University Challenge and Diversity

Another year, another rip-roaring University Challenge final, a fitting reward for those who endured the gruelling winter of repechages and qualification quarter finals. Goldman beats Monkman, and the question is asked if this man-on-man salvo shows a BBC shod of Jeremy Clarkson and all-male panel shows in the best light.

Eve Livingston identifies the problem, but not the diagnosis or solution. At the risk of mansplaining, I should know: I was part of another all-male final in 2014, representing Somerville College, Oxford, which only 20 years prior did not even admit men. It is wrong to assume that University Challenge demonstrates intelligence, rather than recall and specialised knowledge in ‘highbrow’ subjects. Reading 19th century novels, having a smattering of Greek and Latin, and knowing an Old Master when you see one are not indicators of intelligence, but combined with a quick buzzer finger, they are good grounding for the questions which make up the majority of the program’s trivia bank.

This doesn’t mean an automatic preference for teams from Oxbridge colleges either. Though the last few finals have been light on dark blue affairs, with a too-good-to-be-true proximity to the Boat Race in the TV schedules, the talking point when I was a contestant was the sterile domination of Manchester, with their teams well-drilled by Stephen Pearson, the so-called ‘Alex Ferguson of quiz’. Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick are the four British universities most active in what passes for the university quizzing ‘scene’, the largely underground fraternity of student societies whose competitions form a sort of training ground for appearing on University Challenge, and are one of the reasons why those institutions are consistently successful. The quizzing community was undoubtedly dominated by men when I was part of it, and I assume it still is. But the suggestion that it is actively discriminatory towards women joining is far off the mark. I had the rather quixotic title of social secretary for the Oxford University Quiz Society, so I was acutely aware of the preponderance of men involved with quizzing. I can sympathise with Emma Johnson of Corpus Christi when she says that being the only woman in a room of 40 sweatily competitive men is an unnerving one, but she identifies the crux of quizzing’s gender gap: it is a particularly male pursuit. If the BBC broadcast a show every Monday which featured competitive stamp-collecting or model railway building, the proportion of women competing would be just as low, if not lower.

Looking at other hard-as-nails quizzes in the UK shows you how male an activity it is, even ones without the emphasis on competitive buzzer-racing, which is sometimes cited as a reason for the testosterone overload. The proportion of female winners of Brain Of Britain is only just over 10%, as is Only Connect. Cuddly Countdown is even lower. University Challenge and its enthusiastic, well-meaning contestants shouldn’t be made punching bags for a wider trend.

Quotas are not the answer. Comedy panel shows aren’t analogous because the difficulty isn’t in getting women’s voices heard in the first place (though I do wonder if men are more comfortable interrupting Jeremy Paxman), and quotas detract from the quality of the competition, though some action may need to be taken before we approach the University Challenge singularity where the contestants are able to answer every single question before the audience even knows what is being asked.

For all this, there is a simple answer to the question of ‘where are the women in University Challenge?’ and it is: doing more important things than indulging in a strain of male obsessiveness. During my year on the show, both the president and vice-president of my college’s undergraduate body were women. They were both implausibly multilingual, multitalented and academic high-flyers, even by Oxford standards. I found them personally inspiring, and so the idea that my meagre efforts could be compared to them, or be held as a superior measure of ‘intelligence’, seemed very wrong. The debate about the show sometimes feels less like one about intelligence, but the leftover idea that television exposure equals importance. Students, male and female, accomplish so many incredible things out of sight of the TV cameras, and there is plenty of scope to highlight that outside of a stuffy quiz show. I was fortunate enough to know fellow students across different universities who completed Ironman triathlons, were presidents of comedy revues, and were prolific charity fundraisers. Determined and engaged beyond their years, they were the true cream of the crop. They will go on to change or better the world, whereas I am more likely to shuffle off a bar stool, having won a tenner in a two-bit pub quiz, to throw darts at a board with Ralph Morley’s face stapled to it.

Which brings me to one area where Eve delivers the nail precisely to the head. My series was the last one before Twitter, second screening, and the wider conversation around the show across social media really took off, but it was there to a degree. I don’t think anyone can ever knock me off my perch as succinctly as one Twitter user who stated: “every time i watch university challenge that cunt beer is on it”. No-one ever treated me as a sex object though, which was the fate reserved for the women we competed against. They were either attacked for not being good-looking enough to be on TV, or, if the Twitter hivemind decided they were attractive, then they were reminded of that fact, repeatedly.

Part of the casting process for University Challenge involves being interviewed as a team by the producers so they can assess if you are comfortable with the pressure of a televised environment. TV is one thing, Twitter is quite another. Television and Twitter are now part of an amorphous double-world, where each feeds off the other. Most Twitter commentary on University Challenge is light-hearted and supportive of the contestants. Yet I can’t help but feel it is only a matter of time before someone reads too much into unpleasant messages and takes it badly, given that it is fairly easy to track down a contestant online once the show has finished. Let’s not forget the bulk of University Challenge contestants are only a couple of years too old to fall under the BBC’s Child Protection Policy. If you have been hothoused in academic environments your whole life, the sudden exposure can be a shock. In that environment, I can perfectly understand why women in particular would be less inclined to take part. While I’m sure the BBC does all it can in providing a duty of care to their contestants, they and other TV channels should be wary of stirring the online conversation in search of publicity, lest they are unable to control the consequences.

If we as Monday night masochists still crave a slice of competitive quizzing, we will probably have to accept that more men will appear on screen than women. The danger may not be in failing to get more women to take part, but failing to take care of the ones that do.

 

Waiting For Godot at the Barbican: The Death of the Old White Man

POZZO: Who are you?
VLADIMIR: We are men.

Samuel Beckett –  Waiting For Godot

For all of Samuel Beckett’s keen insight into general existential questions, Waiting For Godot is a play with an all-male cast, and therefore reveals something of the deep-seated insecurities of being an older man, a deeper sense of purposeless which lies behind flaccid penises and enlarged prostates. In 1988, a Dutch judge ruled that the play was sufficiently about ‘the human condition’ to permit an all-female production of it, whereas Beckett (via his lawyers) used the analogy of different musical instruments to emphasise the importance of his characters’ physical sexual difference, memorably claiming a woman couldn’t play Vladimir because ‘women don’t have prostates’.* It was immaculate timing that I should go see the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting For Godot in the aftermath of the Twitterstorm reacting to Craig Raine’s poem ‘Gatwick’, published in the London Review of Books at the beginning of June. The first viral reaction to poetry on Twitter I can remember, it might just be poetry’s biggest moment of public controversy since Tony Harrison’s V. Emerging as it did firmly out of step with the contemporary mindset on issues on sex and femininity, there is much to be written about the poem and I will probably do so at some point in the future. In the interim though, the furore over Raine’s poem can help us colour in sometimes overlooked details of Beckett’s play, and appreciate a 2015 production of it.

The second stanza of Raine’s poem sets the scene in London Gatwick airport, a transport hub used as a metaphor for the mundane reeling in of old age. The humdrum formality of waiting around in queues for passport checks finds a companion in Beckett’s all-encompassing anteroom that is the desolate road where Vladimir and Estragon wait. Raine’s experience is momentarily lit up by flushes of youth, whereas Beckett’s run-down tramps find their only source of entertainment amidst their various ailments – urge to urinate, sore feet – to be vaudeville patter and mime, a brand of comedy which stands out (and did so during its stage debut) largely for being so out of date. Godot comes to represent something, anything, which ends the monotony and slow decay of growing old as a man – like death.

Having this in mind also gives a new interpretation of the boy who appears as Godot’s ambassador at the close of both acts; an envoy of youth, someone whose innocence stands apart from the chaos wrought by the older figures on stage. Lucky initially appears to be a slave whose prime of life is spent serving Pozzo, but is revealed to be far older than he first appears. This was impeccably done in the STC’s portrayal at the Barbican, as Lucky’s hat is knocked aside to reveal long, silvery hair betraying his real age (as a tangent, the fact that an Australian Theatre company is putting on the play raises valuable questions about Lucky’s role in relation to native cultures, and how subjugated they are). At the end of Act 2 the Boy seems to preempt the interpretation of Godot as God by describing the only physical description of Godot we are afforded in the entire play – that he has a beard, and that it could be white. I don’t discount that interpretation of Godot, but just as important is the white beard and its attachment to the chin of a Creator (whether God or Zeus) as the apotheosis of masculinity which has been upheld for centuries through art history, and which Vladimir and Estragon cannot inhabit in their detumescent ennui. As far as Craig Raine is concerned, the women he encounters provide different forms of reading to the ones he is familiar with. The shamanic status of poet as oral storyteller, or as any public commentator, hangs forlornly in the background as one girl immerses herself in a Kindle, and another at the immigration service moves from studying his poetry at ‘uni’ to scanning his passport, pinning down the aura of the artist to zeroes and ones. The seemingly oxymoronic final stanzas capture this, as the poet recognises the distillation of his voice. For all of the controversy that the poem provoked, much of it is anticipated in the verse. Raine knows full well that a man in his position is obliged to be silent about certain topics, ones which he has presumably ‘grown out of’ as he reaches an asexual whitebearded stage of his career.

Tension between the old and the young is not limited to Godot in Beckett’s oeuvre – it is more evident in the familial push-pull of Endgame, the layers of memory in Krapp’s Last Tape, and in the novel Molloy, where Jacques Moran has an irritable relationship with his son. One of the defining characteristics of Beckett’s works is the sense of prior catastrophe – this is where his true (if inflexible) genius comes in writing for the stage, because its fixed dimensions become a cage for characters who are trapped by oppressive circumstances. Sometimes the membrane is pierced to allow a memory to venture outwards. In Godot’s case, it is Vladimir and Estragon harvesting grapes on the banks of the Rhone. That occasion is memorable for Didi and Gogo because the latter fell in and had to be rescued by the former. Such memorial reconstructions intimate glory days long gone, distantly seen through the mud of what, in Estragon’s case, could be dementia, explaining why he is unable to remember immediately previous days. The woman on the bus who is ‘so young today’ that it is ‘almost painful’ in ‘Gatwick’ is portrayed in a quite sinister fashion, but this are inseparable from the feelings of a man who realises he has permanently left youth behind, both his own and the people he has relationships with.

Hat-tips should be given to the actors of the Sydney Theatre Company, (especially Philip Quast, who channels his inner PT Barnum as Pozzo), and the staging, as the floor is lit up with dusty pockmarks like a lunar surface which emboldens the actors’ forms upon it. The Barbican is a wonderful space to put on plays for their Beckett Season, as its gutted concrete innards feel like a subterranean cocoon from the city of London.

All of these factors and more ensure that watching Waiting For Godot is a valid exercise in 2015. To spend two hours in the company of Vladimir and Estragon is an act of witness to the kernel of pathos which lies at the heart of the old white man as the marbled busts are taken down from their pillars and we begin, at long last, to reimagine culture and history in the popular mind according to different standards of arbitration. Still, there is a certain irony at work here. Vladimir and Estragon as long-forgotten vaudeville entertainers, the Hamm actor at the centre of Endgame, the 17 copies sold of Krapp’s latest book – these are failed artists at the centre of Beckett’s view of art as a heightened form of failure, and perhaps copies of Beckett himself. The inherent mystery to his plays has nevertheless helped create an icon of the visionary artist, and if there is one practical lesson to take from a 2015 performance of Godot and its attendant concerns with aged masculinity, it should be to reconsider the role of Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, Beckett’s partner through marriage and partner in crime during the French Resistance. As indispensable to his work as Dorothy Wordsworth was to her brother WIlliam’s poetry, she took Beckett’s manuscripts to publishers, gave him the incentive to produce work in the first place, not to mention the financial security to do so. Less of a muse, and more of a colleague.

From the Götterdämmerung of the old white man we can forge new icons. The time is right to re-evaluate who the guardians of culture really are, but we must be careful not to overlook abandoning other corners of human experience in our withdrawal, corners where age and sex are not just abstract tokens of privilege, but are also responsible for physical incapacity and mental disenchantment, leading to a ballooning of the suicide rate in men over the age of 45.

*Beckett’s insistence on strict sexual roles in his plays is ripe to be challenged now though, following the watershed moment of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. It should also be considered how writing about ‘the human condition’ is nearly always the preserve of male writers in the popular mindset, because there is this lingering belief that men write about the human experience, and women write about the female experience.

Why we need Aphex Twin now.

After years of near-silence, with only vague rumours of re-releases and hard drives full of music we’d never get to hear, this month we have been greeted with a new Aphex Twin album; Syro. We have missed him. We need him now more than ever, and this is why.

About halfway through the track ‘produk 29’, the third track on the new record, a sample of someone saying ‘fucking whore’ bubbles from the mix. This is the latest of several moments in the ‘Twin’s career where his music is catalysed into a sexually aggressive tour de force – in fact, in his recent interview with Rolling Stone he described himself as ‘horny’ for the album’s release, and he referred to his drum machine as ‘porn’ in a Pitchfork piece.  In much of his output the music erupts violently from the speakers, searching for a malleable surface upon which to impress itself. From porno samples in ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Come On You Slags’, the sinister nursery-rhyme lurch in ‘Milkman’, the pounding periodic beats (pun intended) of ‘Tamphex’, to its apotheosis in the unsettling vocal manipulation of ‘Windowlicker’, violence against women and the tacit endorsement of it through music has always been at the forefront of his work.

Indeed, ‘Windowlicker’ is a single that gets more and more prescient as time goes on. It’s a pastiche of the tendency to reduce female vocal representation in tracks to something approaching a melodic orgasm (not a completely new thing), as in his single the women’s voices are purged of any signification. The music video pokes at the objectification of women in post G-funk music videos, but it is not a phenomenon condensed to that genre, and the timely arrival of projects like Everyday Sexism demonstrate to what extent sexual dynamics are predicated on sex being something that is ‘earned’, that women are a switch that needs to be thrown, or a commodity to be exploited. Sexual aggression seems a natural by-product of James’ music – the density of the beats leads inevitably to a shattering of defence. I’m aware that this is moving into the territory of Susan McClary claiming that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the aural equivalent of rape, which is too far, but James at least raises the question of to what extent his tracks can take up one side of a sexual dichotomy, where women are slags and whores defined solely by their menstrual cycle, while still being palatable.

Employing heavy pitch manipulation on ‘Windowlicker’ shatters the illusion; there is no guarantee of titillating femininity slithering out of the speakers because at any given second, the pitch drops and the tone is decidedly more masculine, just like the women in the video gyrate with all the expected movements of sexy background dancers, but with the rictus grin of Richard D. James’ absolutely terrifying face. Such shock tactics work very well at demonstrating one’s own complicity in an entertainment industry which uses women as fluffers in all but name, offering a brief spurt of arousal, but not much in the way of a voice. This is a problem that’s unlikely to ever go away; the video to Calvin Harris’ ‘Summer’ (if you weren’t aware, that song was released in the summer) has women as props with as much autonomy as the cars which are driven in it.

James has invoked gender segregation in music before – he has claimed that ‘Girl/Boy Song’ was composed and named in an attempt to avoid such a thing, and the cover of the vinyl rerelease of ‘Analogue Bubblebath 3’ features enigmatic male and female pictograms, the type used to distinguish toilets in public places. It’s these little choices that make me confident that the use of women in his songs is quite a considered statement, and not just something done ‘for the boys’.

Cover of Analogue Bubblebath 3.

Cover of Analogue Bubblebath 3.

‘Fucking whore’ is not the only sample in ‘produk 29’: there are other snatches of conversation, one of which is ‘we were in the club last night…’, not just alluding to sexual politics but also the change in performance context of electronic music in the time that Aphex Twin has been making it. He made his name by DJing raves in his native Cornwall. A few years later, a combination of improving technology, legal pressure and a marketing drive to bring innovative electronic music to the home put an increasing divergence between the Warp records stable (record labels inspired by the new sounds of Detroit/Chicago house which were the first to spot the gap in the market for the domestic listener), and club music which filled the ‘going out’ vacuum left by raves.  Following the 1994 watershed, Big Beat acts like Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers congregated around centres like The Heavenly Social club, where the drugs of choice were alcohol based. It doesn’t take much to identify the sonic change to accompany the change of supplements: simply think of Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’, released in 1996, with its refrain of ‘LAGER LAGER LAGER’. James’ discography offers plenty of incisive and satirical twists and turns on the development of electronic music since.

The 'Fantazia' rave at Castle Donnington, credit: Ian Lloyd @ Flickr. I'm sure older readers will find it amazing that someone my age can look back at raves through the prism of history rather than memory, but that's how it is - I find it unbelievable that these things were put together regularly, attracted tens of thousands of people, and were shut down almost as quickly as they sprang up. And only 20 years ago!

The ‘Fantazia’ rave at Castle Donnington, credit: Ian Lloyd @ Flickr. I’m sure older readers will find it amazing that someone my age can look back at raves through the prism of history rather than memory, but that’s how it is – I find it unbelievable that these things were put together regularly, attracted tens of thousands of people, and were shut down almost as quickly as they sprang up. And only 20 years ago!

Indeed, it is rare that he will merely follow the momentum of scenes and changes of direction; if he’s not doing his own thing, he’s skewering everyone else’s hipster pretensions, cf. the infamous sandpaper DJ set. Still, it is one way of thinking about his output in the late 1990s, gravitating around the Richard D. James Album, as well as the continued use of his face as a creepy icon. The move to programming music on computers freed him from some of the inherent restrictions to working with analogue synthesisers, and the complexity of his percussion grew accordingly. It freed the music of some of its obligations to dancing and turned out a more purely aesthetic product as a consequence. The growth of Aphex iconography is a facet of the decline of raving anonymity, by commentating on the emergence of the DJ-as-celebrity, but as ever with James, the end result is an incisive satire at ninety degrees to the bulk of the scene. To use Calvin Harris’ videos as an example again (I’m sorry, but I have to), he has made a lot of his featuring himself as the protagonist in a glossy Hollywood-style production – within the very specific mythology of Calvin Harris videos, I can’t help but think this is a calculated effort ever since he looked on with envy at Dizzee Rascal’s antics from behind the bar in the clip for ‘Dance Wiv Me’. So when Aphex blimps appeared in the sky in the build-up to Syro’s release, part of it was wheezy marketing hyperbole, but it was also the latest instalment in a long-standing satirical commentary on celebrity DJs. It preceded Harris and Guetta and it will probably outlive them as well, as their distinctive bland sonic footprints in the sand are washed away by the tide of time.

After moving to computer technology in the wake of …I Care Because You Do¸ James began the Analord series in a deliberate effort to be re-acquainted with analogue technology. Such movement characterises James’ ambivalent relationship with technology, and the wider comment that its inclusion in dance music makes. Another track on Syro, ‘XMAS EVET 10’, has a title which recalls the ‘Christmas Tree Exec’, or the first widely transmitted computer worm. There is precedent for this in the discography: Analord instalments 08, 09, and 11 all feature tracks named for computer viruses. That these names should occur as part of a technologically regressive project is significant. What you end up with is a strange cybernetic cross-section between computer viruses, the old trope of dancing being a form of hysterical mania needed to cure infection (as in tarantism, leading to the tarantella dance), and the divide between analogue and digital technologies.

The tarantella dance, credit: Lucafiano @ Wikicommons. This is something common to many cultures: traditional East African dances like the Kilumi have a mythic heritage in driving off demons.

The tarantella dance, credit: Lucafiano @ Wikicommons. This is something common to many cultures: traditional East African dances like the Kilumi have a mythic heritage in driving off demons.

This hybridization is reflective of something Aphex has talked about intermittently in interviews, for example his recent Rolling Stone interview:

“We’re half-cyborg already, whether we like it or not. Everything is based on computers – our whole economy, and most of our creative pursuits, as well. We’re not physically connected to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not part of our brains.”

‘Half-cyborg’ is a great word to describe the Aphex project. Even in the context of using analogue synthesisers, using file titles styled on computer viruses implies an unseen digital transference, that the phenomenon of dancing as a purge of demons within the body has been superseded by computer viruses. Whereas the history of the tarantella is dancing in order to rid one of disease, the equivalence of dancing with computer viruses reverses the dynamic, so that dancing is controlled and instigated by the new parasite through our half-cyborg bodies.

The promotional material for Syro has been a relentless breakdown of statistical material. The Analord series may have delved into the matter of viruses, but Syro’s immediate concern appears to be raw data, perhaps fitting given how much of an industry ‘big data’ has become during Aphex’s absence. The immediate worry of the digital space is not what it was 10 years ago – namely, the threat of malignant programs which could wipe out entire systems overnight (dramatized in Hollywood through The Matrix, Swordfish, The Italian Job et al), but the extent to which individuals can be broken down into discrete bits and bytes that are ordered and controlled by advertisers, corporations, and politicians. The preview single ‘mini pops’ has, on YouTube, a background giving detailed analysis of where, how, and when the track was listened to, and the cover art is a receipt for the total costs incurred in producing the album. Again there is the pressing question of how to receive music with such material around it; is the music itself just another form of data, another commodity that runs down the series of tubes with very little to distinguish it? This is why electronic music achieves the status of high art in the present day, and why Aphex Twin matters more than ever – he is the one best positioned like the gremlin from ‘Nightmare at 20000 Feet’, tearing out the fuselage in the plane with a sheer bloody-minded curiosity.

Lego mock-up of 'Nightmare From 20000 Feet', credit: Alex Eylar @ Flickr.

Lego mock-up of ‘Nightmare From 20000 Feet’, credit: Alex Eylar @ Flickr.

We can discuss all we like about how accurately novels, films and indeed any genre can discuss contemporary issues relating to the Internet and digitisation, but electronic music is unique at being at the front line, requiring digital tools for its composition and transference. Walter Pater said in 1877 that ‘all art aspires constantly to the condition of music’, as he felt music was the only art form in which the form and the subject matter are the same. He didn’t have to worry about how electronic tools could complicate this idea, as traditional instrumentation seems an ineffective way to comment on issues relevant to a switched-on world. I’ve written before about Radiohead and their contribution to interrogating the particular circumstances in which we live, but it is Aphex Twin and the IDM school which are closer to Pater’s vision of pure abstraction, and hence the purest concentration of the mood and concerns of the world in which they inhabit, with fewer barriers of mediation.

In doing so, James has always had a cheeky penchant for juxtaposing his most esoteric electronic compositions with acoustic-based works, like ‘Goon Cumpas’, ‘Flim’,’Avril 14th’ ‘Logan Rock Witch’, and ‘Nannou’. The latter two are strident examples because their music-box quality makes them steampunk, finding older parallels with computer production of music in autonomous devices. He exposes the myth of true authenticity with acoustic music, as even his most-stripped back compositions typically have the piano prepared or manipulated in some way.

Regina music box, credit: Daderot @ Wikicommons. Dates from the 1890s.

Regina music box, credit: Daderot @ Wikicommons. Dates from the 1890s.

He’s a rare breed, a musician whose early training came with circuits and ‘sounds’, and then working backwards to the avant-garde composers of Cage et al. He brings to acoustic instruments the methodology of an engineer, emphasising their potential versatility but also the hypocrisy in considering acoustic music to be somehow more truthful than electronic – equal temperament is a tuning compromise, after all (I wrote that days before Pitchfork published their interview with James where he talks a good deal about equal temperament in very similar terms. I don’t expect anyone to believe me, but I’m keeping it here in sheer stubbornness, mixed between pride and anger that I could come up with something that had a kernel of truth in it while being scuppered at the last moment. Fuck you, Pitchfork.). James’ music does not lead you to think of music as fidelitous to a particular ideal of using tools to make sounds, and logically progressing to emotions. His music is the inevitable by-product of systems, and his steampunk experiments prove it has a longer history than just the computer – instruments are not blank tools, but systems to be modified. Again, this is important in 2014 because he complicates the idea that if he just switched everything off, we would find ourselves in a more organic state – he shows how deep our dependence on closed systems is, even when we don’t recognise it.

Much of the movement of electronic music during James’ career has, of course, been instigated by him – Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk credits ‘Windowlicker’ as being the inspiration for he and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo to come up with Discovery, an album that tried to show how electronic music could be the ‘soundtrack to people’s lives’. With no clubs in their native Cornwall to speak of, James and his peers largely developed their own music scene. The great advantage of being so removed from what is ‘happening’ in London is the ability to make music much more indicative of your surroundings and your consciousness, without the sacrifice to being part of a much larger whole, one which is out of your control. The end of raving as a public phenomenon and growth of living-room dance music paved the way for a closer channel of communication between artist and listener, one freed of the aspiration towards androgynous dancefloor utopia to some extent. It is to James’ credit that he has managed to consistently produce music which straddles both sides, fluctuating between bleeding-edge cool dance music and more introspective pieces that are intimately connected with the feeling of isolation and desolation along the south-west coast. There are some great examples of this: ‘Blue Calx’, with its metronomic percussion and bubbling synth all feeling very aquatic, like rain falling on a window. Alarm Will Sound drew this out brilliantly in their cover, probably the highlight of their Aphex Twin cover record. ‘Gwely Mernans’ extends the same sort of aural relationship, as the percussion’s slithering between left and right channels may be indicative of a lurking monster beyond your view or maybe you’re tripping and you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Drukqs as a whole is full of little interlude tracks that sound like someone going inside traditionally sacred, cavernous spaces – churches for example – and messing around with the instruments found in there, to continue the theme of challenging the sanctity of music – listen to ‘QKThr’,’ Btoum-Roumada’ and ‘Prep Gwarek 3B’ as examples of what I mean. ‘Quino-Phec’ sees James approach the mode of Boards of Canada/Brian Eno circa Ambient 4, playing up to the punning title of the album Surfing On Sine Waves as it produces the aural equivalent of swash and backwash on an empty beach. I have to confess I’ve never been to Cornwall myself, but the geography must be pretty intense to have influenced James and Eno (‘Lizard Point’) to make this incredibly unsettling ambient music.

Lake near the summit of Carn Marth, credit: Tony Atkin @ Geograph. 'Carn Marth' is of course, the title of a track from the Richard D. James Album. This is pretty much as dramatic as nature comes in England; I find it difficult to think this isn't inspirational in some way.

Lake near the summit of Carn Marth, credit: Tony Atkin @ Geograph. ‘Carn Marth’ is of course, the title of a track from the Richard D. James Album. This is pretty much as dramatic as nature comes in England; I find it difficult to think this isn’t inspirational in some way.

In his contribution to the 33 1/3 series, Marc Weidenbaum talks about how James and his friends were effectively creating their own music scene in the barren cultural landscape of Cornwall. Yet the barren geographical landscape is also present in another liminal space between the organic and the technological. Electronic music appears to be a very simple way of entering a world not tied down to geographical specificities, but the tracks mentioned above and indeed pretty much the whole of Selected Ambient Works Volume II allow some local ghosts to creep in. James memorably described that album as ‘like standing in a power station on acid’, though I’ve always been unclear to the extent at which that power station is functional; it strikes me as an abandoned one, with native vegetation reclaiming the instruments slowly blinking away into termination – not difficult to imagine when one remembers that album was only 8 years after Chernobyl.

Abandoned tin mine at Carn Galver, credit: Dave Green @ Geograph. I've always had a suspicion that the presence of these monolithic old bastions of industry may have had an influence on the sound of SAW II, or at least how James perceives it.

Abandoned tin mine at Carn Galver, credit: Dave Green @ Geograph. I’ve always had a suspicion that the presence of these monolithic old bastions of industry may have had an influence on the sound of SAW II, or at least how James perceives it.

What relevance does that all have today? Well, there are always refuseniks who need to be converted to the emotive possibilities of electronic music. Syro lacks any of the tracks in that ambient vein, and in fact James hasn’t written tracks in that style for over a decade, but they remain as astonishing pieces of work, a brilliant combination of music and sound effect which creates such a deep mental landscape, it makes you wonder when the rest of electronic music is going to catch up.

It’s always difficult to write about Richard D. James, because you can never be entirely certain that you’re not writing yourself into the punchline of a joke which is being made entirely at your expense. Having said that, I feel a bit more confident now that he has given some surprisingly candid interviews for the promotion of Syro, which I’ve quoted from here (even if it does mean breaking the hearts of IDM hipsters all over the world , who must be thinking, “Rolling Stone and Pitchfork? Really?”). Syro isn’t as revolutionary as some of his earlier albums, but it contains enough continuity to them to demonstrate his importance not just in making cutting-edge electronic music, but in sonically mapping the world we live in.