On Autechre: Exercising The Materiality Of Machine Music

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 was once a wonderful analytical article on Autechre by Bret Schneider at chicagoartcriticism.com. Schneider convincingly made the case that Autchre’s music is not really “experimental and abstract” as it is often characterized. Specifically, he got 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.

Feedback On African Feedback

In 2004, Italian composer and sound artist Alessandro Bosetti traveled to villages in Mali and Burkina Faso and asked villagers to listen to recordings of Western experimental, minimal, electronic, and improvised music.  As they listened through headphones to randomly selected pieces, Bosetti recorded their real-time reactions–“comments, breaths, attempts to imitate what was heard”–with a stereo microphone.  He later transcribed these reactions and compiled them into a short book called African Feedback (Errant Bodies Press, 2006).  The book also includes a CD of Bosetti’s own sound composition that uses his interviews as source material.

Bosetti talked to over two dozen different people, young and old, and a typical encounter takes up about a page or two of dialogue in the text.  What is immediately apparent upon reading the interviewees’ reactions is how they try to make sense of Bosetti’s recordings at face value–reacting to the sounds as they come, without necessarily having any interest in who composed them (and in some cases, in the sounds themselves).  Some listening sessions lead to conversations about the nature of music and role of music in one’s society; other sessions do very little to elicit strong reactions from the African listener.

For me, this little book (all of 64 pages) is worth its price of admission for a few reasons.  First, I think it was a creative idea on Bosetti’s part to venture out and engage directly with different communities of people through the medium of music recordings and conversation.  I imagine that with this project he got out of his comfort space as a composer to seek dialogue with others.  Even though Bosetti’s original idea was to gather source material for his own creative work, his ethnographic encounters quickly became the main event, and I liked how he was able to go with the flow and let  his work to grow out a shared experience.

Second, the book is, inadvertently perhaps, a powerful refutation of the notion of cultural universals and that musics have universal appeal.  It only takes a few blank stares as a reaction to a recording of music by Olivier Messiaen, Harry Partch, Ryoji Ikeda, or John Cage to remind us that music only makes its best sense to its community of makers/users/fans/consumers/participants, etc.  In other words, there are real limits to what a music can mean, and sometimes the easiest way to explore this idea is to physically bring the music to a new place and see what happens!  (Messiaen in a Malian village is not the same as Messiaen in a concert hall in France . . .)  I’m reminded here of something that I think the ethnomusicologist John Blacking once said about how Westerners make a big deal about being able to distinguish between the intervals of say, a Perfect 4th and a Perfect 5th, but that for other communities of listeners (I believe Blacking was referring to the Venda people of South Africa) these distinctions could very well be rather inconsequential.

A third reason I like Bosetti’s book is that it’s full of little gems of insight.  Some of the gems arise in the responses of the African listeners, like Soulemane, who described Bosetti’s own piece “Zona” as sound made by a white man “to make a profile of illnesses.”  Other gems lie in Bosetti’s extensive footnotes that are incorporated right into the dialogues themselves where he digests his fieldwork encounters, discusses his research strategies, explains how he has been changed by his experiences, and muses on various topics such as the unnaturalness of headphones and the difference between socialized and individual listening.

So what kind of book is this?  It’s not a conventional musical ethnography, and yet it does contain a number of interesting encounters between the author and the people he interviews.  For Bosetti, his field experiences in West Africa were “a crash course on cultural differences, misunderstandings, myth and reality of globalized creativity.”  I don’t really know what Bosetti means by “globalized creativity” but nevertheless, I appreciate how he is not bogged down in theory or the necessity of being in dialogue with an academic discipline.  He just goes for it.

On Impetuses For Making Views From A Flying Machine

I recently finished a series of nine electronic music pieces begun in December 2009.  One impetus for collecting and finishing the works came by way of an organ recital I heard at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London this past spring.  (I was in England to give a paper at a conference for the British Forum For Ethnomusicology.)  The organ pieces (by a 19th century French composer whose name I can’t recall) were dazzling technique-wise (after all, one has to use two hands and two feet to play the church organ), but what caught my attention was the overall form of the music.  It sounded to me like one big cluster of sound—a sonic blob of energy that ebbed and flowed in a continuous, ever-shifting blurry motion.  Part of this sonic impression is no doubt due to the liquid acoustics in a place the size of St. Paul’s, where a single sound can hang in the air for a half a minute, or so it seems, its reverberant tail echoing in a multitude of directions.  But I also noticed that the organ composition had many layers to it.  Some of these layers were twinkling parts that chattered away in the highest, delicate registers; some were mid-register open (2-note) chord tonalities in the middle register; and way, way down below, as if resonating from the catacombs deep underneath the church, were single note pedal sub bass tones.  What a magisterial sound it all made!

As I listened I made note of some keywords to help me remember what I had experienced: “chord clusters”, “drone”, “common tones”, “sub bass”, “slowly changing harmonies”, “limited number of timbres.”  These keywords became guides–soundposts, really–by which I organized the pieces that make up Views From A Flying Machine.  The nine pieces that comprise this work are scored for a series of pad sounds (some presets, some homemade), a few varieties of organ (surprise, surprise), sub bass, bells and glockenspiels, and percussion.  Interestingly for me–since I am a percussionist–is that the percussion is almost more textural than rhythmic in function.  These pieces are less about rhythm and more about layers of harmony.  Finally, if you’re wondering where the title comes from, all I can say is that it just seemed appropriate.  And also this: there is a fascinating New Yorker article called “Angle Of Vision” (April 2010) on the aeriel photographer George Steinmetz.  Steinmetz custom-built his own paraglider–a real and rickety “flying machine”–for taking low-altitude photos of deserts.  As I remember it, the article had nothing to do with music, but was all about views from a flying machine.  Click here to listen.

Ordinary Affects and The Ethnography of Everyday Experience

If you are interested in ethnography, a remarkable study that might interest you is Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (Duke U. Press, 2007).  Stewart is an anthropologist who teaches at the U of Texas, Austin, and her book is finely tuned ethnographic study of everyday life–her life, in fact.  One aim of the book is to render in detail the many small things that we observe (and that happen to us) over the course of a typical day to show the reader how “the reeling present is composed out of heterogeneous and nonchoherent singularities.”  In this regard, the book is about illuminating “a tangle of trajectories, connections, and disjunctures.”

But what exactly is an “ordinary affect”?  It’s all the little stuff that makes up our intimate lives, and also the public stuff that circulates and is widely shared.  Ordinary affects are an “animate circuit” of energy, something like Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling.  Yet another way to think about ordinary affects is to think about your own everyday experience, especially in terms of those moments when you suddenly realize something is happening (or just happened): a micro-turning point, a significance emerging, a time made present, a potential revealed, a feeling made palpable.

If this all seems abstract (and it is somewhat), then you have some idea of the challenges that ethnographers face when trying to represent, capture, inscribe, or translate their experiences doing field research.  But Stewart reminds us of how powerful ethnography is as a critically attuned yet also (to my eyes and ears at least)poetic rendering of the stuff of culture.  Ethnomusicologists and sound-oriented anthropologists who face the additional challenge of taking about ever-slippery music and sound might really enjoy reading Stewart’s book.  Why?  Because it’s a model of clarity and open-endedness–the right stance, I think, for exploring the ever-shifting contours of human experience.  Stewart’s “vignette” approach to presenting her material faithfully represents how our experiences feel rather than neatly explaining what our experiences mean.  And I like that because it seems like a honest and grounded stance to take.

Or as Stewart puts it in the book’s first sentence: “Ordinary Affects is an experiment, not a judgment.”

Jaron Lanier on Technology: Music and MIDI

Jaron Lanier, an American computer scientist, musician, and author, is pretty cool in my book.  In his recent manifesto, You Are Not A Gadget, he makes a strong case for probing how technology reduces us as the creative humans that we are, muting the “cultural anger” we need to come up with new tools that do justice to what makes us unique.  One of the most compelling discussions of the book concerns MIDI–which stands for musical instrument digital interface, the protocol for syncing together keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers that has been around since the mid-1980s.  Lanier cites the longevity and pervasiveness of MIDI as an example of a kind of technological “lock-in” which makes it quite hard for us to imagine other, better alternatives that may be possible.  Lanier reminds us that once upon a time, before the advent of MIDI, a musical note was a limitless field of possibility; in fact, when a musician plays an instrument or sings, no two notes are ever the same.  But MIDI reduced music and we bowed before this new limitation, using “crappy tools” to make music that in many ways was (and still is) much more limited than old-fashioned acoustic music.  And of course, today, computers have changed how people think about themselves.  For example, there is a generation of kids who know only the privilege of what Lanier calls “entropic access” to all of the world’s music immediately for available for download.  Snap your fingers and the music file is right there.  As easy as making a “friend” on Facebook.  Beautiful, but too easy.

Lanier is geting at some very important ideas here.  Just as people aren’t gadgets, music isn’t data, and he encourages us to think through the implications of our tools.

I highly recommend that you read this book.

If you’re interested, check out this YouTube video of Lanier playing a khaen, a bamboo mouth organ from Laos here:

Flying Lotus and The Density Of Musical Information

There has been a lot of well-deserved hype surrounding Flying Lotus’ latest record,Cosmogramma.  Lotus (aka Steven Ellison) is one of the leading figure on L.A.’s experimental instrumental hip hop scene, blending beats with experimental textures. His live performances are intense, visceral and physical, and the music has a great, pounding weight to it.  On Cosmogramma, there are about two dozen tracks, most of which are only a few minutes long.  But one of the things I recently noticed about them is how densely they’re layered with musical information.  One track in particular, “Ping Pong”, really exemplifies this.  As you might imagine, the sound of a sampled game of table tennis is woven into the song’s rhythmic fabric.  But there’s a whole lot of other sonic material too, including bubbling synthesizers, outerspace sounds, a woman’s singing voice drenched in echo, and at the very end, some finger-plucked acoustic guitar.  If you listen from a distance, it can all sound like a busy mush, carefree, a little sloppy, loose, psychedelic.  But this is also headphone music.  Listening from close proximity you hear how carefully organized this groovy mush is–to the point where each element in fact sounds pretty intriguing.  In fact, it’s meticulous.  And that’s what I mean by a density of musical information.  Listen to the song here: