Music is Math - By Volume

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Music is Math

Boards of Canada's Next Sequence Author: on April 28, 2013
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These past two weeks have been my first living alongside Boards of Canada. No longer the control to an experiment that happened ten odd years ago, I watched them rise again, and until today’s announcement that they would indeed be releasing a new album, I was part of the “action” it meditated: Sitting at my computer watching and waiting, looking for fans to decode the numbers that exist in this unfinished, counter-binary system, and speculating on what it meant for a band to be so brazenly vague and yet so specific at the same time. Since the Record Store Day fake-out (oh sure, there were records, but I experienced the news as a digital phenomenon), fans have been graced with snippets of a numbered code and TV advert hype, both formats feeding us information that has to be listened to. A classic Boards of Canada move if ever there was one; even if I have to write the numbers down and router them into a larger system, I’m still hearing them read out as if my life exists in the sounds.

I hold Boards of Canada as an essential part of my musical DNA, and in turn, they treat music like mathematics. Music is knowledge that precedes our experience, as irreducibly factual as the answer to two plus two. Their music treats the past as intangible, and often more gruesome than I choose to remember, in an attempt to seek what came before it. Childhood cartoons exist with new music wired into their scenes. They get sampled like an infinite number of rigged experiments, imagining what it is to see something for the first time. The campaign and its five-times-slashed sequence is like that; it’s testing us. At first I found that obsession with making us recount and rearrange infuriating. I thought it was working against my understanding, keeping me out of the science like six years of watching LOST; I now realise it’s more affectionate than that, because Boards of Canada treat sounds and numbers like essential siblings. I want new music (need it, maybe?) and so I’ll crack the code.

In fact, what the campaign reminds me of is “Aquarius”, one of the first Boards of Canada pieces I ever heard, and one that taught me how this band breathes sequences. The piece is exponential, pulsating more and more as it goes on, beholden not only to its beat but the numbers being read out in a plus one pattern; twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven, a neutralised voice says, as if counting the song’s age. Towards the end, and acting as a nullifying coda, the numbers start running randomly, as if they’ve been fed into a broken machine. By now I’ve lived this pattern; I dismissed the campaign, and like a clock landing on the next second, I proceeded to fucking lose it, to hold it as an essential, one in a life time event. At the last count, I deigned to shake it off with the foolish optimism written into this site’s mission statement: It’s all about the music, man. How can I say that when all Boards of Canada are doing right now is fucking with numbers?


If it sounds like I’ve mystified Boards of Canada, I apologise. I don’t think of their music as calculating, and I think rumours of their elusiveness have been made to sound malevolent, rather than admirable. If you trace the band back to the first time they revealed themselves as brothers, you’ll find dedicated intentions, a band sweating over the ramifications of a scene they didn’t want to shroud – “we didn’t want to be compared to Orbital”. They didn’t try to send listeners away, or even confuse them; they just had their own terms. The way I accessed this band, to begin with, was trepid, fearful I was going to find my history in one of these confusing albums – but I had to learn to take the journey without alienating them.

In doing research for this article, I looked for ways to get that access, to remember my past with Boards of Canada and what exactly I felt from their music. One particular Youtube video struck me: this video of “Everything You Do is a Balloon”, a track from the elusive Boc Maxima. The video is of course fan-made, as is nearly every reproduction of a Boards of Canada song on the internet. These videos invite an interpretation somewhere between pretty and frightening, and often exist simply to keep their songs in this digital element. It says a lot about the band and how to read them, and proves the fan video is no bad thing, often capturing a band in ways they’d struggle to: Take, too, this interpretation of Deerhunter’s “Agoraphobia”, which tries to reconcile the colour and shape of its downcast psychedelia. The video for “Everything You Do is a Balloon” goes further, looping round on itself, meshing Boards of Canada with another subset of art and giving a typical example of the garbage-media recycling Youtube has revitalised.

I’d never heard “Everything You Do is a Balloon” before, but the synthesis of art in this video intrigued me. The footage is sampled from a bicycle safety movie, but repurposed with Boards of Canada’s sense of drama: The beat kicks in as the cyclists hit the road, and the masks they wear lack exposition, implanted with a terrifying lack of story. Here, they’re just as unsettling as Boards of Canada would want them to be, and the kids wearing them, traversing through the countryside with them over their faces, become sinister. Imagine the fun, but taken out of context, rewired into your brain as if you weren’t clued in. It’s a video that captures the way this band would react to a child humming the words “I love you!” with belief in the word’s purity. It reminds me of how the conversation on “Gyroscope” might have been normal once. Listening to Boards of Canada is like listening to a primitive hip-hop mash-up, its flatness revoked and the rapper’s freewheeling lyrics (here a speaker – any speaker) given a sentimental platform. Only their sentimentality is an upgrade, a new look at the old. We don’t see their eyes cast back as if they’re going there.

The video was chosen to replicate the song. It is grainy, existing out of a long-gone decade, but without its original intentions, it becomes a haunting piece of futurism. Such is “Everything You Do is a Balloon”: The music sounds dated to me now, or maybe it always meant to feel dated, but its imprint isn’t nostalgic. Boards of Canada never reached into the past so they could remember it, but rather treated time fearfully and innately, as another mathematical fact. The past gets brought around again on their music, and that’s what makes them the master of samples. I don’t think, “well shit, I remember that cartoon!” when I listen to Geogaddi, or wonder where they captured certain recordings. I hear another sequence starting. Other times, I hear remnants of an old sequence repeating. That’s what’s frightening about much of Boards of Canada’s music: It crushes our nostalgia, and brings it about over our head for another spin. The smoothness of their pieces is intersected with skittering, relocating samples, to remind us of how things change by staying the same. Listen to “The Devil is in the Details” for this; listen for the endless reappearance of a child wailing, normalised until it becomes tuneful, or the entrenched, modified whispers of a one-sided conversation playing in the background.

Boards of Canada’s attachment to numbers is well-established, but perhaps not entirely understood. They wrote and named a piece “Music is Math”, but more indicative is “A is to B as B is to C”, a track that samples a kids’ educational singsong to further connect music to its a priori mathematics. On this track I count without understanding why, or when counting even starts to exist – the sample just envelopes the track, becomes part of it and then disappears. I’ve always liked this sense of a mystery to Boards of Canada; they are not conversational, and the things they reproduce are never implied one way (except, perhaps, for “One Very Important Thought”, where they break free to make gestures about the music industry). What’s most telling about them might not even be the cryptic campaign trail that built to Tomorrow’s Harvest, but rather the FACT Magazine April Fools’ joke that centred around them this year. It tantalised readers by joking that “although none of the tracks” for their fake album were titled, “the tracklisting is numbered in line with the Fibonacci sequence (meaning, rather oddly, that the album has two discrete songs both sequences as Track 1)”. That joke read its audience smartly, but it also took on a seriousness it could never have known existed, teaching a Boards of Canada philosophy that exists in Geogaddi and Music Has the Right to Children: Not to communicate in numbers, but to live in sequences.

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