Boards of Canada's Music Has the Right to Children, 20 Years on
As Boards of Canada's debut album turns 20, we take a closer look at how Music Has the Right to Children is more relevant now than ever before
Music Has the Right to Children arrived in 1998 with all of the prerequisites necessary to become a cult favourite. It was unique and boundary-pushing in the way it utilised found sound and vintage synthesisers, though it had enough antecedents to make it appear familiar. It used electronic music simply as a creative jumping-off point, refusing to spoon-feed its audience, instead rewarding repeated and serious listens with its layered approach. And the band behind it all came with a mysterious back-story, complete with a “secret” collective squirrelled away in the Scottish wilderness. With this album, Boards of Canada's brotherly duo warmed up the chilly sheen of Aphex Twin and Autechre, humanised Brian Eno's abstract compositions and even added a touch of jocularity to a typically humourless scene. Their hazy tones and textures (created through a mixture of analog and digital synthesisers) were a welcome respite from the emphatic futurism of contemporary electronic music.
Prior to this, Boards of Canada had only released a couple of EPs and a handful of 7” singles. In the pre-internet age of the mid-90s (or at least pre-ubiquitous internet age), this made them a difficult prospect to track down, especially as they were detached from a tastemaking city/scene and had no interest in live performance. So when MHtRtC appeared on the Warp roster in April 1998 it was immediately exposed to a far greater audience than the duo had previously enjoyed. Despite being outside of the mainstream (and even sometimes actively antagonistic towards it), devotees of the influential label soon took up the band with great enthusiasm.
There were discussions on proto- internet forums, rare and early material was unearthed and traded (even in 1995/96 a first pressing of Twoism could set you back almost a grand) and Boards of Canada were coveted like a secret only those in the know were worthy of. However, with the increased globalisation of music that came about at the turn of the century, the secret was soon out and by the time of their second album, Geogaddi, it was one of the most anticipated releases of the decade.
But whatever happened next, the collection of songs on MHtRtC remains a remarkable time capsule; a sound that is the logical progression of the tinkering, sample-based electronica that the '90s all but perfected, but that can evoke nostalgic feelings regardless of when you came of age. The album is most commonly associated with childhood – its name, cover and song titles hint towards this – but, really, each individual listener is going to reach their own conclusions because the music contained within is so personal and evocative, and it must be appreciated on its own terms as it refuses to fit any pre-conceived mould you might wish to force upon it.
The use of forgotten and obscure samples makes the album difficult to pin down, but adds to its mystery and intrigue. Much like the low-budget educational films made by the National Film Board of Canada (the Canada Vignettes) from which the duo took their name, it's not necessarily the specific content that's important, but rather the feeling it evokes and, on top of that, the way those feelings are remembered.
Music Has the Right to Children is not interested in a simple, rose-tinted re-hashing of the past. Memories are fascinating things; they're malleable, unreliable and although we may think that we're tethered to our past through concrete recollections, the truth is that over time our memories become warped and inconsistent, combined with the media we consume, the people we surround ourselves with and the stories we either hear or invent and then choose to stitch into our own timeline (it's hard to imagine The Caretaker's current exercises on dementia via sample-based composition without this album). That is not to say that people are just making up their past as they go along (this isn't a cynical exercise or an attempt to politicise), but being unsure of your memories and how that feeling affects you is a part of growing up, and something that is captured with great precision and care across the breadth of this album.
One of the most tangible ways in which the theme of childhood manifests are the numerous samples of spliced and looped voices (The Color of the Fire and Aquarius both use old Sesame Street clips). However, these “cheery” moments are placed within a greater context of innocence beyond simple childhood naivety. References to First Nations tribes and Cree Indians (Pete Standing Alone, Kaini Industries) sprinkle elements of betrayal and inequality throughout the record, demonstrating a corruption of innocence.
The Color of the Fire may contain Sesame Street samples but it's also a reference to a friend's psychedelic experience, hinting at attempts to manipulate or alter consciousness. This ties neatly with the way that memories can be corrupted through our own misremembering, intentional or otherwise, in our attempt to impose a clear and logical narrative on ourselves. Boards of Canada aren't interested in such false clarity, and we shouldn't be either.
There is a lot of speech across the album, but it's rarely intelligible (the percussion on An Eagle in Your Mind was made entirely from samples of Michael Sandison's girlfriend's voice) and usually far-away, pitch shifted (Telephasic Workshop), distorted (Happy Cycling's eerie choir, featured as a bonus track on the U.S. Matador release, and later on the 2004 Warp re-release) or seemingly mindless (Rue the Whirl, Aquarius). Olson is simply the name of a family friend and Roygbiv is a childhood mnemonic device for remembering the colours of the rainbow. All of this coheres to create a singular mood and flavour. There's a sense of kinship within a group, a place, but also a pervading sense that things may not be quite as straightforward as they appear.
The sun-faded cover photo – supposedly taken in Banff Springs, Alberta, Canada – shows a blurry, faceless family on holiday in front of a mountain (in the 1970s, if the flared trousers are anything to go by). What are we to make of this? Who are these people? What connection, if any, do they have to this band, this music? It's easy to imagine that they're part of the template of blank nostalgia that the album has come to represent, the anonymous and collective nature of nostalgia, but that does a disservice to their individuality. Though they may be unnamed and untraceable, they provide a fleeting glimpse into a genuine memory. It may be faded and indistinct, but it's a catalyst, a starting point to a story, a stimulus to further exploration, an idea that the album dredges up time and time again.
Given the location of the group's personal studio, it's no surprise that a sense of the pastoral plays a role in this album. But more than the pieces of trivia that abound about the isolated recording process (the dislocated voices on Turquoise Hexagon Sun or the spontaneous birds on Rue the Whirl), the location itself has entered into the somewhat mysterious history of the band.
The Hexagon Sun collective was a loosely defined group of artists and musicians that congregated in the Pentland Hills and MHtRtC was its defining output. There was also the fact that the duo kept their brotherhood a secret until the early 2000s and all the references to numbers (Aquarius), shapes (Triangles & Rhombuses, and all the hexagons), their own previous records (Bocuma) and label (Sixtyten). These are peppered throughout the album, creating a scavenger hunt that only the most dedicated fan is going to be able to parse out (of particular note is the backmasked Jeff Lynne interview on Happy Cycling, in which he's actually talking about backmasking and its devilish connotations). Suffice to say: this thing has layers.
Due to the group's low profile and their music's timeless nature, it is ripe for rediscovery for those who missed it the first time or perhaps weren't even born in 1998. The enduring appeal of this brand of electronic music seems unlikely to wane any time soon, as evidenced by BoC's own 2015 'comeback' Tomorrow's Harvest, as well as the way that electronic sounds have embedded themselves so deeply into today's pop, rock and hip-hop. I told a friend that I was writing a retrospective article on Music Has the Right to Children and asked if he had any thoughts on the album. He replied that he wasn't the best person to ask as he'd discovered the album fairly recently (in his early 30s), but that in his opinion it was “the most intricate and blissfully spellbinding thing to come out of Scotland since Colin Hendry's mullet.” Fair enough.
Boards of Canada's Music Has the Right to Children was released on 20 Apr, 1998 via Warp/Matador
Boards of Canada's High Scores EP will be reimagined and performed by s t a r g a z e as part of Edinburgh International Festival's Light on the Shore series at Leith Theatre, Edinburgh, 25 Aug