'Surfing on Sine Waves' (1993) is distant and fragmented, creating a sense of the listener being in some kind of sensory limbo - a place from which human activity is perceived as being as remote and unwelcoming as the cityscapes that are evoked. These are good albums to listen to while leafing through Julian Opie's Photo Album (1995), with its images of generic sunsets, airport luggage reclaim halls and motorway service stations.

Blandness is taken to its extreme and warped into an intense bleakness. Living in a world of muzak, jingles and electro-mechanical sonic dust, we may be able to consciously filter out this everyday aural hangover when we need to, but it still gets inside our heads and silts up our memory. This kind of juxtaposition between the almost involuntary remembering of sound fragments is heard literally on pieces like James' Tamphex (Headphuq Mix) (1992), which splices together the hideous primness of a tampon advertisement - 'Why stop when your period starts?' - with a ridiculously high B.P.M. hard-core percussion track. In much of Paradinas' work also, there is a play with half-remembered music and sounds that have surreptitiously slipped into memory. On the µ-Ziq albums 'Tango N'Vectif', 'Bluff Limbo' (1994) and 'In Pine Effect', some of the most agitated percussion sounds ever recorded are juxtaposed with distorted cocktail lounge music, restless, unresolved melodies, harmonically fat synthesiser lines and the happiest flute in the world. Paradinas' precise use of distortion on particular sounds recalls the kind of grungy reception of a badly-tuned radio or an over-stressed elevator speaker, lending an additional atmospheric dimension to the tracks. As the liner notes of 'Tango N'Vectif' describe: 'Tango N'Vectif fires off in a Latin American style - very fetching - with a bright melody and a brisk rhythmical accompaniment. Now and again there are smudges of sounds, and whooshes akin to those of rockets taking off. The melody, however, triumphs over these oppositions and the piece ends in a merry fashion. The Sonic Fox, also the possessor of a highly attractive tune, begins with an accompaniment which mingles elements of a steam laundry with those of a science laboratory given over to destructive experiments with acids... Again the melody (in conjunction with the laundry) emerges triumphant, and the piece ends with three sharp ejections of steam'. Expectations of how any track might progress are constantly overturned as pieces veer off in some surprisingly unexpected, but completely coherent direction. There is a similar sense of sonic sophistication in the mellower, funkier pieces recorded by Paradinas as Jake Slazenger on 'Das Ist Ein Groovy Beat, Ja' (1996). This combination of sweet familiarity and the violently distorted draws on a huge variety of sources to create a music that is radically new and truly contemporary. An analogous process is involved in the work of artists such as Gary Hume, whose paintings digest all forms of visual experience - from art history to popular culture - and daydream them into images of effervescent beauty. A consequence of this, with respect to music as much as art, is that there ceases to be a distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture: the two are equalised out into being simply elements of vocabulary in the visual or aural languages of the world.

Recently, all three musicians have absorbed aspects of Jungle and Drum and Bass into their work: James on 'The Richard James LP' (1996), Paradinas with the sophisticated insanity of 'Urmur Bile Trax' (1997) and Vibert on 'Drum'n'Bass for Papa' and his extraordinary Drum and Bass remix of the Gentle People's Emotion Heater (1996). As the perfect expression of contemporary urban experience, Jungle has been as cathartic as early Detroit techno was in opening up new rhythmic and sonic possibilities. Vibert's 'Drum'n'Bass for Papa' took samples from his father's urbane record collection and wove them into an almost cinematic narrative interlaced with intense Drum and Bass rhythms. Vibert's earlier 'Throbbing Pouch' (1995) drew together apparently disparate musical themes in a similar manner and fused them into one virtually continuous track. But in both cases, this is far more than the simple quotation of genres and musical fragments that has become so familiar through mindless sampling.

What James, Paradinas and Vibert share is the ability to completely absorb the material they are working with and to find extraordinary ways of utilising it that both acknowledge its original context and transform it into something entirely new and musically innovative. That sound can be as referential and descriptive of the world as visual imagery is a quality that all three musicians are expertly able to orchestrate. By stepping outside the limitations of any specific genre, they have been able to develop a notion of music as an expansive language; a language that encompasses both our day to day aural experiences and the unique ability of music to somehow concretely affect how we feel. As the voices of photography, video and painting are being explored and manipulated by artists to similar effect, so too are the texture of sound and its ability to plug into memory and evoke complex states of mind.