A poetic analysis of Aphex Twin’s ‘Avril 14th’, courtesy of guest critic King Louie, aka Bananaman (don’t ask). Critical breakdown below, accompanied by audio clip of the song in question. Enjoy…
(Click below to hear ‘Avril 14th’)
This is a short piano piece of just over two minutes, divided neatly into four sections, two of which are repeated with some slight variation. This repetition gives it the feel of a traditional ballad or song with a repeated chorus, a verse with a distinctive melody, and a bridge (or middle eight). The verse and chorus measure eight bars each and are played through twice each time they appear, giving a total length of sixteen bars, much like a conventional verse that your average rapper might write, as has been mentioned earlier (find the analysis of ‘Too Many Mans’ here). This magical number of sixteen bars is not unique to rappers and hip-hop music, but also to music in general, where units of four are the building blocks, as evidenced by the dominance of four-four time – more on that in rhythm – and the prevalence of the twelve bar blues, for example.
Avril 14th uses a piano primarily, although somewhere below the piano lurks the faintest scratchy percussive sound, perhaps a dampened metronome. The tone of the piano is beautifully clear and it sings lyrically in the middle of its range. There is a touch of reverb, such as you might find in a small room, which stops it sounding too dry. The melody is in a distinctive, wistful minor key and as such is very traditionally classical sounding – something that the piece as a whole reflects (including the use of a traditional instrument like a piano, rather than the usual synthesised instruments Aphex Twin uses), and is a break from character for the artist. As such, the language is simple and the piano speaks with a clear, uncomplicated voice, using a series of rising figures as a backdrop to a simple unfussy melody. The last chord leaves the listener feeling somewhat unresolved, hanging as it does above the root note, and is used in a similar way to Shakespeare leaving us hanging when Hamlet declares “To be or not to be/that is the question”, leaving an iam incomplete in order to illuminate the indecision of his famous prince of teenage strops.
The minor key in this piece lends an air of quiet, calm reverie. In its simple lyrical melody there is a hint of pastoral beauty – rolling fields and an autumn day perhaps. The lack of words allows the listener to create their own imagery, but the atmosphere created speaks to me of stillness, of an uninhabited room, or perhaps a single character engaged in slow, methodical activity. There is a definite echo of the form of a lullaby in the piece, speaking as they so often do of sleep, the night, dreams and so forth.
The tone of the piece is calm, considered, thoughtful. At moments, particularly in the middle eight, it takes on a slightly darker tone through the use of lower pitch and heavier rhythm, but generally retains an air of gentility. Through the constant movement and the rising figures, there is the feeling of optimism, of growth and regeneration, perhaps reflected in the title, “Avril 14th”, which is reminiscent of spring, rebirth and reawakening. As mentioned above, the ending leaves us uncertain with its failure to resolve, but this uncertainty is one which holds promise in the sustained note that rings softly to a close.
Avril 14th uses straight four-four time, the musical equivalent of iambic pentameter. This means the piece can be divided evenly into units of four beats called a bar, roughly equivalent to a line of poetry. Western music relies heavily on this time signature and it is incredibly common. The use of this rhythm puts the listener immediately at ease. It moves calmly throughout with a steady, unchanging pace (about 170 beats per minute by my estimation – quite fast but made to feel slower by making the melody almost half the speed). The scratchy percussive sound in the background occasionally follows the melody, but more often than not echoes the steady accompaniment of notes that land on the beat in a rising sequence.
Discussing the subject matter of a poem that is completely without words is not the easiest thing to do, but we can make some guesses. The title would suggest that the piece marks a date – Avril is French for April, after all. A birthday or an anniversary of some sort seems most likely… April is also the beginning of spring, and this is certainly something that we can read into the piece, with its rising inflections and gently thoughtful feel. Connect this to the references to lullabies and the earlier discussion of that particular form, and we can still make some statement about the subject matter.