When it occurs to me, I listen to Autechre on my commute and every time I do I’m rewarded with a listening experience that is unlike the time I spend listening to other musicians. What, I wonder, makes listening to Autechre’s music so unique? I thought of some answers to this question as I listened to their recent concert recording, “AE_LIVE-NIJMEGEN_221116.”
Listening to music free of music’s listening clichés. From the get-go of many AE tracks, it never feels as if the music is sculpted for a particular audience. Instead, the music seems to exist in its own self-created, evolving world, and we come to the music as outsiders peering in. This isn’t functional music—for a dance floor or chilling out or for worship—but rather a music full of functioning. It asks nothing of us except to pay attention to as many of the music’s ever changing details as we can.
Listening to the interaction of two distinct sonic layers: one atmospheric, the other percussive/rhythmic. When you hear AE perform live, you often hear these two layers doing very different musical things. The atmospheric layer might be a glassy pad, a metallic ice melody, or sub basses more sub than you thought possible. The percussive/rhythmic layer might be distant relatives of kicks and snares, or swarms of ticking intensities flying around the room. It depends–every show’s soundscapes are different. You might be lost for a good while, only to find yourself again a few minutes later inside a deep hocketting that evokes old electro allowed to roam free from its 4/4 grid.
Listening for an hour at a time. All the AE shows I’ve seen have been almost exactly one hour long, and ditto for their concert recordings. Clearly there’s something about 60 minutes that appeals to the group. For the listener, 60 minutes is a lot longer than most songs, or movements of symphonies for that matter. AE’s 60 minutes is without intermission, and never divided up like a DJ’s playlist. This 60 minutes is one continuous unfolding of sound–presented very loud and in total darkness. As you listen you sometimes notice your own impatience. But 60 minutes is long enough for you to recover your attention, which you’ll need because you never know what’s coming up.
Listening to music free of its own precedents. AE doesn’t re-play its own tracks, seemingly ever. Maybe the compositional DNA of compositions resides in the group’s software environments, but what is spun from that information is different each time around. So as you listen don’t expect the greatest hits. Instead, expect to get hit with something new. This is an ideal for creativity: to always be uncovering something novel.
Listening to the results of a software-based musical system curated by its human designers. This relates to the first point above about music being free of musical clichés: AE and their system don’t generate songs with verses and choruses, or sequences with build ups and bass drops, but rather layers of sounds and textural counterpoints, intensities and opening ups. The music often sounds suffused with feeling, and I occasionally hear chords I’ve never heard anywhere else.
Listening to a plethora of timbres. If such records were kept, AE would hold the record for having generated the most diversity of timbres. In any 60-minute set, you hear sounds you’ve never heard quite like this before and may never hear again. Listening to such sounds reminds you that musical variation—variations on a theme, variations on a style of song—is just half of music. The other half is variations on timbre. AE’s sound world is a strange ecology that keeps evolving new species of living sounds.
Listening to your assumptions about what might come next—or, structure. When we listen to music we enjoy anchors or conventions of one kind or another. We enjoy music that stays in one key, changes chords only to return to where it started, or uses a heavy beat to keep everything unified. Over the time of the music, these anchors and conventions create fairly predictable structures that guide our listening. AE’s music doesn’t rely on such points of stability. And so as you listen, the mental map you developed over years of exposure to other musics is of little use to orient you. With Autechre you’re hearing an alien terrain, a half human, half software life force, and you feel fortunate to be taking it all in.