(ESSAY) A Brief Analysis of Rhubarb by Scott Morrison
> On YouTube, there is a fan-made video for Aphex Twin’s Rhubarb with over eight million views.
> Accessed through the familiar white, pristine and frictionless interface of the site, this particular video immediately stands out to me as a lacuna.
> Uploaded eight years ago – a relative artefact in the endless present of the digital age – the video consists of low-resolution passages that alternate between ambient landscapes of clouds, open fields and bare forests.
> The timelapses of clouds in their quiet, candyflosslike unspooling seems instantly to be the perfect companion to the quietly unfolding music. But the video always fills me with questions: who took the time to make and upload it, eight years ago or more, and why does their emotional response correlate so exactly with my own? Why do the blurry outlines of their nostalgia tesselate so precisely with mine? And why do the images so intimately fit the music itself?
> I would like to suggest that it’s because the footage, the music, and our emotions while we listen share a similar essence, a common resonance: the fundamental tension between stasis and movement.
> Setting up this relationship is one way that music can touch the eternal, the timeless. But, as is fitting, we will return to this by moving on.
The way up and the way down are one and the same.
> So why does Rhubarb feel endless? Why does it feel like floating?
> MIDI visualisations are like starcharts to me. Often, more than any other type of analysis, they can make clear the different voices, structures and ideas at work in a piece of music.
> They can reveal the curves and clefts of sonic constellations; the outlines of bodies and faces in the clouds.
> With Rhubarb, the harmony is always the first thing that hits me.
> For the duration of its 7 minutes and 44 seconds, Rhubarb is a single chord sequence that repeats without cessation or secession, recurring over and over and over again.
> This, at the simplest level, is the clearest manifestation of the tension between movement and stasis in the music. This is why it feels endless. The great law of the universe is entropy: everything will change and decay and pass. But not this piece of music – especially when we can just press play again when it finishes.
> The music may not have substantially moved by the time we get to the end of its 7 minutes and 44 seconds – but have we?
> To be a little more granular (grains: the gauzy, hazy textures of clouds on film frictionlessly becoming pixels online), in music theory, we could express the journey Rhubarb’s harmony does or does not take like this:
II: D(i) | F#m | A | E | D :II
II: IV | VI | I | V | IV :II
Western harmony revolves around the building and release of harmonic tension. Here, however, this process is subverted – the tension is never fully built or fully released: the sequence never resolves.
> In fact, the imperfect cadence at the end of the sequence (V > IV) leads back around to another chord IV at the beginning, smudging the boundary between the end and the beginning, the omega and the alpha.
> Notably, this first chord, inverted, loses even the pull of its own root note; and the lowest pitch (an A) in the bass voice (the blue line in the video) often makes the final D a second inversion. The lowest note in the piece – which normally acts as a ground in the music’s home key – is indeed the root of the tonic, but this only appears during the dominant chord, its diametric opposite.
> In other words: the usual harmonic weights that act as the law of gravity in the blue globe of a piece of music have lost their pull. Really, this is the fundamental reason the music feels like floating – we are not in a terrestrial world of causation and consequence, of falling and entropy and decay, but in another weightless world, revolving. Floating. Endlessly. Like clouds on a screen.
> From here in the Cloud(s), what other features can I discern in the harmony below?
> The movement of the chord voicings (i.e. how the notes of one chord shift to form the next chord) is one of perpetual descent.
> In music, descent is a downward movement of high to low most often associated with music of lamentation, loss and grief. Here, however, due, to the unchanging repetition throughout the piece, this descent spirals not downwards into the depths, but – to me at least – pushes inwards, gently eroding, nudging, nestling, searching, enveloping, suffusing.
> The overall atmosphere of the piece is one not of deep grief or loss. But there is definitely a wistful sadness and longing (the bare branches in the video, the low winter sun). These are moments of melancholy and nostalgia. But why?
> Well, what is the essence of each of these states? I would suggest that both are defined by a tension between stasis and movement: the tug of the past on the present.
> I would like to suggest that this, by modelling this dialectic tension between stasis and movement in the fundamental construction of the music, is how Richard D James can make a piece that so powerfully evokes these feelings.
> There is one last thing I would like to add, softly, before we touch the ground again.
> The harmonic language here is entirely diatonic, and, for the most part, triadic. In other words, it is a simple soundworld – an echo of the language of lullabies.
> The timbre (the colour or sound quality) of the instruments used only heightens the precious, fragile, lullaby-like lilt of the harmony.
> The softness of the synths is sleepy and soothing. They behave like organs; celestial simulacra; hushed, safe, endless.
> Clouds, of course, live in the sky.
> They move over vast distances, surrounded by space, and air. From aeroplanes and mountaintops, I have seen the vastness of their shadows migrate effortlessly over distant hills and plains below.
> Rhubarb shares this feeling of vast, endless, weightless distance. This is partly created by the recurring harmonic structure, outlined above, which seems to be without bounds.
> The feeling of space in the track is also created, however, by the sense of space between the different voices, and the wide range between the highest and lowest pitches. To me this creates a feeling of a ground far below and a sky far above.
> In terms of production and mixing, the panning and reverb add to this – more intimations of spiritual spaces: sounding spinning about above our heads, echoing in whispers, as in caves, or cathedrals.
> Clouds never move quickly. Even if they pass over us with greater speed on certain days than others, for me there is something about their scope and scale that always makes their movement a graceful procession. There is no hurry or agitation. It is an enviable, inevitable process – long lines of flawless code running endlessly.
> Clouds (those in the sky, at least), move steadily. They do not glitch or leap. And so here the rhythms are regular. They do not alter. This creates a certain feeling of stability and certainty, of predictability, of trust. Of comfort and soothing.
> At one point, a voice enters playing on an offbeat (the yellow voice at 2:17 in the MIDI visualisation). This little change is vast in the context. It opens up another part of the landscape entirely: it contributes to the impression that there are several independent cycles occurring simultaneously, which helps the piece to feel organic, flowing – trees in a forest moving differently in the same wind. Clouds of different shapes and textures hanging in the same sky.
> Then there is that beguiling shiver of a melody.
> It appears in the highest voice (the red line that enters at 0:44) and floats and glides small distances at a time, again, with no glitches or sudden leaps.
> It reminds me of the purity of plainchant, or Renaissance masses – a single, pure human voice vibrating in a cathedral. It reminds me of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli: a slow, predominantly stepwise melody unfolding on top of a largely fixed, triadic harmonic part.
> Again: stasis and tension; linearity and repetition.
> The feeling of walking in place on an endlessly revolving spiral staircase.
> I identify a total of five separate voices, each of which occupy a certain register, and which have a unique character. These rarely play all at once.
> It is these different combinations of the voices, alongside the harmonic rhythm previously discussed, that creates the structure of the piece. This is one not of progress or expansion, but of exiting and returning.
> Disappearance and reappearance without change feels eternal, inevitable; as if the different voices have been continuing unaltered somewhere else (beneath the mixer, above the clouds) momentarily inaudible to us, before appearing in our reality again.
> Notably, the piece ends how it begins (a way a lone a last a loved a lone), continuing as movement and stasis: unchanging materials combined and recombined in ever evolving coagulations.
> It fades out. In other words, the recording ends, but the music doesn’t.
> Buffering on servers, endlessly playing on The Cloud, or buffering again in my memory it feels – endless, like floating.
Text and Images: Scott Morrison