Lucid dreaming: Getting lost in Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II (on an exquisite sound system)

Written By: 
Randall Roberts
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Aphex Twin

Join us for a listening session dedicated today to Richard D. James’ aka Aphex Twin from 2-5pm at In Sheep’s Clothing NYC.

Although many consider Aphex Twin’s two landmark volumes of Selected Ambient Works to be comedown classics whose drifting, repetitive measures can calm even the most addled 4 a.m. mind, they’re arguably best heard in the late afternoon, and even better heard if you didn’t sleep well the night before. It at these times that the practice of lucid dreaming starts generating ideas otherwise unattainable.

“Your mind starts getting scatty, like you’re senile,” is how Richard D. James once explained it, discussing his ambient works in the mid-1990s and his method of making them. Other times he compared the pieces to “standing in a power station on acid.”

Those in New York interested in experiencing that sensation can do so on Monday during our weekly Dedicated Listening Session. In Sheep’s Clothing’s Bryan Ling will bring eight Aphex Twin classics, including Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II, to ISC NYC and play them from 2-5 p.m. EST.

“Power stations are wicked,” he told David Toop in 1994. “If you just stand in the middle of a really massive one so you get a really weird presence and you’ve got that hum. You just feel electricity around you. That’s totally dream-like for me.” He describes the state as “a right strange dimension.”

Screenshot from Aphex Twin’s ‘On’ video

Entering said dimensions is one way to understand what James was up to when he started working on this stuff in his late teens. He’d already released acid house tracks, had upended the notion that rave music was just body music, a vehicle for bliss rather than an art form worthy of deep, focused absorption and adaptable to varied states of listening.

James released Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1 when he was 22. By then the artist had internalized ideas about automatic composing, writing and creation. Like stream-of-conscious work, the aim in lucid dreaming sessions is to vanish the ego, eliminate learned obstacles, whether linguistic or formulaic, that can hinder so-called “pure” creativity. It’s a state that surrealist Paul Eluard felt occurred because “the sleeper’s feelings invariably tend to harmonize more or less easily or strenuously with the real world of his dreams.”

Once in a blessed state, a mix of fleeting sensations flood the psyche: “hallucination, innocence, rage, memory (that insane Proteus), old tales, unexpected recollections, conflagrations of ideas, feelings and things; systematic undertakings for idle ends, and idle ends which turn into immediately useful ends, the disorder of logic to absurdity, the use of the absurd to the point of sense …”

“I’ve been able to do it since I was little”, James told Toop about the internal journeys he’d taken through lucid dreaming. Toop was skeptical about whether James was putting on or not, describing the musician as “talking in a way which indicates either a serious person who has never been taken seriously or a practical joker who has been taken too seriously for too long.”

Telling Toop that he’d taught himself how to mind-travel, James called it his “most precious thing.” He continued, “Through the years, I’ve done everything that you can do, including talking and shagging with anyone you feel that takes your fancy. … I often throw myself off skyscrapers or cliffs and zoom off right at the last minute. That’s quite good fun. It’s well realistic. Eating food is quite smart. Like tasting food. Smells as well. I make foods up and sometimes they don’t taste of anything – like they taste of some weird mish-mash of other things.”

Then James moved to the notion of lucid composing, telling Toop, “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.”

James continued: “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 100% finished tracks. I’d wake up and I’d only been asleep for ten minutes. That’s quite mental. I vary the way I do it, dreaming either I’m in my studio, entirely the way it is, or all kinds of variations. The hardest thing is getting the sounds the same. It’s never the same. It doesn’t really come close to it.”

Here’s how writer Simon Reynolds described Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II in Generation Ecstasy:

Throughout Volume II, overt melody is mostly shunned in favor of percussive/harmonic chimes and amorphous drones. Track 10/Disc 1 has the deadly opalescent allure of the glowworm’s web, down whose hollow filaments the luminous larvae glide toward their fatal trysts with trapped insects. There are only a handful of lapses into straightforward beauty, in the form of tracks that recall the devotional music of minimalist neoclassical composers like Arvo Pärt. Most of Volume II has more in common with the techniques of late-twentieth-century avant-classical composers like Ligeti, Berio, Xenakis, and Stockhausen. James talked of devising his own tunings and scales, of exploring the “infinite number of notes between C and C sharp” and getting down “to ultrapure frequencies and sine waves.”

He expanded on that in Melody Maker when discussing the yet-to-be-released Volume II in 1993. “Some of the tracks … consist of just one sound. I’m trying to make music which surrounds you, which fills the room. I love the idea of the record ending and leaving a huge gap in your head.”

In addition to Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II, ISC NYC will drop the needle on seven other Aphex classics on Monday. Full program below:

  • Aphex Twin – Drukqs
  • Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works, Volume II
  • Polygon Window – Quoth
  • Power-Pill – Pac-Man
  • AFX – Analord 3
  • Aphex Twin – Cheetah
  • Aphex Twin – Collapse
  • Aphex Twin – Blackbox Life Recorder 21f

Expect to leave with a huge gap in your head.

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