Song from a Black House

We’ve got a lot of time for Paul Baran, the modern composer whose work has always posed challenging questions about contemporary society (especially UK society), a verdict which rests on two great releases for the Swedish label Fangbomb – Panoptic (2009) and The Other (2014). Now here he is as one half of The Cray Twins, performing with Gordon Kennedy, the fellow who contributed much to both the above albums (credited with drum programming, though I’m sure it goes much deeper than that). The Pier (FANGBOMB FB025) is ten pieces of highly ambiguous dark ambient music, unleashed to varying degrees of intensity – pitched to raise just the right degree of alarm, tension, or just plain existential doubt in the listener. On first spin, I’d have to say it’s far less varied than Baran’s previous work, and surface interventions such as found sounds and voices are far less noticeable (though they are in evidence). It’s also slightly less distinctive, more anonymised, perhaps on purpose. The delight in subverting the mechanics of composition so apparent in the previous works is conspicuously absent here. The music just blends seamlessly, with near-blank swathes of sounds just hanging there in an expressionless fashion, almost defying the listener to make sense of them.

Both Panoptic and The Other exhibited a heavy dependency on the work of other musicians, contributions which would then be subjected to near-ruthless reprocessing and cutting up, as Baran did his best to stamp his own identity and agenda on the original performances, diverting their directions in his favour, co-opting the sounds, colonising the work. To some extent The Cray Twins do similar, in that a number of collaborators are embedded in the fabric of The Pier, including the avant-saxophonist Lucio Capece; Gerry Kelly, with his field recordings; the voice of Nicky Miller; the clarinet of Tuomas Ollikainen; the saxophone of Ken Vandermark. That he is credited with playing a ‘mutant saxophone’ on his track may clue you in to the vaguely disturbing and radical nature of Cray Twins’ work. BJ Nilsen also appears, remixing one track. Jos Smolders contributes further field recordings on another. Yet somehow, none of these individual voices are allowed to stand out in any way; the album remains all of a piece, posing one dark riddle after another, shaking its head sadly at the state of the world.

The Pier is something to do with going out too far, with attempting to reach the edge of the world and sailing off into the void. Baran and Kennedy propose to probe the “limit of human extent” and find the sweet spot beyond which “space opens up to the unknown, the unheard”. I’d imagine they have spent a long time in the studio working with various elaborate set-ups, which probably involve computers, cables, microphones, recording devices; a long chain of dependencies. They now believe that these “audio systems” they work with are equivalent to human systems, a challenging view which is vaguely alluded to in the press notes. I’d love to know more about what they mean. Any person’s life today is also a long chain of dependencies. But some of them are good dependencies; friends, family, the community, work, play, art. Perhaps Cray Twins are interested in other “systems”, including political and economic circumstances, which tend to involve dark forces and larger unknowns, operating well beyond our control. I am speculating now, but having interviewed Baran by email I have some inkling of his predispositions. If The Pier is indeed setting out to find the weak links, the point at which these systems begin to break down, that is a very intriguing proposition. That aim may not always be fully realised by the doomy abstract music on offer here, but it has resulted in a suitable soundtrack for the questing brain to ponder such imponderables.

I like the subtly disquieting cover photograph. It seems to show the contents of a house (including the kitchen sink) leaking out into the garden, a space which is so open it’s becoming the entire countryside. And there’s an odd visual glitch in the middle of the image, a reflection of something in glass that should not be there by rights. It could almost be a lost still from Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Or a very English take on the back cover image of Trout Mask Replica. From 24th March 2016.