The Long Tail of Aphex Twin’s ‘Avril 14th’

On April 14, 2020, the producer and pianist Kelly Moran woke up in Long Island. She had temporarily moved back there the previous fall to work on her next album, but when the pandemic arrived, she got stuck. Looking for a challenge to fill the hours that Tuesday morning, she figured out how to play the Aphex Twin song “Avril 14th” and filmed the results on her cellphone.

Like the original, Moran performed it on a prepared piano — a technique developed by the avant-garde composer John Cage where objects are placed in between the instrument’s strings. Moran’s interpretation is tender but eerie, like the sound of a music box that’s about to die. “I always picture a ghost playing this record,” she said in an interview last month.

✨ AVRIL 14 ✨ @AphexTwin

Moran put the video on Twitter and Instagram, where it became one her most popular posts. “Not everyone is going to like drum and bass or, like, really fast IDM,” she said, referring to intelligent dance music, “but I feel like every person likes a sentimental piano song in some way, shape or form.”

Moran’s cover was one more blip in the strange and improbable life of “Avril 14th,” which turns 20 this year. An instrumental piece that barely lasts two minutes, it has been sampled by pop stars, inspired classical pianists and experimental artists alike, and once cost a major TV network over $100,000 (more on that later). On YouTube there are renditions of it performed on the harp, the pedal steel guitar and dueling vibraphones.

“Avril 14th” was released in October 2001, the same week the first iPod arrived, on the first disc of “Drukqs,” a double album by Aphex Twin, the most common pseudonym of the English musician Richard D. James. The 30-song collection churns across dark ambient works, aggressive breakbeats and sparse piano interludes.

At the time, James claimed he released “Drukqs” because he left an MP3 player filled with unreleased music on a plane. It was only a matter of time, he maintained, before someone figured out what it was and put it all online. There were rumors that James actually released “Drukqs” to get out of his contract with Warp Records, though when its follow-up “Syro” arrived 13 years later, it was on the same label.

James only did a few interviews in support of “Drukqs.” There were no music videos by Chris Cunningham, who directed wickedly perverse treatments for the landmark Aphex Twin songs “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker.” There were barely any tour dates or festival appearances.

James doesn’t disclose much about his creative process, or anything else really. (He did not respond to interview requests and representatives from Warp declined to comment.) From the faint mechanical sounds heard on “Avril 14th,” members of his devoted fan base surmised that it was made on a prepared Disklavier — an acoustic piano created by Yamaha with internal and external MIDI capabilities, which allows it to reproduce a composition without a human player but with incredible accuracy.

“Drukqs” received a mixed critical response, but it did have devotees. Not long after its release, the members of Alarm Will Sound, an adventurous group of classical musicians based in New York, decided to arrange Aphex Twin songs for their chamber orchestra’s 2005 album “Acoustica.” “It felt like a statement to say this is really serious music,” said Alan Pierson, the group’s artistic director. “Aphex Twin is a genius for color and timbre, and so much of ‘Acoustica’ is about that, but with ‘Avril 14th’ it’s really just the notes,” Pierson added. “The notes are really gorgeous.”

Around the same time, the composer and music supervisor Brian Reitzell began work on Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film “Marie Antoinette.” Before shooting began, he compiled two CDs of contemporary music that captured the tone the director wanted, even though it was a period piece. Reitzell felt “Avril 14th” almost served as a bridge between the two eras.

While James passed on Reitzell’s invitation to contribute new compositions for the film’s score (“Some artists are just not comfortable making their art fit into someone else’s art,” Reitzell said), “Avril 14th” does appear in a sequence where Antoinette, played by Kirsten Dunst, languorously walks through a field and up a palace staircase. Reitzell said that after an early screening for friends, the director Wes Anderson complimented him for including the song, and said he had considered using it for one of his own films, but now was bummed because he felt like it was off limits. It later appeared in the trailer for “Her,” the maudlin A.I. romance from Coppola’s ex-husband, Spike Jonze.

The song’s life in pop culture spiked again just a year later thanks to a longtime fan, Jorma Taccone of the comedy trio the Lonely Island, a group that became famous from its musical digital shorts on “Saturday Night Live.” “I’m the perfect demo for liking that song in terms of I like a lot of electronic music and I’m also a totally emotional, romantic dude,” Taccone said in an interview.

For years he kept a basic beat on his computer featuring a looped sample from “Avril 14th,” but never had the right opportunity to use it. In September 2007, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the president of Iran, visited New York City and gave a talk stating there were no homosexuals in his country. In response, the Lonely Island created “Iran So Far.” Over Taccone’s “Avril 14th” beat, Andy Samberg performed a love song dedicated to Ahmadinejad, delivering lines like, “You say Iran don’t have the bomb, but they already do/You should know by now, it’s you.”

Because “Saturday Night Live” is made at a breakneck speed, Taccone brushed off the legal department when asked if “Iran So Far” used samples that needed to be cleared, figuring they could deal with any problems later. That meant the network eventually had to pay the label $160,000, Taccone said, and the group couldn’t afford to put it on its own 2009 album, “Incredibad.”

Kanye West ended up replaying a part of “Avril 14th” on “Blame Game,” a key song on his 2010 opus of hedonism and self-loathing “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Coincidentally, West was the musical guest on “S.N.L.” the night the Lonely Island short aired, and Taccone takes pride in the fact that they both saw the possibility in the same unlikely material. “It just made me feel like I was a genius,” he said.

As the popularity of streaming music services rose over the past decade, the record label Silent Star approached the British pianist Martin Jacoby about recording covers for a catalog of tranquil pieces, including “Avril 14th.” Jacoby’s version appears on compilations with search-friendly titles including “Sleepy Baby Lullaby” and “Classical for Studying.” Spotify has included the Aphex Twin version on such curated playlists as “Peaceful Indie Ambient” and “Classical Yoga.”

On the service there are now more than 30 covers of “Avril 14th” by electronic artists and classical musicians. Some have millions of streams of their own. There are jaunty interpretations and atmospheric ones. Others stay loyal to Aphex Twin. “It’s almost divorced from him as an artist,” said Jacoby, of the track’s originator. “It’s become one of those pieces that’s now exploded in its own right.”

While this popularity may expose classical music fans to the sometimes overwhelming, occasionally terrorizing music of Aphex Twin, the exchange also flows the other way. “It’s a gateway to Debussy, or some of the other amazing piano pieces that are out there,” said Reitzell, the music supervisor. “If you like that piece, man, I’ve got 30 more for you. That is the most beautiful thing about music. That song will probably outlive Richard’s entire catalog in a way.”

But Moran hears an even more fundamental reason modern listeners have turned a haunting piano piece with minimalist influences into a digital era phenomenon. Before our interview, she transcribed “Avril 14th” again to refamiliarize herself with it. Holding up the piece of paper, she noted its chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure. “Honestly,” she said, “this is like a pop song to me.”

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