Cock/Ver 10 - Alarm Will Sound - Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin (2006, Cantaloupe)
A large number of popular electronic musicians list composers from the western classical tradition as influences, with many even citing contemporary and experimental composers. But one would be hard pressed to find someone who has intertwined the two worlds of popular electronic music and classical music more than Richard D. James, perhaps best known under his alias Aphex Twin.
A multi-faceted musician who specialises in creating acid and ambient techno, Aphex Twin rose to fame at the beginning of the 1990s with his Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and it wasn’t too long before he was connecting to the classical music world in a big way. As early as 1995 he was was sharing music with Karlheinz Stockhausen, and more notably collaborating with Philip Glass on an orchestration of ICCT Hedral. Even today, he is actively collaborating with composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Johnny Greenwood.
It’s quite clear that unlike many other electronic musicians, the connection Aphex Twin has with the classical music world is a two-way street. The London Sinfonietta has presented numerous performances that see orchestrations of Aphex Twin’s work placed alongside works by Ligeti and Stockhausen, and his collaboration with Philip Glass was hailed as a groundbreaking role-reversal of the two fields; as Schiller puts it, “the connection between modern minimalist composition and IDM (so-called Intelligent Dance Music) had spawned its first bit of hybrid offspring via backwards-looking means. ICCT Hedral had been de-mixed, and by one of the masters no less”. But the most acclaimed “de-mixing” of his work can be found on Alarm Will Sound’s album Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin.
Alarm Will Sound are a 22-member chamber orchestra, who focus on recording and performing contemporary music. Their first two recordings focused solely on works by Steve Reich, but with their third album they wanted to try something new, and were especially taken with the concept of “de-mixing” electronic artists. They unanimously decided to use works by Aphex Twin, as “[his] music was complex and moving and imaginative and unique and intelligent - like all the music we love as performers - so we knew we could play it and be ourselves.”
However, it turned out transforming Aphex Twin’s work into music playable by a chamber orchestra was no mean feat. The combination of his complex computer-driven polyrhythms, constant layering of sound, and regular use of unlikely samples makes the task of orchestrating his music very difficult. Band member Gavin Chuck elaborates on these teething problems, but goes on to explain how they ended up being a large part of the project’s success:
Remixing is done on computers that can be precise down to the digitally manipulated sound wave flawlessly placed at this or that millisecond […] we definitely did not want the project to become a dumbed-down Man vs. Machine contest in which only virtuosity counts. So, we were conflicted about whether to make the leap from Aphex Twin’s originals - masterpieces for the digital medium - to our arrangements for live musicians.
In the end, we never fully resolved that tension, which actually turned out to be a good thing. The push and pull between machine precision and human performance, between electronic and acoustic sound, between sampling and arranging became the productive tension that drove the project. We fought over whether to recreate the tracks as faithfully as possible or to treat the arrangements like covers in which we would explore the music more freely.
Acoustica features tracks from a wide range of Aphex Twin’s recordings, but more than half, including Cock/Ver 10, stem from his last and most divisive release, Drukqs. Drukqs is a sprawling, at times inscrutable double-album, which tends to lean towards the acid-tinged and frenetic drum programming of his later recordings, but ends up being a stylistic roller coaster. The original of Cock/Ver 10, a claustrophobic crossbreed of dark 90s techno and pummelling drum ‘n’ bass, is directly followed by Avril 14th, a delicate piece for solo piano echoing Erik Satie; which is just as roughly succeeded by the acid-approaching-gabber of Mt. Saint Michel Mix.
Many critics slammed the work for being incoherent and indecipherable, yet ten years on others claim it as his most fascinating and enduring work. As Oscar Wilde puts it, “diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital”, and this could quite feasibly be the reason Alarm Will Sound decided to focus on works from Drukqs.
Alarm Will Sound’s cover of Cock/Ver 10, arranged by the band’s cellist Stefan Freund, is a masterpiece of orchestration, and quite rightly takes pole position at the beginning of Acoustica. From the cascading digital waterfall at the beginning, through the simultaneously intricate and pummelling drum programming, to the vocal samples (“Come on you c***, let’s have some Aphex acid!”), Freund’s arrangement barely misses even the smallest details of the original, and he assigns it all in the most fascinating and gripping way. ‘Cellos turn the incessant synth glitches of the original into a conspiratorial conversation, while the bassoons and oboes mutter deep synth rumbles. The violins alternate between atmospheric swoops, screeches, and a haunting melody, one that somehow got buried beneath the original’s overwhelming layers of drum programming, but here gets a chance to see the light of day.
It may be just an orchestral cover, a “de-mix” of an Aphex Twin track, but Alarm Will Sound’s Cock/Ver 10 opens up the claustrophobic original both aurally and psychologically, presenting a version that is not only rewarding, but is surprisingly much more approachable than the original. The traditional expectations of popular electronic music and experimental classical music have truly been reversed here.