We’ll never make music that’s compatible with the dance floor, because we don’t really like things that are compatible with anything. – Sean Booth, Autechre (interviewed by Geeta Dayal)
Last week I went to see Autechre perform at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn. “See” isn’t quite the right word though, as I never got anything more than a split second glimpse of the shadowy figures of Sean Booth and Rob Brown standing motionless in complete darkness, hidden behind large monitors as they worked their equipment. That’s one of the things to understand about Autechre–they’re about sound, not performance spectacle. The group is also about a unique kind of discipline in that their shows strictly adhere to one performance protocol: they last for exactly sixty minutes. This time limitation sets the parameters for a self-imposed difficult task: to play ever-changing, rhythmically engaging, and timbrally-inventive music for a while, then abruptly end.
How does Autechre sound? The music is loud and heavy on low-end frequencies, pummeling and vibrating you. The music is rhythmic, layered with grooves built out time cycles sometimes only perceivable in their broad contours. The music also sounds synthetic. From the percussive rumbles to the noise-chord washes to the analog synth bleeps that hint at fractured melodies nothing in this sound resembles the acoustic. Most strikingly, Autechre music is dense in information–it changes constantly. No discrete musical event ever seems to repeat or last longer than a few seconds which makes a sixty-minute performance seem all the longer.
As I listened I thought about what makes Autechre interesting. I realized that the group’s appeal lies not only in their kinetic and complex sound but also what they represent in their consistent performance and recording practice they have maintained since the early 1990s. What Autechre does best is experiment and embrace the unpredictable. You know how famous bands inevitably end up touring and playing their old hits, pleasing their fans into sentimentality through recognition and reminiscing about when they first heard the music? Autechre doesn’t play this associational game. If they wanted to they could revisit hundreds of moments from their discography which might please their fans, yet they never do. Instead they move on. In this regard their live music is like a wager that as they press forward into the unknown made possible by their equipment and their knowhow something wonderous might transpire if everything–the musicians, the hardware and software tools, the audience, and the moment–aligns in today’s sixty-minute show. Their relentless experimentation is an austere stance towards making music, as if saying: we’re going to keep listening forward.
The show at the Masonic Temple had its moments. A typical texture found the music flowing along at around 160bpm–fast and full of chaotic percussion hits, tsunami low bass throbs, and wobbly analog synth squelches and blips, pausing here and there as if to reconfigure itself for the next move. One striking bit–was it about sixty seconds long?–sounded like a plaintive accordion compressed and trapped in a jar, trying over and over to get out. Gorgeous. At another point as the bass frequencies intensified I had the sensation that the sheer volume had somehow pressurized the hall and that I could jump out over the audience and swim through the air, so thick was the sound. All in all, Autechre’s music almost never lacked a strong sense of pulse, but this pulse was more implied that stated, disguised by the constant, zigzagging micro-shifts in the performance. These shifts are well described by Andy Beta in a recent interview with the band. “Autechre’s sound is hard to nail down” he says, “save that every component is always in flux, minced and reconfigured into a wholly unfamiliar new shape. Crunchy crystalline drums turn to liquid; fragments of melody veer into dissonance. On any given Autechre track, you never wind up in the same place as where you started.”
As Autechre played through their set and the minutes ticked away and I thought about what makes them interesting I had an insight: a pleasure of this music revolves around being challenged, not fully understanding, and remaining unsettled. When we listen to music we listen through all of our previous listening experiences: we listen to this through that; we look for similarities in themes, pattern, and designs; we try to make sense of one style through another similar one. But Autechre brings us out of our associational boxes. As I listened and tried to relate what I was hearing to other musical things I couldn’t come up with much. Sure there are traces of electro in Autechre’s sound (see Beta’s interview for more about that influence), but it remains sui generis and strikingly alien. At its best it suggests that Booth and Brown may have some next level, post-human insights to share with us. In musical matters, they may well be super evolved. At any rate, the pleasure of being challenged by Autechre involves forcing your brain to keep up with the rate of change sounding in the music. As you listen you sense that while your attention may have ebbed and flowed in last minute or two, the two musicians standing in the darkness in front of you are still very focused, still very much into the sound they are discovering and revealing right now, no matter where you happen to be. Concentrate!
In the last minute of the concert I glanced at the time. How will this end? The rhythms remained jagged, but they were disassembling themselves before our ears, piece by piece. And then just as I wondered what might come next, how the performance might resolve itself into an ending, a gloriously humming multi-note chord came out of nowhere, shimmering, fading in and then out like an apparition, as to answer the preceding fifty-nine minutes worth of questions. The chord faded to silence and then Booth and Brown vanished. The concert now over, I was already trying to remember what I had just heard.