Unmusic for the Untimes: Autechre’s Fractal Family Tree

Artificial intelligence not pictured: Autechre’s Rob Brown (left) and Sean BoothEXPAND
Artificial intelligence not pictured: Autechre’s Rob Brown (left) and Sean Booth
Warp Records

In February of 2001, Spin magazine ran a sidebar to accompany the results of its readers poll. Titled "Stuff the Artists Like," the text was a list of music recommended by the members of Radiohead, which was logical, as the readers mostly wanted to talk about Radiohead. The first thing on Thom Yorke's list was Autechre's 1998 release, LP5. His stated reason for picking the album: "Because nobody else in the whole world has made anything this year that sounds even close to this record. It sounds exactly like the daily chaos in my brain. It is a deeply troubling record, but comforting. It sounds like somebody rummaging through the bin and finding shiny paper and fake jewelry then going out dressed in nothing except that." Not inaccurate.

In the umpteen discussions of Radiohead's 2000 album, Kid A, Autechre came up repeatedly as an influence on the band's change in direction, which, at the time, was divisive. (Today, so many albums sound like Kid A it could play top to bottom at a coffee shop without disturbing a soul.) This affinity hung around; in 2013, someone started a thread on Reddit titled "What is it with Autechre and Thom Yorke?" In 2015, a more general question was posted on Quora: "Why are so many musicians fascinated by Autechre?"

In 2016, Radiohead and Autechre both did magnificent work, far from the dustups of 2000. A Moon Shaped Pool blended Radiohead's strengths — legato melodies, staccato acoustic figures, electronic frosting — into a viable log and chopped it into song-length bits. It is human-friendly music. The less familiar sounds Autechre made in 2016 — an album called elseq 1–5, which clocks in at four hours, and a recently finished European tour — feel intensely alive while also avoiding much of what is generally regarded as musical: melody, consistent tempos, songforms, legibility. Their recent sets (a high-quality audience recording from Helsinki is, for the moment, up on YouTube) have been opening with a block of sharp green feedback that rockets into a curve, ducks behind some silence, and emerges as a deep red bass throb. That bit takes about five minutes. Is that a motif, an improvised thought, a klaxon? A song?

Since their first release, in 1991, Autechre have used darkness, mechanization, and negative space not to hide, but to illuminate the path of a signal, the interaction every musician works around and within. When the U.K. duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth perform live, they play in the pitch black to make you listen, returning you to the baseline of sound. This urge toward the immersive is not a retreat or a strike against other music. Autechre have been demonstrating, for almost twenty-five years, that using paradigms modeled on the behavior of physically manipulated instruments is just unproductive. Any signal leaving a speaker is an analog, living thing, no matter how it is made.

If you listen to Autechre's first two albums, Incunabula (1993) and Amber (1994), you'll hear something different, prettier, with the seed of its own destruction poking through. Smooth, echoey synth chords float above rhythms that are tweaking, restless to be freed from timekeeping, on the edge of sentience. By the mid-Nineties, those rhythms had grown through the ceiling of harmony and blocked everything else out, creating a chatter that defied you to find an appropriate activity. If the early music was too chilled out to dance to, this stuff was too wired to keep up with. After the turn of the century, those fractal beats drove the duo into something of a corner: high resolution, infinite rhythmic chatter, but some kind of solid figure missing. Even a diehard fan could become a shruggie.

And then, in the past few years, a synthesis emerged. The rhythms bloomed into something off the grid, with the help of a piece of software called Max that adapts to its user's needs. Brown and Booth have created new code within Max, fashioning something like a bespoke a.i. machine. They manipulate bits of audio through Max when they record and when they perform. The software responds to decisions the two make, while simultaneously carrying out functions that have already been programmed. It's like two Delos employees trying to reformat a Westworld host while it fights back.

Autechre's sound repeatedly summons the word "abstract," but, by definition, it can't be. There is a dense physicality to Autechre's music, which unfolds inside its own contradiction. Air moves, people's bodies are shaken, tones ring. Diving into the software has allowed Autechre to wrest something back from the digital world, creating a sequence of events that feels more organic than digital.

Whether or not they are directly connected to Autechre, many of the key artists now using electronic media are indebted to the duo for helping audiences grow more comfortable with acts that want to explore the plasticity of sound (which sometimes involves listening to four-hour albums and sitting around in the dark). Canadian musician Tim Hecker has worked in the past with acoustic instruments like church organs (not portable) that he then processes violently in the digital realm (more portable). Love Streams (2016) made use of the human voice: notated music sung by a choir in Iceland, filtered and transformed. Especially during a live show at Union in Los Angeles this past April, the results did not suggest any sound that might come out of anybody's mouth. As he layered asynchronous loops, one on top of the other, the resulting crosstalk was overwhelming, in terms of both pleasure and information. I was rooted to my spot, until I couldn't process any more and had to step out for a few minutes to reset my brain.

In January, Belgian engineer and synthesist Yves De Mey released Drawn With Shadow Pens, a series of Rapidograph portraits compared to Autechre's tsunami of data. In nine single takes, all recorded in mono, De Mey used modular analog synthesis to create pops and hums and buzzes and squeaks. This results in coherent, song-length tracks that have nothing to do with songs while unfolding in a clear, narrative way. Operating both socially and technically at some distance from Hecker and De Mey, Abul Mogard is (allegedly — supporting documents are thin) a retired steelworker from Belgrade who uses homemade oscillators and Farfisa organs to make tracks. Mogard's Works is more approachable, at first, inching closer to whatever people think is ambient music. That term, separated from those actively trying to make background music, is often an attempt by retailers to indicate something like "these noises are more pleasant than those other noises, though there aren't really songs on this one, either." Mogard is working with minor melodic figures, like those holding early Autechre tracks together, which he has submerged in machine-generated suds. Works invites and blankets and rolls without promising any uplift. (Always close to hand, Yorke played two Mogard tracks when he co-hosted Benji B's BBC show in September.) If you want to lose the horizon line and other orienting points, Works is your way out.

This sort of music seems to dismantle the social conventions and functions of popular music, but watching crowds listen to these acts at festivals like Unsound, in Kraków, or Basilica Soundscape, in Hudson, it is obvious that though this sound eludes helpful terminology like "verse" and "lead singer" and "hype man," it is not trying to fight a willing listener. There is a common urge right now to find a way to create coherence that reflects a reality we can no longer describe out loud without feeling foolish. The music Autechre makes, and has inspired, leads you to a point of impossibility without demanding that you find the words for it. If this music is both social and antisocial, it can offer inspiration and a means of attack. It exists as a duality, one that may offer a map to the coming project of constructive dissent. One person's racket is another person's reflective tent.


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