For a man who picked non-psychotropic mushrooms for a hobby, John Cage made an impressive mark on the electronic-music scene. Sure, his famous manifesto "Future of Music" may just have been an elaborate statement of aggression against reactionary thereminists--you know, those wackos trying to use the unwieldy electromagnetic-field-generating instrument for Bach recitals. But even today, some 40 years later, his words still carry the harsh sting of an unaccepted challenge. Decrying what he labeled "the desire to imitate the past rather than construct the future," Cage implored electronic musicians to liberate new sounds from old constraints and explore the rhythmic possibilities of total tonal control. After all, wrote Cage in an out-of-character outburst of capital letters, "THE PRESENT METHODS OF WRITING MUSIC WILL BE INADEQUATE FOR THE COMPOSER, WHO WILL BE FACED WITH THE ENTIRE FIELD OF SOUND."
Anyone familiar with the past decade's glut of electronica, with its uniform melancholy and generic synths, would know how completely this radical agenda has been ignored by contemporary electronic musicians. Which may explain why so much press attention has been lavished upon Autechre, one of the few truly experimental electronic acts taking Cage up on his dare. Their music, an intricate blur of elastic rhythms and micro-edited squalls of noise, sends critics scrambling to their dictionaries in a vain attempt to translate noise into text. (It remains to be seen whether Autechre will send fans flocking to the Quest's Ascot Room when the band appears there Saturday, May 12.) Check David Toop's great piece of balderdash in the new Wire. Who knew that Autechre's sounds are, as Toop claims, "the noises of deep space, though that space is a mental space shared with the workings of a computer, rather than dark vastness penetrated by meteors, circling satellites, little people with unnecessarily large almond eyes"?
No, I'm not really sure what he's talking about either, but I understand his dilemma. Autechre's electronica is so utterly removed from traditional musical tropes that writing about Autechre feels a lot like Zappa's famous "dancing about architecture" analogy--if you were dancing blindfolded and the architect were Frank Gehry. It wasn't always this way, though. Originating in Manchester in 1987 when Sean Booth and Rob Brown recognized each other's penchant for underground hip hop, Autechre released a few relatively digestible albums on Warp (Incunabula, Tri Repetae++) that placed them squarely alongside the likes of brainy peers like Squarepusher and Boards of Canada.
The year 1998, however, saw the release of LP5, a bewildering slab of noise that rendered obsolete Autechre's entire back catalog, as well as pretty much the entire genre of so-called Intelligent Dance Music. Gone was the traditional synthesizer spine in favor of microamperes of sound mashed through customized software and hardware. LP5 moreover signaled Autechre's increasing interest in the fragmentation of rhythm, with 4/4 time signatures dissolving into fluctuating flurries of percussion. Which, by the way, was often gorgeous, a spiraling sonic vortex that truly disrupted any attempt to distinguish between sound and instrument.
Their new album, Confield (Warp), stands as the logical end product of Autechre's purist quest for absolute experimentation. Trace elements of recognizable genres occasionally burble to the surface like alchemical residue, as with the techno kinetics underlying "pen expers" or the deep hip hop of "cfern." But full recognition is constantly thwarted by Autechre's jittery refusal to stand still. As a result, the music has a jumpiness that could irritate even a five-espresso-a-day caffeine addict.
Make no mistake, the album is dense, almost untenably so. It's been stuck in my CD player for a week and it still feels like an aural maze, simultaneously beguiling and intimidating. There are moments when your ears are allowed something as simple as enjoyment. "VI scose poise" in particular is a real pleasure, with its gently gurgling percussion and spare melody. Such moments, however, are few and far between, generally giving way to groaning, abrasive textures somewhere between the controlled deluge of Iannis Xenakis and the all-out noise terrorism of Japanese icon Merzbow. "Bine" is perhaps the most unsettling track, a flurry of rough, flickering drums set against a wailing backdrop that rises to a tumult then cuts off abruptly: the audio equivalent of equipment malfunction.
In fact, the intricacies of Autechre are such that it wouldn't be too surprising to discover that all of Confield is the result of one massive equipment hemorrhage. The complexity of Autechre's music never lets the listener into its process, and in interviews Brown and Booth offer only oblique responses when questioned about equipment or working techniques. Somewhere herein lies my reserve about this album and, I suppose, about Autechre in general. While I'm fascinated by the fractal complexity of their music, I can't shake a queasy feeling that Autechre are on some level an extended exercise of power over the listener, an anti-punk act of alienation that mystifies the very process of music-making.
From the clipped titles (what the hell is an "eidetic casein," anyway?) to their obtuse name--whose particular pronunciation neither Booth nor Brown will clarify--Autechre shroud their music in a veil that perpetuates the worst myths of musicianship. The effect recalls King Crimson, whose Larks' Tongues in Aspic was an elaborate attempt to prove that you couldn't play guitar unless you could do it standing on your head and in 15/17 time. This may not be a flippant comparison, since much of Confield feels like the electronic equivalent to that period of prog-rock when virtuoso technique overtook real musical sentiment. Much of Confield makes me angry in the same way as did Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, a film that used lo-fi technology to manipulate audience emotions and so to demonstrate the same thing: the absolute omnipotence of the artist and the absolute subservience of his subject.
These questions could make the upcoming Autechre tour all the more interesting, since their performances may reveal whether Autechre actually disdain the audience or whether they're just a couple of shy-boy bedroom types. No real word on what to expect, except the enigmatic promo-copy's promise that Autechre have the live capabilities to "crawl right into the machine and fuck about with it from the inside," which sounds kind of painful, if you ask me. Who knows--if Autechre can find a space inside their complex and engulfing swirl for its audience, they might make even John Cage happy.