26 September 2012

Lawrence English: For/Not For John Cage (Line)

Lawrence English is the mind behind the Australian leftfield-ambient label Room40. He’s released music on several respectable labels (including his own), but this is his first for Line, some years after a previous work for 12k. The background of the project is best described by English himself, as lifted from the press release:

In 2011, anticipating John Cage’s centenary, I began thinking about how to approach a work that might act as a homage to the aspects of his life and work that have inspired me over the past two decades (ironically, those in which he has been physical absent, but philosophically more present than ever). John Cage, with that beaming smile and trademarked casualness with which he operated his revelatory genius, has consistently acted as a touch stone for me; his life’s interests underscoring the way in which music, space, humour and philosophy connect (and also break apart).

I wanted to find a work that offered an openness (particularly in a sonic sense), something that might invite a new perspective of exploration into Cage’s ideas and interests. It was during this search that I found myself drawn to one of Cage’s less celebrated works—his film for solo light performer One11. Joining with video artist Scott Morrison we “restaged” the film, developing a new score for single light source devised from a range of Cagian approaches. The resulting piece was called One11 (refocused).

Part way through the process of composing music for One11 (refocused), it became clear that a body of sound work was forming (beyond the music created for the One11 (refocused) soundtrack) that drew heavily on some of Cage’s passions—specifically his interests in Zen Buddhism (and the space for contemplation this philosophy opens) and also that of chance operations.

Each of the pieces presented in this edition bare John Cage’s influence — some direct, others less so. The title of the edition reflects the sources from which the music was created — specifically from the One11 (refocused) project (For John Cage) and other pieces, created entirely by chance during one recording session (Not For John Cage).

For me, this edition is a humble tip of the hat to a mind that has sought to sow many a seed amongst us all. It’s now for us to water those seeds and tend the soil in which they sit. This is but one drop of that water.

As for the music itself, it stands fully on its own. If John Cage’s name weren’t dropped in the title, I would never really make the association. (Perhaps soundwise in the end this is nearly as much by chance as Cage’s own modus operandi.) The blurry mushroom on the cover of the album is a good indication of what to expect. Each title (with one exception) has the scientific name of a specific type of mushroom. Any hallucinogenic associations that go along with mushrooms (regardless of whether these listed species are themselves hallucinogenic) may affect one’s perception of the music, which, much like the blurred photo, never quite comes into focus. These are nebulous forms that give an impression and exhibit qualities of light, shade, filter and refraction without directly referencing any specific shape. Each evokes a slightly different mood; the disorienting swirl of “Naematoloma Sublateritium” is quite different from the dark haze of “Entoloma Abortivum,” and yet they sound very much pieces of the same whole. He saves the best for last, though: “Chance Operation #6 (Superimposed)” is by far the longest piece, clocking in over 15 minutes, and it’s a dreamy series of slow drones and an obvious nod to Cage’s approach to composition. The seductive haze of these pieces has kept me coming back to them again and again, even as I struggle to articulate why I find the album so compelling. Perhaps that elusiveness is what makes Mr. English so good at what he does.

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