The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Marc Weidenbaum
By Kaitlin Fontana, 33 1/3 editorial assistant
with contributions by Mara Berkoff
Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.
Up now: Marc Weidenbaum, publisher of the webzine Disquie,t focusing on the sounds of ambient and experimental music. Which album had Marc wired? Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which left Weidenbaum wanting to debunk myth that the album is indeed beatless. In our interview, Marc tells us that “[it’s commonly asserted] that it has no rhythmic content. I think this is, simply, false.”
33 1/3: What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Marc Weidenbaum: After the almost 20 years now that I’ve spent with Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II since its 1994 release, what drew me in particular was the album’s deep, resounding, unrepentant murkiness—which is to say, its absence of what might be considered particular. The record evades the idea of particular, except to the extent that its pronounced murkiness is particular to it. Tracks seem to bleed together, and to fall apart. The framing material abets in this: the general lack of song titles, the hazy graphics, and the limited liner notes. Ambient music is often packaged and promoted as being ephemeral, ethereal, but this album is more so than most; it’s tantalizingly difficult to get a grip on.
In many ways it is music that one can get—that one inevitably gets—lost in. That was plainly attractive in 1994. Come 2012, when I wrote the book proposal, the idea of getting lost—at our initial moment of pervasive cell phones, GPS, search indexes, Google Books, and so on—seems like a long lost ideal. I know that I am most comfortable when I am least comfortable, and the fact that Selected Ambient Works Volume II is still strange to me makes me uncomfortable in a good way.
33 1/3: Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you?
MW: This was the second time I’d submitted a proposal to the 33 1/3 series. The first time was several cycles ago. I had then proposed the self-titled debut album by the Latin Playboys, an adjunct operation to Los Lobos featuring two members of that band plus the musician/producers Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom. It didn’t even make the shortlist cut. This time around, rather than simply select “the album I feel most passionately about at this moment,” I intended instead to select an album at a Venn Diagram intersection of various essential things: It needed to be an album that gave me an opportunity to dig into the things I am most focused on (i.e., technologically mediated sound, ambient music, electronic music, generative music, sound art, field recordings), an album that was more myth and mystery than it was a crucible of received collective wisdom.
Two final factors, in discussion with various friends and colleagues, led me to focus on Aphex Twin. The primary one was that of the three final contenders (the other two being the Monolake and the Oval), Aphex Twin was the least conventionally understood. I wanted the book to be of service to its reader, and I felt that an underreported album would have a welcoming audience, especially a record, such as this one, that doesn’t expend much effort in telling its own story. I thought both Monolake and Oval would be fine choices, but in the end I couldn’t really focus on a specific album—much as I love Hong Kong and 94 Diskont, respectively—by either that I felt stood alone the way Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II does. As for the thing that surprised me the most, it was, simply, how excited I got as I worked on the proposal. When I started the process, I was thinking the 33 1/3 series would be really neat to participate in. By the time I was deep in the final editing of my proposal, I was heart-poundingly, evangelically excited at the prospect of spending serious, purposeful time with this album.
33 1/3: What do you want to explore about this band that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
MW: At the most fundamental level of inquiry, I want to probe the one thing that is pervasively understood about this record, the “fact” that is synonymous with Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which is the idea that it has no beats. This is commonly asserted about it, that it has no rhythmic content. I think this is, simply, false. Much of the album has rhythmic content, even a consistent beat, if not two or more beats working against yet in concert with each other. I want to explore the perceived tension between ambient sound and rhythm. Perhaps, like a lot of monumental artistic works that occur at major cultural junctures, the record simply gained fame as exemplifying what came before it—as archetypal ambient music—when it’s really most notable, I think, as exemplifying what would arrive in its wake: a culture wherein beats are so pervasive as to be able to serve as background music. I don’t really know. It’s early in the writing process, but this is very important to me at the moment, and was as I crafted the book proposal.
33 1/3: What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
MW: I’ve easily read 20 of them—a dozen or so over the years in advance of my submitting this proposal, and more since my book proposal was accepted, as a means of getting my head straight in terms of the context in which my work will appear. I tend to recommend the following four, and I am describing them here in the context of my planning of the Aphex book:
1. Geeta Dayal’s Another Green World (Brian Eno). To some extent, my book about the Aphex Twin album is a response to Dayal’s insightful volume. This is largely a matter of subject material, but it’s also one of consequence: the Aphex Twin music in question, from a broad cultural vantage, picked up from where Brian Eno had left off, and to tell its story is to tell a story of music in the unforeseen popular wake of Eno’s esoteric earlier efforts. There are structural similarities, too, in that like Dayal’s, my book focuses on the core album-as-subject, but also uses it as an opportunity to explore other closely related records by the responsible musician, in particular Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which preceded Volume II, and some of the EPs and singles that immediately followed it up.
2. Erik Davis’ Led Zeppelin IV. Like Davis’ book, mine takes as its focus a populist outgrowth of loopy British occultism. One thing that really stuck with me from his excellent volume is the way he handled the visual/runic iconography of the Zeppelin classic: collating the collective interpretations that have arisen, making a case for their participation in the album as an album (that is, as an object, and not a mere collection of individual songs).
3. Drew Daniel’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats (Throbbing Gristle). Daniel’s approach is perhaps foremost among the 33 1/3 books I’ve read in terms of aligning with my sense of my own cultural perspective. There is in him a wilful blindness to commonly perceived conventions of genre, along with hierarchical matters of cultural institutions; that is core to the way Daniel, as a member of Matmos and as a solo musician, participates in music and how he explored that record in particular.
4. Jonathan Lethem’s Fear of Music (Talking Heads). I have only just read this volume. It’s a little soon for me to project its impact on my own work, but I am a long-time Lethem reader (take a peek at his extended bibliography, and you’ll note two very early pieces of music journalism he committed for Pulse! magazine when I was an editor there), and I am fully aware of his influence on my thinking. I cannot imagine anything I write will approach Lethem’s trademark ecstatic responsiveness to subject matter. But there is one thing he did in Fear of Music that I think is essential to the Aphex album’s consideration, which is the way he demarcated the moment of the album’s initial appearance, and how different the world of today is from the world of that moment. It is essential when depicting Selected Ambient Works Volume II to do so with a sense of cultural history, and from a variety of perspectives. Also, for what it’s worth, I’m much more of a Remain in Light guy than a Fear of Music guy, and that had no adverse impact on my ability to appreciate this book—which gives me comfort that diehard fans of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85–92 or Richard D. James Album might still enjoy what I’m up to.
33 1/3: What was your first concert?
MW: I attended concerts semi-regularly as a kid and teen. My parents were very culturally active, and they remain very culturally active in their retirement, and they encouraged this in their children. I know I saw the jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal play at a small arts center off Main Street in Huntington, the town on Long Island where I grew up, sometime in my teens—I don’t know why I decided to attend the show, as I knew nothing about him, but his drummer blew me away; I hope never to forget my sense of awe at his callisthenic musicianship.
In any case, I believe that in the commonly held sense of the term, the very first concert I attended was in 1981. I was barely 15 years old and on a weekend morning I opened the New York Times and saw a full-page, perhaps a full-spread, advertisement for Simon & Garfunkel playing a reunion concert in Manhattan’s Central Park. A decade had passed since they’d ceased performing as a unit. And better yet: the show was free. It was an amazing show to be one’s first real massive concert experience—the sheer presence of that many people, the indelible quality of those songs, and the communal sense of rock-era hopefulness that somehow coincided with the start of what would be Ronald Reagan’s long and contradictory presidency. Less than a year earlier, John Lennon had been shot to death mere blocks from where the concert was held. On the day of the Simon & Garfunkel concert, it felt like eons had passed. And when the show was over, a vast number of us walked back to Penn Station to catch a train home, so many that we just filled the streets, from sidewalk to sidewalk.
33 1/3: How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
MW: Most of my listening is to three sources: to MP3s, to streaming music, and to generative sound applications. I listen to MP3s and streaming music for convenience. I have various devices that play CDs, but just about every CD I purchase or that I receive in the mail for promotional purposes I immediately rip and listen to as a 320 kbps MP3. Streaming music is usually a low-fidelity MP3 embedded in a webpage. I spend an inordinate amount of time on SoundCloud.com, and on the websites of musicians and record labels, which generally have streaming music.
33 1/3: Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
MW: This is difficult to answer because there isn’t much in the manner of a lyric on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II. It’s almost entirely instrumental, and to the extent that a voice is heard, it’s one that is muffled, clipped, edited, echoed until it serves an instrumental function—the voice becomes a sonic element, textural rather than textual, as the saying goes. To that extent, any such appearance here, like the semblance of a woman’s voice on the album’s opening track, encapsulates all three things you mention: One of the great benefits of a record with no words is how it doesn’t respond directly to your writing about it—it doesn’t purport to explain itself in the way that records that consist of words, such as a traditional rock and rap records, explain themselves. This is very enticing to me.
Next time: Tara Murtha on Bobby Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. Stay tuned.