Elizabeth A. Baker’s Dreamworld Turns Mercurial on “Chaotic Neutral”

The Honourable Elizabeth A. Baker does not want to tell you what it’s all about. In fact, she would probably prefer to ask you, once you’ve had a chance to listen deeply to her music. Baker’s creative zone is a space where the narrative details of any work of art are totally subjective. She maintains that the varying cultural norms, life experiences, and even different physicalities and sense capabilities that listeners bring to her work make each one’s experience unique. What it’s about, therefore, is as diverse as Baker’s audience; a single work has the potential for limitless storytelling.

Baker’s most recent collection, now available on Bandcamp under the title Chaotic Neutral, conjures mercurial blossoms from this perspective. The minimal liner notes describe the album as “non-narrative sounds from the evolving spaceship,” and suggest only that “a sound doesn’t have to hold human meaning to carry weight and identity.” It is dedicated as “a collection of sounds presented without specific narrative, but with deep appreciation for the unique beauty inherent in each sonic moment.”

Not long ago, on an unrelated quest for passive entertainment, I toppled into a vortex-like internet phenomenon known as “The Backrooms.” The Backrooms is a creepypasta (or horror-themed internet-based urban legend) depicted in YouTube videos that show first-person found footage of bewildered individuals wandering through a nonsensical maze of abandoned, corporate offices. The subtly chaotic architecture of these fantastic spaces suggests that the environment itself may hold some intelligence that poses a danger to the traveler. In the most notable examples, nothing happens beyond the viewer’s interaction with the space. It presents itself as both familiar and apparently without purpose or meaning, which, for most people, makes it inherently scary.

Elizabeth A. Baker–Photo courtesy of the artist

This is not to suggest that Baker’s work is unsettling (despite being dreamlike), but the broader pop-culture phenomenon at work here is the contemporary reimagining of a liminal space. For me, Baker’s work is the very epitome of this mode of liminality. In it, we find the tangible and intangible working in chorus, drawing the listener toward a moment of realization that never quite arrives. Instead, we are left to navigate a perpetual transition between one state of being and another, free to choose our own outcome. The album’s title is additionally a direct reference to the once infamous and now exceedingly popular role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. In the game, chaotic-neutral characters are aligned only with their own whims, and value personal freedom as paramount. This alignment is often chosen by bards, a class of character in D&D that uses music and speech to craft powerful magic.

In Baker’s universe, we hear toy pianos, Speak & Spells, human voices, and industrial electronic tones all suspended within a spacious, uncluttered environment beckoning the listener to explore its depths. There are periods awash with ambient tones that might instill dread pitted against dazzling moments of epiphany and transformation.

The opening track, Unraveling Cosmic Threads, sparkles to life with retro fervor as rapid arpeggios are consumed by a weighty, plodding pulse overwrought with bass. Variations on this theme return twice more and then dissipate into a five-minute drone. Human Resources replicates this energy with greater ambiance; a heartbeat pulse remains constant over nine of the track’s near-eleven minutes before it, too, winds down into a gentle, droning conclusion.

Elizabeth A. Baker--Photo by Charlotte Suarez

Elizabeth A. Baker–Photo by Charlotte Suarez

The album’s central cuts, Internal Fantasies & Other Disconnection Coping Mechanisms and It Doesn’t Need to Be Complex, move from the warm pulsations of the previous works into a more expansive, crystalline world. The former establishes its liminality with eerie nostalgia; a strange cantus firmus is plucked out on a toy piano while a Speak & Spell rambles thoughtlessly in the distance. The latter piece is divided into equal halves in which a twinkling, ambient texture is stated and then repeated as a sort of mutated variation, bringing to mind an image reflected in a pool, disrupted by ripples and waves.

Niche of Everything opens with what sounds like human breath against a backdrop of summertime katydids and singing insects. A jagged, industrial droning then takes over, and deep, filtered tones emerge. Distant woodblocks and gongs may be heard wrapped up in swooshing sounds suggesting wind. Indistinct vocalizations mutated by electronic processing repeat throughout, ever hinting at meaning. Finally, I Am Not Perfect, Neither Are You opens in the same sonic universe before wrapping the listener in an undulating, ocean-like current that ebbs and flows like the tide. Disembodied voices speak aloud the track’s title before it closes on a simple, unresolved harmony.

Baker has been hailed as her generation’s Pauline Oliveros and, indeed, I echo this sentiment. On Chaotic Neutral, Baker works her magic as bard and storyteller on levels deeper than mere words can accomplish. With little commentary, the very nature of listening is presented and examined from within her beautifully crafted and expertly produced sonic world.

 

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.


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