When Times Are Challenging, Listen to Music That Challenges You

When Times Are Challenging, Listen to Music That Challenges You

Free Radicals is Noisey’s column dedicated to experimental music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the fringes and why they’re meaningful.

It is so inescapable that it’s almost a cliche to say at this point, but the world feels ghoulish and dystopian. Basically everything I’ve written about over the last few months, directly musical and otherwise, has engaged with this sense of the world’s too-much-ness. It is hard to even attempt to recall, from memory alone, the overwhelming evils perpetrated in the world in recent months. The US government continues to enact and enforce racist, sexist, transmisogynistic, and outright fascist policies. Kids, stripped from their parents by those tenuously enacted mandates, have been, according to reports, injected with psychoactive drugs in efforts to subdue them. Violence is perpetrated on society’s most vulnerable, with little to no recourse available. Lingering under everything is a low-grade hum of anxiety over the fact that no one in positions of power really seem to be doing anything about the fast approaching cliff of irreversible climate change.

Part of me wants to respond to those facts—just a surface level survey of a black hole of Bad Shit—by giving in to my escapist impulses. To listen to music that feels like a warm blanket, to spend hours each day playing Fortnite, to lose myself in Japanese reality television. While I am certainly guilty of the latter two, I’ve also felt myself, paradoxically, pulled toward the exact opposite—giving myself over more and more to impossible music. Sinking into the jitters, glitches, and contorted sounds that feel, to my ears, like a sonic metaphor for data transfer and digital failure, I find myself unsettled at first. Harsh and unforgiving sounds, wrenched from cold and unfeeling computer code, a mirror for a world that feels similarly. And that feels good, to know that on some level, I’m not alone.

The arithmetic electronic music that Autechre makes has always demanded a certain amount of labor from its listeners. Since the Sheffield-based duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth first started releasing strange club tracks in the early 90s, they’ve always treated their biggest influences—various surreal strains of dance music, as well as classic—with an off-kilter approach. If the production styles of those genres tended to be sturdy, like a kitchen table, Brown and Booth were at first keen to gleefully lop off a few inches of one of the legs—forcing those who encountered them to compensate for the unbalance in order to find the strange joys contained in those pieces.

Photo courtesy of the artists.

They’ve only leaned into that approach over time, culminating with the glitchy software experiments that they’ve started issuing over the last decade or so, which abstract their relationship to their influences entirely—tossing that kitchen table into a wood chipper, and letting their fans sort through the mulch for moments of ecstasy. They began their career the late 80s lumped in with a handful of producers with a similarly disorienting and digitalist take on electronic music, but they’ve always seemed to have ambitions to sound like basically nothing else that exists—which they now have.

At some point, the work they’ve asked of their devoted cult of fans became more literal. Keeping up with them has become a significant part time job. Seemingly due in part to a new songwriting approach (in which they use the music programming software MaxMSP to, essentially, algorithmically generate torrents of sounds that they shape into pieces) the format of their pieces has become unwieldy in tandem with the sounds. Starting with 2013’s Exai, the runtime of their records has doubled with each release. That album was two hours long, then 2016’s elseq 1-5 ran for four, and the streak continued with this year’s NTS Sessions 1-4, streaming on a loop on the NTS site, which lasts for an unbelievable 8 hours. The MP3s alone contain a gigabyte of data. It’s available in a 12-LP or an 8-CD set. Feel free to grab both, if you really hate the environment (or, like, having money).

They’re an act that’s hard to keep up with, which is a big part of why I wrote a guide in April breaking down their catalog into more manageable pieces. There’s legible corners to their work—places that might make more sense to start for those whose ears aren’t yet attuned to the strange frequency modulation they often explore. When I wrote that piece I’d spent some time with NTS Sessions, enough to consider it among their best (and certainly their most confounding) works, but not enough to realize just how diametrically opposed it is to this sort of piecemeal consumption. It was originally broadcast in four two hour segments on the internet radio station that gives the release its name, but it slowly became clear to me it’s best consumed in even longer stretches than that.

Photo courtesy of the artists

From the opening moments, it’s meant to be overwhelming. Session 1’s sputters to life with the high drama of a cybernetic boom-bap that sorta sounds like what might get chunked out of a neural network trained on GRM compositions and “We Will Rock You.” This morphs and fractalizes for the better part of 18 minutes, never really building in volume or impact, because it’s more or less crushing from the start. That eventually gives way to the dial-up funk and hopscotching rhythms of “bqbqbq,” which itself then stretches out for nearly 12 minutes. There is little in the way of memorable melodies or even recurring rhythms to hang onto. At this point, there’s still an hour and a half remaining of this first session. And then six more after that. If you start to feel a little lost at sea, that’s the point.

Prolific enigmas as they are, Booth and Brown have never been the sort of artists to expressly connect the music they make to external narratives, nor do they tend to explicitly engage in the world around them. They seem to mostly take joy in the sounds themselves, and leave meaning up to other people. But something about the structure—or perhaps lack thereof—in NTS Sessions 1-4 has felt useful to me in the months since its release, for processing the world around me.

Something funny happens when you listen for long stretches. Haters will say its Stockholm Syndrome, but when you immerse yourself in these unsettling sounds for hours at a time, its weird grammars and confusing logics start to make sense. If, after half an hour, I start to feel panicked, by the time the first set’s ended and the acidic opening of Session 2’s “elyc9 7hres” kicks in, I begin to untense. Everything starts to make a strange sense, moments of ecstasy—like the woozy rumbles that make up the broken beats on “dummy casual pt. 2”—take shape in the fog. It’s sort of like letting your eyes adjust to an incredibly dark room. It’s going to be scary at first, but soon enough everything will start to feel familiar again. You’ll have your wits about you, and be able to move comfortably through the space.

Of course, Autechre didn’t invent durational listening, nor are they even the only ones to explore its strange powers this year. At this current moment, the composer Mike Shiflet is in the midst of a project called Tetracosa that’s already more than double the length of the NTS Sessions, and will soon take up a full 24 hours. It too is a heavy, grim listen by and large. Over the whole set, he’ll explore 350 “sound objects” rearranged and stretched out through processes of chance, inspired by John Cage’s works with the I Ching. The music he’s released so far feels non-linear, contracting and expanding with an unpredictable energy while still largely hovering around long, slow drones. It’s environmental as much as it is compositional, the sort ambient release you note not for each particular sound or for its emotional movement—but for the dream-like way it shifts as you leave it on in the background. If you tune out for a second and then lock back in and the space you were in has often shifted entirely, without you noticing. Where are you? Is this now?

Static and noise fade in and out of margins of the project, with little advance warning of when the chaos will come or in what intensity. In this way, Shiflet’s project articulates the ways that the heaviness of the world can feel purely random—the way that suffering can feel like it was just a cosmic wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time scenario. Like the NTS Sessions, there’s little escape, but the more you listen, the more you start to find those moments of bliss too. By nature of its expanded runtime, and his general favoring of natural tones over computer generated scraps, Tetracosa feels a hair more optimistic a suggestion that if you wait, and listen and try to white-knuckle through the bad shit, there could be better times on the way.

getting lost on these thought trails while hours deep into these pieces has given me a fair amount of hope. Obviously these are lessons that don’t translate exactly to the real world—things haven’t really started to feel better the more we’ve sat in them. Nor should they, there are real human costs to all this calamity. But the spirit of these records offer a worthwhile gesture for those who feel a call to action, but feel overwhelmed by the swirling bad shit. Eventually, you can adjust to the darkness and find your bearings. Then, you start to fix things.

Photo courtesy of the artists.

Colin Joyce is still overwhelmed, on Twitter.