Cian: Strain Studies

by Bret Schneider


Strain Studies is something like a series of formal experiments or études in a post-Autechrian style. That is to say, abstract, playful, and alienated electronic music that references only itself. As such it distills some of the best aspects of electronic music that curiously synthesize both playfulness and work, open curiosity and analytic design. What we hear is probably modular synth play, but it has a dynamism and hard-edge sensibility that is unusual for a genre of music too often interested in cheap mysticism or monotonous cosmic repetition. Strain Studies is much more rigorous and less passive than such, not unlike the ‘sketches’ of Florian Hecker’s early PV Trecks, or like Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Occlusions that itself strained towards complete unpredictability. Strain Studies indeed sounds strained and tense, definitely not easy listening. But, at the same time, it seems to be verging on a complete and lively spontaneity. This is not to say random, however. To some ears the album may indeed feel like a spontaneity itself, unprecedented and wild. At times it even has that important quality lacking in avant-garde music: humor. Not as in comedy with conceptual statements about society, but the type of humor sound can have when the listener has no clue what they’re listening to; sounds that protest against what is conceptually acceptable or canonized. Like much interesting art (regardless of medium) there seems to be a system implemented, but a highly idiosyncratic and inexplicable one. No sooner does a system announce itself—and nothing but itself—than it is undermined by its inability to clarify itself. As such, Strain Studies is an example of how difficult music has become so purely technical that it is almost impossible to convey any meaning beyond technique in the listening experience. The result is that the Strain Studies are focused works that develop their own vernacular, and whose free play is the result of minimizing the means of its composition in order to draw attention to this phenomena.

In terms of feel, the album implements an industrial timbre, but has a playfulness unusual for that palette, a tension that proves fruitful. The opening study accelerates, as if announcing the album, but stalls, starts again, and repeats trying to start. This recursive composition is a part of the strain study and catches on an interest in permutations endemic to recent electronic music, and its (probably unintentional) redundancy makes fun with the motif. "Sequia" is the closest we get to anything like a beat or metre, whereas "Gira y Desvanace" is the exception to the previously mentioned lack of interest in kosmiche. Perhaps the strain procedure, whatever that may be, is applied to that palette, but it seems inessential.  

'Torsion' is where things get interesting. It tends towards a glitch aesthetic, with hiccuping, erratic bursts of noise and a grain type delay that mangles the ‘process’ into a tailing cloud of atomized reverb. It’s not unlike Autechre’s "Osla for n" in feel. "Esgrima" implements something akin to a melody, and likewise has an Autechrian feel to it in the best of ways, in that it does not shy away from ambiguous tonal phrases—not really atonal but not really tonal in any traditional way. It’s not noise, but not cloying post-classical melody either, and it definitely isn’t structured for any club music. Currently, there’s no real place for tonality that is not used for any overt ideological position. As in some other electronic music, ambiguous, almost unintended tonality is important because it seems to be byproduct of a different process. There’s no beat anchoring the phrase composed of bouncing (saw?) waves that recurse through a simple atonal-ish motif, and the particular strength here compared to other recent electronic tonality is that tonality isn’t buried in effects or deconstructed, but remains inchoately constructed. Like the rest of the album the primary material is enshrouded in complicated delays that always tend to fragment into the distance. This is mostly linear, but as in "Torsion", the delays, sounding like granular synthesis of some sort, come into the foreground and crowd out the primary material. 

"Infeccion" is an improvisitory, free-associative workout of grey impulses and is highly expressive, of a piece with "Torsion" and one of the best moments in the album. "Teorria de la tension" is an examination of bleeps and bloops, resonant impulses perhaps, that glide up and down the pitch spectrum. They accumulate, spread out, accumulate, and slow down. This piece is the one that exemplifies the album’s interest in organizing time, and the pointillism seems to articulate it in in a focused way. Finally, "Hominidos" closes the album with a metallic drone that has a polyphony of noise that saturates the listening space in a rich, compelling timbre that is altogether unique. Intentionally or not, there’s much to learn from the Strain Studies, and it’s apparent how such experiments might open up new directions in contemporary electronic music. Overall the Strain Studies bring to fruition a dormant musical sensibility that began in the late 90s/early 00s with the Mego artists or ‘glitch’, but because it isn’t tied to commenting on ‘media', it is now free to comment only on it's own electronic music techniques by thoroughly playing with them. 

                  Close-up of cover from Strain Studies

                  Close-up of cover from Strain Studies