With only acoustic instruments, Alarm Will Sound takes on Aphex Twin
True instrumentation is almost an afterthought these days thanks to the proliferation of software and other gadgets that will do nearly any necessary musical dirty work. Yet there are always those who refuse to take the easy route of technical innovation. One such group is Alarm Will Sound, the orchestra that recently took on the momentous task of re-creating the work of Aphex Twin — with the simple restriction of playing everything themselves, on acoustic instruments, without electronic effects. The result is Acoustica (Cantaloupe, 2005), which features 13 Aphex tracks that run the gamut of his catalog, from the ambient to the frenetic.
“This record is really the baby of a generation that loves and understands Aphex and Beethoven and relates to both in a personal way,” says Lawson White, AWS percussionist and Acoustica producer. “AWS is really representative of that synthesis, as its members include not only well-trained classical musicians and composers but also great improvisers, programmers, sound designers, DJs, et cetera.”
With such a breadth of talent, AWS didn't have to look far for arrangers; 10 of its own took on the complex arrangement duties. Yet despite their classical training, the arrangers often had difficulty determining the rhythm and pitch of certain sounds. Through painstaking listening sessions and group discussion, they were able to correct most of the uncertainties. But even when everyone was able to agree on the notes, finding the sounds to approximate them accurately — without the aid of any effects — posed another hurdle.
“Many of the unusual things we do in performing these pieces came out of the search for a way to acoustically ‘reverse engineer’ an apparently impossible-to-realize-electronic sound,” says AWS conductor and artistic director Alan Pierson. “It was always part of my vision that we'd be compelled to do crazy things in order to bring Aphex's wonderful, unique and thoroughly electronically conceived sounds to life.” The AWS members found that inspiration in not only using everyday items such as curtain rods and water hoses but also preparing their instruments — for example, putting corks in a violin, placing a rubber cap on top of a bassoon or using a bassoon reed on a French horn.
In certain instances, though, modifications just wouldn't suffice. “It's hard to re-create reverb purely acoustically,” Pierson says. “Caleb [Burhans] had done a beautiful job of simulating reverb on the melodic lines of ‘Blue Calx’ using three choirs of instruments, one of them off stage, echoing one another. But creating a sense of reverb on the percussive rhythm that underlies the whole piece was harder.” To get the rich sound needed for “Blue Calx,” Pierson sought the assistance of Bang on a Can member Mark Stewart and his Uboingee Spring Guitar and Refrigerator Rack Lamellophone inventions. With tuned springs inside of a metal frame, the Uboingee emits a reverb-type effect when struck, ringing seemingly endlessly. Playing it with the cut and tuned crossbeams of the Lamellophone enhanced the sound's pitch. A final blend of the two contraptions along with bongos and the cork-prepared violin produced the Aphex effect.
Playing the various prepared and organic instruments in line with the Aphex sound — specifically the drums and percussion, with their intricate beats and extensive stutter edits — was indeed a physical challenge. “Programmed drums feel different than a drummer, so we had to learn to play in a way that would capture the sort of infectious feel of an MPC3000 while still taking advantage of the energy and dynamicism that can only come from a human being,” White says.
In terms of producing Acoustica, White admits that his approach was something of gamble. “For the concept to work as a record, we had to capture an orchestral sound that would stand up to the classical and audiophile audiences and a drum sound and overall feel that beatheads could get into,” he says. So he brought in top orchestral and pop engineers — Charles Harbutt (senior engineer at Sony Music Studios) and partners John Hill and Caleb Shreve (Jennifer Lopez, Missy Elliott, Nas), respectively — to balance the dichotomy. Recorded separately, the orchestra and the drums required different treatment in postproduction. Using only sparing EQ, compression and reverb on the orchestra, White mixed the drums in Digidesign Pro Tools, using it to the fullest to get the final sound that he desired. “AWS and I certainly aren't hung up on convention, or following the rules, and the last thing we wanted was for this to sound like a classical record,” he says. But with such an extraordinary body of work to start from, it's impossible that it could.