aphex twins selected ambient works volume ii

SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS VOLUME II

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For a complete list of books in this series, see the back of this book

Forthcoming in the series:

Smile
by Luis Sanchez

Biophilia
by Nicola Dibben

Ode to Billie Joe
by Tara Murtha

The Grey Album
by Charles Fairchild

Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
by Mike Foley

Freedom of Choice
by Evie Nagy

Entertainment!
by Kevin Dettmar

Live Through This
by Anwyn Crawford

Donuts
by Jordan Ferguson

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
by Kirk Walker Graves

Dangerous
by Susan Fast

Definitely Maybe
by Alex Niven

Blank Generation
by Pete Astor

Sigur Ros: ( )
by Ethan Hayden

and many more …

Selected Ambient Works Volume II

Marc Weidenbaum

Track Listing
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Notes

1
This is the track listing for the vinyl version of Aphex Twin’s album
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
as it was released in the United Kingdom in 1994. There are various versions of the album’s track count, depending on region and format, some with as few as 23 tracks. Track titles can vary as well—more on that in the chapters ahead.

To Melinda and Clementine

“Mute, because overheard”

—Fernando Pessoa

“I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now.”

—Alvin Lucier

“Release the tension and the result is a flow of sound—an ebbing stream of energy-surges, waves of compression alternating with rarefaction which beat against our eardrums; taking a definite period of time before dying away to nothing.”

—Daphne Oram

Contents

There Is No Volume I

Background Beats

A Chill-out Room of One’s Own

Synesthetic Codex

Transcribing Vapor

Embedding Vapor

Selected Ambient Works Volume III

Thanks and Acknowledgments

There Is No Volume I

There is no previous book to this book. There is no
Selected Ambient Works Volume I
book, just as there is no record by the musician Aphex Twin bearing the title
Selected Ambient Works Volume I
. There is, however, a
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
album, released by the British record label Warp in 1994, and this is a book about that album.

The closest there is to a
Selected Ambient Works Volume I
is
Selected Ambient Works 85–92
, released two years prior on R&S, a Belgian label with which Aphex Twin eventually parted ways in favor of focusing on his own enterprise, a small label named Rephlex, and signing with the more established but then still-emerging Warp.

So, in the form of a reverse caveat, no, you have not inadvertently obtained a sequel without having first consumed the initial volume. This book is a standalone object about a record album that stands as a milestone of ambient music.

The disorientation provided by that “
Volume II
” in the album’s title—along with this book’s title for that matter—provides a useful starting point for getting situated with the music, because the music on
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
is a purposeful, willful engine of disorientation. The hope is that this book will offer a modicum of orientation, not just that it will provide a fixed map to a fluid landscape, but that the dynamic physics of that fluidity will also be explored.

At the near midpoint of
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
, a wind chime peeks through the album’s lush and pervasive haze and makes itself heard. The chime appears as a sequence of routinized figments in the final track on the first of the album’s two sides. That’s track 11 of 23, for those listening along at home to one of the US editions of the recording, and it is track 12 of the editions of the album that contain 24 or 25 tracks. A chart on page 126 of this book is available to help collate the different editions of the album. With just one exception, the tracks that constitute
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
are officially untitled, in that they lack proper names, and this wind chime track is not the exception.

We hear the wind chime, but we do not hear any actual wind. There is a brief, passing moment of whizzy, slipstream, sci-fi ether. It is like something that might accompany the jettisoning of waste—or of a fallen colleague—in deep space by an anonymous starship. This ether noise is synthesized, fleeting, “false.” The wind chime, by contrast, sounds “real,” even in the absence of wind. It is a wind chime resounding in a closed chamber, a specimen on clinical display.

The chime introduces its characteristic rhythm. The device itself is nothing special. It is standard issue. It is the same wind chime that dangles from a neighbor’s porch, situated fittingly right between a dreamcatcher and a flycatcher: between the mystic and the functional.

The chime introduces rhythm, but the rhythm is loose at best. It is a rhythm-less rhythm, in that it lacks a discernible downbeat. The chime cycles through, its pattern a marvel of a unique phenomenon: the very pattern-less-ness reveals itself as pattern. There is no beat in the traditional sense of a beat. What there is is a series of beat-like segments that collectively suggest a kind of whole: in the place of meter we have a metric temperament. The track depends on a droning, slowly developing tonal center for any sense of compositional undergirding. Yet in its seeming beatless-ness, its harmonic drift, its largely synthetic raw material, the track still feels like a song. And like most any proper song, it has a vocal, but such as it is the vocal is merely snippets of voices in plausible conversation (“plausible” because the voices are garbled, as if heard through the wall from a neighboring room). Even when this strange music agrees to speak, it muffles its message. Such is the nature of the remote pleasure—and an often delirious pleasure it is—of Aphex Twin’s
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
.

The wind chime originates from a distant time, a time even further back than 1994. It relates to an object known to the ancient Greeks as an aeolian harp, named in honor of Aeolus, the god of the wind. The wind chime is, by most accounts, the original “generative” instrument: it is the original device that serves dual essential purposes, as composition and as tool. To create a wind chime is to create a musical composition in physical form; it is to set down rules (the number, timbre, and relative proximity of notes) that when enacted by a player—by the wind or, if you tend toward the spiritual, perhaps by Aeolus himself—result in something sonorous, something melodic, something song-like. The remoteness of this something is, to borrow a term provided by another Greek myth, tantalizing.

The wind is just half of the beat’s equation: the wind creates the rhythm as a pattern-like sequence, but it is the human imagination that recognizes that pattern-like sequence as something akin to a beat. In one of his Oblique Strategies cards, Brian Eno informed us that “Repetition is a form of change.” These cards, a series of urbane, often counter-intuitive artistic koans, were published by Eno—working with the late artist Peter Schmidt—in 1975, the same year that he released his early ambient album
Discreet Music
. The wind chime in Aphex Twin’s music tells a contrasting story. If the chime had its own Oblique Strategies card, it might read: “Change is a form of repetition.”

Eno, born in 1948, is the man who named and codified ambient music, a form—generally from the realm of electronic music—that works intentionally as both foreground and background. Aphex Twin is one of several monikers employed by Richard B. James, born in 1971, and James is the man who resuscitated—who was a leader among a generational cohort of musicians who re-envisioned—ambient music for our beat-pervaded time. His is ambient music for the digital era, an era of countless synchronized nanosecond metronomes.
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
, released at the outset of that era, is his masterpiece.

When we speak of musical masterpieces, whether they be standard-repertoire compositions or canonical record albums, we speak frequently of them as being “timeless.” But in the case of
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
, this timelessness is as much a factual matter as it is one of collective, consensual, received affection.

That there is something “timeless” about the music of Aphex Twin on
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
is a matter of authorial intent: it was a compositional goal, a functional goal, a practical goal. It was a compositional goal born of a desire to explore the ambient quality of the beat, to take that which was considered anathema to ambient-ness and to subsume it in an ambient milieu. The piece of music on
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
that immediately follows the wind chime one has a consistent, static pulse, the beat equivalent of a solitary pixel, as if someone had forgotten to remove the production click track before sending in the tapes for mastering. The beat is so repetitive in that piece of music that it becomes invisible if not inaudible while the composition, otherwise gauzy as passing clouds, proceeds. It was a functional goal in that, as ambient music, it sought to create an illusion of time, or better yet to illuminate time as an illusion. And it was a practical goal in that the music had a specific utility: it was conceived in part to be played in chill-out rooms at raves, safe sonic spaces for the exhausted, spaces set apart from the intense sounds that dominate such events.

Selected Ambient Works Volume II
may be timeless music, but it is still very much a product of its time. I will, in this book, try simultaneously to celebrate its timelessness, and also to delineate the time period on which its creation was predicated.

In this book we will listen closely to the album, and we will listen closely to those who have themselves listened closely. We will benefit from their concentrated imaginations and from their diverse perspectives. The book draws, certainly, from an interview in the form of a lengthy phone conversation that I had with Aphex Twin himself in 1996, two years after the release of
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
, but also with others for whom the music has held particular meaning. These include those involved in the choreographic task of setting dancers to its ambiguous pace, and filmmakers who have employed the tracks in the role of movie score. These include a composer who has reverse-engineered the record’s textures, so that the music could be performed by musicians in an otherwise fairly traditional classical chamber ensemble. These are individuals who directly and indirectly have played a role in what might be termed the album’s cultural afterlife. And there are also music industry colleagues, among others, those who worked with Aphex Twin in a professional capacity at record labels and related organizations. The album
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
has just the slightest vestige of a human voice present on it. This book, however, is flush with different voices.

As an album,
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
persistently evades the sort of consensual understanding that is usually accorded full-length recordings of note. There is no agreed-upon favorite handful of essential tracks. There is no remotely satisfying cocktail-banter pithy summary. It is a monolith of an album, but one in the manner of Stanley Kubrick’s film
2001: A Space Odyssey
, one that reflects back the viewer’s impression.

As a sonic artifact, the album is not truly silent, but it is extravagantly vaporous. Unlike Kubrick’s monolith, Aphex Twin’s
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
is structured in thin air. It is an intense album of fragile music. This book is an attempt to document that very fragility, to collate its fuzzy meanings, to make note of the shadows cast by its unapologetically loose forms. The album’s absence of track titles (with one arguable exception) means that its abstract sounds are not even abetted by the associative meanings that such titles might provide. In the place of those titles are images, but the tracks vary by the manner in which the record was released: in the United States, for example, versus in its native United Kingdom, in digital versus physical form, on vinyl versus compact disc. Like documents supporting a delusional conspiracy theory, these images offer up more questions than answers when probed. The cover depicts a logo, a stylized
A
, more militaristic than corporate. It looks like the markings on a starship glimpsed in the shifting sands of the desert. This otherworldly foreignness was an instinctive association at the time of the album’s release, so alien was the music—in both the beat-weaned club world from which it originated, and in the boardrooms of the major corporations, such as the publisher Chrysalis and the record label Sire, that assisted Warp in its dissemination.

For a largely instrumental album whose limited verbal material is more syllabic than textual, Aphex Twin’s
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
tells many stories.

For one it is a tale of the populist flowering of British occultism, a rave-era echo of the Summer of Love. When in 1996 I interviewed Aphex Twin, who was then living in London, he described the Cornwall of his youth: “It’s got a really sort of quite mystical sort of vibe to it: Lots of sort of folklore and folk tales and it’s full of stuff like that, and there’s lots of strange people, lots of sort of weird hermit people who live out in the middle of nowhere and there’s a lot of witches and sort of magic, black magic, and stuff like that.”

For another, it is a tale of unintended consequences. Electronic music is often depicted as antagonistic to the natural environment, but by Aphex Twin’s own telling, it was the very cultural remoteness of his Cornwall youth that necessitated his electronic endeavors: “There were no record shops when I was growing up,” he said, in the same conversation. “There were like two and they were pretty basic, and there were no clubs or anything, so we had to make our own clubs, make our own music.”

And those are just some of the stories in which Aphex Twin, in which Richard D. James, is himself complicit. Like any record, great or otherwise, even one as opaque as this one,
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
tells stories beyond its own intention. To understand the moment in which the record was released, it is essential to appreciate how at that moment the record industry was betting on electronic music as the “next big thing,” and it is essential to note how despite the quixotic nature of that quest (“quixotic” may be an indelicate term, because this was a quest born of nothing but commercial self-interest on the part of the corporations) electronic sound managed to become the ubiquitous cultural force—from the pop charts, to film and television scores, to the product design of gadgetry—it is at the time of this book’s writing. It is essential to note how uncommon, how unfamiliar, the term “ambient” music was at the time of the album’s release. It is essential to understand how the then-nascent World Wide Web, a term that seems antiquated barely twenty years hence, was not the communal disco-graphical and entertainment engine that it is today, and how the nature of online communications at the time assisted in Aphex Twin’s murky self-mythologizing. And it is important to focus on the pre-MP3 world of music and what it meant for such ephemeral sounds as those that comprise
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
to have been encased in the cultural carbonite of vinyl, cassette, and compact disc. These are just a few of the things to dig into.

Writing a book about a record album with no names by a musician who has many names requires some decision-making. Throughout the book, he is referred to in most cases simply as Aphex Twin, not as Richard D. James. This is because the book is not a biography of an individual, but a deeply affectionate consideration of a recording. Richard D. James is a man of many heteronyms, and it is centering to employ the name that he himself, in this specific context, employed.

And throughout this book, the tracks on
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
are distinguished by proper titles, those titles being the ones that the album has accumulated thanks to fan activity. In this collectivist version of the album, its first track is not “1” or “Untitled” or “Untitled 1” but “Cliffs,” and the final track is not “Untitled”—or “Untitled 23,” “24,” or “25,” as it would be in its various formats—but “Matchsticks.” The track described above, the one featuring wind chimes, is “White Blur 1.” This decision to employ the “word titles” may confound and even alarm some who hold the album in great esteem, but my decision is not intended as an act of provocation. At the most basic level, the decision about track titles is a practical one. To use track numbers would be futile due to variations in track count by format. This decision was made for several additional reasons—so many reasons, in fact, that a full chapter of this book is dedicated to the matter of the track titles, and to what they explain about the album.

With some two dozen tracks as sprawling as they are remote, lush as they are reticent to reveal themselves, Aphex Twin’s
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
is an album that readily serves as background music to its own telling.

Background Beats

The critical evidence is overwhelming. The vast majority of discussion, especially as represented in writing—in music journalism, in criticism, in online discussion—about Aphex Twin’s
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
does not simply take the genre associations of its title for granted. It actively embraces and proliferates the idea that the record is largely if not entirely devoid of rhythmic and percussive material. The operative tag throughout such discussions gets to the point quickly. That tag is “beatless.”

## Meet the Beatless

In the December 1999 issue of
Spin
magazine, in the process of describing the remix of a track from
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
that was included on the subsequent Aphex Twin
26 Remixes for Cash
collection, the music critic Simon Reynolds referred to the original as “nearly motionless.” A few years earlier, when reviewing the original record upon its release, Reynolds opened his final paragraph, “On the rare occasion that beats appear, they tend to be eccentric.” When, in the same review, he mentioned “the dearth of danceability,” Reynolds was not criticizing the album; he was marking it as distinct from what came before (the more beat-oriented, if still sedate,
Selected Ambient Works 85–92
) and from the broader world of techno. If anything, he provided a splendidly affectionate assessment: “appallingly beautiful.” At the time of the album’s release, in a thematic
New York Times
essay, Reynolds associated the album with one extreme opposing end of the rhythmic continuum from techno’s percussive raison d’être: “ambient techno’s beat-free atmospherics.” At the end of the
Times
piece, he decried “tepid beats,” but the concern did not apply to the Aphex Twin work. In Reynolds’ excellent rave survey, the book
Generation Ecstasy
(alternately titled
Energy Flash
), published five years later, he discussed the album more in depth, and employed “percussive” among the adjectives that apply, but he was in the minority for recognizing this. He also noted: “many Aphex Twin fans were alienated by these subdued and somber sound paintings.”

In general, the term “beatless” is the norm when describing
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
, to the point of having long since entered the encyclopedia of convention wisdom. And to be clear, in my survey of the extent to which the idea of “beatless” has become conventional wisdom, I am only quoting people whose writing and thinking I generally admire. I am as guilty of this as is anyone. When I wrote a profile of Aphex Twin in 1996, I collectively referred to the “somnolent gauze” of both
Selected Ambient Works
albums.

The review of
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
by Sasha Frere-Jones in the 2004
Rolling Stone Album Guide
referred to it as “almost beatless.” Frere-Jones’ review ended in a manner that was dismissive to the point of being snarky: “the perfect music for working at a desk and watching the money roll in: unfailingly intelligent, occasionally astonishing, but often lighter than the air that surrounds it. Bubbletronica.” The 2003
Rough Guide to Rock
summarized its “long moody drones” and “distant melodies.” In a contemptuous review (grade: C) in
Entertainment Weekly
magazine at the time of the album’s release, Charles Aaron reviled its “lush, formless soundscapes.”

The 2001
All Music Guide to Electronic Music
suggested some conflicted internal editorial discussions. The book’s full-page biography of Aphex Twin, written by John Bush, referred to
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
as “so minimal as to be barely conscious” and not once but twice as a “joke on the electronic community.” Yet the same
All Music Guide
book’s album review, which was by Stephen Thomas Erlewine, simply described the release as “challenging” and stated that “many listeners will be intrigued and fascinated.” There was one thing the write-ups agreed upon: the album is nearly free of beats. Bush’s review said, “The music is all texture; there are only the faintest traces of beats and forward movement. Instead, all of these untitled tracks are long, unsettling electronic soundscapes.” The biography by Erlewine likewise noted: “the quadruple album left most of the beats behind, with only tape loops of unsettling ambient noise remaining.”

Robert Christgau, long the
Village Voice
music critic, was no particular fan. He penned a dismissive write-up of the album upon its release, giving it a begrudging B-. The review was so negative (“these experiments are considerably thinner … than the overpriced juvenilia on the import-only
Volume I
”), it is hard to understand why the schoolhouse grade was not lower still. The review was published shortly after the album’s release and was collected in the 2000 edition of the book
Christgau’s Consumer Guide: Albums of the 1990s
. Christgau did not just dismiss the album—he dismissed his colleagues who admired the album. “I mean, what are these dudes talking about?” he said in reference to adoring words by Frank Owen (“an eerie beauty and an almost nightmarish desolation”) and Simon Reynolds (“Imbuing machine music with spirituality”). Perhaps the primary benefit of Christgau’s condescending dismissal—he did not just reference the descriptions by others, but mocked them by depicting their statements with words like “intoneth,” “saith,” and “quoth”—was that it collated evidence of J. D. Considine having been the outlying critic at the time to recognize the album’s rhythmic intrigue. Christgau quoted, though not in a positive sense, Considine’s reference to the record’s percussive under-current (“Always a groove going on”). As for Considine’s notion that the album might “pulse dreamily,” Christgau described the work as “static” (in a pejorative sense of the word, not in admiration of its conjuring of stasis).

Considine was correct. Much if not all of
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
does, indeed, have a groove, albeit a quarter-speed one, so downtempo as to require another word (perhaps “ambient”). The majority of the record is of a piece with
Evening Star
, the collaboration between Brian Eno and Robert Fripp that dates from 1975, Eno’s great year—the same year he released
Another Green World
and
Discreet Music
—with its seesaw ease, its gentle sway. Both albums lull the listener to the point that the precise mechanisms of that lulling go unnoticed. It may all come across as vaporous, but the vapors come in waves and the waves have a pulse, a rhythm.

Even Reynolds himself went back and forth on this. In the September 1999 issue of
Spin
, as part of a reflection on the decade’s best recordings, he described it as “mostly devoid of melody or beat”; the album came in at number 56, in between Neil Young’s
Ragged Glory
and Cypress Hill’s debut, self-titled album from 1991. It is worth noting a certain coziness there. Neil Young struck an early rock-tronic milestone with his earlier, 1982 album,
Trans
, and Cypress Hill’s producer, DJ Muggs, has a way with spare beats, as exemplified by the brief interstitial tracks from his 2003 album
Dust
, which featured the vocals of, among others, outlandish Buckcherry singer Josh Todd. In an issue of
Spin
dedicated to the best albums of the 1990s, an unsigned review of the record opened “No beats, no tunes, no titles”;
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
came in number 96, between the Magnetic Fields’
69 Love Songs
and Nirvana’s determinedly un-electric album
Unplugged
. It was a funny gag line, but it was at best one third true—perhaps not even that much.

The album has made numerous best-of-the-decade lists, including one compiled by the taste-making online publication
Pitchfork
, whose Alex Linhardt said it had “few identifiable beats,” and that on occasion there were “faint, arrhythmic squeaks.” It came in at 62 on the list, between
De La Soul Is Dead
(1991) by De La Soul and
Different Class
(1995) by Pulp, the band whose frontman, Jarvis Cocker, directed the video for the Aphex Twin single “On,” whose release directly preceded that of
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
.

Even as insightful a listener and musician as Scanner (a.k.a. Robin Rimbaud) mentioned “erasing all the beats” when he talked about
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
in a conversation with the estimable British magazine
The Wire
. It was in the context of one of the magazine’s great Invisible Jukebox articles, where a musician is played songs and asked to identify and talk about them. Scanner was played a track from the
85–92
album, but, as the conversation proceeded, he trailed off into the subject of Aphex Twin’s ambient work in general: “it was quite a revolution in the sense of someone erasing all the beats and this was an artist that had clearly made a lot of dance-oriented music at the time. I remember having an argument with a friend at the time saying that this is either the laziest thing—just these drifting harmonies with these very simple patterns—or was it really risky?”

Rob Young, former editor of
The Wire
, was the principal author of a book about Warp Records. The book was part of the Labels Unlimited series of profiles of prominent record labels, published by Black Dog. Other subjects in the Labels Unlimited series included Rough Trade, Ace, Immediate, and, in the closest parallel to Warp, Ninja Tune. As an American listener to British electronic music in the early and mid-1990s, I often found myself thinking of Warp and Ninja Tune as something along the lines of the Blue Note and Prestige of their time, to name two competitive jazz labels from the 1950s. In Young’s coverage of Aphex Twin’s role at Warp, he made the useful connection between the musician’s native Cornwall—he quoted Aphex Twin as describing having come of age as a teen “in the middle of nowhere”—and the “mood,” as he put it, of
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
. And yet, in the process of putting the record at “the opposite end of the scale from the ‘bonkers’ dance tunes of Warp’s early years,” Young also employed the b-word: he characterized the album as consisting of “almost entirely beatless tracks.”

At the time of this book’s writing, even the brief album summary at
Bleep.com
, the digital music retail outfit run by Warp, employed the word “beatless”: “The sequel to James’ highly revered
Ambient Works I
, this release circa 94 strips matters down to a beatless symphony, shimmering and synaesthetic like the minimal work of Eno, Reich and Cage, but with its own perverted sense of Aphex still intact.” The use of the term “beatless” is especially odd given the reference to Steve Reich, whose work is inherently beat-oriented, allowing that his interest in phase shifts often makes those beats gently chaotic. And, yes, it is odd that it refers to the
85–92
album as “Volume I,” but that can be taken as colloquial.

When asked about the notion of the record’s beatless reputation, Greg Eden, who worked at Warp for the decade 1995 through 2005, told me that he credited Rob Mitchell, one of the label’s founders, for having managed perceptions. “I remember Rob talking about this apparently beatless record that was nothing like the first
Selected Ambient Works
album, or anything else,” said Eden. “It must have presented a bit of a marketing dilemma. But what Warp did really well then was they messaged quite clearly to people that this was a very ambient record, that it was beatless. I remember being very well prepared when I bought the record. I knew that it was a beatless record.”

Eden recalled that when he first read that it would be a beatless record, he was disappointed: “I wanted more beats. But the messaging in the media, and of course the media then was all print media, had got principally, was that it was going to be beatless. It had been framed correctly.”

This extended exploration of language usage is as much about commonality as it is about influence. When the editor in chief of
Spin
and the former editor of
The Wire
and a musician as fine as Scanner all embrace the idea of “beatless-ness,” that has an impact. The use of the term does not terminate with criticism. It may not originate there either, but journalism certainly promul-gates from it. In 2010 the
New York Times
interviewed the author Jon McGregor, a novelist, about his working habits. He provided an annotated playlist that was the result of his ongoing refinement of the perfect listening for writing. “I kept inventing rules—no vocals, no beats, minimal chord changes, yadda yadda—but they were all aimed at finding something which would barely be music at all,” he explained. He provided two key examples of this. The first was the drone-rock band Sunn O))), which strives to turn white noise into something that might be imagined to be the spawn of Black Sabbath. The second: “the second volume of Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works.’” The list McGregor provided came across like he had sought out music that collectively might create aspects of the Aphex Twin album. He recommended Thomas Tallis’ choral
Spem in Alium
, which he explained he first heard in the sound art project by Janet Cardiff, who set up 40 speakers to invoke an immersive environment, allowing the listener to navigate the choir as a ghost or a character in
The Matrix
might. And he recommended Richie Hawtin’s prolific Plastikman moniker, under which the musician has recorded a vast amount of minimalist techno that, for all its beats, has an ambient quality thanks to its minimalism, the amount of space it leaves unfilled.

These collected descriptions evidence a particular moment’s understanding of the album, having mostly been written shortly after the initial release, and in the first decade following that release. It is helpful to think about that first decade, and about the role served by descriptions of music at the time. Description in print reviews along with, increasingly if slowly, online was, with the exception of radio and TV play, the primary means by which music was experienced by inquisitive consumers. In the case of an album like
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
, a word like “beatless” became essential, canonical shorthand before individuals even heard the music. Such words described the seeming ethereal at a time when music was ethereal, in that it was not widely accessible. It was mediated, given form and shape, through language and physical recordings. Often one’s first experience of a record was preceded by description—in a review, or a profile of a musician, or the enthusiastic depiction by a friend or record store clerk.

Perhaps, though, the record did seem more beatless at the time of its initial reception. Perhaps the world is quieter now in some respects. Electric cars motor by with no engine sound. Solid state drives in computers and portable tablets have virtually eliminated the hard-drive whir that for many years served as digital music’s equivalent to the surface noise of vinyl and cassettes. There is ever more abundant use of headphones, isolating listeners from the world around them. Sound design is increasingly a considered—that is, restrained—component of product design, so the sounds we do experience in consumer goods—from alarm clocks to microwaves—are more tasteful. Movies and TV shows now feature the so-termed “underscoring” techniques pioneered by the likes of Lisa Gerrard (
Whale Rider, Gladiator
), Clint Mansell (
Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan
), and Cliff Martinez (
sex, lies, and videotape
;
Solaris
), rather than the foregrounded, melodramatic orchestral techniques of an earlier generation, or the synthesized renditions of those orchestral techniques that served as a bridge from orchestra to our present era of ambient movie scoring. Perhaps we only can hear the beats inherent in
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
two decades after the fact because those elements are, in cultural terms, louder now. Or perhaps it all depends on what the meaning of “beat” is.

## Gaseous Cloud Affect

Certainly,
Selected Ambient Works Volume II
is flush with a gentle fog of sound. Certainly it is ethereal and, a favorite word to describe it, plangent. Certainly it is spacious and as much wallpaper as warm embrace. And certainly amid the cultural world from which it arose, it is so still that its plaintive elements might be belied by the sonic reticence, and so hazy that its melodic material might be overheard—that is, misheard—in favor of an attention to sonic flavor: a victory of tone over tune.

But such a victory is pyrrhic if it is the overriding means by which the album is experienced and perceived, if it remains the conventional appreciation of the album, instead of what the album is: a sequence of detailed, thoughtful compositions that achieve their goals through effort, not a lack thereof.

Yes, there are key tracks that are seemingly absent of a percussive aspect. There is “Parallel Stripes,” the basis of which is a quickly wavering sine wave. Above it is this wisp of a riff of a fragment, which shifts keys in a manner that is more conversational than melodic. It all brings to mind the interspecies communications from Steven Spielberg’s
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
, music by John Williams. The wave appears out of a haze, out of a burr of static, out of what could be a radio emitting white noise between stations, or a circuit that has shorted out into a feedback of looped industrial entropy. It gets richer and fatter, this oscillation, as other waves seem to join it in a kind of communion. The intervals between notes bring to mind “Silent Night,” which puts this solidly in the realm of
Unsilent Night
, composer Phil Kline’s secular year-end music, which manages to be reflective and seasonal without having a sectarian, devout, or otherwise irreconcilably spiritual affect. Kline’s music achieves its glacially shifting generative sounds by supplying participants with prerecorded parts that are played back on boomboxes.

And there is “Tree,” which opens with thick swells, like the sound of blood in the ear but slowed to a meditative pace, thus providing a peculiar mix of anger and placidity. It is the sound a boxer experiences between the punch and hitting the mat. These swells come and go like a waveform writ large. Then arrives the hovering glisten, a series of alternating tones, a cluster played as a sequence, circling above the dark swell. They enter at about 1:15, and then, at two minutes, comes a third element, synthesized strings playing a simple triangular motif. These shuddering layers after they have accumulated are a bit like thin curtains that in combination gather a surprising density of opacity yet retain the elegance of a veil.