Sunday, 2 November 2014

Autechre @ The Art School

It's the mid-1990s. I am probably wearing a global hyper-colour t-shirt and waving fluorescent sticks around. I am listening to Autechre with Serocell. Since they have been switching styles since the boom years of acid house, it's difficult to remember which phase this would have been: maybe the glitch period, an apparent response to the legislation against 'repetitive beats' (as mentioned in Kieran Hurley's monologue about the rave scene, Beats). 

"Hmm," says Serocell. "What makes you young will one day make you old." 

2014, and I am standing in a packed room at the Glasgow School of Art. I've come in for the end of a day-long festival, Simple Things, and trying to catch a glance of a man in a baseball cap, who is fiddling with some machines, possibly a computer. The crowd are facing the stage and when dancing breaks out a few feet away from me, I think it is a fight. 

"Excuse me, are you selling anything?"  

I am delighted that an attractive young woman has come over to speak to me: I don't even mind that she has mistaken me for a drug-dealer. 

"I'm sorry," I mumbled. "This is just my halloween costume. I've come as a concept." She looks nervous and walks away.

The band aren't coming on yet - is it a band or a person? - so I nip out the front for a cigarette. Inevitably, one of my ex-students is on the door. I am always pleased to see them, and prefer it when they are on the door, being responsible, and not blitzed on alcohol. We chat about dramaturgy for a while, and I head back in. 

A man stops me on the stairs and asks if I am Pharrell Williams. I don't think he is just being cheeky and I am just glad to get the reference. 

I looked him up on Wikipedia. Esquire's Best Dressed Man of 2005. I'm just saying.

Anyway, I explain to him that this is my halloween costume, and that I have come as William Burroughs, June 1973. "It less distinctive than the October 1987 version," I add. "But he still had a bit of meat on his face in the early 1970s."

Around this time, Autechre take the stage. I haven't kept up with them: I know I have their collaboration with The Hafler Trio on CD, but it surprises me when I realise (thanks to Wikipedia, again), that the last album that I bought, Confield, was released in 2001. 

I am the only person wearing a suit, and although I have a rather wonderful shirt with an elasticated panel at the back (it stretches to fit my frame and cools me down, a bit like the unstable molecules that The Fantastic Four has), I understand why raving three-pieces have been traditionally rare. I am hot and, in a sign of my age, envy, rather than lust over, the young women in the relatively skimpy dresses.

"This is the most abstract music ever made," says the guy in front of men. He is wearing a backpack - it's a dumber thing to wear than a suit, because at least I am suffering myself. Every time he turns to his mate to explain how well he gets Autechre's sophistication, he hits me with his backpack. 

I am not hearing extreme abstraction though: when I talk about abstraction, I am usually claiming that a piece of dance, or theatre, is climbing towards a metaphysical vantage point: its content is more of a foundation for general meditations on the problems that drive it. Dance is very good at abstraction, because movement can be interpreted in many ways. Music is abstract - unless Berg has borrowed an unfinished Wozzeck  for the lyrics, or Wagner wrote a libretto about the death of the old gods - but I am not sure that Autechre would win in an abstraction context with Bach, or the atonal gang, or Serocell's latest.

I am hearing a lecture. It's composed of sound, but Autechre's set is flowing through their various approaches - and sometimes juddering, of course. The rhythmic complexity stays throughout, and the subtle use of layered melody - but they reference their championing of glitches, and retain the majesty that has always been their hallmark.

But, with time, Autechre sound less like pioneers of a future music but another bricolage act. Most of the bits and pieces do belong to them, and their influence is such that one of their albums usually inspired many imitations. Glitch went off on its own adventures (I reckon that fashion for 8-Bit music came from their), the beats came close to jungle, and the weight of their bass can be heard, echoed, in dubstep. Yet, over time, their own sound reveals its sources and influence. The shining sheen of futurology becomes an elegant rummage in the past.

Not that there is the kitsch that pop music adores: they might have been around in the 1990s, but they are not nostalgically culling elements from their peers. Their music, however, as the crowd seems to admit, is not to be danced away. It is to be observed.

The show is not dramaturgically rich, in visual terms. The layering of percussive urgency, tentative melody and floating bass is quite enough, thank you. And at various points, the music essays the journey of electronic music. The clinic, clean sound draws the line back to the haute-couture of the Belleville Three gang and forward to dubstep. Autechre are archivists, cerebral and demonstrating the continuity of electronic dance music, at least up to about 2007.

And this is why I wore the suit. 

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