Warp + Weft: Boards of Canada – ‘Music Has the Right to Children’

Boards of Canada
Music Has the Right to Children
Warp Records
1998

There’s a scene in the first episode of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks where Sarah Palmer, unaware that her daughter, Laura, has been murdered, goes into Laura’s room to rouse her for high school. Her eyes sweep across the bedroom, but Laura’s not there, and she turns to head back downstairs. Later, after being sedated upon learning of her daughter’s death, her mind replays the events of the morning, but this time distorted and slower, her voice calling out Laura’s name from what sounds like the bottom of the ocean. We once again see Laura’s room from her perspective, but this time, as her eyes sweep from right to left, we see that there’s a man crouching at the foot of the bed, leering from behind the wrought iron footboard.

It’s a definitively “Lynchian” moment, which David Foster Wallace defined in his essay, “Lynch Keeps his Head,” as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” In the scene described above, the effect is heightened by the fact that the macabre in this case is not initially obvious—it’s in fact only present upon reflection and close observation—and by its presence within the sanctity of a child’s bedroom.

If Lynch’s usual substrate for exploring this link between innocence and malevolence is the cheery, idealized vision we have of the 1950s, then Boards of Canada’s is the warm fuzzy analog keyboard sound of the science films they grew up on in the ’70s. Like Autechre and Aphex Twin, Boards are electronic in action, but hardly dancefloor in spirit. The music unfolds languorously, like the soundtrack to a grainy, Hi-8 film of a sun-dappled drive through forests and fields. The Scottish duo (brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin—they grew up partly in Canada and the name comes from The National Film Board of Canada) have released a handful of very good albums and one real masterpiece, their 1998 debut, Music Has the Right to Children. It’s the most insidious kind of headphone album, one in which a shimmeringly glowing and pastoral surface obscures the darkness beneath.

It’s the kind of darkness that waits latent inside of dolls and music boxes, and while the album is largely instrumental in nature and spirit, the way Boards of Canada use the human voice is one of its most compelling elements. Like Lynch, who frequently uses nearly nonsensical speech as an evocative element (“The owls are not what they seem.” “That gum you like is going to come back in style.”), Boards understand the power of half-heard and disjointed words. Early on, in “Eagle in Your Mind,” half of a sibilant syllable slips in over the slowly whirring background track. Rhythm tracks layer themselves in, swaying from right to left in the stereo picture as a rising chorus of disembodied voices rises up and around. Then what sounds through speakers like a vague mumbling resolves itself into a narration through headphones. It’s still garbled, broken apart across the stereo picture and oscillating like a rotating speaker. Fragments are all you can really pin down: “Holts are nearly always close to the sea … We wait, tense … We’re disappointed …” It seems drawn from a nature film; “holt” is an archaic term for a small grove of trees. And then, as if appearing through a clearing in the woods, a warped and digitized voice says simply, “I love you.” It’s sound collaging of the highest order, drawing on associations both conscious and unconscious to form a hushed yet tense and uneasy atmosphere which is redoubled by the thick music drawn around it.

There’s more to the human voice than intentional sounds, a fact that Boards play on brilliantly by incorporating what sound like sharp inhalations into the beat of “Eagle in Your Mind.” When listened to closely, it’s shocking how much of the music on the album is built up from human sounds, and not machines. Melodies rise and sink so subtly you can miss them the first ten, twenty, perhaps hundred times you listen to this record, and that’s no mean feat. So many of the sounds that make up the tracks—whether they’re voices, bursts of static, the sound of billiards balls knocking together, or seagull cries—have been stripped out of their contexts that the listener is forced to make their own narrative out of what’s happening—yet another thing Boards share with Lynch and his mode of filmmaking.

This forcing of the audience out of their comfort zone is in some ways more notable in Boards’ music than in Lynch’s filmmaking, though, because it happens so slyly. After all, you could throw this record on in the background of a party and hardly anyone would notice. The same could not be said of the majority of Lynch’s body of work. Perhaps it’s just easier to tune things out that are only auditory, which is one of the reasons that many of Lynch’s films include instructions for the theaters to turn the volume up when showing his films. As such, the most direct way to get at the heart of Boards of Canada is to put on a pair of headphones, turn it up, and take a tour through two of the album’s most compelling tracks, “Happy Cycling” and “Sixtyten.”

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Sandison and Eoin on holiday, apparently

“Happy Cycling” follows an odd track about your Constitutional rights, wherein a female narrator intones, “The same people who would stop you from listening to Boards of Canada may be back next year to complain about a book or even a TV program. If you could be told what you can see or read, then it follows that you can be told what to say or think.” It’s mostly strange because it’s impossible to imagine anyone finding Music Has the Right to Children particularly threatening with regard to obscenity. Were it the last track on the disc, it would make for an odd final word, but instead, we ride out on “Happy Cycling,” a song that serves as an almost textbook example of how to slowly build in complexity. It’s not so much an intricate song as it is organically complex, and I suspect that Boards operates on an instinctual basis when assembling tracks, much like the way Lynch works with film, making it up as he goes along and running with it when the feel is there.

The track starts with nothing but a gravelly hi-hat counting eighth notes and something that sounds sort of like a flute bouncing a Morse code pattern along on top. Just before the beat really enters, there’s a wash of distant wailing in the deep background of the track, like banshees waiting in the wings. In the isolation provided by a nice set of headphones, it’s ominous—fucking terrifying, in fact. But before the sound can come forward any further, a few furtive chords on a Wurlitzer, or perhaps a Rhodes, roll out; they’re a calming presence in the song, but as soon as they’ve dissipated, the evilest thing we’ve heard yet rises up.

It’s a sound that’s nearly impossible to describe, but it’s almost like an abstracted version of someone trying to scream with tape over his or her mouth. That is, it would be if not for the way this nasty clicking sound obscures the tail end of it each time through the pattern. It’s a decontextualized sound that leaves your mind free to fit it wherever it can, and that eerie wailing in the background makes it really troubling.

But then the full keyboard line shows itself, a gospel-tinged progression that resolves so perfectly it undercuts the effect of the creepy atmospherics. And then there’s the seagull sample, evoking the sea shore and flight. Back and forth, back and forth, push and pull, the macabre and the mundane. It’s what makes the track more than just faux horror music beating you over the head with menace. It’s more creepy than scary, because sometimes it’s enough to just imply evil, and again, as with Lynch, to show how the malevolent is contained within the everyday all the time.

If “Happy Cycling” is the most straightforward example of Boards’ facility with making atmosphere out of ambiguity, then “Sixtyten” is their best. Even in broad daylight, this track kind of gives me the willies; I wouldn’t recommend taking a walk through the woods at midnight while listening to this. It’s also a toss-up between this and “Aquarius” for the most obvious track to play or put on a mixtape for someone who’s unfamiliar with the band, but where “Aquarius” is a sun-dappled afternoon at the lake, “Sixtyten” is something entirely different.

The build is not nearly as methodical as on “Happy Cycling”; instead, the beginning is formless, a set of arrhythmic synth notes scattered over empty space while something spins down in the background. And then—a shot across the stereo picture. A pause, and then another and a split second later the beat arrives in full force, a juddering, lumbering thing that seems to get caught up every couple bars. The real build here comes from the dialogue created between snippets of speech that gradually drop into the mix. “You know a way,” shouts one group, perhaps, answered by “Wait a minute,” an instant later. Perhaps. The beginnings and endings of these clips are speeding up or slowing down, masking the words themselves, once again forcing us to try to make sense of them in isolation. Variations trickle in, new voices explode for an instant and then disappear. New melodies slide over the top, the drums distort and crumble then pull themselves back together again. It’s all revolving around the well of gravity at the center of the tune: the relationship between the insistent beat and the unmoored synth notes that began the track.

The cracks really only start to show at the 3:29 mark, where backwards vocals seep in from one side almost subliminally. Through the holes they leave, an entirely different track starts to show through, all ghostly chorus and twittering drum track. It’s put together in some relation to the main theme that began the song, but it’s almost as if it’s showing through the fabric of the track itself, and its lack of definition makes it all the more unsettling. It’s like a mass of darkness glimpsed through trees in the moonlight, or something moving under the surface of the water, and before it ever shows itself fully, the track evaporates and it’s gone.

Board of Canada almost never play live, and their reluctance is understandable. Their tracks are perfect little vignettes, lovingly crafted and worked over in miniature, and they’d hardly benefit from the harsh glare of stage lights and giant P.A. systems. They work the seam between innocence and evil like David Lynch or the Brothers Grimm, evoking the lingering darkness between patches of sunlight, and virtually no one does it better. As a child, you feel simultaneously invulnerable and infinitely vulnerable, and a look back at that time is inevitably colored with both nostalgia and a knowledge of how much more dangerous the world actually is. The mistake a lot of viewers make when it comes to Lynch is to think that he’s showing how darkness invades the everyday, when in fact he’s attempting to show how darkness is ever present, the yin to light’s yang. His films threaten us, but they also provide a chance to confront this side of ourselves, and music can do much the same. As ominous as it sounds, Boards of Canada really nailed it when they came up with the title for this collection of dimly lit and fuzzily analog fairy tales: Music does have the right to children.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country EP :: Warp Records :: 2000
Geogaddi :: Warp Records :: 2002
The Campfire Headphase :: Warp Records :: 2005

Information and confirmation about some of the lyrics/dialogue on Music Has the Right to Children came courtesy of the Boards of Canada pages .

Amateur video for Boards of Canada’s “An Eagle in Your Mind.”

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