Yes, fine, there’s clearly something educated and possibly even overengineered about the clicks and beeps which get woven into densely cerebral pseudo-songs by Autechre, the British duo that has been blazing so many trails in experimental electronic music since the ’90s. Even the kooky name given to the genre they inadvertently defined reflects this: “intelligent dance music,” it was called, which really just means songs crafted more for focused listening than for clubs and dancing, elaborate synthesizer and drum machine programming that lives and dies by nuance and subtlety instead of thunderous downbeats. We find here the difference between “technical” and merely “techno”–most musicians will fire up some audio software and use it to lay down their tunes. These guys write their own software first.
This can all seem pretty intimidating to listeners. The most common response to those sounds often seems to be fleeing in terror from the risk of emotional attachment and writing off Autechre as too brainy for their own good–architectural blueprints infused with a deeper meaning that most of us simply can’t grasp. It’s difficult music, sure, but it’s not dead and dry–New York’s city streets are grids too, as are the windows that line them, and nobody sees fit to interrogate the heart palpitations of a wide-eyed newcomer experiencing those for the first time, right? Most of us don’t actually use those roads to get around so much as the convoluted, jam-packed, and occasionally dangerous network of tunnels buried beneath them, and those concrete right-angled street corners are all peppered with students, halal carts, drunkards, cops, cabbies–a blanket of humanity laid over the structure that keeps it all totally exhilarating.
If you think that’s overly romanticizing things, well, I really can’t help it. I’d wanted to live in New York going back as far as I can remember, but for years my assorted professional endeavors in suburban Virginia made it very hard to justify transplanting myself. Instead, I spent my time wistfully waiting for my day to come, daydreaming while gazing at the framed Manhattan cityscape I’d hung over my bedroom door and spending literally all my vacation days on visiting my dad in Queens. So when I finally made the move in 2008, I found everything about New York absolutely electrifying: Bodegas selling mangoes at 4 a.m.! Lunatics preaching and picketing in Union Square! Even sitting through all those local stops on the 6 train as I made my way downtown to get drunk on a Friday night–because, holy shit, I finally had a 6 train!
Maybe it was indulging that long-suppressed spirit of adventure that also led me to buckle down and dedicate a few months to the intimidating task of digesting the collected works of Autechre, who then soundtracked all those train rides and most of the afternoons spent in my tiny sun-drenched bedroom, where their odd sounds occasionally mixed with the prayer chants emanating from the mosque across from my 96th Street apartment. It was all fascinating, but it also meant that in the blink of an eye the playlist enveloping this new and exciting phase of my life became unexpectedly academic, and to put it bluntly, a little difficult. My Oz had given me a robotic Tin Man; I, too, wished he only had a heart.
That I eventually grew so passionate about their music during that period is not to suggest that mine is a purely experiential connection, that nearly anything would do given the circumstances–that would be shortchanging both the band and myself as a listener. The earliest material in particular can be ludicrously gorgeous at times, honeycombed keyboard lines and their echoing reflections sprouting and then eroding again in the space of eight minutes. Warp released Autechre’s first box set, EPs 1991-2002, on April 12; it collects those more approachable but hard to find early EPs: Anvil Vapre, Garbage, and others, including the particularly fantastic Anti EP. I mean, Jesus, “Flutter”–look, I realize this probably isn’t going to become anybody’s A-list babymaking music anytime soon. (If it does, ladies, please call me.)
But whereas that earlier material had some broader appeal, 2001’s Confield was weird enough to confuse even the core audience that had ravenously swallowed up LP5 and EP7, the superb records that had immediately preceded it. By the time Quaristice came around in 2008, just a few months before my big move, almost all the sensible time signatures had been subverted by experimental ambition, and sure, there was probably also a little ego in there too. “Perlence” was an especially difficult track–just two minutes and change, but I still can’t figure out how to count its pulses, and when the inevitable remix came, its running time had been expanded to a full 58 minutes. Even the song titles grew stranger: from “Flutter,” “Chatter,” “Eggshell” and “Further” to “fwzE,” “ThePlclCpC,” and “90101-51-6.” It’s mostly from these obnoxiously antisocial shenanigans that we get the common but misguided notion that if Autechre’s music displays any beauty at all, it comes in a sterile and mechanical form, like a sculpture built from gears or animations made with a glitching graphics card.
Not everyone is quite so scared of them, however. Warp celebrated its 20th anniversary with, among other things, Warp20 (Recreated), in which staples from the label’s history were covered or reinterpreted by its current artists. In one of the project highlights, songwriter John Callaghan melted down Autechre’s “Tilapia” and recast it as “Phylactery,” a wistful dream-pop perversion complete with Thom Yorkey new lyrics like “These souvenirs are fragile and small/ so mark where they fall/ I need them to prove that I was here at all” and “I leave a thousand footprints/ and a million echoes/ a million flawed impressions/ in the people I know.” It’s a stretch to suggest that the heart of a song lies in its samples–“Funky Drummer” and the amen break will testify against that–but Callaghan’s reworking is still jarring enough instrumentally to stand in for most releases by Autechre proper up through about 1999, complete with heavily processed vocals that at times render the lyrics indecipherable. And yet I defy you to listen to it without feeling anything or drifting off into your own memory bank. Then maybe it’ll be time for “Flutter.”
Making friends with robots isn’t always easy–sometimes you get WALL-E, and sometimes you get HAL 9000. If there’s anything that especially works against Autechre in the emotive arena, it’s their mathematical precision: every note yanked perfectly into place, quantized into strict conformity. But once you’ve acclimated yourself to symmetry you find yourself with a keen awareness of the deviations, much like the ability to pick out dull pinkish hues against the grays of thermal imaging. And better still if you can come to think of it as a fractal rather than a grid–predictable or not, even the most rigid synthetic audio scripts are still rife with expressive possibilities, the machines deriving communicative intent from the people at the helm just as with a cell phone or a printing press. It’s perhaps fair to say that here the message comes out in a language that’s confusing and foreign to most, but maybe that just means you have to interpret it as you might a skilled orator in Portuguese or Swahili–intricate phonetics, devoid of familiar semantic value, but still overflowing with pointed universal inflections. At their strongest, anger, sadness, and laughter need no translation.
Which actually brings me to the final reason this band is worth loving, instead of merely pondering: speaking only in abstractions lets them pass the emotional responsibility right back to you. A folk songwriter will usually take that role for himself, relying as he does on his acoustic guitar and lyrical constructions–there’s a good chance that a song about his childhood crush will still be a song about your own childhood crush, even after it sets up shop inside your head. Purely instrumental pieces, lacking those verbal referents, are far more nebulous. And Autechre is actually the next step along that axis: by removing all familiar reference points, they don’t just blow the door open, they bulldoze the wall entirely. You have no idea what it is, so it’s whatever you want it to be.
The same can be said of New York City in a way, simply because it’s a hub for so many arcane subcultures–if you can’t find something to love here, it’s your own damn fault. And yet there are many who don’t, people who walk through it all and remain miserable. Or, in the worst cases, don’t really react at all, swept away in the more faceless tides of activity that drive urban life, eventually resigning themselves to simply being part of it. I don’t know, maybe they’re the ones who are the robots?
The heart and the mind are often presented as some kind of opposing dichotomy–passion versus intellect, instinct versus calculation, thrown into a contrived cage match like a pair of half-starved Rottweilers. But don’t you buy into that–each and every one of us possesses both, and more skilled philosophers than myself might even suggest that balancing them is precisely what makes us human. Instead, let’s step back and transplant this discussion from your ears to your eyes: for most of us, there’s something inherently introspective and intangibly moving about peering transfixed through the darkness at an array of twinkling lights. Thing is, that doesn’t always have to mean you’re stargazing. Sometimes it’s a city skyline, and sometimes they’re all just pixels.