Review of A Colour For Autumn [12k1052]

Tofaki (.COM)

Dali-like surrealist collages & hidden indentations: English treats sound with infinite curiosity.

One of the great and strange misunderstandings about Lawrence English is that he is the type of sound artist who will churn out albums by the truckloads. The adjective „prolific“ certainly seems out of place for someone whose discography has mostly grown by the moderate pace of about two releases per year. Part of this restraint is, of course, down to the sheer diversity of his activities. Next to his compositional duties, English runs the Room40 imprint (whose publications are currently professionally distributed in a whopping 17 countries worldwide), performs live anywhere from China to France and curates gigs and various arts-related events in his native Australia. From time to time, he will also pick up his pen and inform like-minded enthusiasts about the rich and colourful world of experimental music for magazines like The Wire or Cyclic Defrost in clear and down-to-earth prose. All of this has made him a hot contender for the position of „hardest working man in sound art“ – not necessarily the most coveted award around, but certainly one which would do justice to the inspiring diligence marking his trajectory. With regards to his own catalogue as a solo musician, however, English has focused on quality and detail, preferring to refine and perfect a particular vision over time instead of just blindly following his instincts.

The average Lawrence English full-length, therefore, requires patience and ongoing dedication. Strong conceptual angles for each of them additionally demand for an unusually high degree of precision in all aspects of album-building. Like a visual artist working on an installation, English regards each record as an alternative and slightly skewed reality, which an audience is invited to loose themselves in to arrive at more profound conclusions about elemental truths hidden by quotidian routines. The fact that his methods are often discreet rather than brute does not make them any less effective. As famous author and astronomer Gail Andrews explains in „Mostly Harmless“, the last volume in Douglas Adams’ „Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“ series: „It’s like throwing a handful of fine graphite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hidden indentations are. It lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above it that’s now been taken away and hidden. The graphite’s not important. It’s just the means of revealing their indentations.“ In a similar way, English’s subtle sonic graphite reveals the beauty and depth of every-day sounds by placing them on top of the usual sonic slide or by assigning them unexpectedly seminal importance in terms of musical development.

In comparison to other artists, English has never confused a recognisable „sound“ with a personal compositional „style“. From minimal, field-recording-based Sound Art to unpretentiously drifting Dronescapes, his oeuvre has bridged the outer extremes of the scene, never over-relying on a fixed set of proven techniques. Kiri No Oto, released on Touch last year and probably the album most responsible for elevating his name to the top tanks of the experimental community, was built around a cornucopia of interrelated harmonic layers, each sending signals at different frequencies but mysteriously coalescing into unified, tranquilly floating textures. Distortion and fuzz played an essential role on a work which sought to translate the confusion of being placed in a fogbank into music. „HB“ (Baskaru), a collaboration with befriended Francisco Lopez, meanwhile, attained the same kind of perceptional shift by an extreme kind of reductionism: The sound of a „Wire Fence upon Opening“ suddenly turned into an enigmatic, microscopic black hole through which the spectral components of reality were broken to suddenly disclose entirely new angles.

Public interest in his work will therefore most likely be sparked by how English treats sound. Which is: With infinite curiosity and utmost sensitivity. To him, sound can be anything from unpitched, physical resonance to a filigre melody, from solitary punctuations to solidified harmonies, from uncontextualised timbre to firmly organised structure. It can even be visual – which explains for his deep fascination for musique concrete and for experiments relating to a synthetic audiovisual experience. In their diversity and multifunctionality, the source materials for his albums mirror the variety of the world around us and it should come as no surprise that quite a lot of them were collected on the road with a portable recording device only to resurface in processed form as part of ingeniously designed studio pieces at later stages. It also explains why English’s biography characterises him as both a „media artist and composer“, as his technique of carefully placing notes on the canvas is a process which requires a great deal of vision, organisation and discipline.

The outcome of this process, however, is mostly anything but academic and quite often sounds remarkably spontaneous. On It’s up to us to live (SIRR Ecords), English even manages to create the sensation of a live performance, although these tracks were sculpted and painstakingly honed over a five-year period. A counterpart to Happiness will befall on the Portuguese Cronica imprint, the album is marked by a hands-on approach, a timbral in-your-faceness and a radical exploration of various forms of friction. „Thelovehasnoface“ and „About the End“ are the odd harmonious exceptions on an album which otherwhise engages in harsh noise attacks, drastic deconstruction and sharp cuts between tracks. Taken on their own, some of the musical elements, which include softly picked acoustic Guitars (courtesy of guest Benjamin Thompson), delicately ringing Drones and warm Gong soundings, are anything but disturbing. It is the conflation of these different components into Dali-like surrealist collages which renders them distressing and places the entire album under the dictum of a nervous pulse.

The aforementioned sense of friction is not just an acoustic experiment here. It is part of a political statement. Dejected and disappointed by the human violation of natural spaces in Tasmania by housing projects and tar-roads, „It’s up to Us to Live“ confronts its audience with a galaxy where no one seems to listen to what the other is saying any more. Even if the outcome is occasionally agreeable, this appears to be more of a coincidence than a sign of health. On most occasions, the egoistic cohabitation breeds stress and distrust and thereby misses out on the opportunities posed by collaboration or silence. Only in the dreamy finale of metalically undulating closer „The Slow Weave“, when a repeated pattern of two bass notes and rippling high-frequency chirping slowly cools down does English allow for a glimpse into this Utopian wonderland, releasing his audience with a glimmer of hope. „It’s up to Us to Live“ is certainly not out to easily please and those mesmerised by the simmering mystique of „Kiri No Oto“ may even be shocked. But the oscillating equilibrium of the album has resulted in a sonic trip that is sure to leave few cold or unimpressed.

And then there is always English’s second new album this year to heal the wounds. A Colour for Autumn (12k) follows in the footsteps of For Varying Degrees of Winter, the previous episode in a series of LPs dedicated to the „experience of seasonal transit“. Dean Roberts (formerly of New-Zealand trio Thela) lends the formants of his voice to immersive opener „Droplet“, which opens the album in a similarly immediate way as the majestic meditation „Organs Lost At Sea“ on „Kiri No Oto“. Austrian Drone Impressionist Christian Fennesz, meanwhile, contributes electronic processings on calm timebubble „The Surface of Everything“, revolving around subtle variations of a harmonic theme. Overall, the record creates a warm, woozy and agreeably unreal feeling of waking up on a lightflooded meadow without any sense of time and space. There are several hints at melody and traces of concrete instruments, such as on the Guitar-based „Watching it Unfold“, but these instances become increasingly rare as the album dreamily frays out in the last three, heavenly spaced-out pieces.

If A Colour for Autumn hasn’t turned out the pastoral, pastel-shaded watercolour-haze one might have expected from its title, then this is because his frequent travels have demonstrated the different peculiarities of this particular season around the globe to English. „Some of the more static pieces really reflect on those crisp mornings we get here as autumn – the stillness of the air, that sense of crisp air in your lungs and also that special hue we get in the skies too – just lovely“, he explained in an album-related interview for Rave Magazine, „Some of the other pieces reflect on that Japanese idea of Autumn – multi layered colours in the mountains, various leaf litter underfoot and the sound of coats rustling.“ And still, English isn’t interested in mood for its own sake. Again, his aim is to transfer these mental images into sound as precisely as possible and to put the listener in his place. The reason he succeeds is not just because pieces like the appropriately titled „Stillness in Motion“ or the ethereal, quietly humming „… And Clouds for Company“ slow down the resting pulse rate to a quiet blip on the cardiograph. But also because every acoustic particle here seems to move on its own accord, naturally adorning and complementing the underlying field recordings from Brazil, Marseilles, Tasmania, Japan and Brisbane.

On both albums, arrangements are of vital importance. Formalism and linearity would turn It’s up to Us to Live into an unlistenable slab of Noise and A Colour for Autumn into a fleeting musical breeze without substance. As it is, English approaches each full-length from scratch and builds all tracks on the basis of fresh architectural plans. It is this time-consuming duality of great attention to detail and a carefully coordinated sense of intuition which has marked almost his entire back catalogue – and should prevent him from becoming overly „prolific“ anytime in the near future.

By Tobias Fischer

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