The Drama You've Been Craving

What, exactly, does a "music of sentient computers" sound like?
Yep, it sounds just like it looks.
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Monday May 28, 2001

Autechre's Soul Of The New Machines

Meanwhile, sells its own soul down the murky river

By Michael Goldberg

The land of electronic music is deep and wide, and I am not a frequent visitor. Occasionally, though, I make a foray out of rock's many permutations, my more typical habitat, and travel through time and space to the electronic continent, then journey inland to observe.

Most recently, what caught my eye, and then my ear, was a review of Autechre's fascinating new album, Confield, by electronic music expert (and contributor) Philip Sherburne. He writes: "...ironically, Confield is the most accurate take on 'Intelligent Dance Music' yet to be released. The genre's name, the source of much contention, derives from Warp's early-'90s Artificial Intelligence compilations, so named because their synthetic funk was meant to evoke the antics of machines blessed with AI. In moving even closer to creating a music of sentient computers, Autechre have stood the genre on its head, stripping it of its four-bar certainties and patching it directly — ominously — into the unreadable soul of the machine."

What, exactly, does a "music of sentient computers" sound like? That might be the first question. It might lead to a second, having to do with how, exactly, this music is made. Are aspects of it created by chance, in the way that, in 1975, Brian Eno made Discreet Music?

"Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part," Eno wrote in the liner notes to Discreet Music over a quarter-century ago.

To create the piece "Discreet Music," Eno fed two synthesized, "mutually compatible melodic lines of different duration stored on a digital recall system" through a graphic equalizer and an echo unit. That sound was mixed with the same sound after it was fed through a tape delay. Occasionally he would use the graphic equalizer to alter the timbre of the "synthesizer's output." The result was a piece of music that very gradually morphed.

Twenty-six years and many technological revolutions later, it is possible to allow the machines to make their own music, music the mastermind(s) who set them in motion can't necessarily anticipate. Confield sounds like that — some of the time.

Only I'm certain Autechre — Sean Booth and Rob Brown — didn't leave their machines unattended. For all its clankiness, Confield feels quite human; there are passages of extreme beauty, and humor. "Cfern," for instance, sounds like the soundtrack to a comic performance by Charlie Chaplin impersonating a robot. Perhaps this isn't music by machines, but rather, music that uses machines to describe machines. Or maybe the machines have taken over, and I've just been lulled into thinking there's a human soul in this music, somewhere. In any case, Booth and Brown clearly have a sense of humor.

Meet The Old Boss

It was supposed to be a new kind of music business. From Emusic to, Napster to SonicNet, it was a lot of newbies (along with a few old-school renegades like myself) who were going to tear down the old and replace it with something new, better, like the world had never seen before.

Instead, the nails keep getting hammered into the old coffin. Liberty Digital sold out SonicNet to MTV in '99, Napster is under the thumb of BMG since mid-'00, Emusic sold out to UMG last month and last week we learned that has agreed to be acquired by Vivendi Universal (UMG's parent), one of the companies that had sued in the first place.

Executives at companies about to be acquired (or that have just been acquired) are always quoted making ridiculous statements about why the deal is so great, and how chains to the corporate devil are only going to allow them to do what they do ("Even more free to be me!") better than when they were independent.

Here's onetime rebel Michael Robertson, chairman and chief executive of, doing his version of delusional spin: "It brings together industry-leading technology, brands, distribution and content. We will continue with our current pursuits, but also work with our new partners to innovate subscription systems and music offerings that reach a global audience across many devices. We believe consumers will see the full promise of digital music come to fruition."

The only think I'd count on coming to fruition is Robertson eventually walking away a multimillionaire, if he hasn't already managed to sell enough shares of to make himself a rich man. The second the deal is consummated, Vivendi Universal will not be "partners," they will be owners. They'll be Robertson's boss, and they will do only what they believe will increase their bottom line. So much for the revolution.

Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.