Treble 100: No. 60, Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right to Children

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Boards of Canada Music has the right to children

AI is going to kill us all. The worst-case scenario, as laid out in a brief but staggering open letter from CEOs of artificial intelligence companies and scientists and developers behind groundbreaking machine-learning technology, suggests that its use in the wrong hands could bring about extinction of the human race. That scenario’s played out countless times through decades’ worth of sci-fi, and it might not come to that. Probably not. Right? (I hope.) But before AI has a chance to rid the planet of its humans, it has the potential to slowly drain us of our humanity. It’s taking over jobs previously done by humans, sometimes with disastrous results, and opening up new questions about copyright and intellectual property theft. And while we’re at it, why not go ahead and kick us while we’re already drenched in night sweats about fear of robot-provoked nuclear war: It’s also going to make human-made art obsolete.

This pedestrian singularity might not be an inevitability, but perhaps the long march of digitalization has been guiding us here all along. As technology has advanced over the past century, music has evolved with it, integrating those advancements into its production. And critics have been there, every step of the way, to decry those advancements with bumper stickers declaring that “Drum machines have no soul” and turning up funeral marches for pitch-correcting software. Even Daft Punk, one of the most important electronic acts of the past 50 years, ten years ago made a throwback disco record in what seemed like a reaction to a perceived proliferation of cookie-cutter EDM. For essentially the duration of the existence of electronic music—even simply dance music, as evident by the racist and homophobic disco demolition night—it’s been met with critiques of being superficial and frivolous, simply for employing computers as tools in its creation rather than reel-to-reel tape and acoustic instruments. What those arguments always conveniently ignored is that a human still plotted the map and conceived of the vision. Handing the reins over to the machine itself extracts the flesh, blood and beating heart from the process; we’re no longer theorizing about dystopia if we’re outsourcing imagination—it’s already here.

Yet imagination and emotion are the primary instruments of Scottish duo Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, the two actual humans behind Boards of Canada, to the extent that the electronic aspect of their music is almost secondary. But Boards of Canada doesn’t really sound like a band either, but something more like being able to listen to your own memories—the warm and imperfect glimpses of things we can no longer touch but still somehow feel.

If we even still remember them beyond the trigger of a sense.

Music Has the Right to Children is a masterpiece of 20th century electronic music, but it strikes me as deeply, essentially human.

When I heard Music Has the Right to Children for the first time, it immediately sounded familiar to me for reasons I couldn’t place. That unsettled me, instilling the strange feeling of having seen a ghost or maybe the realization that I was a replicant, but it was oddly comforting as well. Like being momentarily transported to a place I didn’t realize I could ever visit again.

In 1998, when Sandison and Eoin released Music Has the Right to Children, their debut full-length as Boards of Canada, they had already been making music for over a decade, with their earliest cassette Acid Memories arriving in 1989. Pigeonholed early on as IDM, a term they objected to on the grounds that they didn’t make dance music, Boards of Canada likewise seemed to favor feeling over intellectualizing, the hazy textures of their compositions and clever integration of transitory pop cultural fragments leading nostalgic nerves to twinge. This isn’t the warped metal machine music of Autechre or the misfit wind-up toys of µ-Ziq or Luke Vibert. Nor does this music occupy the same space as Richard D. James’ nightmarish hall of mirrors.

It exists, instead, in the recesses of the prefrontal cortex or on a dust-covered shelf in a public institution. Sandison and Eoin were fascinated by the idea of creating a listening experience that felt like the discovery of a mysterious found object, damaged and contextless detritus from an unknown library, which early on in their career actually involved physically damaging their own demos. But the material on their private psychedelic reel is woven with fleeting moments of things you might actually remember. Throughout its compositions are voice samples from the Children’s Television Workshop, Sesame Street call-and-responses like “Yeah, that’s right! …. Orange!” on “Aquarius,” or nods to documentaries by the National Film Board of Canada, from which they took their name (as well as track title references, such as “Pete Standing Alone,” a reference to a documentary about a First Nations Albertan attempting to keep his people’s traditions alive in a rapidly modernizing world). They employ reel-to-reel tapes in addition to samplers, and were heavily inspired by the woozy moogscapes of Canadian composer Alain Clavier, whose signature sound scored TV spots for Parks Canada in the early 1980s. Occasionally you might even catch the squawk of a nearby bird, accidentally caught on tape but kept to preserve the uncanny safari of it all.

Pieces of Music Has the Right to Children scan as permutations of more genre-specific techno or IDM, particularly in its first half, in the more rhythmic exercises of “An Eagle In Your Mind” or “Telephasic Workshop.” But even these moments are less defined by BPMs than a more textural approach, their sputtering beats underlining something more curious and otherworldly. The whole of the album is awash in chrominance signals and VHS static, complete with adverts for attorneys captured because you didn’t hit the pause button fast enough.

More often, however, Boards of Canada set their sequencers to the rhythm of the heart, favoring a kind of dopamine psychedelia filtered through faded soft-focus nostalgia. Standout “Roygbiv” is childlike, warm, casting aside more explicit electronic reference points in favor of ’70s-era pop, while “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” gently twinkles with softly melancholy keys, somber but wistful in its disintegrating-dandelion arpeggios. They find a more physical manifestation of funk in “Aquarius,” LSD time-travel vibrations in “Rue the Whirl” and close-encounters strut on “Smokes Quantity.” It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that this album found an audience outside of the plugged-in electronica crowd, becoming a favorite with stoners for reasons that probably don’t need an explanation.

There’s a playful sense of mischief in Boards of Canada’s disorientation which on subsequent recordings took detours through cult recruitment on In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country and more devilish incantations on 2002’s Geogaddi. The reference points on Music Has the Right to Children are less sinister, but still play with our own cognition. They invoke familiar sounds and textures in ways that feel a little off, as if we’re seeing our own memories fade in real time. Even the album’s cover art—an altered photograph from an actual family vacation to Banff, Canada, faces blanked out and tinted in green—feels eerie in spite of its relative innocence.

As I revisit the album 25 years later—as I have regularly in the intervening years—that strange deja vu of shag, polyester and static remains. But as I hear the smallest details, whether a particular frequency of analog synth tone or muppet-like interjection, it feels less like a mystery to be unraveled than one to find comfort in getting lost in. Music Has the Right to Children is a masterpiece of 20th century electronic music, but it strikes me as deeply, essentially human. You could enter all of its disparate parts, the disembodied voices and Moogs and specific model of Tascam reel, into an AI prompt, and it wouldn’t create something that sounded like this. And it isn’t capable of creating something that feels like this. Because it isn’t capable of feeling.

Music Has the Right to Children felt like it existed outside of our own time when it was released in 1998, evoking the past through hypnotic suggestion of the future. Perhaps after we’ve allowed the illusory promise of a technological futureworld get the better of us, and every remaining artist is just an avatar, this will end up as just the curious artifact that Sandison and Eoin imagined, a relic of a time and place we’re not quite sure we’ve ever been to, but one where we’d like to return.

Boards of Canada - Music has the right to children

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