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Three Songs No Flash

Autechre Live: A Self-Reflexive Brock Out
Angus Finlayson , April 15th, 2010 08:44

Angus Finlayson braves over-zealous bouncers to experience the joy of an Autechre performance - and attempts to explain exactly what makes them so engaging live

I’m in a queue. A brisk pat-down of my personage yields a metallic, box-like object in my front pocket. "What’s this?" I’m asked. My partner in crime has already had a forgotten stack of flyers and a three-pin adaptor plug ("you could stab someone in the neck with that") removed scoldingly from his bag; the bouncers are clearly on edge. "Ah," I say, "those are mints". Mints which have been absent-mindedly left in my jacket from a few days before. Mints which, it dawns on me, are small, disc-shaped and white, bearing an uncanny likeness to any number of pharmaceuticals. I can see where this is going.

I'm escorted through the Bethnal Green warehouse space - mentally fashioning, all the while, a credible explanation as to how breath fresheners compromised my journalistic duties to The Quietus - to an unadorned, windowless back room, and subjected to a pretty credible bad cop/bad cop routine. Persuading the pair that a taste test is the next logical step proves difficult, but eventually they relent, and are pleasantly surprised (or more likely disappointed) with their conclusions. I’m released into the anonymity of the crowd, and the bouncers’ archive of dinner party anecdotes is enriched by another hapless fool.

These events may seem par for the course for a Saturday night in East London, but this is no balls-to-the-wall rave that I’ve just slunk gratefully into. No, it’s that rarest of events in the underground electronic music calendar, an Autechre gig; perhaps the last place one would expect to find overbearing security, a shortage of portaloos and an endless supply of lukewarm lager - particularly given the oftentimes cold, mechanistic experimentalism of the duo’s releases. And yet, a decade or more after having passed into electronic royalty, Rochdale natives Sean Booth and Rob Brown still insist on performing in these stripped-down, utilitarian spaces, with naught but dazzling lighting, cloying smoke and an enormous sound system for company.

Which brings me round to the chief question of this article: what exactly is this thing that I’m attending? Why do Autechre still feel compelled to perform live - and in an environment which is clearly attuned to the movers and shakers rather than the chin-strokers - when their recorded output is considered so divorced from dance floor mechanics?

This isn’t a simple case of anti-‘IDM’ snobbery on my part, either; that endlessly contentious term - which is often laid at the feet of Autechre - can be applied to a broad category of artists. Its chief attribute seems to be the near-obsessive extension of a more grounded trajectory - hence Squarepusher and Aphex Twin's geneses in early hardcore or, for a more recent example, Venetian Snares' roots in the global turn-of-the-millennium Gabba/Breakcore scene. But with Autechre, a different set of rules seems to apply. Their music is not simply faster, more detailed, or more virtuosically produced than the late 80s Mancunian electro and hip-hop which constituted the pair’s formative diet, though at times it can be all of those things. Nor is it a clear-cut case of stylistic cross-pollination, as in Richard James' Drukqs-era flirtations with the contemporary classical scene, or Tom Jenkinson's jazz-fusion wig-outs. Autechre are lumped in with these artists - in a genre bracket virtually all of the above seem to detest - for a far simpler reason: their music shares unavoidable genetic links with club music, but you can't dance to it.

Or can you? Part of the hype surrounding the duo’s live performances is their unique status, tailor-made for live consumption. In the words of Booth in a recent interview, "[touring is] like its own project. We love it. It’s not like playback, we make new material to play out. It’s kind of a separate strand, it’s grown into its own thing." By all accounts, these sets are almost exclusively beat-based - eschewing the post-rave ambience of much of their recorded work - and have a harder edge than you might expect. Far from a triumphalist march through past glories, the Autechre live experience is constantly growing and developing, in a dialogue with the dance floor which is quite unlike any other.

So, how does this dialogue work? And what relationship does it bear to the more widespread UK club dynamic of Simon Reynold’s oft-cited Hardcore Continuum - a dynamic which Autechre are (perhaps unconsciously) referencing through their choice of the space, atmosphere and medium of performance most commonly associated with the down-and-dirtiest of raves?

The answer may lie in an essay by experimental pianist/composer Vijay Iyer in DJ Spooky’s Anthology ‘Sound Unbound’, entitled ‘On Improvisation, Temporality and Embodied Experience’. To better explain my point, let me briefly synopsise parts of the piece:

One of the chief aims of Iyer’s essay is to take concepts put forward by the philosopher Alva Noë in his paper ‘Experience and Experiment in Art’ (the keen among you can download it here) concerning the role of some visual art in exploring the nature of perception, and to apply these concepts to music. Noë, most of whose work focusses on theories of perception and consciousness, here concerns himself with (to quote Iyer) "self-reflexive moments that disrupt the transparency of experience... [that disrupt] the invisibility of the process of perception itself." Iyer again: "as Noë outlines, when we attempt to perceive the process of perception, we instead perceive the object of perception; the ‘experience’ of perceptual experience, being mediated through the senses, cannot itself be perceived by the senses."

If, as Noë suggests, perceptual experience is best understood as a "temporally extended process of exploration of the environment on the part of an embodied animal" - in Iyer’s words, "perceptually guided action" - then (Noë) "to investigate experience we need to turn our gaze not inward, but rather to the activity itself in which this temporally extended process consists, to the things we do as we explore the world."

Noë suggests that, in Iyer’s words, "certain artists' work foregrounds the actual experience of perception (as opposed to the object of perception)". Using the minimalist sculptor Richard Serra as an example, he outlines four characteristics to be found in art that "demand[s] a process of experiential exploration, as opposed to a passive, transparent, instantaneous perception", and will therefore ‘provide an occasion for the self-reflexive experience of perceiving one’s own process of perception’.

In other words, this is ‘experiential’ art; that which encourages the listener to learn about aspects of their own perception - thereby grasping at basic truths about how they relate to the external world - through exploration of the artwork concerned rather than a fruitless (in Noë’s view) process of internal reflection. As Noë puts it, "The work of some artists can teach us about perceptual consciousness by furnishing us with the opportunity to have a special kind of reflective experience. In this way, art can be a tool for phenomenological investigation."

Noë then outlines four characteristics required of an artwork in order to induce this effect (to borrow Iyer’s paraphrase): the work must be "Environmental in nature, overwhelming in scale, complex enough to lack a perspicuous vantage point, and particular in [its] uniqueness (i.e., site-specific and not reproducible)."

Iyer draws on his background in free improvisation for examples of such an artwork in the sphere of music; particularly a 40-strong improvisation ensemble in which he played under the guidance of free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor in 1995. But I would argue that the same concepts can be applied to underground dance music; that Autechre’s live manifestation has a similar effect on its audiences, expanding and destabilising their concept of how club music can function, encouraging them to engage with the music in a ‘self-reflexive’ way.

All this may seem like needless abstraction, but wind back to the cavernous warehouse and, having endured a distinctly underwhelming warm-up set from Didjit and a blistering half-hour of digital noise from Russell Haswell, Autechre are taking to the stage. And as the first thunderous kicks and whipcrack snares drop in without preamble, and a ripple of animated pleasure passes over the crowd, I find myself pondering those four vital characteristics; environment, complexity, scale and uniqueness. Using direct quotations from Noë’s analysis of Serra’s sculptural works, and taking further examples from Iyer’s dissection of Cecil Taylor’s ‘Creative Orchestra’ music, here’s what I found.

Noë: "First, many of [Serra’s sculptures] are, as I will put it, environmental. That is, they are intrinsically site-specific. What I mean by this is that the sculptures are not merely enhanced by their locations, but are made for their locations and are meant to become part of the environment. [...] Crucially, these pieces are able to transform a location and so produce a new environment."

Iyer describes Taylor’s use of a performative ritual - performers "'construct' the performing environment" by coming onstage gradually, "chanting and moving in geometric patterns" - as a way to make the performance "somehow fused with the concert-hall environment itself... [Taylor] never takes the setting or occasion for granted." Such a focus on site-specificity is neither possible nor desirable in the sphere of electronic dance music. The performance location instead strives to be as unobtrusive as possible, a blank slate upon which DJs can chalk their own atmospheres (Plastic People’s ‘single fire-exit light’ vibe is perhaps legendary for that very reason).

Nonetheless, I would argue that all club music - and I’m including Autechre’s live set in that definition - intends to have a transformative effect on its location, surely creating a fluid dance floor out of a bare expanse of (in this case) concrete is a spatial transfiguration of the highest order (as anybody who has visited a well-loved club before opening and witnessed its spaces in their mundane, daytime glory will attest). Parameters that can, in my view, enhance or degrade this ‘environmental’ trait in electronic dance music include: the quality of the sound system; the essential quality of music production - whether the sound is sufficiently immersive, propulsive and convincing; and the extent to which a DJ or MC’s personality is foregrounded at the expense of the music itself. Autechre tick all of these boxes: Tonight’s stacks are enormous and tuned to extreme precision, and the duo’s hardware setup has the kind of sonic impact and clarity rarely heard outside of a handful of clubs. In the past, they’ve gone so far as to perform behind screens, though tonight they opt for dim lighting and a cloud of thick smoke hanging over the stage, in order to - in this reading - allow the music to thoroughly permeate a shared environment.

Noë: "Most of Serra’s sculptures are lacking in perspicuity, that is, you cannot take one in at a glance. This has to do...with their complexity; to be understood they need to be explored."

By Iyer’s account, the characteristic of ‘complexity’ in Taylor’s orchestral piece was fulfilled by the density of sound (40 players letting rip at once does tend to have such a result): "An individual audience member could zero in on small regions of activity, but no single listener ever possessing [sic] one privileged listening perspective [...] there is no perspicuous vantage from which to perceive the entire event, and no particular ordered set of perceptions for the listener to follow passively in order to apprehend the ideal 'work'."

As Autechre’s set rolls on, this complexity occurs laterally over time rather than vertically, and it does so through a constant barrage of sonic ambiguity. Wild, erratic synth lines develop ceaselessly and organically, confounding any security to be sought in their repetition. Intensely syncopated kick drum patterns create drive but also a sense of weightlessness. The music may be four-square, but where that four starts or ends is open to interpretation. Added to which, we’re intermittently plunged into periods of protracted pulse-confusion, as one tempo morphs into another through destabilising, incremental changes in sequencer pattern. The crowd’s perception of which beats are strong or weak, where each bar or loop recurs, and where drops occur or are likely to occur must be actively ascertained through prolonged exploration of the beat - with the body and the brain - and may vary wildly from one listener to the next. As such, tonight’s revellers bounce energetically at several different rates at once, compelled to move, but each with their own perspective on how to go about it.

Noë: "Third, a typical Serra sculpture, thanks to its scale, its surprising curves and apparent tilt, is overwhelming and disorienting, sometimes even frightening, almost always intimidating. It demands a reaction."

According to Iyer, the requirement for ‘scale’ in Taylor’s piece is again fulfilled by the ‘vast, dense and unfathomable’ nature of the orchestral sound; and in Ae’s case, this is again flipped from the vertical to the lateral. There’s no doubt that the prolonged drum machine tussle we’re subjected to features a number of ‘surprising curves’ in direction, and in the benign, lager-fuelled melee down below, the seamless blending of elements, gradual transformation and evolution of material and relentless musical invention creates a disorientating effect on the listener, making the set feel like a single, vast composition.

Noë: "Fourth, and as a consequence of the first three points, the pieces are, as I shall put it, particulars. By this I mean that they are unique, concrete entities. To encounter a Serra sculpture is to get to know an individual."

To quote Booth speaking on this very website about playing live: "there is a certain amount of spontaneity. We could decide on the spot a sound that sounds a certain way or a song that is going in a certain direction then respond to that with a kick drum. We had to do it like that - just off the cuff." With the exception of a handful of familiar synth sounds and motifs - a miniscule nod to an enormous back catalogue - tonight’s 75-minute set is, as far as this writer can tell, entirely constructed from original music; most of which is, by the duo’s admission, semi-improvised. Just as in Iyer’s exemplar, it is this fact - that "the music is non-repeatable in any except the broadest sense of the word" - that lends it the required trait of uniqueness.

And how do these four characteristics come together? As perhaps one of the most enlightening - and mystifying - club experiences I have had. Booth and Brown take the rich heritage of dance music which they - and, by implication, we - are steeped in, and create from it something which truly lives up to Noë’s theories of an experiential artwork. After 60 minutes’ hard graft, the music abruptly stops and lights blaze on to the stage, disrupting the flow momentarily to allow for a surge of admiration from the crowd. Not for long though, before we’re plunged back into the welter of beats, eventually clarifying into a low-slung Hip-hop workout, Autechre style. Perhaps it’s important to note at this point that this ‘self-reflexive experience’ - whether enacted intuitively by the crowd, or picked over thoughtfully by writers such as myself - is no obstacle to the basic human urge to brock out (and thank goodness for that).

And, well, there we have it. Hundreds of people packed together, having the kind of meta-club experience which is only likely to come around once in an Autechre-coloured moon. The precise outcome of this is unclear; perhaps the minute truths unfurled in peoples’ brains will guide them, with some heightened sense of understanding, through raves to come. Or maybe the euphoric sense of awareness, of simultaneously doing and knowing precisely why you do, is a fleeting kind of one-ness which will escape with the beery steam out into the London sky.

Either way, it seems unlikely to phase the musicians themselves. In the words of Booth: "We are absolutely not trying to represent or duplicate anything at all. We're purely interested in being creative." Well said that man.