Marc Baron has entirely remade himself as a musician over the last few years. Once an improvising saxophonist, his uncompromising 2012 solo album ∩ caught him at what must have been the end of a transitional period. A resolutely abstract and confrontational work, it alternated uneasy silences with tones played on both sax and electronics, adding incidental noises of mostly uncertain origin. Minimal and unsettling, it could not easily be described as saxophone music of any sort, so it’s not entirely surprising that Baron has now given up the instrument. His latest album Hidden Tapes is a work of tape collage, assembling found cassette tapes, movie excerpts, and bits of sampled classical music into a mysterious, constantly evolving patchwork.
Despite the abandonment of the saxophone, the artist behind ∩ is recognizable in the new album’s challenging qualities, in its refusal to cohere to the expected or the familiar. It is elusive, intriguing work, the kind of music where the density and seeming lushness of the sound world invite the listener to explore its depths, but without the promise of any easy paths through the dark labyrinths within.
Hidden Tapes encourages certain readings on its surface only to frustrate them upon closer inspection. It’s extremely tempting, for example, to read the album in terms of nostalgia, a pat association for any music assembled from old cassettes. Everything from the method of construction to the album title to the track titles (mostly ranges of years, presumably describing the breadth of material collaged together for each track) points towards a certain familiar narrative, towards sound bites about nostalgia and decaying tapes and loss.
And yet Baron’s actual music does little to accommodate those ideas. If there’s nostalgia here, it is difficult to access. If the album is saying something about memory and cassette tapes, like so many superficially similar past albums in this lineage, it’s unclear what that something is. Baron’s music is not sentimental, nor does it provide accessible hooks. Tape music is often narrative, but Baron intentionally obfuscates the narrative. The emotions evoked by this music – and it is, despite its difficulty, often quite resonant – are evanescent.
Arguably the album’s signature moment appears on the fourth track, “2013 – A Happy Summer With Children,” the title of which establishes expectations that Baron then declines to fulfill. The track opens with tiny crackles and rustling noises amidst a droney soundscape. A warm, quasi-melodic ambient passage struggles to emerge from the glitchy background but is several times cut off or dissolved in encroaching static. When the beautiful drone finally does break loose, it’s one of the most conventionally emotional sequences on the entire album, exactly the kind of bittersweet, evocative music that one would expect from a nostalgia-tinged tape piece about children. Tellingly, it plays for only a few seconds unimpeded before Baron quickly hits stop, cutting off the catharsis. This is followed by the telltale clicks of tapes being switched out and buttons being depressed as a new tape is put in the deck, and when Baron next hits play, the listener is assailed with garbled voices, sped-up drums, and blasts of static.
Baron continually prevents this music from communicating in direct, openly emotional ways. In the second half of the track, the sounds of children playing and laughing can be heard, but they are distant, swathed in fog, hidden beneath waves of fuzz and distortion. The double-exposed, gloomy photographs on the CD sleeve are perfect visual accompaniments for this deliberately opaque aesthetic.
Even that much of a glimpse of the tapes’ more concrete contents is rare on this disc. Hidden Tapes begins with “1991-2005,” precisely 10 minutes of abstract electronic collage: a musical sample so distorted and distanced it sounds like industrial-techno pounding at a club next door; pulsing synth-like rhythms enveloped by chittering, cut-up tape fragments; beeps and sine tones; waves of tape hiss that sound like running water, or maybe vice versa; unidentifiable clicks and metallic sounds. The occasional voice, heard only as an isolated syllable or a distant, echoey transmission in which words are unintelligible, is startling, a surprising reminder of the music’s sources. Gradually, the other elements fall away and all that’s left is a barebones melody, on a piano or synth, presumably sampled from somewhere: just a few spacious notes, very slow and mournful. Soon, even that fades beneath an even more stripped-down bass tone.
The second track, “2010-2012,” opens with a snatch of garbled singing before low-key rustles accumulate into a dense, fast-paced stew of heavily processed sounds. Three minutes in, Baron presses a button with an audible click – the album was made entirely on analog gear, and the mechanical processes involved are frequently part of the music – and unleashes a stream of high-pitched tones that recall, in their ear-tickling abrasiveness, the controlled microphone feedback of certain harsh noise acts. Throughout, the sound is thickly layered and never static, with individual tones weaving around one another. Together, these first two tracks present a dense and seemingly impenetrable wall of noise separating the listener from the source material; rather than delving into the real-world resonances of the tapes he’s working with, Baron obscures the raw sounds to such a degree that the underlying voices and music are only rarely heard for seconds at a time.
A notable exception is the four-minute central track, “Interlude (Romania To Paris),” which features a slowed-down voice for most of its length, speaking over glitchy noise, throbbing bass pulses, and some clips of what sound like classically oriented singing (the Potlatch site lists “liturgical” song as one of Baron’s sources). The effect is eerie and narrative in a way that the album otherwise mostly avoids. It reminds me of Coil’s “Things Happen” in its sense of difficult-to-articulate menace, although here the voice is speaking in a language I don’t understand, and the warped processing further abstracts the story, if there indeed is one.
The album’s final track, “1965-2013,” also hints at more of a narrative quality. The album gradually shifts – just slightly – in this direction after the nigh-impenetrable abstraction of the opening two tracks. Even the track timings hint at a very minor slippage in Baron’s stoical facade. He’s always favored exact timings: each track on both of his previous solo albums was exactly seven minutes long. The first four tracks here have times rounded to the minute as well – ten, eight, four, ten again. The unnatural precision of these timings is a product of Baron’s tight control over his materials. It’s a formal quirk he shares with Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet, the most obvious reference points for this album in many other ways as well. Tracks don’t just end when they naturally should, even if it means letting 20 seconds of silence tick by while waiting for the next increment to arrive. And yet this final piece lasts two seconds shy of eight minutes, just small enough of a difference to make one doubt it, to wonder if it’s a quirk of the pressing or the listener’s music player, rather than an intended self-subversion of the artist’s formal rigor.
In any event, the track opens with 15 seconds of guitar jamming with enthusiastic audience cheering (perhaps from 1965 if the track title is to be believed), quickly cut off and replaced with a plodding rhythmic drone, dense and lugubrious. Towards the middle of the track, the drone subsides to a dull bassy throb, and there are sounds of someone puttering around, opening and closing a creaky door and doing other little tasks. A more aggressive electronic passage follows, and then towards the end of the piece, more or less unintelligible voices are juxtaposed with a haunting segment that sounds like some kind of musical/melodic material being eaten up by static and decay.
Once again, Baron seems to introduce a hint of narrative, evoking intense emotions, but everything is kept at a distance, unclear, unrevealing. The guitar snippet that opens this track is the most untouched and human sample on the whole album, and yet its meaning is unclear: if the date in the track title is to be believed, Baron is too young for the year to mean anything to him directly, so is the tape of a relative, maybe a parent? Or were the tapes, including that fragment, actually found at random and thus don’t have any personal meaning to the artist at all?
Such questions are a big part of the album’s impact. There’s mystery here, and reticence as well, the same reticence heard on Baron’s previous conceptual saxophone pieces, ∩ and Une fois, chaque fois. Like those albums, Hidden Tapes is obviously a thoughtful, carefully considered piece of work. But it’s also a work that resists attempts to unpack or overthink its multilayered sounds. Baron, refreshingly, doesn’t seem to want his music pinned down to any one meaning. He doesn’t (at least as far as I’ve seen) spell out his concepts, nor does he rely on trite emotional signifiers, but the result, somehow, is music that’s both intellectually stimulating and deeply affective.
Available from Potlatch.