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Sarcastic Clyde

by Mat Cork , posted 11.25.97

Autechre (Orr-Tek-a)(Ort-kaa)(Ort-esha)(Etc.). It always strikes me as strange the way in which fans of this music (and I’m one myself) embrace the whole concept of the band, the names of the tracks/albums/EP’s, the pronunciation of the name and the endless dissemination of what the music is about and what it evokes. Autechre fans are notorious for scanning the dictionary in a quest to establish what links (if any) are being offered to the puzzle of why Autechre exist and the reason why we all continue to listen. I haven’t resorted to the dictionary yet but I’d like to know what exactly the Autechre appeal really is. Before I even make a stab at this its important to lay down a few house rules. This is about the music primarily, the surrounding mystique and hype are important but its the output that’s the real issue. Secondly its important to refrain from reverence, Mr. Booth and Mr. Brown...Sean and Rob, it all sounds too cozy for me, lets just call them Autechre. They seem OK guys on the face of the interviews you read, but who knows...who cares? I ‘m trying to find out why I’m drawn to the music and what it means to me, my opinion on this is more valid than there’s, so, for the sake of this article I’m leaving them skinning up, tagging or whatever else they do in Northern England.

Lets face it most people when faced with even the most accessible Autechre track consider it to be talentless, tuneless er... crap. I’ve lived with the Autechre catalogue for long enough now to realise this is not the case. People would most likely make the same comments about Ornette Coleman, Igor Stravinsky, John Zorn, or anyone else whose output has jumped over the fence to frolic outside the pasture. People would no doubt make similar comments regarding the writings of Proust, Joyce and Bukowski but the medium created by these people will remain pertinent long after the real talent like Les Dennis is left playing the Morecombe Empire. The whole electro/ambient/industrial/breakbeat scene is to some extent pushing the edges of the bag that music lives in. Autechre however, do seem to exist just outside of any movement. Listening to Anvil Vapre or Amber for example I have the feeling that I’m listening to something unique that’s making a sound that only Autechre can produce. I listen to loads of other stuff too but certain artists have this quality to offer something unavailable from adjacent sources. Black Dog are excellent...even on the same label, I love Bytes, but it hasn’t got the pioneering feel that Autechre provide. Autechre’s music doesn’t remind me of movies or places or times or anything tangible. I’m currently working in a small town in tropical Queensland, Australia. Listening to Chiastic Slide here a few months ago, the music seemed strangely out of place and alien. On returning home to England for a few months recently I was surprised to find that I had the same feeling. It seemed to me that the music evoked the same response at 40,000ft over the Indian Ocean on a 747 as it did anywhere else. The music didn’t take me back to England, to rust torn industrial landscapes or to any other place BA probably don’t fly to, it remained locked between my ears and was best enjoyed when taken in that context. Trying to provide visuals to the Autechre soundtrack doesn’t work for me, but the closest thing would be the patterns seen when you close your eyes. This stuff has a pull and an attraction that I’ve failed to find elsewhere, the melodies are often breathtaking and the beats blindingly addictive. Sure, the sounds are strange and unfamiliar but its all pulled together to create stunning music. I’ve no idea what makes a great piece of music, but I judge it in emotional terms, not in philosophical rhetoric. In this regard Autechre have produced consistently great music on a level that few even fleetingly ever reach.

So, I’m sure that others will differ in exactly why Autechre appeal. The graphics are excellent and the whole Autechre thing has an air of unimpeachable cool. The debate on the relevance and direction of minimalism remains (are Autechre really minimalist?)... its interesting stuff but its not why I actually buy records. I don’t care if Autechre see there music as stuff for ex- b boys to dance to and I don’t care what PC the graphics on Garbage were produced on. Its all compelling stuff and its part of what is Autechre but the genius really lies in the

music. Now, can anyone lend me a dictionary?

Mat Cork November 1997

Citizens of Yeesland: Interpreting Autechre’s Fifth Album In Context

by David O'Toole
Since the beginning , Autechre’s sound has been evolving in the direction of dryness. Listening to the lush, liquid chords and submarine organic echos of their stunning Garbage EP, one might never guess how that fluid soundscape would slowly evaporate into a digital desert of discrete mathematics. But far from being devoid of life, this desert teems with wiggly silicon voices.
Garbage is a great example of Autechre’s “wet” sound. This four-song EP is really a symphony with four movements. The elegiac denouement, vletrmx21, consists of horns and bare ambience. Played at high volume, it sounds like the end of the world; a vast funeral for the soldiers of another galaxy; a ceaseless, wailing alien rendition of Taps.
Tri Repetae is perhaps the start of the transition from wet to dry. Its tracks are soaked in watery ambience, but here and there the drier elements begin to emerge: the brooding, ominous syncopations of “Dael” are overlaid with a clanking, arid metal beat, like the scraping of a whisk on sheet-steel. Leterel’s electrical squealing is accompanied by the thud-click-buzz percussion of a digitally-delayed synth click. The odd cadence moves from major to minor on the same chord, and eventually fades into a dry hum as the track ends. The reverse happens with the album’s lonely midpoint, Stud: it begins with a pure supersonic oscillation, a drumbeat only dogs can hear; it ends in a wash of outerspace feedback, like solar rain. It evokes vastness, solitude, wandering. The album ends in a similar storm.
Envane, the teaser release for the fifth album, still retains this liquidity even in its driest moments: wet chords float over the drum-and-bass clacking of “Laughing Quarter.” With Autechre’s next release, Chiastic Slide, the dessicated soundflower truly blooms. The opener, “Cipater”, is dry as a bone and beautiful. The rolling, crunchy percussion evokes a drumset made of giant insects’ shells, played by twitching antennae. “Rettic Ac” explodes with sentient static emissions; a screaming waterfall of pure talc inside an echo chamber. A cellist sits alone by the roiling lake of powder, inhales the spray, and improvises a sweet melody. The skittering percussion in “Tewe” evokes locust wings flapping. “Hub” is a vision of the smoky, mysterious underworld. The sweet, chiming melody of “Calbruc” is the only sign of life in an otherwise grinding industrial piece. Bizarre elephant voices infiltrate “Recury” as it descends into the din of a city construction site. Chiastic Slide here becomes musique concrete, in both senses of the word!
Things change with the sedate “Pule”. A peppy tune, plucked on an unidentifiable string instrument, gradually morphs into a tranquil bio-environment, with tiny murmurings and movements. The melody continues in the background, and the song drifts off to sleep. The brilliant last song, “Nuane”, begins with an abusive, white-hot industrial beat, while a colliding, screeching brass orchestra escalates into the stratosphere. The fabulous climax of “Nuane” is surely one of Autechre’s finest moments, a cacophonous cry worthy of Nine Inch Nails. Afterward, woodsy buzzers stutter out tense, thick chords until the coda winds down into nothingness. While previous works were often smooth as glass or bubbly like water, the sound-scheme of Chiastic Slide is dirty, noisy, and industrial. Digital buzzing is everywhere. Cichlisuite shows Autechre moving into new territory, both textural and stylistic. The sound of Cichlisuite is even drier than that of C.S. This is reportedly where Booth and Brown began using the Nord Lead on their tracks, and it strongly affected their sound. The Nord Lead is a programmable synth, capable of digitally emulating an analog synthesizer. The sound of Cichlisuite is warm and slightly fuzzy, like a strange cartoon theme. The speedy opener, “Yeesland”, starts with a simple click. Soon comes a driving bass rhythym, and high-pitched hiss instead of a snare. A low squealy tune starts, and soon a beautiful series of chords emerges. It is, like most of Autechre’s recent work, somewhat melancholy. Half-sad bittersweetness is their new artistic mode. “Krib” is one of Ae’s sweetest: organ chords and a sharp glass-marble drumbeat support a lonely, rainy-day melody. It’s also one of the shortest at barely three minutes. The percussion on the last track, the wacky, ebullient “Tilapia,” consists of a thud and a snare click that must be heard to be believed. The ending gives way to light-as-air, breathy melodies that sing away into silence.

Autechre’s nameless fifth album, encased in a black plastic jewel case, is a moody film noir—a dark, baroque opera sans libretto. Part of the beauty of Autechre’s music is that devoid of words, it can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, beyond the boundaries of any one culture. This album seems to be the sum of all that has come before: the digital noise and crunch of Chiastic Slide; the lyricism of Anti, Garbage, Envane, and Anvil Vapre; the tension and isolation of Tri Repetae’s dark moments; the percussion of Cichlisuite.

Here is my track-by-track analysis:

Acroyear2: Begins with off-kilter chimes... soon a tense sequence begins. A low beep repeats itself within the percussion as a strange harpsichord-like melody plays. This song soon develops with improvisational, overlapped melodies. It becomes more tranquil; the drums trip out on acid and fade into digital noise. By the end the tune is no longer ominous. Several of the tracks on LP5 go in this way from scary to sweet. Now the perfect precision of Cichlisuite begins to get lost in a busy jumble; the music decomposes. But from the chaos in between all the tracks, order comes again and again.
777: Clanging, plucked steel cables are the only way I can describe the sound. A strange, vaguely Oriental melody seems to want to begin, but never really gets going. It’s energetic, with droning bass and plenty of clicking.
Rae: This track is beautiful and sad. The first few minutes are warm drum-and-bass; the beat suddenly slows down to a slow bump-bump-scratch while the chords stay at the same speed, and move into melancholy places. Rae is haunting and cold by the time it ends, like a child left home alone on Halloween. Tear-shaped chords warbling voices finish out the piece. This song is a close cousin to “Krib”; its primary emotion is wistful aloneness.
Melve: Very short, strange chime chords and a wandering melody.
Vose In: Begins with a nervous tune, but soon becomes happy and bouncy, somewhat like the beginning of Rae. The clicky percussion disintegrates while the melody plays on through a film of distortions.
Fold4,Wrap5: Another standout. Through a trick of programming, the beat sounds as if it is constantly slowing down, but actually stays at the same speed. The effect is disorienting. The chords and melodies are made of crystalline synth sounds, some shiny, some springy. The percussion mutates into a liquid pitter-patter, like rain filling up a metal cylinder. The spacious, windy, snowy texture of Fold4Wrap5 evokes melting ice on a glacier in the morning.
underBOAC: The album becomes dark again with this subterranean track. Strange voices converse in the pipes. Their vocal cords bubble. One of them plays the drums on abandoned cans. The Halloweenish atmosphere, complete with sci-fi Theremin imitation, makes this a very atmospheric track. During the interlude, some of the creaking sounds remind me of Aphex Twin’s recent song “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball.” The second half of the song would have fit in on Aphex’s last album, “Come To Daddy.” Corc: Excellent. This one is like a folk song in its simplicity. A squelchy, happy bass melody, some basic drums, and scratchy cymbals accompany a dreamy, echoed electric-piano melody. This track is warm and peaceful, but also spacious.
Caliper Remote: Robotic insects scrape and dig on an asteroid in space. The camera moves rapidly to follow their wiggly, jerky movements. The bugs mine for bits of precious metal within the rock. A mysterious, spacey melody accompanies the scene.
Arch Carrier: Space opera. Very tense and post-apocalyptic; the pulsating bass and background strings remind me of Vangelis’ Blade Runner theme.
Drane2: With the release of Cichlisuite, it seemed as if the little-people of Yeesland no longer played their digital horns. But LP5’s dramatic finale, “Drane2”, represents the stunning apex of Autechre’s romance with synthetic brass. It opens amid a grind of data-noise. A clarion call sounds from afar, emerging from the mix. The trumpet, though artificial, bears the marks of detailed software articulation: you can hear the subtle variations in note lengths and opening flutters in sound as if a real musician were playing it with real lungs and real fingers. A sudden and sproingy bouncing-ball beat comes in, and soon a whole orchestra of brass joins in the swelling chorus. A dissonant, bouncing melody comes in distorted, like a radio station that fades in while driving. The soaring climax brings a storm of percussive clicks and clanks; it sounds like a million glass marbles colliding in a hurricane. The coda fades away into childlike xylophones, playing tranquilly like the melodies at the end of Pule. Drane2 is an aria, a grand and mysterious anthem.

"Multi Instead of Narrow"

by Jeroen Teunissen

A few years ago I first heard Anvil Vapre, a refreshing experience, since I had been seeing many record stores that day, and all I heard were the same techno beats and 101-sounds. The impact came with the last track, second peng. It starts of with an echo-ed hi-hat, after which a very deep, low bass kicks in. I was listening to this on headphones, and hearing the bass made my vision literally tremble. That's when I discovered I had found music with a further reach.
I bought the single, and soon found myself collecting more of them. Only, while reading reviews and articles on new releases, I found most articles were very eager to place them in a genre, and if not, labeling them as complicated or twisted. The other 20% [positive articles] had the word minimalism embedded in the text. Minimalism isn't the right term to describe Ae with: the music is complex, not at all minimal. The only parrallel it has with minimalism is its pureness; the starting from sounds, and not using prefab, both cultural as mechanical sounds.
For me neither of these viewpoints came close to my own. Maybe a better description is 'not finished in the modernist way' (= sketch). By this I mean, an insight is given into the evolution of the music, the structural process that lies beneath each piece/song. Most people would perhaps find this showing of the process of production dangerous... interpretation, the attachment of meaning done by the audience, is also multiple when the thing itself is multi-layered, so a lot of misreading can be done.
The sketch as a perfect non-linear, dynamic, forever fluctuating (aeon flux) situation. A sketch is a prelude to something else, a hopeful potential, which is finished, topped off, each time the music is listened to. In other words, the narrowing down to bitesize hasn't been done before the music is pressed into cd's, it's done every time the audience listens; and each time that happens, a different meaning is produced, depending on the person listening and her/his frame of reference. Don't misread "sketch" with the traditional meaning it has, maybe prototype suits the subject better. An ongoing succesion of 'sketches' provides a broad basis for developing and altering ideas on sound itself, style, etc.

For me, what I've described above is clearly visible (uuhh…audible?) in the fact that Ae haven't done remixes in the way most 'dance'-acts do remixes, at least none that I know of. The basscadet Ep features others like seefeel who remix their work, ok , but that's all I've ever seen.
I can imagine when working on already released material, just re-arranging, cutting and pasting it isn't very satisfying. One needs to dive into the stuff completely again, to start all over. As Josh Cleary wrote in his submitted article, '…they recognize that their next work should not be a duplication of what they have already done once, but a continuation of what inspired them to create in the first place.' Putting the emphasis on the structure of an earlier work makes it hard to copy it exactly, just in the same way no live show is every night the same, although some sounds may come close.
There's no fun in doing something and trying to receive exactly the same outcomings as you've done before. On the other hand, to be honest, sometimes it can be tempting to want to, because cloning defies time, and the change which time brings. But that's a different concept...

In pretty much the same manner, Ae's music is built up with little 'machines', producing sounds in synchronous and non-synchronous rythmes, acting with or without each other. A very life-like representation of life itself. By not ruling out chaos, intertwining patterns and complex relationships between the parts of a whole, a new, more suitable view on what (electronic) music can evolve to, is given. It’s so nice listening to something that isn’t clear in shape, and at first seems monotonous, but when given more credit unfolds itself as something very rich in texture, with subtle shiftings and build-ups. Ok, but that’s describing the music, what i’m trying to point out is, with all the contrasts (technological <> organic, digital <> chaotic, etc..) it resembles a complete, well-functioning system on its own.
It’s not about the world, it is the world.
The same as I expereinced with aphex twin’s selected ambient works vol. II, I could listen to the music and watch TV, or even listen to another, song-based record.
My ideas on this matter aren’t yet that clear in words, resulting in a maybe incoherent text, that’s why I’d like to post it here on this magazine, and find out what all of you think on this.

"Autechre Brings Electronic to Another Dimension"

Written and submitted by Michael O'Connor. 10.20.97
Originally appeared in The Chronicle, 10.9.97. Reproduced with permission of author.
Electronica, electronica and electronica.
This awkward-sounding and extremely vague term has been used by record companies and promoters alike to describe artists ranging from the rock and roll techno act Prodigy to the more straightforward Chemical Brothers and even experimental acts like Aphex Twin, Panasonic and Autechre.
There is one large difference, however. Autechre is not like anything of this Earth.
Autechre uses sounds much in the manner of Aphex Twin and the bulk of Coil's work. By taking everything from sampled live instruments to snippets of keyboard riffs, the Manchester duo manage to craft music that is completely and totally different than anything that has been done before. By turning on a track from any one of Autechre's albums, the listener can be greeted with everything from noise to ambience to straight-up techno to drum 'n bass to a thousand other different genres and generalizations.
Autechre's latest import EP, Envane, continues this trend of musical deconstructionism.
The first track on this 40-minute, 4 song EP is "902 Quarter," and it will completely confuse anyone trying to second-guess where these two young Englishmen are heading. A hip-hop beat lays down the bass while a strange and jazzy analogue keyboard jumps around over the top of the rest of the beats. Then, about two minutes into this nine-minute piece, the frantic scratching begins.
Like a DJ gone insane at his turntables, the scratching continues at a hyperactive pace and goes on until about six minutes into the piece. Then the noise begins. Bursts of static assault the speakers of whatever unfortunate CD player is holding Envane. People who are interested in ruining their stereo systems are welcomed to try playing "902 Quarter" at high volumes. The results could be tragic.
While the static is unnerving, it is not overpowering, and the rest of the instrumentation continues to get more minimalistic and bizarre. When the song ends, "Latent Quarter" kicks in and things begin to get really strange.
Keyboards and drums continue on, looped over and over until they begin to speed up and slow down at random intervals. "Latent Quarter" holds six minutes of an oxymoron that describes Autechre perfectly-it is repetitive music without the repetition. While sounds and instruments are looped, they are not repetitive or boring in the least. If nothing else, the listener is forced to concentrate more on what is happening as to avoid missing anything.
The third track is "Laughing Quarter," and is basically drum 'n bass on crack. Weird and undanceable, this track is what Autechre is really all about and what has made them so popular among fans of difficult music. There is so much going on in the background that it is nearly impossible to catch every nuance and every burst of programming genius. "Laughing Quarter" turns out to be the most gripping track on Envane because of constant change and innovation.
The last track is "Draun Quarter," and it is the most accessible of all four tracks on the album. The analogue keyboard sound that Autechre is so fond of using drives the majority of this track, but the drum programming is where the intricacy lies. The longest track on Envane, "Draun Quarter" is also much less manic than other songs on the EP. For those who consider Prodigy and their ilk to be the ultimate in electronic music, they have been warned: Autechre is not electronica. Autechre is the future.
Author Info:
Michael O'Connor
Managing Editor, The Chronicle - Hofstra's only student-run newspaper *-or-* ReviewsInterviewsOtherThings

An Autechre Poem by Matt Cuttler

sumbitted by author 10.20.97

collision of harsh technology;machines;
and beauty maintained by the concept of a chiastic slide;
the chasm which separates the two;
sweeping landscapes fade in/out
no favorites, each track evokes a separate mood
they are more than a group they are a concept
no one could ever cover autechre.

Author Info: Matt Cuttler

"Autechre and Aphex Twin"

written by Josh Cleary, submitted 10.22.97

Last night I was pleased to read all of the posts concerning the newest efforts by autechre and aphex twin. It comforts me to know that others share my passion for the works of these premier artists. However I was quite distressed by much of the discussion centering around the 'labelling' of their music. It saddens me to see people trying so hard to attach a label to music that is valiantly trying to defy being labelled. I remember seeing the words 'drill and bass' discussed (i cannot remember who first brought this up, my apologies). This is a term that i had never heard used before and my first question to myself was "what the hell is 'drill and bass'?" It sounds to me more like a tool than a type of music.
I spend approximately 45 hours a week in a music store endeavoring to describe what a particular piece of music sounds like. When it is at all possible for me to avoid using labels, I do so. Rather, I try to describe the music itself. I try to describe the experience of the piece rather than comparing it to something that has already been done. Musicians are artists and I would hope that in all music that is created or performed, the artist will grow with the music. In other words, once a musician has created something and found a niche for him/herself, they recognize that their next work should not be a duplication of what they have already done once, but a continuation or exploration of what inspired them to create in the first place.
For instance, if you were to listen to Aphex Twin 'Classics' on R&S Records and then listen to 'Richard D. James Album' or 'Come To Daddy' on Warp Records, you would probably notice that they are extremely different. However, if you are as devoted a listener of Aphex Twin as I am, you would hear that they have that distinctive Aphex Twin sound. The same would apply to listenings of 'Incunabula' and 'CichliSuite' by Autechre. I understand that it is extremely easy to use a label to describe types of music, I do find myself doing it from time to time when other means escape me, but it worries me to see music that should have no label, music that defies being labelled, is falling into this trap of genre. Remember 'alternative' music? When I was in high school, it was a genre of music that many unknown/lesser known artists were experimenting with. It was supposed to be an alternative to what everyone else was doing at the time. It was supposed to be cutting edge, ground breaking. Artists such as Jane's Addiction, Sonic Youth, Jesus and Mary Chain, Smashing Pumpkins come to mind. But with the advent of such things as Lollapalooza and 'alternative' radio stations (such as 99X here in Atlanta), 'alternative' became popular. Everyone was now alternative. and today we have such artists as No Doubt, Smash Mouth, Meredith Brooks, Bush. Do we want this same pitfall to happen to the music that we enjoy? Do we want to see artists come along and call their music 'drill and bass', trying to 'copy' what Aphex Twin has already done? I would hope not.
What I would like to see is more discussion about the actual music. Obviously, everyone that will read this listens to Autechre and Aphex Twin. When listening to their music, how do you feel? What sorts of things come to mind when you listen to or think about their music? Does the music conjure any images in your mind? What are they? Has their music ever inspired you to create something of your own that is not necessarily music? These are the sorts of topics that I would be interested in seeing discussed. Hopefully someone out there will agree with me and respond.

Author Info: josh cleary
note: the topics Josh mentions at the end of the article are perfect for AeA Magazine. If you are going to write a response, why not send it along here too and have it published? :-) dto

Thoughts on Musical Communication 10.22.97

an article by David O'Toole, AeA site operator

Embedded in my mind of late are several questions about the nature of music, and what it means to me. Birthdays being ideal for all kinds of reflections and meditations, I have decided to write a few words about what’s in my head at the moment. In the past few years, my life has become more and more imbued with music. It’s come to the point that if I am at home, I virtually always have something playing. If I am away from home, there is always something running through my head: the soundscapes of Eno’s On Land, the melodies and textures of Autechre’s Tri Repetae or Cichlisuite, or Portishead’s spooky Dummy. I would like to begin a philosophical meditation on this subject.
To me, the most important thing about music (or any art) is the emotional response it creates in me. Also important is the mental and visual space that a recording creates in my head. Those seem like very different things, but I find it difficult to really separate them. For me, every thought I have when listening to music is part of the emotion it creates, and every emotion is part of the thought. Sounds a little too clever, but I find it awkward to really define such things in words, and I have to resort to circular and silly-sounding definitions to really get anywhere near the core of the idea.
But I’m writing, so I have come up with a few words to throw around here, like "emotional response" and "mental space", an ‘inventory’ of ideas to facilitate discussion. However, keep in mind that when I am using these words, I am using a hopelessly rough method: the words are only tags attached to abstractions, themselves further defined in words, hanging onto real, tangible, feel-able things by only a tenuous thread. The words will never capture or map exactly onto the things they refer to: I am only sketching, outlining the picture, for lack of a more precise pen to draw it with.
Over time, as I read about music and talk about it with others, I have begun to wonder: when I hear a piece of music that provokes an emotional response in me, is it the same emotional response that is evoked is another person? If not, is it as different for the man next door as it is for someone living in another culture, someone who speaks a different language?
In other words, what is the meaning in music, and where is it contained? When I listen to Autechre’s "Vletrmx", is the emotion stored in me or on the CD? Is the emotion entirely arbitrary and relative? The fact that people seem to respond with ‘sad’ emotions when they hear ‘sad’ music could be explained by what, musically, has come before in that person’s life; therefore, because so many people in the Western world have had a similar ‘canon’ in the form of the music constantly streaming out from TV and radio and movies, they will have similar emotions. They might feel ‘sad’ emotions because those are the responses that they have learned to feel when they hear music that they have been taught is ‘sad.’
I don’t believe any of that; I am trying to illustrate and show what I do believe by telling you what I don’t; and even by traveling a short distance down some of those paths. In this case, I have for rhetorical reasons painted a picture that is the antithesis of my belief, just to define both that much better. In this picture, we are all Pavlov’s dogs: exhibiting positive emotion when hearing the major scale, and negative emotions when we hear the minor scale. It’s a simplistic, ugly, and dehumanizing image, one that strips us of all our creativity and emotional authenticity.
But I cannot help but find slivers of truth in this image, however tiny. I believe that some and indeed even a sizable portion of music’s effects might determined by culture; we may always be separated from other minds, however infinitesimally, because of the possible imperfection of all modes of communication. As an example, take the phenomenon of musical modes, the multitude of different scales used before our familiar Major and Minor came into use. To modern Western ears, the melodies and harmonies often sound bizarre, dissonant. The cadences seem disjointed. It takes time, when studying pre-baroque and early music as I do, to get used to the new sounds. This seems to be evidence of a cultural factor in musical perception. However, I don’t think it means very much: once we get used to those sounds, they become part of our musical vocabulary, and begin to mean just as much as they did to those who heard them centuries ago.

As for language, let me briefly give my opinion on that subject right here. There are many theories on how language affects experience, including some that posit language as the medium, the ‘constructor’ of all experience. Now, I believe that language does indeed affect thought, but I have doubts about the nature and strength of those effects. In my view, music itself, shortcutting past language entirely, is what disproves such theories. Vast areas of our experience and knowledge lay outside of language entirely, and this is not changed by the fact that language can, after a fashion, describe them. But never, never can language capture everything. Language is an immensely powerful tool, but outside its vast territory lie other worlds entirely. In those places, language and logic can only poke, prod, and wonder about what’s inside.
In my view, discussion about music is always abstracted from music itself; we can’t talk music, we can only talk about music. If the abstractions we use in that discussion map closely onto the music itself, then we are having a discussion that is close to music. If we apply those abstractions too strongly to the music, they become the focus, rather than music. The more we push with language, the further away we get from what we are doing.
The only truly musical way to communicate with another human is music itself. In other words, I believe that any content or information, such as music, or trivia questions, or emotions themselves, is connected to, and perhaps bound up with, its method of communication. Of course, I am implying that there is a ‘content’ separate from music’s form, and indeed this is true. When an artist feels an emotion that drives him to write, that emotion goes through a translation process into music. The process is indirect, inexact, imprecise. While it is changing into music, it is informed by memory, dream, intellect, technique, harmony, theory, melody, etc. Obviously it is impossible for emotion to know about the major scale or triple meter, but these things may come to mind when emotion drives one to write, and they become attached.
It is like a river: the musical stream has many tributaries, eddies, branches, rapids, falls. At the end, we have the work of art, and the meaning, however distorted, is reconstructed in their mind. And of course, that subjective impression is informed by the listener’s own life experiences, but that nugget of musical truth always stays, is always present at the core.
I believe that music is much more than what people say it is, and what they say it isn’t: language cannot capture it, so all predictions are off. I can’t describe it and won’t try. I will always be skirting the edges of its territory with words, always out of reach. Only in listening and feeling am I there.

Author Info: David O'Toole