Lawrence English – Observation of Breath

Posted: 20 September 2021 in Albums
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Hallow Ground – 10th September 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Breathing is important. If this sounds flippant or facetious, well, perhaps it is a little, but there is a more serious undertone. It’s something we do subconsciously, and something we take for granted will just happen as our brain keeps the bellows pumping. We only really notice breathing when something disrupts it, it becomes laboured, or we’ve exercised hard.

And yet the importance and benefits of controlled breathing as part of meditation, for managing anxiety, and for dealing with panic attacks is widely documented and promoted. But even for those who have been taught the techniques, how often do we remember to deploy them at moments of peak crisis? Moreover, beyond those specific settings, breathing properly is something that’s chronically neglected as we slouch over our keyboards, taking short, shallow breaths that fail to fully expand the lungs and oxygenate the blood stream.

The ever-innovative and ever-intriguing Lawrence English’s Hallow Ground debut finds the composer working ‘exclusively with an organ for four compositions that are exercises in »maximal minimalism,« as their creator himself notes in a nod to Charlemagne Palestine, who coined this term.’ The liner notes explain further that ‘While it seems somewhat fitting that those four pieces based on a steady flow of air were conceived and recorded in a situation of accelerated standstill caused by a respiratory disease, the Room40 founder is not so much concerned with capturing the zeitgeist than rather incorporating the spirit of time itself. »It is a record about presence and patience,«’.

Patience is indeed required when listening to Observation of Breath. It stands to reason that there is a concerted focus on elongated, quivering drones, and the first of the four pieces, the ten-minute ‘The Torso’, with its dank, dark rumblings and extraneous interference carries sinister allusions, particularly when reflected upon in context of the album’s cover art. The torso may well house the lungs, the system of breathing, but all too often finds reference in stories of murder and dismemberment, and we’ve all wanted to strip off our own skin at some point, right?

The theme continues its trajectory in the titles of ‘A Binding’ and ‘A Twist’ which follow. These are short pieces, both sparse, droning works that are overtly organ, with the latter in particular taking the form of a gloomy funereal church recital. There’s nothing like a funeral to make you contemplate your breaths, and to consider how many you may have left in your body. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we ignore and avoid thinking about breathing: the moment we notice it, be it short or irregular, we worry, in the same way as we panic about palpitations. To become cognisant is likely to observe an irregularity, a difficulty, in a most fundamental function, and rightly or wrongly, doing so reminds us of our mortality. We hate to be reminded of our mortality: it terrifies us half to death. The irony.

In context, the album’s finale, the twenty-minute title track, which occupies the entirety of the album’s second side, on which all elements of the previous three compositions coalesce and distil into something monumental and epic. Not a lot happens: it’s simply a quavering continuum of sound that undulates and eddies slowly, unfalteringly, less like a stream than a crawling flow of larva. But to go with the flow is to fully engage with the album and its slow-shifting textures. It’s perhaps around halfway through ‘Observation of Breath’ that I finally realise I am becoming aware of my breathing at last. Conscious, I slow it, inhale to full expansion through the nose, hold, then equally slowly release out through the mouth.

Observation of Breath is a well-realised exploration of expansive territory in altogether smaller detail, and one that offers more the more you allow it to become a backdrop.

AA

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