Autechre: Elseq 1-5

by Bret Schneider

 

 

"It's quite kaleidoscopic really, 'cause you're learning as you're working with this sort of work."

- Autechre

 

For Autechre’s listeners, the music of Autechre is not only music, but a mode of thought or a state of mind. They are not seen merely as formalist musicians working within a style, but as accessing something behind music by possessing a superior consciousness of the tools that make and organize sound. Electronic music is a means to poke holes in the fabric of reified electronic music experience, and determine what, if anything, might lie beyond. Autechre excel at triggering caesura moments: brief moments of crisis in the temporality of a work in which the receiver has no clue what is going on, and is compelled towards a superior awareness of time. One of the singular successes of Autechre is the cultivation of listeners who are open to and even seek out fissures in the common values of music, and who listen at the critical threshold of what must be thought through but can't. It has long been considered music for the mind by loyal fans, critics, and even those who don’t like Autechre because it is apparently too cerebral. At the same time, its abstractness shields itself from thinking about it. Nearly no one, including critics and probably Autechre themselves, completely understand what’s going on in the listening experience. And it’s very rare, more or less absent, to read anything thoughtful about the music that comes to a conclusion about the work. Those who claim it is for the mind are the same ones who believe that thinking through it is impossible. It presents a contradiction: how can something be exclusively for the mind, but thwart thinking at the same time?

Even a new Autechre album is met with a healthy suspicion by the most loyal of fans, which is rare in a culture based on hyping everything under the sun as a new need. Their listeners recognize that their old work still demands thinking through, and new work is not necessarily needed. Still, a new album is, if anything, an opportunity for clarification of old work—both Autechre’s own work and electronic music as a historical medium. Elseq 1-5 (2016) is over four hours of material that ranges from dense clouds of synthetic noise (feed1) and slowly evolving timbral experiments (eastre) to iterative beat structures (acdwn2) and ‘casual’ minimal pieces in a dub style (pendulu casual). The new material is that which Autechre has explored for over the past decade, unifying tonality and percussion in novel ways, and thoroughly working through FM synthesis, a type of synthesis invented by John Chowning in the 70s wherein frequencies are modulated by other frequencies, which are modulated by other frequencies etc. It is notoriously complex to program, and considered an inexhaustible form of synthesis. It's not the only technique employed, but it exemplifies their process the best. The Board Recs and Elseq 1-5 distill the duo’s interest in FM even further, and situate them as something like FM artists. What they have been able to conjure out of FM synthesis is unique and entirely new, and sets it apart from, say, the way FM is employed as a cheap effect in something like the music of Skrillex.

So, while electronic musicians have herded around the modular synth revolution, Autechre have retreated further into what many consider the already exhausted confines of digital synthesis. But in stressing serious technical work they have still been able to perfect the sense of wonder and discovery that characterizes our best modular synth musicians. When working exclusively on the computer has become nearly taboo in the experimental electronic music community, to do so takes the form of a protest against cultural norms. It evinces a consistent aesthetic position with what they were doing over 20 years when they protested the anti-rave act by making completely non-repetitive music. Even the lengths of the Board Recs and Elseq 1-5 protest Pitchfork’s limiting review of Exai, namely their claim that is was too long. The review was reminiscent of Amadeus, when the king informed Mozart that there were too many notes in The Magic Flute! Autechre challenged complaints about a 2-hour album by manifesting a 9-hour series of works, and then a 4-hour album. Throughout the ‘00s, when everyone said they couldn’t and shouldn’t get any more austere, they answered with paradigms of hard-edged, transparent desolation that were the albums Confield, Draft 7.30, and Untilted. This was at a moment when electronic music had become a trend, and electronic musicians were picking up guitars and doing humanistic things in rock-electronic bands in an attempt to make electronic music palatable to those seeking more familiar listening experiences (e.g. Fennesz, Boards of Canada, Mountains, etc.). They thrive in the social space of doing what they aren’t supposed to do, and it leaves its mark on the music. The abstractness of their music is a result of their music not being supposed to exist in the first place. No mere formalists, the various protests have been a secret to Autechre’s formal innovations, and they are exceptional in the very literal sense by doing the things which are exceptions to the norm. The genuine curiosity of their forays sets them apart from being enfant terribles, however. Today, it is not the government that Autechre is protesting, but rather the uncritical cultural norms of a self-reproducing electronic music industry. The new bureaucracy that limits artistic exploration will be comprised of artists. Autechre is not marginalized because the music is too abstract, the music is abstract because it has chosen to be critical of reality.

Autechre’s alienation is an alienation from electronic music, but using the means of electronic music. They are generally regarded as purists, but what does this mean? Their interest in FM synthesis continues Brian Eno’s position that FM synthesis is important because it is the means by which he learns the most about sound. It positions synthesis as a process, and not an effect, and it underscores electronic music as a means of learning, not as a mere formalism or innovation within the domain of songwriting. This process is what I think most people are truly interested in when they listen to Autechre: they sense that the music is the result of an authentic immersion into a learning or discovery process, and not simply a desperate attempt at formality or being complex for complexity’s sake. Moreover, it's only being about itself—a world of sounds exclusively—means that all the reified cultural things most people are tired of hearing about are left out, and for a moment there is brief glimpse of something changing. Elseq 1-5 continues their sonorous inquiries, and the seeming informality of many of the experiments are as imperfect as they are compelling. Autechre are experimental in the truly avant-garde sense of the term, as their music isn’t listened to in the way a lot of music is listened to, but referred to by musicians who get ideas and are just as likely to put down their headphones and begin patching themselves as they are to be passively awestruck beholders. One doesn’t just listen to Autechre, one feels like they are learning something by listening, hence the esotericism of their audience: Autechre make music exclusively for people who make electronic music, luring lower-level music producers into a domain where they question the fundamental procedures of their practice. Artists making art for other artists has always been the hallmark of the avant-garde—in a society of ceaseless cultural discovery by the thousands of individuals who would not in other times produce music, there’s more of a tendency towards works that carry the possibility of teaching something about a given medium that one decides to work within. But because music listening is hindered by romantic ideals, this element is obscure: artists are often content to work within the limited confines of their own compositional intentions, instead of developing non-compositional strategies that allow the medium’s historical momentum to glimmer through.

An effect of this simultaneous immersion and obscurity that is often overlooked in their music is that structures are under a constant state of change, with no element of the music going untouched. “mesh cinereaL” is a good example of how sequences contort around themselves and slowly unfold and develop almost by undeveloping, eventually reaching a critical point when the piece completely changes direction of its own necessity; but not entirely. Most of the pieces on Elseq 1-5 seem to set up a formula and then try to wrest out of it—self-canceling algorithms. At a moment when electronic music has developed a massive industry around new tools, and producers often slap on new effects without really working through them, this takes on a nearly ethical, and not just formal, comportment. The history of difficult music has clung to the idea of leaving no aspect of the process or material untouched, because it exemplifies a certain philosophy of modernity that posits one can only work through, not around, aesthetic problems. Modernity fosters us with the tools for knowledge but those tools are also undermined by capitalism. For instance, in the 19th century language became suspected by poets to be not an inherently meaningful tool, but something that was bureaucratic, manipulative and needed to be reconceptualized. Language became an enemy of poetry in the same way new electronic tools might be considered an enemy of electronic music. The value of totally working through something implies moving beyond it. The completely electronic interests of Autechre are the precondition for moving beyond electronics, and this is why listeners hear something so alien in Autechre. It is at once the quintessential electronic music and not electronic music at all. There is very little for an artist to do other than push against the limits of the tools they have inherited. Autechre do this by pushing the limits of time-based modulation, one of the foundations of electronic music. And this is the case not because they cherish electronic music as it is, but rather because they attempt to break through it by working at the threshold of time-based music. Elseq 1-5 has a feeling of time just being sedimented into every sound, and the pieces short-circuit common electronic music values by implementing effects as a means. On most tracks this leads to a radically muddy sound that is the result of every element of it’s various tracks being under a constant state of change and modulation. Elseq's general sensibility, exemplified on “eastre”, is dull greyness: it props up no shiny production values but is rather an aesthetic of glittering misery. In sharing common characteristics with Harold Budd's "Dark Star" (1984), eastre puts forth an aesthetic of historical research that aims to recover forgotten possibilities in electronic music history.

On apparently such static droning pieces like the extended 22-minute “eastre,” the techniques appear as more transparent, perhaps due to its slower tempo. “eastre” is a profound piece that exudes a feeling of bad infinity, because it’s constant dynamic change in timbre is in tension with a sense that the timbral development also holds itself back from development. It is affectless electronic music at its best, and it is an exegesis of self-cancelation. 

The type of change itself belies a specific but enigmatic idea of what change in a more general sense should be: it’s not ‘progressive’ in the usual sense of the term regarding how music develops by narrativistic builds and releases, introductions and tidy resolutions etc. No sooner does it construct new forms than those same constructions are dismantled. If the listener feels immersed in a radical feeling of becoming, it is because the music aestheticizes simultaneous composition and decomposition, and it is often difficult to discern which is the more defining character. Such an aesthetic is a protest against not just reality, but what has become the mediocre reality of music: music is expected to offer a vision of whole life, while it’s technical capabilities imply the possibility of going far beyond closed totalities. Kitsch listening may seek wholeness of composition, but the type of listening Elseq 1-5 cultivates protests such values of wholesomeness. This is evident for instance in "Elyc6 0nset", which develops exclusively by decomposition and microsound fragmentation that descends into the infinitesimal sample time domain. What artists who have tried to continue Autechre often miss is this element of decomposition into a compellingly ambivalent sensibility about compositional structure, paired with a playful fascination about sound. Ambivalence is a starting point for new musical structures that take the form of an extended question mark. Testing given materials instead of using them as whole sound objects implies ambivalence resides not in an individual artist, but in the medium and industry of electronic music itself. Elseq 1-5 is not constructivist, its tracks are not hyper-edited, through-composed assemblages speckled with colorful effects, but are means towards disintegration of a special sort: disintegration in Autechre is unified, with usually subordinate fragments being a critical part of, and not merely an effect of the source material. It implies something akin to what psychologists have always suggested is a healthy quality in relationships: separate but together. At a historical moment when disintegration of all values is the hallmark of civilization, Elseq 1-5 offers an obscure vision of how meaningless disintegration can be meaningful disintegration.