Do you need to remember music to enjoy it? Do you need to recognize it?
Since 1987, Autechre's Sean Booth and Rob Brown have been reorganizing, hearing and unhearing electronic music on our behalf. The roll call of people who borrow from them is almost pointlessly long. Did your favorite live band get squelchy and clicky in the aughts? Autechre. Were you mad when Radiohead abandoned verse-chorus-verse guitar rock to make those mongrel striations they've been releasing for over a decade? Autechre. If you encounter otherworldly music built from machine-generated noises, it owes Autechre a Christmas card.
On Nov. 1, after no promotional push, Autechre launched a page on Bleep, the Web store of its English label Warp. The only thing available so far is "Ae_Live," a collection of four, hour-long live shows recorded in Europe during the last four months of 2014. (If you're comfortable listening to MP3s, the set will cost you $12.50; audiophiles can get 24-bit WAV files for $23.)
Is "Ae_Live" an album? Maybe. During several weeks of communicating with Booth before and after Autechre's L.A. appearance at the Fonda on Oct. 15, I asked Booth if a new album was coming. "Depends on how you define an album," was his answer. Frustrated, I suspected "Ae_Live" was the other shoe of his answer, and it was. "These shows were intended for release, provided the recordings worked OK," Booth clarified. "The performances were good enough."
How long does it take to absorb four hours of music? If you're listening to Autechre, that answer involves a much larger number than if, say, AC/DC was the test case. Autechre's music was already subtle and odd when they started releasing records in the early '90s, caught mistakenly in a wave of "ambient" electronica they had little interest in.
"There was a big culture of taking acid and staying in at the time, instead of doing E and going out," Booth said. "We were more into that, hanging out and getting weird, hearing the way weird things sounded weird. We were doing stupid stuff like plugging a TV into an effects unit and then running it off a drum machine and watching telly."
Autechre's early tracks contained enough gentle moment for Warp's late co-owner Rob Mitchell to push them toward the growing non-dance ambient dance genre on their first album, "Incunabula." After that, the duo rejected outside advice and started releasing the tracks indebted to the hip-hop and sound effects they grew up loving.
When they were still using drum machines and keyboards and samplers, they were able to create rebarbative clots of noise that sounded as if they were trying to drive you out of your own home. (The ecstatic drill-press stomp of "Second Bad Vilbel" from the 1995 "Anvil Vapre" EP is a good example.)
Then, the growth of software synthesis programs in the '90s and aughts changed Autechre's sound, and upped their ability to avoid known grids easily followed. This is where the necessary listening time doubles and trebles. "Second Bad Vilbel" is abrasive, full of microscopic and almost inaudible detail, but it still moves in a variation of 4/4, at a recognizable tempo.
The music on "Ae_Live" rarely does anything that obvious. If you go to the four-minute mark in their Utrecht performance from Nov. 22, 2014, you'll hear whooshes, honking tones and the reflection of irregularly spaced notes. The only thing that repeats in a time signature is a low sound that resembles a kick drum. That disappears before the six-minute mark, when a passage of what could be someone hitting exposed piano strings begins. Less than a minute elapses, then the muffled timekeeping returns, slower. In almost every other kind of pop-derived music, events return in roughly the same relationship to other events, at constant intervals, even if those intervals counted out in an odd meter. Autechre inserts so many different lengths of time between sounds that a listener could be forgiven for thinking she's just hearing a stream of improvised electronic noise.
Several weeks spent listening to the live sets, though, made it clear that each set dealt with much of the same information: that piano string section (seventh minute in Utrecht, eighth minute in Dublin); a buzzing bass line that approaches melody; a bright, horn-like sound being chopped into flickers with a thin drum sound; and a watery stretch of what might have once come out of a hammer dulcimer. The software Autechre uses most often now is called Max/MSP, a programming interface used by musicians, artists who specialize in sound installations, and anyone who needs to synchronize many sounds in time and, sometimes, space. For the last six years, Brown has been living in Bristol, and Booth has been in Manchester. Exchanging Max files over the Internet hasn't slowed them down. "I'm programming a lot of the time, and then we're kind of hacking each other's stuff," Booth said. "It's a deeper kind of collaboration really, despite the distance."
If you saw one of the 18 American dates, which took place mostly in October, you heard something even more decentered than what you can hear on "Ae_Live." The duo was especially fond of their L.A. date. "It was really good," Booth said. "The crowd seemed to enjoy the same bits we did."
As for the complex interaction of algorithms and human hands that created "Ae_Live," Booth offered this explanation. "Only some aspects of the system are consistent. For example, most of the note sequencing is different each time, but the overall 'flavor' of each track is consistent. Each track has a range of possibilities, most of which are determined by a set of conditionals. We share data with each other, which we can tell our own stuff to ignore or not, depending on how much we want to deviate. A lot of aspects of the software's activity can be shared slightly in advance as well, so we can have instantaneous reactions. You do get this sometimes in jazz, obviously, but it's slightly a guessing game a lot of the time what each person's going to do. There's a rough script, but we have a lot of latitude. We tend to deviate very subtly because it's easy to just throw something into chaos. But sometimes we do that too."
That's as good a vernacular explanation as I've heard of what is, in this case, both the user manual and the score. You've heard the joke about electronic musicians standing on stage with laptops, maybe checking email for all the audience knows? Autechre's live show is the opposite of that.
Still, Autechre makes none of this easy on themselves or their audience. It is sort of hard to have a hit when you essentially have no melodies, or songs; just rhythmic hashing of waveforms not generated by human hands and later processed by software.
If you tried to use a live instrument to play a track from "Exai," say, "irlite (get 0)," you might be able to mimic the series of notes that unfold over the last two minutes of the track. If you pulled it off, you might sound like Derek Bailey trying to sit in with Weather Report. As for mimicking the half-dozen other howling sounds circling the notes, good luck.
In many ways, Autechre is the realization of critical theory formed in France during the '60s, which then reached American academia in the '80s. Writing in 1963 on the work of Georges Bataille, the artist and author Pierre Klossowski articulated the following idea: "For if the simulacrum tricks on the notional plane, this is because it mimics faithfully that part which is incommunicable. The simulacrum is all that we know of an experience; the notion is only its residue calling forth other residues."
By 1980, Jean Baudrillard has filtered the idea of the simulacrum and coined a formulation seen often now: "the copy of a copy without an original."
Autechre's music is the remix of a song that never existed, the distortion of a signal from nowhere. Though Autechre's music is almost entirely removed from the physical world — until it is amplified and becomes a physical presence that moves plenty of air — what happens inside their boxes is a gleeful sort of manhandling, digital fistfuls of sound being squeezed. "Ae_Live" is that clay being torqued and flattened by their programs, a body of work that is rarely dry or pointlessly obscure. It is the joy of machines, guided and preserved by two benevolent shepherds.