Listening deeply to future’s past

Pub date April 2, 2008
WriterErik Morse
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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With this month’s release of Quaristice (Warp), Manchester electro pioneers Autechre have proven once again why they remain the most vital experimental force of the Warp generation invoking, in their dance-floor songscapes, a considerable 50-year palimpsest of hermetic sounds, from classical avant-garde to fin de millénaire techno. Nearly two decades into their careers, musical partners Sean Booth and Rob Brown still generate, synthesize, and surpass cutting-edge diapasons, matched by a timeless — and dare I say archetypally English — craftsmanship. By turns baroque and warm, then granular and cold, Autechre’s sonic creations continue to defy and frustrate the ramifying narratives of critics and hipster musos, who often label the mysterious duo with vague descriptors like "architectonic."

"There’s plenty of bad grandiosity — like Jean Michel Jarre," Booth says, laughing on the phone from Manchester. "People used to say our music sounded Wagnerian, weirdly enough. Of course, there are other European composers I prefer."

While the sutured beats and acid loops of past classic recordings like 1995’s Tri Repetae (Warp) and 1999’s EP7 (Warp) are based in the futurist ’80s hip-hop of Mantronix and Afrika Bambaataa, Autechre’s dissonant tones and eerie melodies are also a product of the same decade’s underground cinema. "Soundtrack music was my sideways introduction to classical electronic music," recalls Booth. "I really love John Carpenter, more than I even like Kraftwerk, which is a lot." In the age of glammy mainstream new wave, during which Yamaha keyboards were built and played like guitars and Trevor Horne–style production was all brass and filigree, sci-fi and horror provided an inroad to the sounds of future’s past — and its composers. Booth goes on to praise Tod Dockstader and Roland Kayn, among others.

In Booth’s studied references to musical obscurants, whose accompanying concepts of cybernetics and generative synthesis are usually reserved for the Uni computer lab set, the self-taught Northerner is not engaging in the familiar game of highbrow name-checking that has pervaded certain pockets of electronic culture since the early ’90s — and that indirectly birthed the dubious title Intelligent Dance Music. Rather, he is trying to articulate his deep passion for a kind of music that is nearly indescribable in everyday language and always alludes and evades more than it expresses.

Call it deep listening, call it microtonal, but don’t call it IDM. "I kind of looked at the computer [when we began] as a means to an end," Booth explains. "Like how far could you take music using this machine and still create reasonably interesting music? [Karlheinz] Stockhausen was all over this. He was even blurring the line between what a tone is and what a succession of events is. And that’s a major turning point in 20th century music. I think by the time we got to those ideas, it was about reapplication."

Of course, for all of its new possibilities, techno culture has its obvious downside, Booth contends, mostly as a result of market saturation. "I think that if people are overequipped, they can find it harder to make decisions, because they’ve got more things to choose from," he explains, referring both to the music industry and cultural spheres. He points to the phenomena of MySpace as comparable to the glut of plug-ins and processors that have become the norm for music producers. "But it’s all fixation in a way, because it’s not like if you buy a synth, then everything is going to change."

The progression of drum ‘n’ bass and dub techno met such a fate, being outstripped from within by idle bandwagoners who capitalized on the mechanics but not the soul of the genres’ originators: Dillinja, Ed Rush, and Jeff Mills, or the highly influential Basic Channel label. "Unfortunately, there are loads of idiots waiting in the wings to capitalize on that originality," Booth laments. "I think the whole electronic scene is really conservative now, and safe. In the early days when Xenakis and Cage and Stockhausen were first discovering these sounds, it was absolutely terrifying."

Autechre has always tried to maintain a certain minimalist craftsmanship in response, according to Booth. And it is apparent in Quaristice that they have put as much emphasis on flow, narrative, and rhythm as bricolage, creating a sophisticated "live" feel throughout. While some punters might say Autechre has now returned to the safety of its roots after mining the difficult territory of computer processing and software algorithms, Booth is quick to point out that most of the gear they have used of late is identical to what they used before. "It’s just much more reactive," he says. "I’m making decisions based on what Rob just did and vice versa. In a way it’s more rewarding than spending six months programming something that’s very elaborate and complex in a different way."

And if there is one descriptor we might use to encapsulate Booth and Brown, it would never be "safe." In their tireless soundtracking of a subterranean past and underground future, Autechre continues along an innovative path of music with as much heart as hardware.


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