There was once a German experimentalist composer by the name of Karlheinz Stockhausen in the mid-20th century. He believed that man harnessed an inner power to reach the next phase of human existence through off-beat, arrhythmic music. He refrained from dabbling in symmetric, accessible 4/4 beats in favor of more complicated time signatures and melodies in order to explore this phenomenon, revealing that once humans wrapped their heads around complex rhythms, we’d be able to adapt and hear different rhythmic patterns in nature, thus bringing us to a new level of heightened awareness in hopes to make contact with the higher beings who created us.
And for the most part, Stockhausen was somewhat on track. He probably had some good ideas going in trying to expand the mind to branch out to different types of music, but what he was getting at was very much honest and full of truth, encouraging music listeners to try to understand and appreciate music that challenges us, no matter how cacophonous and arrhythmic it may be.
Because in challenging times, we should listen to music that challenges us. Yes, it may not seem accessible or easily digestible, but listening to music that requires a certain patience and curiosity can believe it or not lead to some form of self-fulfillment. It’s an encouragement to push us forward, to step out of our comfort zone and appreciate what else music has to offer, in the various ways it may take shape. Because, more often than not, listening to music you’re not familiar with can actually make you think, or at least daydream, differently. You find yourself drifting down cavernous patches in your mind that you normally wouldn’t while listening to more conscious, transparent, familiar music.
But thankfully, there are a handful of artists who choose to embrace new technology to expand the threshold of what music can achieve, taking idiosyncratic routes in finding their own producing processes, with such methods yielding different and unpredictable results, whether it be a different approach in environment or a difference in instrumentation.
The British electronic duo Autechre are just one of the pioneers of treading into this unknown dimension of how music can be made, using a visual programming language called MaxMSP, which is essentially an algorithmic generative software that’s used by imputing information into a computer, where it does all its calculations and computes, spitting back out scattered noises and rhythms and beats, in which the members of the band then shape the sounds in real time and input it back into the software, or start a new sequence entirely. By embracing this new way of making music, possibilities for the band literally became endless. With their last full-length record elseq 1—5 stretching over four hours, their latest effort, NTS Sessions 1-4, is a massive 12 LP box set that spans an anxiety-ridden 8 hours, originally broadcasted on loop for a week long on NTS Radio.
However, they didn’t start that way, but only evolved into it over time. Originally, they were just like any other electronic DJ’s coming out of England in the late 80s, thrown in the same group as Aphex Twin and Squarepusher who grew up listening to Chicago acid house music, with their earlier records focused more on club oriented rhythms. But as they grew more curious as to how they can further push this sound, they began to dip into new, uncharted territories by releasing jarring, off-kilter software experiments. What once started out as semi-accessible music, has now become a listening experience that demands a certain degree of labor from its fans. But even since the beginning, Autechre has always to an extent drawn heavily from their influences, although with a different approach, to the point where their predecessors have become hardly indistinguishable.
Practices such as these lead to new discoveries and ideas, no matter how difficult they might be to comprehend. For his last album, Oneohtrix Point Never decided to record in an egg-shaped, specially architected house that contained absolutely no right angles. And after hearing the record, one can just simply imagine how the mind operates in a room without any hard corners. Think about how many “boxes” of rooms we sit in all day, and how these walls and architectural designs shape the way we think and feel, both consciously and subconsciously. To record vocals, Björk uses a non-traditional microphone called a Calrec Soundfield, which is typically designated to recording field work in surround sound. However, Björk uses the microphone in the studio by doing single, long swooping takes of a song throughout the room, singing into the microphone from different angles. The result gives a three-dimensional feel to the song, with the vocals not coming out of just the left-center-right channels, but from all different sides of the stereophonic spectrum.
These non-traditional recording methods essentially encourage listeners to embrace not only new types of music, but new types of listening, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar they may be with the artists, as these unconventional approaches inevitably result in jarring, non-formulaic melodies. It’s challenging to take on such an activity, especially if you’re one to reserve music for easy listening purposes, but is ultimately a much more rewarding experience.
I remember an NPR feature from a few years ago, about how popular music will be viewed 300 years from now. If we were to look at what was considered “popular” music 300 years ago, what did we have? Bach, Vivaldi… classical music. If that’s what was considered “popular” back then, how will we view what’s “popular” now 300 years in the future?
Well, first we’d have to take into account the accessibility to music 300 years ago. In the eighteenth century, the only way to listen to music was mainly through live settings, such as orchestral performances and operas. No recording methods had been developed yet, so music availability was fairly limited, and even so, these occasions were reserved traditionally for the wealthy, as they were the only ones who could afford to witness such things.
But, how will we view the music we’re listening to NOW in three hundred years? How will they think of traditional “pop” radio and how we consume it?
Well, we’d probably have to go into how it might evolve over time. With such new recording methods now available, with every little adjustment at our fingertips, and whole new software programs that do exactly what we tell them to, producers and musicians have begun to retreat toward old technology instead of embracing new features, perhaps because they seem overwhelmed by the new accessibility to everything that we have or intimidated by the endless, infinite controls and possibilities of how we’re now able to produce music.
Another sign of this can also be found in the inherent repetition of music. Even today, we hear evidence of melodies and harmonies repeating across different genres of music, which has become a result of a few factors – the modern day, chromatic 12-tone scale that lets us build chords and harmonies which supposes our combinations are nearly infinite, has now begun to show its age through repeating patterns in different pieces of music, which is directly correlated to our retreat from and dismissal of new technologies, as producers would rather resort to methods of recording they knew for sure once worked, rather than learn alternative ways of production.
Another reason is because it’s just not as “sexy.” Musicians and producers today would rather make an easily digestible, “radio friendly” tune to make a buck because that’s what the average music listener listens to. I’m not saying that humans’ ears and minds have to adapt to off-beat rhythms and complex harmonies, a la Stockhausen’s theory, but listeners’ ears are so in tune with what they should and expect to hear, that if a cacophonous Animal Collective song played through the speakers, odds are, the listener will skip it. Such music is hard to introduce to others, hard to play in the car with your homies in the backseat. It’s music that requires patience and curiosity, and only the seekers will be rewarded.
A few years ago, Autechre participated in an open QnA on the music forum website We Are The Music Makers, which is, believe it or not, their most candid interview to date. What started out as a two-hour question and answer session turned into a sprawling 163 page expose illuminating how the mysterious duo craft their work. At one point in the QnA, someone posted the question: “What would a modern day Autechre dance track sound like?” In which they responded with one unpunctuated sentence fragment: “but we are making dance music”.
And from that answer alone, one can already understand how they perceive music. They could go back to their roots, cutting and pasting break-beat hip-hop Chicago house rhythms with the technology and resources they had available to them, but they choose not to. They choose to go the other direction, the path of exploration and experimentation. There’s no real similarity between their influences and who they are as musicians today because over time, there have been cultural brick walls of separation built between the two. They don’t sound the same because time tells them not to, because the resources we had then are not the same resources we have now. They have no choice but to go outward. And pretty soon, the rest of us will have to catch up.