I like to be reckless at the record store, to forsake my lengthening to-buy lists and pick up things that even I wasn't expecting from time to time. And so I ended up with my first Autechre disc, their latest, Draft 7.30. This was especially a surprise to me as I've never especially cared for the so-called visionaries, despite having listened to the majority of their work in flurry of guilt that I hadn't really given them a fair chance until then. (I did give them a fair chance. I remained unimpressed.)
So here I am listening to the latest Autechre disc for the 4th time through. As expected, it's cold, sterile, and thoroughly uninviting material, but at the same time intriguing in its way. The detached intricacy at work here suggests an uncommon level of precision, the chaotic timing nonetheless indicates rigid underlying mathematics, the edges of which I can only begin to discern. Yes, I'm intrigued. A bit heavy on theory and light on actual execution, perhaps, but at least it has my attention.
I've heard various rumors about Autechre's techniques. "Autechre finishes each song in a single day," they say, or "It's all just done by inputting parameters into computer programs, all algorithmic." As I've pointed out, I don't actually follow the band so I can't evaluate the truth of these comments aside from through the music itself (Yes, I'm a terribly unqualified ae reviewer. Bear with me please). And what of that music? Well, I'll admit that I do imagine that I can hear the spiraling equations at times, and the arrangements are sparse enough to make the single-day rumor credulous enough, but it's tough to draw any firm conclusions about the processes involved here. What was the question? I'll simply describe what is going on, at some semblance of face value.
This is more or less rhythmic noise. Drawing from their usual arsenal of thumps, whirs and clicks, the band assembles twisted sound sculptures, usually colored by only the faintest traces of melody. Each song is gradually but unevenly engineered - at root, these are loops (it is Autechre after all), but they seem just as likely to spin away in a hiss of noise as they are to loop properly on any given pass. The structure feels decidedly repetitive (don't look for any B sections, this is just AAAA straight through) but the constant variation keeps the listener on his toes. Revision: the constant variation is utterly disorienting and spastic. Herein lies the intrigue.
And at the route of it all lies the mathematics. Whenever the loops crumple into their frequent, obscure timing variations, the sounds fall in ways that are odd, but not unintelligible. The pattern is broken and unpredictable, but never absent. Order lurking in the chaos, like the mandlebrot set, perhaps. At the same time, there's an element of lofty intellectualism that isolates the listener a bit. "We've shattered your expectations of timing consistency," the tracks laugh, "just because we can". The effect is impressive to say the least, but an entire album apparently assembled on that principle, lacking any greater overarching vision, stretches it rather thin. And it's not exactly a new trick - similarly disorienting tracks provided much of both the charm and impenetrability of Autechre's last full-length, Confield.
In the end, it all comes down to the old "Is it art?" debate. Well, that depends on your definition, on your expectations. Those excited by the possibilities opened by Confield will be thrilled to here them executed with such brilliant precision; for others, fans happier with older, more coherent Autechre, Draft 7.30 may mark another step down a path they have no desire to explore. As for me, I take an architect's glee in picking out the traces of the bizarre blue-prints that show through the tracks, but have a hard time developing any greater attachment. Carefully plotted schematics, fine-tuned calculus, intricate programming - these are the building blocks and the resulting music is precisely the sum of its parts and nothing more, or less.
'The essential aspect of MIXTUR is, first of all, the transformation of the familiar orchestra sound into a new, magical sound world. It is an unbelievable experience, for example, to see and hear strings bowing a held note and to perceive simultaneously how this note slowly moves away from itself in a glissando, the pulse speeds up and a wonderful timbre spectrum develops. Orchestra musicians are astonished when they hear their played notes being modulated timbrally, melodically, rhythmically, and dynamically."
-Karlheinz Stockhausen from his notes on MIXTUR-
"There is never an end...There is always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state."
My first reaction upon hearing of the concert with the London Sinfonietta orchestrating Aphex Twin, SquarePusher and BOC was, what a clever idea to build audiences - and how desparate.
It's obvious to anybody that goes to contemporary music concerts that audience attendance is dwindling, all the while experimental venues, of the electronic sort, are growing, for the moment. The recent Dartmouth call for scores, and the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival seem to be more attempts at building bridges to increase audience share. But is academia really embracing the young experimentalists? Are Aphex Twin songs being mentioned in History of Electronic Music classes? Is there any analysis of Autechre's use of spectral metamorphosis?
Of course there isn't. That cannot happen (at the moment) for academia to assert that it has a legitimate position above the community college courses on MIDI Synthesis. The canon, of academic computer music, which practically nobody recognizes as good music, must be protected. The prestige of the academic electronic music community must be preserved in order to maintain the patina of legitimacy. The academic power structure which enforces the legitimacy of decades of crap computer music can only be maintained by embracing an audience that would appear to provide them with increased market share.
When I see CD's being released with Curits Roads next to Autechre, etc... and mentions in the curricula of academic electronic courses, only then will I believe that a real interest other than stealing market share exists!
Of course when this happens, will the flood gates open as they did in the textual world? Will musical porn be discussed in a post-modern context? Will Cher and Madonna's electronic music be analyzed not only in post-modern history courses, but in electronic music courses because they are popular? Stay tuned!
For those interested in true musical cross pollination, you need to read this interview with the founder of Illbient DJ Spooky and the great jazz pianist Matthew Shipp which can be found at http://www.signaltonoisemagazine.org/archives.html# Click on the article called Exchanging Files
The world of experimental/electronic music is a very insular one. Every note, sound, bleep is a close guarded secret encoded with theoretical prose much deeper than the actual music. I have in my library three excellent books written about the experimental/electronic music matrix:
Talking Music by William Duckworth
Electronic and Experimental Music by Thom Holmes
Experimental Music by Michael Nyman
All three of these books are excellent sources on the history of the music but what I find interesting is that the vast majority of these books deal a very Eurocentric (white) approach to music making. For example, the Duckworth book deals with interviews with composers from Cage to Zorn...all great and informative interviews. The book deals with the maverick American composer tradition but what the book does not deal with are maverick American composers that might be of African-American descent. For example, how can a book include Blue Gene Tyranny, John Zorn, and Glenn Branca while excluding Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, George Russel, Ornette Coleman, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchel, and Joseph Jarman? The funny thing is, most of the composers interviewed viewed "jazz" as a very important music in their development. Would John Zorn exist if it were not for the AACM? Would Steve Reich have developed his phase concept if it were not for Ghanese music and John Coltrane. Blue Gene Tyranny states that the music of the AACM is some of the most important being produced today...why not one interview? I don't view Duckworth as a racist but I do think that he is propagating a very narrow definition of the "American Maverick" tradition.
Thom Holmes books is an excellent overview of both experimental and electronic music, but it has a major deficiency. First, there is not mention of Tod Dockstader who was a very innovative composer using musique concrete technique. No Ricahrd Maxfield? He took electronic music out of the universities and into the lofts of NYC. He also taught one of the most important courses at the New School during the early 1960's plus he was a major influence on LaMonte Young. Though these figures are overlooked, jazz/creative improvised music is totally ignored. Though he has room for DJ Spooky, Jim O'Rourke, Eno, and Sonic Youth; he makes not mention of Miles Davis (On the Corner, Get Up with It which was a big influence on Eno's ambient music, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew), George Russel, Herbie Hancock (Sextant, Crossings), Anthony Braxton/George Lewis with Richard Teitelbaum, etc. No SUN RA??? How can you talk about experimental music, open improvisation, and the use of live electronics without mentioning Sun Ra??? I'm sorry, but any complete overview must include these people especially if you are going to include Sonic Youth! I'm sure that the author must have a proper explanation of these oversights.
The music that both authors deal with in these books have been very much influenced by jazz/creative improvisation just as many of the maverick experimental "jazz" musicians" have been influenced by Stockhausen, Cage, Xenakis, electronics, etc. Why the omissions?? Do most people for example think that minimalism developed in a closed environment? LaMonte Young was a jazz musician (Sax) and he was very much influenced by the call and response passages of Coltranes work (just listen to his sopranino solos with the Theater of Eternal Music) and of course Indian Music (the drone), same with Terry Riley. Glass owes his concept of rhythmic repetition not only to Riley but also to his studies with Ravi Shanker. The problem is not that the composers don't admit this (which they freely do) but the authors of these books continue to place music in little boxes and categories. By doing this, they exclude important innovators and important work because it does not meet a specific idea of creativity. The music is then relegated to the other side of the railroad tracks with the "other folks"
By chance I was listening to Netscape@Radio Abstract Beats and caught an unbelievably powerful work, The Blackhole by an artist I've heard of for years, but never explored that much, DJ Krush. It's from the album - Message at the Depth and contains some of the scariest and most bizarre percussion music I've ever heard.
The blackness and the hyper-active cross-pollination between break beat and hip hop percussion into a practically Xenakis-like hell texture is remarkably effective and memorable without producing an effect of deconstructive chaos. The textures return and coallesce into beautiful structures within the distrubed sonic shapes themselves.
As the shape progresses, an almost classical form emerges, within the spaces without the hyperactive subwoofer pounding. Returns are enhanced and re-shaped without becoming boring. The album, apparently is a set of reflections about 9/11.
Master bassist Henry Grimes, missing from and presumed dead by the music world since the late 1960s, was recently discovered to be living in a single-room occupancy hotel in South Central Los Angeles, in good health and state of mind, though pretty much destitute. He'd been living in the same room for the past 20 years but had long ago sold his bass for survival needs and has since contented himself with writing poetry, trying a bit of acting, doing construction work and odd jobs, and surviving on Social Security income. The person who found Henry Grimes last year is a young social worker named Marshall Marrotte, himself living in Athens, Georgia.
Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, the Juilliard-educated Henry Grimes played brilliantly on some 50 albums with an enormous range of musicians, including Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Haynes, Lee Konitz, Steve Lacy, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Sunny Murray, Perry Robinson, Sonny Rollins, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Charles Tyler, McCoy Tyner, Rev. Frank Wright, and many more...and then, one day, for reasons largely having to do with the way things were in those times, he simply walked away from the music world and disappeared.
When word of Mr. Grimes's whereabouts and circumstances first reached a small circle of musicians and fans late last year, efforts began immediately to find him a bass so that he could start playing again, since he had told Marshall Marrotte how much he wished that were possible, and before long a bass nicknamed Olive Oil (for its greenish finish) arrived at Henry Grimes's door, donated by New York's great bassist William Parker, who as a teenager had gone to Brooklyn to hear Mr. Grimes play. The bass reached Henry Grimes on December 16th, 2002, and for the first month Mr. Grimes practiced virtually around the clock -and then began to emerge from his room. Since then he's been practicing with several Los Angeles-musicians, has played concerts brilliantly with Nels and Alex Cline at Billy Higgins's World Stage and the Howling Monk, and has been teaching improvisation part-time at a local high school. While he's with us in New York, we will also have a five-day WKCR Henry Grimes Radio Festival (May 28 through June 1st) with his participation. We are also planning a benefit concert for him with many of the great musicians who played and recorded with Henry Grimes in the past reuniting with him on the bandstand, to take place later this summer."
In listening to recent Squarepusher, it has become obvious to me that he is taking a genre and essentially distorting its boundaries in a similar manner as Stravinsky with the Ebony Concerto (or other jazz-influenced works). The song, "My Red Hot Car" is probably one of the most innovative pop songs of the past 100 years. It is constantly re-structuring itself, and creating a genuinely disturbing progress of complex timbral and rhythmic changes which are as innovative as anything being done in academic experimental music now.
Square Pusher - My Red Hot Car - Go Plastic
I plan on writing more about this innovative song and another of Squarepusher's 'Do You Know Squarepusher' in the near future.
The Dartmouth College Electro-Acoustic Festival call for scores shares the ongoing dismissal of archetype in electronic music with its generious search for any and all types of interesting electronic music. Heaven help us all!
Quoted without permission:
Below is information about a festival that will take place this summer at Dartmouth College. Our intent is to program as broad a range of electro-acoustic music as possible, hopefully discovering new ideas about what EA music might be along the way. Our one restriction is that we are not programming video works, so that the focus remains on the music. But live-performance pieces are fine. And we're especially interested in pieces that are not necessarily "mainstream" EA music - that are provocative, obsessive, weird, beat-oriented, noisy, genuinely experimental, or anything else that might prevent them from consideration at more staid events. Following is a URL from where you can propose works. I hope to hear from some of you.
While surfing thru the BBC3 Hear and Now website I stumbled across this discussion of a recent concert of the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival curated by Autechre where Curtis Roads, Bernard Parmegiani, Aphex Twin, Hecker and Pita played in concert - Radio 3 Message Board. More evidence of the increasingly blurred status of academic experimental electronic music. Curtis Roads, for those that aren't familiar with him, is one of the early adoptors/inventors of granular synthesis.
Joseph Benzola, Jeff Harrington and Steve Layton have launched a new music blog featuring coverage of the online experimental and electronic music scene. With a focus on works in online distribution, beepSNORT plans to examine and curate the wild world of a genre of music which increasingly face the threat of a glut of artists calling themselves experimental but in actuality not experimenting at all. beepSNORT welcomes guest authors and plans to publish short commentaries from interesting music writers."
Composed for piano in 1973, Xenakis' "Evryali" is a wildly imposing work, yet one that has a kind of directness and even "play". This directness comes from the simple and intuitive forms that lie beneath the barrage of notes, and is what makes the piece immensely engaging, almost "familiar", for both the performer and the listener. While traditional notation might obscure the work's compositional origins, a slightly different representaion of the notes will show the actual framework of purely free graphic inspiration that lies at the heart of the piece. It reveals a piece that was much more "drawn" than "composed" in the traditional sense. Granular (composed of many discrete "bits" or notes) blocks of sound alternate with many equally granular, entangled or branching lines or curves (Xenakis called these "aborescences" or "Medusa's hair"). The visual demands of Xenakis' "drawings", when translated to traditional notation, make for many passages that are strictly impossible for any human pianist. The performance I give here is a "virtual" one, that makes use of digital (midi) technology to realize the work just as written, bypassing the limits of two hands and ten fingers.