It doesn’t so much begin as swoop into land: thirty seconds of silence followed by the gathering swell of sputtering static and a sighing, weary chorus of what might be low- flying aircraft. At around the fifteenth minute, new sounds cut through the haze: a thin, whining synth tone, a muddy kick drum, a time-stretched glitch that seems to hint at something mechanistically vocal. The beat coalesces, settling into a stumbling four-four time that periodically teeters off-tempo. The music sounds as if it’s drag- ging itself along, trailing its own decomposition in its wake. As it proceeds, it seems to encounter sonic events external to its own body: glassy, resonant chimes and squelching bass tones that refuse to fully cohere. Then, after nearly twenty minutes, the palette changes completely. The low end falls away, giving ground to what sounds like the chirrup of game console bleeps and the high-pitched hiss of an ancient dial-up modem. Finally, almost thirty minutes in, a new forcefulness takes hold. A sonic presence somewhere between a fuzzboxed string tone and a reverberating organ dominates the soundscape. A beat constructed from a muffled kick and layered industrial clatter takes hold. Everything – melody, rhythm, time itself – seems to snap into compelling focus. Musical touchdown has taken thirty drawn-out minutes – the length of some albums. But this is something different. It is the latest Autechre project, and it lasts eight hours.
I use the word project advisedly. Autechre’s latest offering, NTS Sessions, premiered over four weeks on the titular Internet radio station, isn’t exactly an album, and neither is it strictly a live performance. Given that the material it contains is entirely by Sean Booth and Rob Brown, who make up Autechre, it’s not a mix either. When streaming began, intrigued and excited fans spent as much time discussing taxonomy and method as they did content. Now that the Sessions have been made available as official downloads, some of those questions have been answered. The releases comprise new material, and are made up of discrete, titled tracks. Exactly how they’re supposed to be thought of, however – as a sequence, as a single entity with convenient breaks, or as something somewhere between the two – depends on how you listen.
Autechre’s disruptive approach to form is not without context. In many ways, NTS Sessions is the logical next step in a progression that began with 2013’s oppressively dense two-hour Exai, and continued through 2015’s nine-hour data-dump of live performances and 2016’s five-volume, four-hour elseq 1–5. These are releases made possible by the disembodied liberation that accompanies the demise of physicality in the music industry. Unshackled from the constraints of a side of vinyl, or a CD, Autechre are able to release music that effectively has its own relationship to time. A track can be an hour, an album can last a day. Where for many artists our digital present is characterized by fragmentation, immediacy, distraction, for Autechre it facilitates the release of intimidating edifices of music that require ever more time and attention to engage with. In much the same way as extended minimalist performances by the likes of La Monte Young required listeners to settle in all night, Autechre’s newest works require an acceptance that meaning will not be delivered in easy-to-digest packages. Instead, it will unfold, sometimes changing imperceptibly, and sometimes seeming not to change at all but to hover in non-progressional suspension. In this state, the roles of listener and sound are reversed: it’s not always the music that changes; sometimes it’s you, and the world around you, with the music becoming a fixed point against which you can measure your own inexorable journey through time.
Neither album nor performance, NTS Sessions represents both the lofty pinnacle and furthest-flung edgeland of Autechre’s approach. Eight hours of unspooling, artificially conscious sound that, miraculously, pushes further into the possibilities of their technique while offering a surprisingly coherent and comprehensive overview of their palette. The tracks may be ‘new’, but the sounds from which they’re constructed are familiar to the point where they feel patented, as if Autechre now ‘own’ certain sonic signatures: fizzing, angry crackles; quasi-melodic glitch patterns; and, most of all, sounds that exist in the uncanny valley of the almost-acoustic, leading the listener, frequently, to imagine processed vocal tones, prepared piano, warping strings. If anything were to be described as Autechrian, it’s this effect: the duelling decoding processes that take place in your own brain when you hear the whisper of the organic in something so defiantly artificial.
In much the same way as downloads have enabled Autechre to jettison certain release formats and purchasing protocols, digital technology has also allowed them largely to do away with what we might traditionally think of as instruments. Up until Exai, much of Autechre’s work was about wringing previously unimagined sounds from the circuitry of synths and drum machines. In their quest for the new, they literally dismantled their own tools – opening up the mechanistic bodies of their noise-boxes and rewiring their guts to create a sound palette unlike anyone else’s.These sounds were then, usually, sequenced in a software environment in which progressions could be arranged, effects automated, and a timeline fixed in place on the screen’s layout. From Exai onwards, however, they have removed an entire stage of their compositional process and switched to working entirely in a programming system called MaxMSP. Not a single sound or effect you hear in Autechre’s music now comes from anything we would ordinarily think of as hardware. Instead, it has been coded from scratch, built from nothing using raw data itself.
The e ect of this change in process is to destabilize the very notion of composition. Much, if not all of the music is generative. What has been ‘composed’ is not so much a series of notes and beats but a cluster of decision-making algorithms that not only spit out sound but manipulate that sound over time. Left running, these artificial intelligences would produce an in nite, automated music, one that evolved and shape-shifted continually and moved, one assumes, towards a state of ever noisier chaos. Autechre, then, are no longer producing music as such, but controlling the extent to which the engines they’ve designed spew streams of music on their behalf.
This accounts for the eerie, semi-organic sense of intelligence that is always at play in the substrata of Autechre’s sound world. In Autechre-land, distortion, for example, does not simply hiss. It cycles through frequencies, moving from a low rumble up to a squealing, strangled sibilance, entirely unconnected from the sounds it was originally supposed to augment. This, ultimately, is Autechre’s singular contribution to contemporary music: the boundary between sound and effect, impulse and echo, rhythm and texture, is completely broken down. Because any element, even static hiss, can be tuned, ‘melody’, in the old sense of the word, could come from anywhere.
Considering Autechre’s music in light of this generative process forces us to reconsider not only what we think of as composition but what we think of as performance. Are Autechre ‘playing’ their music, in the traditional sense, or are they simply unleashing it – ring up the micro-intelligences to which they have delegated the decision-making and allowing them to run riot? As if nodding to this, Autechre have always played their live sets in total darkness.The effect is both compelling and profoundly disorientating. When I saw them ‘live’ at the Royal Festival Hall, the audience were advised to hold their ticket in the air if they needed to exit the performance, so that ushers wearing night-vision goggles could come and escort them out. During the hour of tentacular, unspooling, monstrous music that followed, during which I felt by turns physically disassembled and cosmically transported, I was not entirely surprised to see more than one faint white shape in the air in front of me, as one audience member then another waved their white flag of submission. When the performance ended and the lights went up, casting us all uncomfortably back into a reality we had so comprehensively departed, the stage was empty, Autechre having already left under cover of darkness. No bows, no waves to the crowd, no encores. Just their now-silent laptops in a state of temporary hibernation, and an audience ailing for descriptions of what they’d heard. ‘It was like a tunnel,’ I heard someone saying on the way out, ‘and I was in the tunnel but then the tunnel became, like, liquid.’
Blacked-out stages, a sense of the musicians as subversively absent, a set of sounds that are systems in themselves, arising not from anything tactile but from a matrix of interrelated algorithms: Autechre seem to steer us towards ideas of post-humanity, or even non-humanity, as ways of understanding their work. This is, however, a misnomer, and what interests me is that it’s a fallacy that stems from a wider, perhaps wilful misunderstanding of how algorithms and the supposed ‘artificial intelligences’ they represent function. In interrogating our misconceptions of Autechre’s sound world, we are forced to confront a deeper misconception, one that brings to the surface dangerous flaws in the way we understand our contemporary reality.
Speaking with Joe Muggs in a rare interview, following the release of elseq, Sean Booth explained Autechre’s work with MaxMSP in the following way:
I wouldn’t say it’s a living entity, really. It’s about as much like an entity as a shit AI in a game is. That’s how intelligent it is, which is not intelligent at all, but it might at least resemble the way a person thinks… It’s not another mind at work in our stuff. It’s just our habits, transcribed. With this kind of algorithmic music, because the algorithms are made by people, it is people music! You get that thing of, ‘Eww, it’s not human!’ But that’s so far off how I think of it. I think of it as being more human, because there’s all these decisions in there, and they’re human decisions. They’re what people chose to do.
The language of both techno-utopianism and dystopianism invites us to think of large tracts of our daily lived experiences as outsourced to, and overseen by, decision-making engines that are no longer human in nature. From the mouths of the Silicon Valley tech-bros whose interest is in convincing us that we’re entering a new era of algorithmic convenience, this language tends towards the emancipatory. We no longer need to think about things like what to buy, what to consume, how to navigate the cities in which we live, how to correctly expose a photograph or when to have sex without getting pregnant, because now an artificial intelligence can handle that ‘thinking’ for us, leaving our minds free to focus on what is important. To its critics, this vision is positively terrifying, with key aspects of our global existence, from stock markets to voting behaviour to the policing of crime now not only overseen but shaped by artificial means. Both sides of this discussion, however, ignore the point made by Booth: no intelligence can ever be truly artificial, because no algorithm can ever be genuinely independent from the person or group who designed it. All the technology we use, every app we download, every alert and notification and targeted ad, is simply ‘what people chose to do’, and in every supposedly algorithmic decision we can sense not only a human hand but a very human set of prejudices, from racist face-recognition technology to phallocentric health apps. We have outsourced nothing. We have simply encoded what was already there.
This is why listening to Autechre’s late-style work engenders such feelings of vertigo and creep- ing uncertainty: what we’re listening to is not simply rhythm and melody, it is the musical expression of the limits and possibilities of the decision-making processes that shape our world. In that sense, Autechre have not, as we might say of a favourite band, soundtracked our lives, they have both soundtracked and concretized the evolving context in which our lives unfold.
Too often, in art, we consider that which is least treated to be the most authentic. We moan about films being over-reliant on CGI, or music being ‘overproduced’. On Instagram, a #nofilter movement deifies unaltered photographs, as if to suggest that a sunset stripped of the inevitable distorting overlay not only gets closer to some base-level ‘truth’ of the visible world but elevates the person posting the image above the vulgar trickery of his or her peers and binds them to some (often misleading) contract of honesty and beauty. Autechre, through the compositional techniques they have perfected, invite us to consider the possibility that at the extreme edge of processing lie a new raw- ness and spontaneity – a beauty that is not naturally occurring.The effect of this is defamiliarizing, perhaps even upsetting. What we’re listening to is, in many ways, the realization that ‘nature’ doesn’t hold exclusive rights to the sublime.
This is a feeling intensified by Autechre’s ability to conjure a surprisingly tangible landscape from the non-space in which they operate. Such is the pinpoint accuracy of their sound design, effects such as reverb and panning are pressed into the service not just of augmenting sound but of seemingly augmenting the very space in which sound exists. You can’t ‘hear the room’ in Autechre’s music, because there is no room there to begin with, but as you listen, you are transported through multiple environments: decaying, dust-covered industrial buildings where every rustle and clang reverberates; oceanic realms of dampened amplitude; even the emptiness of deep space, soundtracked by little more than the whisper of blood in your ears. The implication is obvious: it’s not simply Autechre-land that’s drenched in effects, everything we experience is an effect, from dopplering sirens to growling engines to the perspectival trickery of the sun dipping below the horizon line. Processing is all we have. Effects are the bedrock of our fragile authenticity.
NTS Sessions, after around seven hours of music, ends with a single, hour-long drone piece. From the ones and zeros of their MaxMSP interface, Autechre summon what sounds like a church organ heard at a distance: a vast, swelling body of echoing sound. Tellingly, it glitches. The resonant tones stutter and stumble. Beneath the swell, that engine-like bass tone can be heard again, anchor- ing this digital interpretation of the sacred in the unreal. Often, Autechre’s titles are the post-language consonant-jumble of lenames:‘t1a1’ or ‘9 chr0’ or ‘shimripl air’. This one, as if returning us to a place of clear meaning after an epic voyage through encryption, is unexpectedly literal: ‘all end’. It feels apocalyptic, yet calming and transcendent. There is a sense of acceptance, perhaps even submission. We have not been transported at all, merely shown where we always were: in a continually reconfigured, semi-automated world, entirely of our own making.