Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence English’

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.

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Room40 – 3rd September 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

This is a work that connects the event with the memory of the event, and exists in the space in between the actual and the recollection – and specifically, those things forgotten .

The material was recorded when David Toop and Akio Suzuki visited Australia, where Lawrence English resides, back in 2013. The pair engaged in creating a site-specific work during a residency on Tamborine Mountain, and were joined by Lawrence during the project. The release is accompanied by a book containing text written by Toop at the time documenting the visit.

And English writers, ‘Going back to listen again to these recordings of which I was a part with David and Akio, I was surprised by what elements had stayed with me and what others had slipped into the eternal greying of my mind. I have vivid recollections of listening to a Lyre bird before recording the pieces together at Witches Falls. I remember both Akio and David finding musicality in decaying palm fronds. I remember Akio’s voice, amplified through his Analpos, bouncing off the stones and trees. I remember David’s flute, so quiet in the pitch black of the night forest as to appear like a hushed tone of wind or a distant animal calling. I also remember trying to match my modest hand held electronics with the pulsing and pitching of the insects around me.’

Memory fades and distorts over time; but then again, is Toop’s contemporaneous document entirely factual and without bias? Nothing here now but the recordings… surely we can at least trust the recordings to be pure in their capturing of the event? Of course not: there are no facts, only representations, fragments. Everything is subject to some form of filter, and eyewitness accounts to crimes are notoriously unreliable, even immediately after the fact.

The album contains six tracks, each one a collage of sounds captured in and extracted from their environment to exist in distilled detachment in recording. Context counts, and while the drips and trickles, gurgles and chirps all sound familiar in a ‘natural’ setting, when set apart, things become less clear. You see, with the sounds of othjer / unidentifianblee origin blended in, it’s difficult to determine the origins of any of the individual sounds and they twist and blur together.

It sounds like running rivers and splashing waterfalls, merged with extraneous sounds doused in heavy echo. It sounds like finger-drums. It sounds like chattering primates, agitated parakeets. It sounds like barks and grunts and yammers, reverberating into the humidity. Amidst the drift of the breeze on ‘Night Drive’ a springing sound arrives as if from nowhere. It’s one of those cartoonish, novelty spring sounds. Surely it wasn’t in the original recording? There are strains of awkward, infiltered feedback, notes of a flute trilling and warbling without musical focus, as the notes yodel and wobble, or otherwise simply waver as quavering notes trailing in the air.

Ominous drones hover and hum, tweets hover and howl out into the air. There are extensive passages where there is little of note – that is to say, not lonely little remarkable, but few notes to speak of – and sparse sounds buzz and drawl seemingly endlessly, like the agitated bee sound that vibrates hard during ‘Small Holes in the Sky’. ‘Leaving No Trace’ again sounds like running water and returns to the sounds of wildlife and the jungle.

Set adrift, and with only the sounds to interact with, the listener finds their own memory triggered, perhaps first and foremost by sound association, having no likely connection with the location where the recordings took place. Just as distance in time leads to a slow decay, so layering if interpretation and association also diminish the link to the actual event, leaving only thoughts on thoughts.

A handful or sharp, trilling noises penetrate the bibbling babble, and then there is a stillness, and having awoken in Autumn, as night has fallen, it is indeed Winter already. Breathing Spirit Forms is a quite remarkable document – not of the actual event, but of something approximating it.

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Room40 – RM4143 – 9th July 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

This cassette release’s liner notes are prefaced with an epigraph from Fredric Jameson, one of the preeminent writers on postmodern theory. It reads, ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.’

One of the most profound things about Jameson’s writing is that much of it seems more true and more relevant now, than when it was first published. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism appeared in 1991, with the rather more succinct The Cultural Turn, which collected his writings on postmodernism form 1983-1998 distilling his critique of the era. The present feels like postmodernism on steroids, a relentless blizzard of media, technology and consumption progressing at a pace that evolution simply has no hope of keeping abreast of. The worst spins ever faster, but our bodies and brains aren’t equipped for the environment we’ve created. And it’s capitalism that drives much of the pace, perpetually reinventing, recreating, reselling to milk the market dry. And any suggestion that the pandemic would cause a rethink is already proving to have bene but wishful thinking. Capitalism has made off the situation, even when high-street retail and hospitality has been dying, and now the race is on to get everyone back to work, back to the office, and to supply those ever-growing demands.

This, then, is part of the context for Robert Gerard Pietrusko’s new album, and the press release provides a more granular and specific level of context, explaining how ‘On Elegyia, Robert Gerard Pietrusko reflects on notions of accumulation and decay, calling specifically on his memories of the demise of the Soviet Union. The sudden collapse of the USSR shocked the world and in that moment came an intense and wholesale reveal, that spoke to the impermanence of all political and social structures, no matter how fixed they might appear. Using this as a compositional metaphor, Pietrusko creates an edition of muted sonics, rich saturation and submerged low energies.’

The album and the compositions it contains are highly structured, ‘based on five piano motifs that are repeated with constant variation and extrapolation across the album’s nine tracks. In structure, harmony, and timbre each piece attempts to capture the contradictory condition of a macro-level stasis versus a tumultuous interior, rigorous movement but no progression, and a threat of its own undoing’.

Indeed, the greatest threat to capitalism is always capitalism itself, and it’s the endless recycling and regurgitation of ideas that keeps it alive: each revival is a reimagining of the past that exploits the ache of nostalgia, which grows ever stronger the worse the present becomes.

And so it is that Elegyia mourns the passing of the past through its subtly-sequenced movements of droning ambience and slow-turning mellifluous aural abstractions. The nine-minute ‘Perishing Red Skies’ sets the tone and is formed from slow-turning waves and the most gradual of movements. The motifs are often buried beneath broad washes of sound, and twist and warp further out of shape as the album progresses – but they are, breaking through the waves, at times discernible, bobbing around in eddying flows. Sometimes, the feel is quite light-hearted – but then, at others, it feels vaguely threatening, while at others simply contemplative. How I miss those periods of quiet introspection, before work, family, and simply life took over.

Dark clouds build on the two-parts of ‘The Lost Seasons’, the second occupied by a stammering oscillation of slow disruption to a smooth, soft surface. It’s soothing, but is it real? Postmodernism is all about surface, about deception, about appearance, and so one must inevitably ask how much of Elegyia is art, and how much is artifice? take the sepiatone cover image. It’s an evocation of a bygone age – but it’s simply a shortcut, a signifier – rather than the signified.

And these are the questions to ponder as you cast away on the drift, and without expending too much energy on what lies beneath the surface.

Elegyia is a delicate and finely-balanced work, with expansive sweeps and fine detail coexisting, layering atop of one another, reforging its own reality in the moment.

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Room40 – DRM475 – 24th July 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

In one of a brace of releases on Lawrence English’s Room 40 label in July, Australian minimalist Todd Anderson-Kunert presents a selection of Moog synthesiser compositions, which we learn are ‘exercises in intimacy, restraint and unerring patience. Past Walls And Windows plays with how sound emerges and decays. It is an edition that celebrates the ephemeral nature of the medium and the way sound’s immateriality invites a constant sensing and seeking on behalf of those that encounter it’.

These are indeed minimal works, so sparse at times as to be barely audible, and they’re a long way from presenting any sounds conventionally associated with the vintage Moog. Instead of jangly, trilling tones, Anderson-Kunert teases hovering single notes that evoke a sombre, even funeral atmosphere for the most part. There are flittering oscillaations and low, diminishing drones, and they make up much of the fabric of this set, comprising six pieces, most of which sit over the five-minute mark.

It’s quiet and delicate: ‘Better Left’ begins with distant grumbles of thunder, before low ominous notes drone in and halt abruptly, while ‘An Echo’ brings slow pulsations and haunting drones like a trilling church organ ringing out dolorous notes in a sepulchral setting. It’s gloomy, and it’s ambient in the background sense, yet it has the capacity to send the listener inside themselves on a contemplative course.

It’s no criticism to remark that there isn’t a lot to say: this is an album that requires not commentary, but peace, and time: to be listened to without interruption or distraction, and ideally in semi-darkness. It isn’t an album that really raises questions, and it doesn’t offer answers: it simply is. An as a sonic vehicle for contemplation and tranquillity, it’s ideal.

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Room40 RM401 – 1st May 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

One aspect of postmodernism that can be both intriguing and frustrating is its tendency to contradiction. Moreover, the way in which postmodern criticism centres in on the contradictions of postmodern art, culture, and society, and extrapolates how postmodern art revels in the contradictions inherent in postmodern culture without in any way seeking to resolve them. Postmodernity seems to suggest that questions are enough, without need for answers. But are they?

Living in England, I’ve witnessed post-postmodernity taken to the most meta of levels in recent days having witnessed Prime Minister Boris Johnson attempting to detail the new guidelines for managing the COVID-19 pandemic on our small island, and am, along with the rest of the nation reeling at the advice that if I can’t work from home I should go to work, but I shouldn’t go to work if possible, and if I do have to go to work, to avoid public transport, and if I am working from home, it’s ok to go out as much as I like for exercise but only if essential, and I can meet people from other households, but only one person and it must be outdoors, and while maintain a 2-metre distance, which is the same as the distance as from people in public anyway.

Where am I going with this? Apart from more questions, more rhetoric?

Less is more. But sometimes, it’s also less. Lawrence English’s latest offering consists of two longform tracks, of around twenty minutes a piece, corresponding with a side of vinyl or cassette, although at present, Lassitude is only being released as a download. And not a lot happens.

‘Saccade (For Elaine Radigue)’begins with a trilling, rapid-oscillating drone that hangs in he mid-range. It doesn’t do anything, and doesn’t go anywhere, but gradually blurs. No, the sound remains static: the perception of it blurs. At least for a time, after which the notes slow and melt together.

There’s less texture and less shift to ‘Lassitude’, which sustains an even hum for the majority of its twenty-minute duration. It has no direction, and no substantial content, but that isn’t the purpose. There are tonal shifts, gradual gradients down, but they’re slowly incremental, almost subliminal. And ultimately, to what end?

Perhaps there is no end: perhaps this is the end. Perhaps the end has been coming, slowly, all this time, and our lives to now have been a waiting for the end. Perhaps not. What do we know?

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St. Petersburg

Room40 – 5th October 2018

Christopher Nosnibor

Mass Observation by Scanner – the vehicle of the prodigiously prolific Robin Rimbaud – surfaced in 1994 as an EP. It was (in)famously sampled without credit by Björk on ‘Possibly Maybe’, resulting in a lawsuit that led to copies of Post being withdrawn and a sample-free rerelease. Sidestepping the issue of originality and ownership – specifically the notion that lifting from a sound-collage – the controversy provided Scanner with an unexpected level of coverage and arguably brought underground avant-garde experimentalism to a new audience.

Not that any of this really made any impact on Scanner’s trajectory, in terms of musical direction or career, and Rimbaud’s text which accompanies this expanded release is objective in its assessment of its form and formulation: ‘Dehumanised communications, beatless, radio signals drawn in live to tape, and accompanied by dial tone pulses and abstract textures, Mass Observation is a highly suggestive picture of a particular place in a city at a very specific time. A form of Sound Polaroid as I tended to call such recordings.’

Words seem inadequate for describing the temporal dislocation and unsettling atmospherics woven throughout the recording – an entirely different mix from the original, as Rimbaud explains: ‘Two mixes were captured directly onto DAT tape. One of which would be officially released as Ash 1.7 Mass Observation, an EP that featured a 25 min version of one of these sessions, but until today the second longer expansive mix has never been heard. Each quite different from the other.’ Presented here as a single track with a duration of 54:29, it’s a dark, disturbing sonic journey that has no obvious sense of direction.

I’ve no interest in laboriously and meticulously comparing the different versions: Mass Observation is very much a work that invites immersion in its atmosphere, and is about the overall effect rather than the minutia of detail – which in some respects is ironic, given that the overall effect is the result of the compilation of near-infinite details, overlaid and juxtaposed, recontextualised and realigned.

This versions, however, isn’t entirely beatless: a thudding trudge fades in after a couple of minutes and hammers out a dolorous funeral march while electrical currents eddy around in the ether, at times almost hesitant, pausing as the vaporous swirls twist and drift. But when it fades, it fades and is gone, washed a way in a drift of shifting found sound. Sharding scrapes of metallic treble sheer the senses with sharp, blade-like edges and simmering drones interweave hypnotically.

Ominous rumbles and snippets of dialogue, distant, reduced to a barely audible mutter-line and occasionally rent with blasts of distortion and static from the fabric of Mass Observation. Cut through the mutter line to reveal… more muttering. Silent eyes behind screens… 24/7 CCTV and phone taps. At times, all the voices, all at once, echo across one another. They slow and blur. The snippets of conversation are mundane, humdrum, banal – but this in itself adds to the effect. This is the everyday, captured, and if anything, it resonates more now than it would have almost a quarter of a century ago. Now, surveillance has reached totality, and there is no escape.

The effect of listening to the disembodied echoes and whirring electronics of Mass Observation is disorientating, and the whole album is a paranoia-inducing, disturbing wreck of sound – not because it’s uncanny, unfamiliar, strange, but because it’s so real.

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Scanner – Mass Observation

Room40 – RM481 – 13th July 2018

Christopher Nosnibor

Norman Westberg’s first full-length album since the termination of SWANS in its most recent configuration marks something of a departure, both in terms of sound and approach. Having previously recorded his solo works by what he calls his ‘one take; it is what it is’ method, After Vacation is a project of evolution, and also of collaboration, with Lawrence English acting as producer, weaving together the parts to create rich layers. The press release refers to Westberg’s ‘web of outboard processes, with delays, reverbs, and other treatments all transforming the sound of the instrument’s output. And yet After Vacation feels like so much more than this, as the guitar itself fades into the distance beneath the effects. The results are evocative, with careful details overlaid onto the broad washes of sound which define the compositional forms.

The album begins in expansive and haunting style, with what sounds like brooding, atmospheric orchestral strings and tense piano, but the shadowy shade of ‘Soothe the String’, like all of the album’s six pieces, features nothing but guitar. And with it Westberg creates lustrous layers of sound, drifting sonic mists and hazy hues. ‘Sliding Sledding’ forms an immensely deep, slow-turning swirl that moves like vapour, through which single notes ripple as they echo and fade.

The individual compositions are formed through subtle shifts and delicate transitions, and offer distinct and separate moods. However, they melt into one another, to create a vast vista of soft-edged ambience.

The title track which draws the curtain on the set marks a departure from the rest of the album, as Westberg picks at his guitar in an almost folksy fashion, and it sounds like a conventional guitar, although it’s accompanied by an organ-like drone that hovers in a long, unchanging note, which gradually rises to the fore as the plucked notes fade into the distance.

There’s a certain comfort in this conclusion, bringing the listener as it does to more familiar ‘guitar’ territory while still emblematising the experimental, treatment-orientated approach to reconfiguring the sound of the instrument.

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Norman Westberg - After Vacation

Someone Good – 1st September 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

David Toop enthuses over Haco as ‘weightless, not so much a voice from heaven but a voice that swirls in liquidity, water spirit…’ In this, he probably gets as close to capturing the essence of Haco’s music as its possible. It’s a challenge for any writer when presented with sonic abstraction: how to render the intangible tangible, and at the same time convey the experience of sound in words?

The music on Qoosui is not easy – and in fact almost impossible – to pin down. An analogy to catching a cloud is close, but not right: the seven pieces exist in a state somewhere between liquid and vapour, and flow in multiple directions seemingly simultaneously. Rippling synths slowly bubble as wash aquatically on ‘Kusul’, and paves the way for a sequence of amorphous, drifting compositions which drift and tether. Crystalline shards cut through cloud-like washes on ‘White Letter from Heaven’, and Haco’s voice is seemingly not of the human body, transcendental, and not of this world.

This is, in many respects, the source and heart of Qoosui: inspired by spirit voices, Haco becomes one. The medium is the message on every level.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/224449651

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Room40 – 1st September 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

In certain circles at least, Tony Buck requires little to no introduction as the percussionist of longstanding Australia purveyors of avant-jazz trio The Necks.

Unearth is an immense departure in many respects, not least of all in that it not a percussion-led composition. His first solo work, recorded over a number of years, is an expansive, long-form piece spanning some fifty-one and a half minutes.

It’s a quiet, unsettling composition, with layered sounds building and overlapping, dark rumbles and drones juxtaposing with vague clattering incidentals, hisses, scrapes, hums, drips, plops and thuds.

Around the fifteen-minute mark, conventional instrumentation emerge, with ratting percussion, sonorous bass notes and picked guitar strings drifting across sampled voices and fragmented field recordings. However, it’s clear that the tension isn’t about to break any time soon, and nor is Buck about to unleash a square slice of rock tunage. Plinks, plonks and rattles shade across creaks and yawning ultra-low bass which hangs dense and heavy in the air.

There is a transitory moment of graceful musicality around the half-hour point, where chiming guitars and irregular, delicate percussion combine to create a subtle passage that’s ethereal, atmospheric and pure post-rock. And here comes the build: cymbals clatter and crash in a rising crescendo; gongs boom, and a tempest of sound rises as if from nowhere, as the treble of electronic bleeps cut through the evolving cacophony.

Things to settle into a less disturbing, less abrasive roll of swirling ambience thereafter, with chanks and chinks trembling over skittering sinews of sound stretched over weary, low-end drones which crawl and scratch.

Nothing about Unearth is easy or accessible, although Buck’s grasp on the slow-evolving dynamic of the longform composition is abundantly clear as the gradual transitions flow s effortlessly as to be unnoticeable.

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Tony Buck -Unearth

Room40 – 17th February 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

The title carries an implicit connotation of juxtaposition. It’s also a direct reference to the 2011 text by Lauren Berlant, which explores power and the ‘cruel optimism that has prevailed since the 1980s, as the social-democratic promise of the postwar period in the United States and Europe has retracted’ and the collapse of the liberal-capitalist dream.

English explains the album’s context as follows: ‘Over the course of creating the record, we collectively bore witness to a new wave of humanitarian and refugee crisis (captured so succinctly in the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s tiny body motionless on the shore), the black lives matter movement, the widespread use of sonic weapons on civilians, increased drone strikes in Waziristan, Syria and elsewhere, and record low numbers of voting around Brexit and the US election cycle, suggesting a wider sense of disillusionment and powerlessness. Acutely for me and other Australians, we’ve faced dire intolerance concerning race and continued inequalities related to gender and sexuality. The storm has broken and feels utterly visceral. Cruel Optimism is a meditation on these challenges and an encouragement to press forward towards more profound futures.’

For Cruel Optimism, English has enlisted, amongst others, Swans contributors Norman Westberg and Thor Harris. As their recent excursions outside Swans demonstrate, they are both musicians capable of magnificently nuanced sound – a stark contrast to the shuddering power of Swans in full force. They bring subtle, understated performances to the pieces on which they feature here. Tony Buck and Chris Abrahams of The Necks are also featured, although again, their input is suitably muted and the line-up is far from overplayed in the promotional materials which accompany the album.

A sense of contrast and contradiction is woven into the fabric of the soundscapes which combine to form Cruel Optimism, as soft layers drift down over coarser, grainer sonic terrains beneath. There are moments of darkness, shadowy, vaguely unsettling but not overtly eeriy or horrific, tempered equally by moments of tranquillity and light ‘Hammering a Screw’, as its title suggests, is an awkward, jarring piece. Sinister chords jam and jolt abrasively, rupturing the soft tissue of sound which hangs almost invisibly in the air while fluttering heartbeats pulse erratically way down in the mix. ‘Negative Drone’ rumbles ominously, a formless, amorphous cloud of sound which bleeds into the must-like atmospherics of ‘The Somnambulist’. The album ends with the entwined drones of ‘Moribund Territories’, which offers a tone of bleakness which intimates the dissipation of optimism in the face of a chilling future.

Writing in October 2016, English described the album as an album of ‘protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures’. Depressingly, those futures have arrived, and we are now living in dark, dark times. But for all of the turbulence which motivated the compositions and the underlying anxiety poured into their realisation, Cruel Optimism is a beautifully calm album, in the main – or at least, it maintains a calm exterior. As such it’s a work of peaceful protest, which succeeds in making itself heard in a loud, violent, and ugly world.

 

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