On ‘Playground In A Lake’, Clark subverts his new-found classical licks with trademark dark electronic tricks. The resulting brew finds him treading fresh musical ground

“It’s not like I’m jettisoning electronic music,” says Christopher Clark, talking about his surprising shift in direction. “I love it. The novelty is still thrilling, but there’s always been this tension in my work between innovation and tradition.”

Over the last 20 years, Clark has generated an extensive catalogue of material – records that mix unearthly production and techno spikiness with playful ideas and disarmingly emotional shoegaze melodies, mostly released via Warp and his own Throttle imprint. His latest offering, ‘Playground In A Lake’, for esteemed label Deutsche Grammophon, marks a new chapter and a significant change in style.

While Clark is equally adept at composing for film (including soundtracks for the movie ‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ and the TV series ‘The Last Panthers’) and rave-geared dancefloor behemoths (2019’s ‘Legacy Pet’), ‘Playground In A Lake’ finds him pivoting to acoustic instruments, orchestral arrangements and classical music. Previous projects, like his 2019 live performance of a Bach-inspired composition at the Royal Albert Hall, may have signposted this ambition, but the new album is Clark’s most overt embrace of the genre yet. The switch to classical label Deutsche Grammophon is simply the cementing of a relationship that’s been there for some time.

“It happened organically,” explains Clark. “I’ve been friends with their A&R guy, Christian Badzura, for around six years. He really liked ‘The Last Panthers’. I did this Max Richter remix, and he bagged it for me – he was really interested in signing me. He’s a shit-hot pianist and I’ve learnt quite a lot watching him play, which makes it nicer taking his feedback. I still have a relationship with Warp, but this album was something Deutsche Grammophon headhunted me on.”

Badzura hails it as “a record long in the making… an astonishing hybrid of virtuoso electronica and effortless, traditional classical composition. It’s fragile, brutally honest – a musical documentary that Popol Vuh could have accompanied.”

‘Playground In A Lake’ messes with the conventions of classical, merging it with dark and otherworldly electronics to create something far removed from the staid and polite realm often inhabited by modern-day composers. Although the track ‘Lambent Rag’ has a circuitous piano figure that subtly shifts between tones, it builds towards a conclusion with a surging wall of electronic bass and effects. Elsewhere, ‘Entropy Polychord’ has massed strings swimming in a sea of reverb before an evil synth note emerges from the mist.

It’s the sound of an artist blending two discrete disciplines in a way that feels genuinely new, applying a techno toolset to this most highbrow of art forms.

“I still feel I’m an outsider because I’ve had no classical education,” says Clark. “I don’t feel native to that world, which has meant I’ve pushed myself really hard. I always couch what I do in terms of it being more like twisted folk. The string arrangements are similar to something you might hear on an early Nick Drake or Scott Walker record, or by classical composers such as Béla Bartók who did more folky weird shit. I tend to gravitate towards it.”

Clark’s relationship with classical has always been somewhat ambivalent. As a child he studied violin, but found the musical discipline intimidating. He’s come to appreciate it more over the years and has taught himself to read and write scores. Still, he prefers to maintain a certain distance.

“Classical is a bit austere and it’s quite imposing,” he says. “There’s a lot I don’t like about it – so it’s just a case of filtering that out, taking what you do like and sticking to your guns.”

The riffs, loops and skewed logic that pervade techno production have instead come to inform how Clark approaches arranging strings or piano pieces – although he does acknowledge you have to keep inside the lines to a certain extent.

“That’s the great thing about not having been through the institution,” he explains. “Over the years, I’ve built up friendships with classical musicians who are really open-minded, so I can say to them, ‘I want you to make your viola sound like a synth – play it like it’s robotic.’ I don’t want expression. I don’t want feeling. But you can’t just walk into their world. You do need to gain people’s trust by showing them you can notate and speak their language as well. It takes time, but it’s so rewarding. That’s the thrill of it.”

Gathering a host of guest performers, ‘Playground In A Lake’ is Clark’s most collaborative work yet, with the strange distinction of being a collective effort at a time of loneliness and lack of contact. Recorded in Berlin and Budapest before lockdown, it features Oliver Coates on cello, Manchester Collective’s Rakhi Singh on violin, Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear on clarinet and Yair Elazar Glotman on contrabass, with backing vocals from Manchester DJ Afrodeutsche, and composer/singer Kieran Brunt.

Later, when the pandemic had taken hold, the voice of 12-year-old choirboy Nathaniel Timoney was recorded remotely via Zoom. On tracks like ‘Small’, Timoney’s pellucid vocals have a haunting quality made all the more desolate by their isolation.

“Initially I was going to have a full choir, but it just felt too reckless,” says Clark. “Now I’m actually glad it happened the way it did as it gave it a real intimacy. Because there’s only one chorister, it lasers in on his performance. He sounds devastated, completely alone. The pandemic affected the recording pragmatically and logistically, and on an emotional level it completely affected the writing. I don’t know what it would have been like without social distancing, but it certainly shaped the bleaker moments on the album.”

photo: eva vermandel

Timoney’s delivery adds a certain remoteness and poignancy to the lyrics. They’re words Clark initially tried to sing himself – “and no one is ever gonna hear that” – but he found they worked far better with the unbroken voice.

“I can’t explain it, other than some of the lyrics are a bit on the nose – in a good way, I hope. There’s a lot of anger. If an adult sang them, they’d sound like a self-righteous moron, but with a kid, you can get away with it. It’s the whole Greta Thunberg thing, where you instantly have sympathy because she’s the person who’s inhabiting this new world we’re fucking up. Having a kid sing really made sense.”

Despite entering the classical domain, Clark was keen for ‘Playground In A Lake’ to be a record of now. Accordingly, there are moments where it’s hard to tell what’s acoustic and what’s electronic. At times, stringed instruments are doused in effects to resemble synths, and vice versa. There’s a patina of deliberate digital degradation in the production, like a coating of rust you’d never hear on another classical album.

“Sometimes even I don’t know what the sound is – I can’t remember if it’s a synth or vocal or string. When I’ve managed to trick myself, it’s a satisfying fusion. And it’s definitely fun disrupting the fabric of expectation. There are bits in ‘Emissary’ where I was sampling riots in Baltimore on my phone, then dialling them straight into the mix. I also chopped my vocal on a tape and did all these hard-disk edits to break the classical purity, and I used some modern techniques that meant it couldn’t have been written in the 1970s.”

For Clark, both the electronic and classical worlds are too often mired in the past, endlessly repeating old tropes while convincing themselves they’re in the vanguard.

“It’s weird. When you start drinking from the cup of classical, you find yourself having these dogmatic thoughts – like ‘This is the real music’– and yet I’m sceptical because I’m from a world of electronics that’s anti-music, in a way. I also find the dogma of electronics is sometimes quite tired. The whole futurism thing feels a bit old, ironically. When people are like, ‘We’re relentlessly pushing forward with the same techno we’ve been making for years’, that doesn’t sit with me either.”

Then there’s the matter of energy consumption. As Clark points out, making sounds with machines is far more harmful to the environment than an orchestral performance will ever be.

“We’re sold this myth of efficiency with electronica,” he says. “But if you think about the infrastructure behind modular synths or a soundsystem, then yeah, it’s cool you can just plug in your laptop and hit play, but consider the carbon footprint behind it all. Now think how many PDFs of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ you could fit on a gigabyte. Classical music and even simple songwriting are so stripped back and efficient.”

The environment and our effect upon it are two of the themes behind ‘Playground In A Lake’. The title could allude to a natural disaster caused by the climate crisis, where the things we once took for granted are submerged under floodwater. There’s a sense of brooding darkness in parts, elsewhere a melancholy suggesting something already lost and left behind. On this level, it feels very much like a work of the moment. When he devised the concept seven years ago, Clark thought it represented the subconscious, but recently it began to resonate with our ecological situation.

“It’s not political like a Billy Bragg record, but I feel it’s very of its time. It captures something. When I came up with the title, it was a slightly solipsistic, wanky thing – the buried subconsciousness of our minds. I didn’t clock that it could have this climate catastrophe element. It feels quite pertinent. It’s a delicate balance. I don’t want it to be a disaster capitalism rant. It’s not just about climate change. It’s more about general existential dread.”

‘Playground In A Lake’ works both as a dystopian epic and a peek beneath the surface layer of our minds. When asked if there was any connection to JG Ballard’s seminal work,‘The Drowned World’, Clark admits to finding the author’s writing hugely affecting.

“‘Drowned World’ is an amazing book. I’ve got it on audio and I sometimes fall asleep to it. Ballard’s novels have such a dry wit. It’s good reading about malefic, apocalyptic scenes, but with the distance from it through his voice. That’s what I want this music to feel like. It’s kind of through a looking glass, where you can touch these nasty emotions but they’re also made enjoyable.”

Another influence on the making of ‘Playground In A Lake’ has been philosophical writing, especially Eugene Thacker’s ‘Infinite Resignation’ and Ernest Becker’s ‘The Denial Of Death’. The latter, Clark explains, speaks of “the feeling of immortality art or music gives us”. It can free us temporarily from the knowledge of our mortality. The playground can be the moments of fleeting joy we experience while the cold water of reality surrounds us.

“Embedding yourself in an aesthetic of your own can make you feel like you’re touching something a bit more eternal. But it’s ultimately an illusion. Humans are very good at creating this fictional realm of permanence, and art can sometimes feel like it inhabits that. But we’re also beings who die, so we’re in a contradiction. Music for me is the only source of relief from the existential threat which has ramped up since Covid.”

Clark grew up in St Albans in Hertfordshire, studied at Bristol University and now lives in Berlin. Since his first release for Warp, 2001’s ‘Clarence Park’, he’s evaded categorisation. For every delicate piano-laden piece like ‘Pleen 1930s’, there’s an abstract and glitch-heavy creation with spiralling, non-linear synth lines like ‘Diesel Raven’.

On 2014’s self-titled album, he sailed closer to techno on tracks like ‘Unfurla’, but they were accompanied by strangely beautiful melodies made more for the head than the feet. ‘Death Peak’ from 2017 continued the weird dance expeditions, with ‘Butterfly Prowler’ packing micro-tuned riffs that burrow into your brain while urging you to move.

Around this time, Clark was developing an aptitude for scoring. His sombre, emotive soundtrack for Balkan crime drama ‘The Last Panthers’ revealed a more filmic side. This has translated to ‘Playground In A Lake’, which feels like it could be the backdrop to some disturbing but thought-provoking sci-fi movie.

In particular, the bone-chilling synth tones of ‘Shut You Down’ are reminiscent of Popol Vuh’s score to Werner Herzog’s ‘Nosferatu The Vampyre’ remake, sounding similarly ghostly and menacing in style.

“Popol Vuh are a huge influence,” agrees Clark. “It’s their folk style, the innocence of their melodies. To me, they haven’t aged. The music they make still has this magnetic quality. It’s very much an inspiration.”

Beyond the new record, Clark already has further soundtracks in the pipeline. But if his work now feels more visual and atmospheric, it’s the storytelling in film he’s moved by, rather than the imagery.

“Even if I’m scoring, I’m more of a words person,” he says. “If the story moves me, the music evolves from that. It needs to come from a place of narrative. In a way, the visuals are less relevant than the emotional grip.”

This expressive element shines through in Christopher Clark’s quietly radical oeuvre. Talking about the underpinning philosophy of ‘Playground In A Lake’, he neatly encapsulates the impetus defining all his works.

“It’s pushing forward, but it’s subtle.”

’Playground In A Lake’ is out on Deutsche Grammophon

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