Jon Lindblom disusses the importance of technology in the music of Autechre, as well as its broader cultural significance.

When thinking of the most interesting kinds of formal innovations in present times, the work of the electronic music duo Autechre (Rob Brown and Sean Booth) often comes to mind. As I put it in my review of their monumental NTS-Sessions 1-4 (2018):  at around 30 years of existence, Autechre still remains one of the central acts in contemporary electronic music insofar as their work is a rare example of an aesthetic project that keeps evolving in terms of sheer formal complexity that make most other forms of contemporary electronic music sound disappointingly flat in comparison. This particularly articulates itself in terms of a sonic style that cannot easily be tied to various genre conventions. For whereas musicians usually tend to be associated with one or a few specific genres, part of what makes Autechre’s music stand out is the fact that its formal complexity simply cannot be pinpointed to genre convention but instead perpetually reinvents itself by navigating the alien terrains between established genres. In that regard, their work stands out also in relation to their fellow IDM-travellers (Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Luke Vibert, etc.), who rather have become known for working in many different genres. In contrast to this kind of moving between genres, Autechre have successfully utilised genre negation as a precondition for formal innovation.

Needless to say, technology is crucial to Autechre’s music. Indeed, another thing that is fascinating with it is how its formal innovations are so intrinsically tied to technological experimentation, which makes their music a prime example of what I like to think of as formal technological experimentation. They are certainly one of few contemporary musical acts who live up to the (somewhat simplistic) ideal of technology providing artists with infinite sonic potentials and using the studio as a musical instrument by experimenting with different kinds of technology has been a central methodology for the duo since the start, when they utilised an increasingly expanding setup of sonic gear in order to edit and transform other people’s material. And once they started making their own music, they simply continued along the same trajectory by tapping into the hidden potentials of existing music technology – analogue and early digital – to create their remarkably original sonic structures. They have for instance spoken of their ambition to familiarise themselves with every single aspect of a piece of technology – both to understand its restrictions and to try to explicate formal registers that it was not intended for, which, when successful, has allowed them to deviate from what they criticise as widespread technological homogenisation: the fact that we all use the same kinds of technological devices threatens to streamline whatever it is that we do with them (not just music, of course) into increasingly predictable output. Additionally, they have also discussed the importance of reverse-engineering accidents and other key moments of the compositional process, to be able to analyse them in-depth for the purposes of later being able to do them at will and push them into further experimental territories by taking them even farther beyond established sonic forms. As Rob Brown put it in a 2010 interview:

One of our strong points developed in the past is the concept of experimentation. A lot of people think we’re very improv-based, and it’s true to an extent. But if you can’t go back to that spark or moment where you’ve created something new and reverse-engineer it, it can be lost to that moment. Sometimes, we try to capitalize on acquiring that moment and re-using it again and again, or finding the essence of it and applying it in different directions. […] Just a few slight tweaks can spin it out into all sorts of recreations.

Since 2008, however, Booth and Brown have taken the logical step beyond repurposing existing technology and instead programmed their own software with the help of visual programming languages such as Max/MSP. The result is a highly personalised ‘system’ of basic A.I. that they have compared to open-world games such as Grand Theft Auto in the sense that making music on it is like interacting with a video game and trying to make its A.I. behave in various ways. The perhaps most significant consequence of this is how it has allowed the duo to expand on the interconnection between technological experimentation and formal innovation to a point where the line between software programming and music making has become increasingly difficult to draw, as they also have mentioned. Indeed, whenever they feel that a track needs something more, they solve it through additional programming, as opposed to music making, since it is the system that makes the music based on instructions that the duo is putting into it. And in a 2016 interview, they mentioned that they had not bought a new piece of equipment in five years – since they simply had gotten used to constructing everything that they need in their computers – and that their working method nowadays consists of sending pieces of software-patches, as opposed to music, back-and-forth between each other and tweaking them until they produce the desired sonic output.

It is in this sense that Autechre’s music is an example of a project in which technology is being utilised for cutting-edge formal experimentation very much apt to the (digital) now. For example, where software programming and formal innovation become as good as inseparable – as opposed to the digital merely simulating previous analogue aesthetics in ways that we too often have come to associate it with. Indeed, their compelling use of digital technology and sonic A.I. is not simply a gimmick that aims to conceal conventional music – but on the contrary has given us some of the most formally inventive electronic music of the present, as can be heard on recent Autechre releases such as AE_LIVE (2015), elseq 1-5 (2016) and NTS Sessions 1-4. What also is significant about these releases is their sheer lengths, which often are several hours in total. This is something that the duo has discussed as an upside with releasing music on digital formats, since no longer being constrained by the temporal restrictions of CDs and LPs has allowed them to think in structures that are not dependent on physical formats (both AE_LIVE and elseq 1-5 are digital-only releases, whereas NTS Sessions 1-4 was first released digitally – immediately after it had been broadcast live on the NTS radio station). Of course, longer releases are not automatically better – indeed, the fact that it is so easy to release music digitally in all kinds of formats today certainly has its downsides – but what is significant about Autechre’s experiments with duration is that it has allowed them to augment their formal innovations further by building even more intricate sonic structures beyond standard temporal formats.

This is certainly exciting at a technical-aesthetic level, but there is more to it as well. For in a world where technological homogeneity, or standardisation, certainly is ubiquitous – and where technological innovation mostly is associated with the dubious capitalist practices of Silicon Valley – we clearly need other, more exciting, visions of what technology can do. As the political theorists Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have argued: technology under late capitalism has failed to deliver on the many emancipatory promises it was associated with in the West throughout the 20th century – such as ambitious projects of large-scale planning and public investment, as well as grandiose science fiction fantasies and cultural utopias. Today, technology has on the one hand been reduced to an instrument of widespread data extraction and, on the other hand, to a series of kitschy consumer gadgetries wherein a culture of minor upgrades of things such as image resolution and battery life have come to dominate at the cost of a culture of collective experimentation and large-scale innovation.

Yet, crucially, for Srnicek and Williams, technologies always exist in excess of their actual utilisations – that is, there are other ways of using technologies beyond those for which they have been specifically designed under late capitalism – which means that it is a central present task of what they refer to as a left at ease with technical complexity and abstraction to untap the immanent potentials of late capitalist technologies and reorient them towards different ends. What they call ‘technological repurposing’ is therefore not simply a concept of techno-utopianism, wherein technology in-itself propels us into a better future, but rather one that recognises the necessary entwinement of technology and social struggles in terms of the impetus to collectively augment technological utilisation to navigate beyond the present socio-political system and towards genuinely emancipatory horizons. As they put it in their well-known accelerate-manifesto, from 2013:

Given the enslavement of technoscience to capitalist objectives (especially since the late 1970s) we surely do not yet know what a modern technosocial body can do. Who amongst us fully recognizes what untapped potentials await in the technology which has already been developed? Our wager is that the true transformative potentials of much of our technological and scientific research remain unexploited, filled with presently redundant features (or pre-adaptations) that, following a shift beyond the short-sighted capitalist socius, can become decisive.

Although the concept of technological repurposing may also be expanded beyond Srnicek and Williams’ political project to cultural registers and aesthetic projects of the kinds exemplified by Autechre. In that regard, their work is indeed an example of what we may think of as formal technological repurposing: formal innovation through technological experimentation that expands our understanding of what sonic technology, in this case, can do. This is certainly much needed today, where electronic music for the most part has been blandly integrated into our hi-def cultural environment of technological homogeneity and standardisation. In a discussion of this phenomenon at the end of the revised edition of his big book on rave culture, entitled Energy Flash (2013), the music writer Simon Reynolds approvingly quotes the theorist Mark Fisher’s claim that we have lost the ability to ‘hear technology’ today. As Reynolds puts it:

Instead of a spasmodic but fairly relentless series of advances caused by the irregular arrival of new machines that enabled the thinking of new musical thoughts [as it did throughout the 20th century, when electronic music technology first appeared, and when the synthesizer, the sampler, the drum machine, the vocoder, the turntable, the tape deck, and so on, all came to have enormous impact on formal innovation in both underground and popular music], the digital age was characterized by upgrades: steady incremental improvements in computer-storage capacity, the flexibility and speed and software, the overall gloss of audio and video production. […] Technological improvement was making things ‘better’ but it wasn’t making them different: on a basic formal level, the chassis of your typical house track was fundamentally no different to the nineties template. But it sounded cleaner and brighter and bigger.

This is certainly the cultural side of the late capitalist, technological impasse pinpointed by Srnicek and Williams, which also points to the broader cultural relevance of technologically inventive music such as Autechre’s – as a means for counteracting how technology seamlessly has been integrated into the cultural landscape in such ways that the singular potencies extracted from it by earlier modernists have been lost in favour of the culture of minor upgrades. This certainly requires thorough engagements with the immanent aesthetic possibilities of late capitalist digital technology. For whereas 20th-century modernism tapped into the subversive aesthetic and sociocultural affordances provided by analogue technology, the techno-social nexus of 21st-century modernism clearly is that of digital technologies. In that regard, Autechre’s music – and particularly their experiments with sonic A.I. – stands as an, at the present, too rare recent example in a long lineage of an aesthetic vanguard whose mind-bending utilisations of technology all have invoked a deepened modernist future that still awaits to be realised.

Bonus: Top Five Autechre Releases

As I put it in my review of NTS-Sessions 1-4: I usually divide Autechre’s career into what I think are three relatively distinct phases: the early phase of ‘classic’ (and more rhythmically straightforward) IDM, the middle-phase turn towards deepened abstraction and rhythmic complexity, and the current phase of experiments with track and album duration. The five albums I have picked here are all from the second and third phase. This is not to suggest that the first phase is uninteresting, but it is indeed a bit more straightforward compared to the other two – and really sounds like IDM from the 90s, whereas the music from the other phases still has something distinctly futuristic about it, beyond the sounds of 90s IDM.

Confield (2001), Draft 7.30 (2003), Untilted (2005)

I think that these three albums really marked the beginning of Autechre’s more abstract phase, and they are indeed packed with incredibly complex sounds and rhythmic structures that clearly departed from the duo’s previous sound as well as the conventions of IDM. In my book, they thus represent a significant sonic transformation in the duo’s long career, and they are also still among their most complete releases. (2008 – not available on Bandcamp), elseq 1-5 (2016)

The Quaristice EP is probably a bit of a surprise here, but I do think it is one of the duo’s best releases to date – much better than the album it is attached to, whose snapshot approach to the featured tracks somewhat fails to give justice to their formal complexity. On the EP, however, the sounds are given the usual appropriate time to properly unfold, and the result is amazing. It is also their first digital-only, very lengthy release (about 2.5 hours – their longest at the time), which certainly came to set the stage for what was about to come next. Particularly with elseq 1-5, which I think is the best album from the most recent phase, as well as one of their best overall.

Image Credit: Pixabay