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May 16th, 2001 John Graham | Music Stories
 

Sickly Suite

Cracked glass and melted metal: A tour through the surreal soundspaces of British electro-architects Autechre.

     
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Autechre do not play music. They build it.

The Sheffield-via-Manchester duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown creates strange and alien structures. The pair bends intangible notes, noises and samples into tactile forms, undulating shapes, warped planes. Then they slash them into microscopic fragments and reassemble them-- only to slice it all apart again.

Breakbeats broken down, piece by piece, until they become near-liquid abstractions.

Electronic pulses chopped into bursts of static.

Clicks, whirrs, spurts and susurrations.

The sounds of cracking glass and melting metal. White noise.

The shapes Autechre makes are all impossible angles and crooked lines. For those who can penetrate the surface textures and enter the music--as one would enter a building--hearing Autechre is like getting lost in the molten steel hallways of Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project in Seattle. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that Rob Brown studied architecture before dropping out to become a techno Wunderkind. And his observation (via phone from a tour date in Vienna) that the physical space of
a venue itself molds each Autechre performance seems equally appropriate.

"We used to get into doing tracks people had heard before off albums, doing a rework or an individual mix for that venue," Brown says. "But the more experience you have doing that, we realized that every venue shaped the sound of the track so much--because perhaps of the audience, or even the acoustics of the venue when you soundcheck --and you're gonna get a lot of different resonances with the building and such. We don't even tape shows anymore, because they're so confined to that space and that night. It ends up being a special one-off for everyone who goes each night, hopefully."

Noting that modus operandi, one might think Autechre chose performance sites based purely on aesthetic and tonal characteristics. Mix it up in factories, caves or train stations, maybe, like industrial music pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Dept. or Zoviet-France did before them. It hasn't happened--not yet--but Brown says that's just a question of semantics:

"In a sense we're already doing it. We get a lot of people attempting to select places for us, and like this tour has shown, venues come far and wide in terms of types. One of the best venues we've played was the Santiago Calatrava building in Valencia last year."

The stunning white domes Calatrava designed for the Spanish city's arts center--which eerily resemble halved human eyeballs--do seem an ideal space for Autechre's forensic techno investigations: Calatrava's sinewy interlocking arches and folding curves echo the methods Autechre uses to construct its songs, and the center's intellectual atmosphere gives highbrow validity to the duo's abstract art.

Booth and Brown, however, assert that they're perfectly at ease in standard dance clubs. They just have to bend their music to fit.

"We've played in art-house, cinema-type venues, which were very dry, almost like everyone's sitting down with a pair of headphones on, except they're all sharing the same signal. But more often than not, in Manchester for example, it's almost like a total club mentality where people are going real physical with the music," observes Brown. "It really depends on the actual environment the audience are in."

Now, all this brainy pontificating is nice, of course. But doesn't it seem a bit odd, coming as it does from two English lads who used to go out painting graffiti as teenagers? Not to Brown, who insists they've never seen a contradiction between the cerebral avant-garde and the more social club music played at dance clubs or raves.

"Those two have always been fused for us," he says. "When we were too young to go to clubs, we'd be listening to a lot of the music that is played in those clubs on our Walkmans, or tuning in to broadcasts, which is to me more cerebral. It's hard to split those in a live event, either, because there are so many people exchanging either a physical sense of being or a 'momental' one. But they've got to listen to it, no matter what the venue is, so it's always going to come through your mind first."

There's no denying that the cerebrum is the first place Autechre's glitchscapes resonate. But if listeners can grab onto that morphing façade long enough, the sound filtering down the auditory nerve unites with the environment outside the skull. At that moment, brain, body and space become one--there is no outside or inside, just the "other side," an enveloping space that exists only in Autechre's fantastic constructs.

Break on through.


Autechre, Daniel Menche, Rob Hall & Russell Haswell
B Complex, 320 SE 2nd Ave., 235-4424. 9 pm Thursday, May 17. $13 advance. All ages.




You may pronounce it any way you like, but the band members themselves say, "AH-tek-ker."




For this tour, Autechre are bringing "a couple of synths and a couple of computers," but don't ask about specifics. "You get a lot of people trying to spot what equipment you're using, what effects you use, but we're really into the mystery."




Autechre's latest release, Confield, is out now on Warp Records.




"There is no fucking genius in music. There is no fucking genius at all. Genius is just a fucking stupid word that people throw around pretending to know what it means."

--Autechre's Sean Booth, in a recent interview




I call architecture frozen music.

--Goethe

 
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