The ambient remembering machine

selected ambient works volume 2

I’m not who I have in memory, Nor who is in me now. If I think, I self-dismember. If I believe, there is no end
– Pessoa

Strolling through the narrow lanes of Brighton with Aphex Twin’s seminal Selected Ambient Works Volume Two (SAWV2) playing quietly on my iPod, I was struck by a particular kind of geographic nostalgia for the Westcountry, which was my stamping ground as a youth. Richard James (Aphex Twin) hails from Lanner in Cornwall and his work is infused with childhood samples and mythological names from Kernow’s past. Early musical efforts began with the creation of pulsing techno, but SAWV2 (released in 1994) marked a distinct departure from the fractured modular beats of previous efforts. Instead James looked towards the subtle minimalist tones of Brian Eno’s pioneering ambient Music For Airports for inspiration. James described these tracks as ‘standing in a power station on acid’, reminiscent of the quiet buzz emanating from a legion of droning ghostly pylons.

The resulting album comprised of a series of subtle soundscapes, tracks did not have blunt titles, but instead were associated with various fragmentary textural photographs displayed within the sleeve art. These mysterious pieces implied slate shards, atmospheric blurs and crumbling mould. Writer Douglas Coupland declared that ‘nostalgia is a weapon’, for me the deft digital hisses and droning tonal washes alluded to the wind swept tors and Atlantic blasted beaches of the western reaches of Devon and Cornwall, a landscape of isolation, faded industry and swirling mists. The atmospheric waveforms neatly slice backwards into the periphery of faint memories of a geography sadly only appreciated once I’d departed northwards for university. Writer and fellow musician David Toop observed that ‘too many current ambient tracks lack the content to bear repeated listening, but I can imagine returning to these 25 (what are they? crepuscular vignettes?) at any time and in any environment: sun, darkness, dawn, twilight, the bath, the car, in the sea, flying, loud, soft, to be sad or to feel good, alone or with people, in my body or out of it.’ For Toop they conveyed sonic postcards, slivers of locational knowledge deftly extruded from our collective mind.

selected ambient works volume 2

Selected Ambient Works Volume II cover art © Warp Records

The echoing bass sounds of the album reminded me of a line in a diary uncovered from the Tomb of Balin in Tolkien’s mythos The Lord Of The Rings which has its parallels with the mysterious Cornish Knockers legends of mischievous spirits tunnelling in the depths. The retreating Dwarves trapped in the mines of Moria, under siege from the ravening orc hordes, ominously penned ‘drums, drums in the deep’. The cavernous subterranean subspace echoed with the vast noise of the foes as they sought to conquer the stout fighters, driven on themselves by a mythical creature called a Balrog, an ancient monster representing the very magma furnace. In effect the drums became the experience, sound-waves shot through the fleeing fighters, a vast ambient texture manifest as a feeling. Eighteenth century haiku master Chiyo-ni, famous for her astute observations wove this notion of pulsing auditory textures through her entire collection of seasonal poems. Her haikus were narrative sprites alluding to an emotive quailty of mind and location. In autumn she penned ‘sounds merge- the rain quiets, the pounding of cloth’. Here the word pounding is translated from kinuta, a traditional wooden hammer used to soften fabric or straw. The rhythms help structure a phenomenological topology of place and a patient calmness of being.

Norwegian indie band The Kings of Convenience sang ‘homesick, for I no longer know where home is’, their music melancholy tunes for wistful wanderers. SAWV2 distilled this sense of dislocation and refined the ambience into a work of epic sensory subtlety. The vaguest hints of wind and enclosure, with the sparseness of strobing rhythms paint an interior realm of contemplation and my thoughts always end up returning to Coupland. His emotive short story collection Polaroids From The The Dead contains various semi-autobiographcial observations on moments from his past and endeavours to ‘explore a world that existed in the early 90s, back when the decade was young and had to locate its own texture’. For him it was a period of immese nostalgia, grunge had helped recycle hippie and rock motifs from the 60s and 70s and the Generation X anti-hipsters were dazzled by the bright lights of the retro future.

By sheer coincidence my own life has often mirrored his protagonists’ ages, walking in step with the misfit characters. Critic Andrew Tate notes that ‘the narrator of the (…) story reflects that, after the blank space of early childhood, memories overpower all else in your life, forever making the present moment seem sad, and unable to compete with a glorious past that now has a life of its own’. For Tate these Polaroid snapshots capture an otherworldly space now detached from our present. In the short piece entitled The German Reporter Coupland welcomes an interviewer to his home city of Vancouver to wander in the rain and forests. He is forced to revisit the memories of youth and muses ‘we lose our days- and our ability to retrieve them- and yet there are some days that should never be lost’.  SAWV2 is ultimately a passive device for revisiting these childhood shards, disparate landscapes hence are redrawn as an experiential sonic map of loss and psychogeographical ghosts.



  1. It’s always a real treat when you put up a new posting: I do really look forward to them!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I’m posting this Before reading, just so I can effuse, then read at leisure.

  2. There is an industrial sound I’ve been looking for for years – I wonder if it is in here: SAWV11?
    I tried Einsturzende Neubauten, but I find their range kinda limited, that they are not as good as maybe they think they are.
    It’s something to do with the new fashionable term ‘fractured discourses’, to do with urban living – but suspect that when people, critics, talk about urban living they really mean London living – and that is a whole different ball-game, that entails the sociolects of power.

    I’ve always lived in the north, amongst hills, and pine for them when away, as much as I hate having to climb them just to go anywhere. You can’t bike ride because you wear yourself out after a couple of miles… then you long for level Norfolk roads, big skies….
    Yes, time for Douglas Coupland again – anyone who choses Vancouver over Seattle is a good man!

    1. I love EN live, but find their cds rather lacking. As part of ageing i’ve become really drawn to minimalism, music that pools and fills the cracks of life, SAWV2 fits that niche nicely.

      You make a great point, I know what you mean about urbanism, it is dominated by the proud, even arrogant supercity. Provincial towns as demonstrated by our current Olympian excess are left to struggle to find their own identity. Coupland is often criticised for being sentimental, but I find that beauty he sees in the small things sometimes rather wonderful.

  3. Coincidences, love them – I have just referred to David Toop in a new post. Your musical knowledge is so impressive compared to mine though! Fascinating stuff and intriguing lateral thoughts. Great quote at the beginning.

    1. Thanks, very kind, I wouldn’t say impressive, just random! I really like Toops’ writing, his books are a vast mine of fascinating artists. Have you also read my landscape of glitch post? It has a bit on a live Toop show I once went to. I’ll pop over to your blog now…

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