Best of 2014: Syro; Aphex Twin

Sometimes it’s when and where you listen to a piece of music that forms your opinion of it.

As I stated in the last blog, I’ve been in the process of listening to various albums on “Best of 2014” lists. Aphex Twin by an artist known as Syro is on many of these lists. It’s mostly a dance record with lots of beats and loops and not a lot of lyrics. My first listen to this was as I was driving. Personally, I find I’m a better driver when I listen to people talking whether it’s talk radio or audio podcasts. Not sure why, I just find if I’m engaged in the talk I’m paying attention to traffic better; whereas with music I think if I get into it I lose a bit of my focus on the road. So if you pass me and I’m singing, better steer clear. Attention cops, I’m not drunk, I’m just rockin out!

So as I said, my first listen to this album was while driving and my reaction was, “Eh. Dancey stuff. Not my cup of tea.” However, last night I gave it a listen as I was going to bed, thinking it might be interesting stuff to have on while I read. I was wrong in many ways. First off, i paid way too much attention to it and couldn’t read at all. Second it got me thinking about some different things mostly with regard to tuning. There are a couple of tunes which start with a beat and then have melodic things going on which slide up and down in pitch in a really cool way.

This is going to get a bit egghead science-ey so feel free to tune out. Most instruments which can play different notes (called chromatic) are restricted in the intervals between notes. A piano, once tuned, plays the same notes every time, same as a guitar or a trumpet. There are some instruments like a trombone or a violin which have the ability to play every frequency in between 2 notes. This leads to weird possibilities where the melody could contain notes slightly out of the regular scale. Then if two people were that good musically, they could stay in a strict harmony while moving around like this. Make sense?

Electronics allow this to happen with all instruments. One could have a whole bunch of things going on and then slightly de tune everything a bit and it would maintain the strict intervals between all of the notes. Syro is doing this in a couple of tunes. It’s really cool. Lots of people have experimented with stuff like this over the years; however to most of our ears it just sounds wrong. Or that the cassette tape has been out in the sun too long. Kids, ask your parents what a cassette tape is.

The other thing that’s kind of interesting (from a sound geek standpoint) is that to properly tune in one scale, the intervals between the notes will not be absolutely precise in a different key. Again, most people wouldn’t notice these slight variations in pitch and it sounds just fine. And our ear degrades as we get older; I probably had perfect pitch when I was younger but I know full well that I do not any more. So any music one tried to create using these super subtle variations would be playing to a pretty small market.

It was a coincidence but the same day I listened to Syro, I opened my copy of Bach’s “The Well Tempered Claviar” trying to decide which piece I would try to learn this year. I’m not exactly a Bach scholar, but I know a couple things about him. He was incredibly prolific as a composer and I think he was a total music nerd. These pieces encompassed every possible key signature in tonal music and from a bit of brief research on it; there are those who felt that the keyboard would have been re-tuned each time so the intervals were precise.

Anyway, kind of cool stuff.


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