(un)known(1): A retrospective of Autechre’s inhumanist aesthetics

I’ve produced a one-hour mix of the tracks featured in this essay to accompany it. All tracks by Autechre are published by Warp unless otherwise listed.

Can all art be defined by human enjoyment of it? If it is generally done so, is this a mistake? How can we be certain that art is loyal to us, that it is on our side alone? The problem with defining art subjectively is that, as soon as we choose not to recognise it, it is no longer there. Visual art becomes mere images; language loses all symbolic value; auditory art becomes undesirable noise. Are we content to accept such a selfish, transitory definition of art, or will we be forced to rethink it? Let us for a moment propose that art is a synthesis between affective stimulus and an affected participant who affirms it in the act of recognition. Such an encounter with an art object would necessitate its a priori status as pre-art, with a virtual art status ready to be engaged. Surely then, if there are other forms of intelligence, belonging to biological or artificial beings capable of recognition, the aesthetic capacities of a pre-art can be tapped into in ways other than those known by the human. Let us go a step further, and abandon the concept of human subjectivity as understood in its “rational animal” variants: singular, concrete, constant. Could new ways of aesthetic judgment be developed along this train of thought, new appreciations born out of new methods of perception?

I am not proposing that the music of Autechre allows us to achieve this. At best it is a representation of what music made by or for non-humans might sound to human ears and minds, one based on necessarily limited understandings of the non-human world (as captured and schematized by humans using the sciences of mathematics, biology, geology, etc.). But, given that nonhuman thought by definition encompasses faculties, sensations, and syntheses unknowable to us, the construction of representative maps and diagrams remains for us a vital exercise in understanding thoughts and feelings beyond our limited range of possible experience.

I wish to take a chronological approach to Autechre’s oeuvre. Specifically, I wish to select a few compositions from across their nearly 30-year career which illustrate an increasing unfamiliarity over that time. I want to consider the group’s progression from the warehouse rave scene of the early 1990s, constructing music for a particular place and function, towards more abstract and diverse territories, and posit this trajectory as a consistent attempt to reinvent the listening experience in terms of the new and unexplored. I believe that by circumventing our expectations as listeners, Autechre allows us not only to develop new ways of understanding art, but also opens up the possibility for a more general inhumanist aesthetics for other beings and purposes.

“Flutter” (1994) [Anti EP: 150.0 bpm]

Early Autechre is a period of experimentation with sound and identity. Cavity Job (1991: Hardcore Records), Lego Feet (1991: Skam), Incunabula (1993), Basscad,EP (1994), and Amber (1994) showcase diverse engagements with hardcore, bleep, rave, and hip hop: sometimes aggressive, sometimes languid, always colourful and new. Each of these records is both singular and comparatively safe for what would come next: a response not so much to musical genre, but to British law:

(1) This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of 20 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose—

(a) such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and

(b) “music” includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.

(Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Section 63)

Autechre’s reply:

Warning. Lost and Djarum contain repetitive beats.
We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law.
Flutter has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can be played at both forty five and thirty three revolutions under the proposed new law. However we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.

(Autechre 1994: Anti EP)

“Leterel” (1995) [Tri Repetae: 150.0 bpm]
“Hub” (1997) [Chiastic Slide: 83.3 bpm]

Further journeys into the abstract ensue when Autechre dislocate their music from any straightforward sense of time. Genres of electronic music are often differentiated through bpm ranges : 120 bpm (moderato) for house, 160 bpm (allegro) for jungle, etc. Autechre take their pick for each separate composition, and the juxtaposition of tempos on each release add to the sense of nonlinearity. It’s not that the bpms themselves are especially strange, but how they are measured. Another common indicator of timing in dance music is the placement of kick drums. “Leterel” and “Hub” reduce the number of kicks to a minimum, creating a sense of tension and unease over long distances. One effect of this unusual rhythmic pattern is that it pulls the listener’s ear in, and gradually both listener and music fashion together an alienating effect akin to hypnotism.

“Fold4, Wrap5” (1998) [LP5: 78.1 bpm]
“Drane” (1999) [Peel Session: 104.0 bpm]

Rhythmic dislocation continues on these more melodic tracks, but the sense of contrast between the percussive and lead voices is perhaps stranger still. “Drane” in particular, with its four-note mantra, undulating hi-filter slices , and snarling bass note that serves as this track’s marker, make for an unsettling, yet warm and resonant combination. That each of these elements are descending in pitch (although independently of one another) seems to assist in binding them. This has the feel of dance music, but dance music for what?

“Parhelic Triangle” (2001) [Confield: 130.3 bpm]

By contrast, all that marks “Parhelic Triangle” out as dance music is a consistent looped bass (also descending) and snare. It’s a track almost entirely composed of texture: its form feels shifting, unstable, unreliable. It seems to test the mind’s capacity to replicate its image. “Intelligent Dance Music” is often derided as a genre tag, but tracks like this subvert its snobbery into a hyperliteralism. Suppose another form of intelligence were to make sense of this – would its ability to represent this arrangement lead it to places we ourselves are incapable of? For us, in any case, the track’s floating, machinic form marks for us the beginning of a decomposition.

“Gantz Graf” (2002) [Gantz Graf: 123.0 bpm]
“Surripere” (2003) [Draft 7.30: 120.0 bpm]

“Gantz Graf” is truly inhuman music. It can only be followed by human thought after multiple exposures. At first it seems indescribably complex, but perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it’s merely rambling, schizoid, unrepeating. It even breaks a couple of times, only to re-emerge in new assemblages. “Surripere” has a more readily identifiable cadence, but that itself is swept away by not-quite-onbeat snares, on a detour that jettisons the perceived intended journey. Calling such music “inhuman” is not to say that it does not feel, or that we can identify nothing from within it. Clearly, something is perceived that resembles emotion, or intelligent design (whether in the form of a dancefloor utilitarianism or another, perhaps nonrecreational usage). It does indicate, however, a certain reprogramming of the listening subject. And the rhythmic hypnosis induced by such music constitutes a methodology for this.

“Sublimit” (2005) [Untilted: 83.5 bpm]
“known(1)” (2010) [Oversteps: 84.0 bpm]

One way of recognising the Other is when it strays into the spectrum of the known, where it can be captured by familiar semantics and patterns of identification. The intricate, accelerated drum programming of “Sublimit” differs from the sparse, languid “Leterel” immensely, but is no less disarming and tough to penetrate for the listener. Yet it blooms into something substantial, even majestic, as it pursues its determined route. By a wholly different measure, “known(1)” is entirely nonpercussive, relying on strange interplays between elements both ancient and futuristic. Could “Sublimit” be described as sublime, and “known(1)” considered beautiful? Would this be a disservice to both the categories and the pieces involved? No, there is no need to refer back to such labels. Surely it is more intuitive and informative to allow the music to cut its own trenches, and force us to engage with them as they are in themselves.

“feed1” (2016) [elseq1: 84.0 bpm]

The most recent stages in Autechre’s always-diffractive chronology, albums such as Exai (2013) and elseq1-5 (2016) challenge established musical experiences formally through their extended tracklists across multiple discs (120 minutes across two discs for the former, 247 minutes across 5 discs for the latter). Across such expansive formats appear multiple degrees of experimentation: uncategorizable arrangements of sound that indicate a group of ever-increasing artistic singularity. “feed1” is but one expression of the distance Autechre have travelled from a distinct musical scene towards an absolute creative individualism. It forces one to think: “Is this listenable? What value can I extract from this?” But are habitual markers necessary? Is recognition? Art such as this inverts the relationship between itself and its audience (however flimsy and unhelpful this relationship is formulated): it exists beyond us, has no care for us. It has a stubborn value, which we may in fact recognise should we come to draw something of its uniqueness from it, and embrace its indifferent complexity as widely as possible.

Featured image: The Designers Republic (2016): “elseq1-5”.

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