Bruno Cooke reviews You’ve got so many machines, Richard: an anthology of Aphex Twin poetry, edited by Rishi Dastidar and Aaron Kent (Broken Sleep, 2022)
Going boldly where few have gone before, Broken Sleep Books’ latest anthology does a cool thing. Aspiring to anthologise poems inspired by, or somehow rooted in, the work and aura of an electronic musician is no mean feat. After all, the standard meeting of music and poetry is song; Aphex Twin (real name: Richard D James) is not known for his lyricism. Nor, however, is he any old DJ – James has been described by many as one of the most important and influential contemporary electronic musicians. Maybe it was inevitable that the elusive, nebulous mythos that surrounds him would receive the poetic treatment. Although perhaps not, since many anthologies take seasons or broad phenomena as their starting points. People-inspired collections are relatively few and far between.
Born in Limerick, James went to school in Redruth, Cornwall and grew up in nearby Lanner, a former tin and copper mining parish. He started “playing around with sounds” when he was 12. “I was doing weird things with tapes,” he told Mixmag’s Tony Marcus in 1992 The Lanner Chronicle – The Lanner Chronicle, which bills itself as an ‘Aphex Twin resource’, has thankfully archived much of his early magazine features. “When I got the sampler, I wrote software on the computer to make it run better,” a poet of his own. That was in 1983. His first album, Selected Ambient Works 85–92, came out nine years later and led to his signing with Sheffield’s Warp Records, then still in its infancy. In the years that followed, he received requests to collaborate from the likes of Madonna, Limp Bizkit and Slipknot. He said yes to Philip Glass and Craig David. Steve Reich, Thom Yorke, John Frusciante, Skrillex and Kevin Parker have cited him as an influence. The Telegraph’s reviewer – of all people – went as far as to associate listening to Aphex Twin’s music with the process of evolutionThe Telegraph, 06/06/2017.
But influence alone doesn’t inspire poetry. So what is it about Aphex Twin that merits an anthology? Before diving into the present collection, it’s worth going into the aura that surrounds Richard D James. First, like the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, James produces under numerous alternative names – not like Pessoa’s heteronyms, per se, but his list of monikers is almost as long: AFX, Bradley Strider, Phonic Boy on Dope, Smojphace and user18081971, to name a few. Second, he’s got so much music in his back catalogue that he “do[es]n’t know what to do with it all”. Which, combined with his sphere of influence, creates challenges for those trying to pin him down. “I’ve done loads of secret things,” he told Index Magazine in 2001. “There are quite a few that no one has come close to guessing.” And it works both ways: “A lot of people think everything electronic is mine. I get credited for so many things, it’s incredible. I’m practically everyone,” he says. “Everyone and nobody.”Index Magazine interview, 2001
Variously dubbed the ‘MDMA Mozart’ the ‘most perverse of musicians’ and ‘dance music’s foremost proto-troll’, Richard D James is famous for having apparently owned a tank
He regrets releasing certain tracks because of “the copies” that they inspireClash Music interview, 02/05/2006; securing an interview with him is “notoriously difficult”Clash Music interview, 02/05/2006; in 2014, he sold a single album (to Notch, the developer of Minecraft) for $46,300Fact Magazine 24/06/2014. Variously dubbed the ‘MDMA Mozart’ the ‘most perverse of musicians’ and ‘dance music’s foremost proto-troll’, he is famous for having apparently owned a tank. And a submarine. “Loads of countries have ex-military gear that they want rid of,” he once told The Guardian (in a piece creatively titled ‘Tank Boy’)The Guardian, 05/10/2001. “Missiles, rockets – you can get all that. You could probably buy a battleship if you had enough money.” His submarine apparently cost him about £40,000 – “they’re really cheap”. It was submersible, too. “It’s totally pukka,” i.e., bona fide. In 2007, his engineering lecturer from Cornwall College, which James attended from 1988 to 1990, recalled to The Guardian that he used to wear headphones during practical lessons. “I think some of the other students were a bit in awe of him,” he said. “There was definitely a kind of mystique about him, something a little bit different.”The Guardian, 12/06/2007
So it is that Richard D James’ aura has developed, over time, into something eight-legged and Delphic – and, you might say, worthy of poetry. It lends itself well. The music of Aphex Twin is something like a lighthouse or a totem. People respond to it uniquely, privately; it sheds light on human emotion. This, at least, seems to be part of the reason editors Rishi Dastidar and Aaron Kent saw fit to open their pigeonholes to fans of the artist. “This isn’t intended to be a discovery of who Aphex is,” writes Kent in his introductory paragraph, “nor necessarily what he means to our contributors, rather an attempt to introduce the mythos and aura of Richard D James” – as in, as opposed to Aphex Twin, who is, after all, but one of James’ avatars.
And now the new love
I know you love
will be there
even when I never find it
I know you love
will be there
(from ‘Well I know just how you feel’ by Sophie Taylor)
It’s interesting and, at times, predictable how Kent and Dastidar’s chosen poets have interpreted as, for want of a better word, Aphex Twin-ness. For many, it manifests verbally in nonsense jumbles of wacky words and a stream-of-consciousness-like fluidity. The language used is often pleasantly fricative, plosive and / or sibilant, musical and percussive in a way one naturally associates with complexly assembled, computer-generated instrumental music. It taps into both the music itself and James’ bizarre and often meaningless song titles: Selected Ambient Works 85–92 contains tracks titled ‘Xtal’, ‘Ageispolis’ and ‘Hedphelym’; Jared Schwartz’ ‘Music Makers’ contains references to ‘ribcage osteophones’, ‘men in aurochs’ and ‘aerosolized peyote’. Calum Rodger’s ‘Selected Ambient Words 85-21(∞)’ uses this very track listing as its structural scaffolding.
Direct transliterations of the sounds and rhythms of Aphex Twin’s music are fine, but they’re not brilliant. Strange syntactical concoctions are well and good, but their meaninglessness limits them. Kent’s contribution, ‘Redruth School (Polygon window)’, does well to paint coherent images, follows them with genuine feeling, and chases with comprehensible references to the familiar.
The tone is that of a butterfly
wearing a backpack, strapped
to its underbelly.
I want to get a GCSE in you
but our school forgets you ever
existed, ever resisted.
Whenever I drive a tank around
my hometown, which is never,
I think of you in a treehouse.
Comparably, Maria Sledmere’s poem ‘On Spotify there’s an official Aphex Twin playlist titled “iTunes”’ starts by making sense: “Deliciously, it’s empty”. From there it digresses into familiarly unfamiliar semantic territory – she’s “been here before, secreted in cables / of fungible meaning”; “at the listening party on future planets / we’ll plan fresh caresses, triple axis / on icycle triplicates, user sensoria, oratory”, and so on. Sometimes the descent into the machine-like, percussive and wordless world of Aphex Twin marks, in my view, too stark a departure from sensical poetry. Kenneth M Cale’s ‘OPS WENT XANTHINE (phonic boy on dope doped up to the max on vax mix’ comprises 14 lines of what appear to be nonsense non-words, possibly algorithmically generated. It has no discernible meaning. Correct me if I’m wrong.
tiepawn paxwhip tinawn expath xaphex
weptthaw phatxi hepxi tapwhit exthaw
tanwith wipehew nihex newpath phatnix
tinpawn winphat whipwe aptphi wantpix
whetxi tanwex tenwax aptxi hiphex
Perhaps it does emulate the “oscillations of synthesised chaos” Ed Power writes about in his 30-years-later celebration of Richard D James’ first album, published in the Independent in February of this year.The Independent, 11/02/2022 But on the page – when you actually have to read it? I don’t know.
Sometimes the descent into the machine-like, percussive and wordless world of Aphex Twin marks, in my view, too stark a departure from sensical poetry
Wesley Finch’s ‘user18081971’ – which takes its name from one of Richard D James’ many pseudonyms – opens with, “There’s / a very fine line between being scared and / concerned.” Its conversational introspection is engaging. But, after briefly discussing the apparent rarity of skycycles (“There are only / two skycycles in the whole world and / I / have / them both.”), it flouts all readerly investment by repeating the line “Are you one of those girls for whom time stands still once a month?” 15 times, interspersed with 11 iterations of “Why stop when the period starts?” and ending without any sort of meaningful conclusion. The following poem, CD Boyland’s ‘Milk Man’, takes the form of a circuit diagram, and contains a single complete sentence: “I wish the milkman / would deliver / my milk / in the morning”. Though I confess I’m not overly familiar with the architecture of electrical circuitry, I struggled to find anything worth reading into it. Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but such poems seemed to rest on strangeness of form, and somehow on the work done by Aphex Twin, without bringing much themselves.
Conversely, though with similar effect, Stefan Mohamed’s ‘meltedfamily remix ep vinyl rip 192kbps’ opts for a familiar, recognisable structure. It takes the form of a joke, with three setups and a punchline. Except the punchline is literal gibberish. The poem represents another misalignment between form and content, another poet succumbing to the notion that the occasionally garbled and incomprehensible music of Aphex Twin must necessarily be represented textually as senseless gobbledigook.
i asked aphex twin to remix my dad
dad is a tv now, a glitch in the alcove
a 5-second loop from match of the day (april 1994)
static amens fritzing at the edges
i asked aphex twin to remix my mum
i asked aphex twin to remix me
conjunloninged scowrl lepagionsdts
chniynch bgognjuggetngg gmenchcklux
Inhugndeqlity mlkseris dronforkc
And then, as if literally to laugh at the reader for trying to make sense of it:
ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
The thing is, much of Aphex Twin’s music is, to my ears at least – and I don’t believe I am alone – very generous. It is by turns sweetly melodic, hopeful, horrifying, playful and intricate. It does not laugh at its listener. It is kind. And so, it is those poems which manage to capture this, while also shimmering with Richard D James’ mystical (but ultimately human) aura, that deserve the most credit. Ultimately, to my mind, there are three commendable poems in this anthology, with two honourable mentions. Five may seem like a small minority, but it’s not to be scoffed at. First is Katie Oliver’s ‘Whenever you can’t sleep I play you Aphex Twin’, which had me blinking back tears minutes into picking up the book (it is the anthology’s second poem).
‘Whenever you can’t sleep’ channels a love for the music of Aphex Twin while also telling its own story. “In preparation for your birth I made a playlist”, it begins, “with the fraught care of a teenager curating a mixtape / for the only person / they’d ever love”. The rhythms of the baby’s heartbeat meld and melt into “warm waves breaking” during a 20-hour delivery, “cocooned” within a “slow synth’” The beat of its heart eventually becomes “an erratic bleep”:
as languid piano mirrored each contraction
as ripples disturbed the surface of the pool
as soft chords spiralled into chaos
The baby almost dies. The numbers signifying its waning, variable heartbeat recall the forever changing tempos of an Aphex Twin track listing – Richard D James’ music breathed into the world of the poem. Ultimately, the writer learns that “a hypnotherapy playlist / wouldn’t cut it here”. Instead, she resolves, whenever in life her baby can’t sleep, to “play you Aphex Twin / in the hope that you recall the water / and the way / it should have been”. The music is a conduit by which to travel to a safer past, before the unfolding of events – to an alternative present, unmarred by misfortune. The thematic prompt doesn’t dictate the form or even the content. Instead, Oliver responds to it organically; the poem is her own.
The thing is, much of Aphex Twin’s music is … generous. It is by turns sweetly melodic, hopeful, horrifying, playful and intricate. It does not laugh at its listener. It is kind. And so, it is those poems which manage to capture this, while also shimmering with Richard D James’ mystical (but ultimately human) aura, that deserve the most credit
Adam Heardman’s ‘un10 (a sestina for robot musicians)’ attains a level of Aphex Twin-ness via very different means. True to its subtitle, it comprises six stanzas of six lines each, with a three-line envoi; it follows the requisite mathematical pattern, and has as its main subject the musical automata of Ismail al-Jazari. The Muslim polymath’s contraptions were technological marvels of the 12th and 13th centuries and, like the music of Aphex Twin when he first broke out in the 1990s, probably made people ask, “How did he do that?“
through a forever of half-hours, boat
and band a fragile technology, until they resurface,
diskhats all prepared and mixed, to a sky
scored by millenia, a kind of contraband
of code designed inside a piano’s music,
sounding now like weapons scraping weapons.
Finally, Paul Ings’ ‘My First minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix] and My Second’, a thick trunk of a poem, pitches the notion that Aphex Twin records are best stacked in the classical section. It does so in a conversational style: it meanders, but never too far from the point. The poet lays out his piece. He was “forced from the get-go to reclassify this music” according to his own “purely pragmatic scheme”:
whereby if you can’t listen to it properly while driving
above 60 k in my Dacia Logan 1.6 [16 valve upgrade]
with the incoming air set at level 2 or higher,
if too much detail, too many subtleties of the oeuvre are lost
Then it’s classical:
and that might have been the end for Aphex Twin right there and then
if you, my most trusted music guru, hadn’t been so goddam insistent.
I liked this, and I liked Sophie Taylor’s ‘Well I know just how you feel’ and Ben Blench’s ‘Your call is important to us’, which bookend the collection. So it starts and ends well, and has some solid protein. Incidentally, and to its credit, You’ve got so many machines, Richard opens with four poems by women, which is notable since genres of tech-heavy, acidic electronic music are often (mis)associated with male-dominated audiences. Several poems take weird and dark turns; some miss.
When I got wind of this anthology, I reacted with a combination of a chirrup, a sigh and a question mark. I love Aphex Twin – I’m less familiar with Richard D James’ other pseudonyms – but I doubted whether or not I would like to read others’ interpretations of it. A part of me felt it was somehow self-congratulatory, or reductive, to attempt to translate music, or a person, into readable poems. But the present collection is evidence to the contrary. It may be instrumental music’s wordlessness that lends itself so well to becoming poetry when compared to, say, pop or R&B, and a character like James provides plenty of interesting fodder. His words don’t get in the way of the writing. And perhaps, because of its inscrutability, depth, variety and non-conformity, Aphex Twin’s music is as good a sonic equivalent to poetry as any.
Bruno Cooke is The Friday Poem’s Spoken Word Poetry Editor. He is a postgraduate student studying global journalism with research interests in the intersection of the media, storytelling, culture and politics. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, The Focus and Forge Press, and most are readable on Medium. Bruno Cooke’s website is at onurbicycle.com. He has written four plays and one novel, Reveries – buy Reveries by Bruno Cooke on Amazon – and currently lives in Sheffield with his partner.