On Autechre: Exercising The Materiality Of Machine Music

by Thomas Brett

I don’t think of a sound in my head and try and find it on the keyboard.  I just find the sound on the keyboard. -Sean Booth, Autechre

Have you ever listened to the music of Autechre?  They are a UK-based electronic music duo that has been releasing their unique brand of adventurously experimental and probing techno music (for lack of a better description) on Warp records since the early 1990s.  Back then, one could hear them as a kind of offshoot of more mainstream techno, and many critics consider them pioneers of the IDM or “intelligent dance music” sound–or put another way, music that was too off-kilter and strange to really work well as dance music.  And making dance music never seemed to be the group’s goal anyway.  Rather, they just wanted uncompromisingly explore the sonic possibilities of their technology.  Using common instruments (drum machines, synthesizers, software) as well as homemade software patches, Autechre has produced a body of musical work that doesn’t ever settle for normal.  In fact, it keeps unsettling itself, seeking ever new sounds.

There is a wonderful analytical article on Autechre by Bret Schneider at chicagoartcriticism.com.  You can read it here.  Schneider convincingly makes the case that Autchre’s music is not really “experimental and abstract” as it is often characterized.  Specifically, he gets to the heart of what Autechre seems to be trying to do with its creative work, namely, exploring the potentials of its gear and themselves:

“Over the 20+ years of the duo’s (Rob Brown and Sean Booth) existence, Autechre has unflinchingly clung to a consistent program of investigating the potentials of varied electronic music equipment, ranging from vintage analog hardware to cutting-edge algorithmic software.  If one thread has connected all their projects, it is a process-based attempt to analyze the materiality of new technological material and allow the hidden potentials within them to surface.  Curiously and problematically, Autechre’s project is singular today.”

But how do we study a music that gives us so few analytical handles? How do we understand music with fractured pattern sequences and a-rhythmic rhythms?  With harmonies and melodies that lie suspended between tonal and  atonality?  A music that uses unrecognized and new timbres?  That resists easy categorization as a particular stylistic sub-category of electronic dance music?  In short, how do we study a music of what Schneider calls
“ambiguation”, a music of “sonorities”?

On top of all this, Autechre themselves say very little about their work–about how they make it or what it means. Even their track titles are cryptic, and their album covers abstract, as can be seen below:

We are left with just the “music itself”, wondering if we have arrived at what Charles Seeger once called the musicological juncture: that point at which we realize that talking about music really has its limitations.

Nevertheless, Autechre makes deliberate, calculated music that to my ear sounds meticulously organized. Things are always happening, shifting and evolving in Autechre tracks. If you want an example, listen to the track “Simm” from their 2008 album Quaristice. While there is no typical Autechre piece, this one is a good example of the duo’s constant calculations that are audible in the sounding musical structure.

The piece is roughly divided into three sections. The piece begins with clanging percussion in a 4/4, 8th-note offbeat feel with a repeating melody comprised on long metallic bell tones on top.  At 1:30 this texture begins decomposing as it were, its percussive hits replaced, bit by bit, by ruptures and distorted, broken timbres.  As you listen you are witness to a real-time shift of sonic shapes.  At 2:38 a new percussive element enters the mix: two kick drums–one somewhat steady dry kick and a second deep sub bass kick layered on top of every fourth hit.  The first bass drum pattern is unstable in that beat four of its pattern is seemingly delayed by a micro-second; it never seems to come in on time, and yet the pattern as a whole seems to hold steady, creating the illusion of musical dragging.  Together, the two bass drums signal a new section without the melody in the opening of the piece. By 3:10 the texture of digital frog-like metallic percussion and the unstable kick drums is in its full croaking glory. What happened to the melody from the first section is unimportant; perhaps it was just a launch pad for this new sonic environment?  Then at 3:30, a series of -  chords enter atop the croaking percussion. The chords have a lush, slow attack, pad timbre that fills the stereo field, and each one lasts about eight 4/4 measures (if we’re counting). At 4:42 the percussion abruptly stops, there’s a brief pause and reverb tail from the last percussion hit, and then we’re left with one final harrowing chord that–a shift of tonality that oscillates with a deep vibrato that rattles one’s speakers/headphones deep into their sub-bass limits.  In “Simm”, like a lot of Autechre tracks, you can hear the musical morphing happening right in front of your ears and that lends the pieces a sense of urgent interest.  It’s completely engaging cognitive journey and you get the sense that they are surprised as you are at where it all ended up.