Same shit,different century

In March, Parliament knocks back his new poor law. It was too much for the Commons to digest, that rich men might have some duty to the poor; that if you get fat, as gentlemen of England do, you have some responsibility to the men turned off the land, the labourers without labour, the sowers without a field… Parliament cannot see how it is the state’s job to create work. Are not these matters in God’s hands, and is not poverty and dereliction part of his eternal order? It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising, to suggest that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the workshy. And if Secretary Cromwell argues that famine provokes criminality: well, are there not hangmen enough? 

It’s 1536. Replace God with ‘the market’ and you’re away. Maybe that’s not even necessary – belief in the system and the sanctity of the market is such that it’s become a matter of faith. We need new expressions of disgust.

Lawrence English, The Peregrine

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I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence – JA Baker

Lawrence English has long consorted with weather and the environment when researching and creating his delicate and intricate music – be it the tonal shifts of the seasons on albums like A Colour for Autumn, or For Varying Degrees of Winter, or the more immediate concerns of the water-based field recordings for 2005’s Limnology; but with The Peregrine he has shifted this relationship slightly and in many ways taken on so much more. For with The Peregrine, not only does English face the unenviable task of reflecting on and recreating the immersion of another person’s experience of nature, but he has do so through the extraordinary refracting lens of JA Baker’s molten prose; and this sense of being twice abstracted from the source lends a strange power to English’s sonic homage and brings to life the books’ enigmatic beauty.

In JA Baker’s own admission he ‘came late to birds’. But when he fell, he fell spectacularly. His patch was, broadly speaking, the stretch of land that lies to the east of Chelmsford in Essex, out towards the Blackwater estuary and the Dengie peninsular. It’s a landscape that mixes the ordinary – beech, oak and hornbeams woods and arable fields – and the more unusual, with its blurred outer edges a labyrinth of waterways, marshland and tidal mudflats. For a decade Baker obsessively stalked the peregrine across this landscape (although he followed a number of these birds, it seems fair to use the definite article here, as for Baker the bird took on something of a Platonic heft, as though these birds were of another realm). And for once the adjective obsessive isn’t overplayed: Baker’s method was to become a function of the landscape, to immerse himself so totally that the hunting falcon would incorporate him into its visual memory. As Baker puts it: ‘The peregine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endlessly varying quadrilateral shapes of fields. He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries.’ It is believed that peregrines have a total memory map of their hunting grounds and can recognise the slightest changes. Baker wanted to become part of this map.

This gradual process of invisibility and immersion is also evident in Baker’s extraordinary prose. In many ways he is barely present in the text at all, instead functioning as a kind of amanuensis for the Emersonian concept of the ‘transparent eyeball’ in which the self or the ego is subsumed in the vortex of the natural world. He seems more conduit than writer, transmuting raw observance into liquid forms that coalesce before the eyes; though of course this process is illusory as in truth Baker is a master craftsman, with a vast hoard of descriptive tools and metaphors. He is like a less-neurotic Manley-Hopkins, or probably more accurately a less-earnest Ted Hughes – he has both of these writers’ ability to invoke the swirling intricacies of place and our apprehension of it. His dexterity is alchemical.

English’s approach to Baker’s text is quite a literal one in the first instance, in that he takes a section (for the first track ‘This Hunting Life’), or a specific diary entry (entries which are given only date headings in the book, and which English has titled using a theme or a particular detail relevant to that entry) and uses these as a basis for his sound explorations. The tracks then work with textual detail and flourish and broaden, using broad swirling drones and deep wells of bass to recreate the environmental conditions Baker experienced and so preternaturally transcribed. Obviously, by design, these recreations are impressionistic and idiosyncratic, as English is working with an already meditated set of impressions, and yet the remarkable thing is the way in which, sonically, in using a fairly narrow range of sound and instrumentation, the individual tracks do manage to so ably soundtrack the prose on the page.

For me, English’s greatest achievement on The Peregrine is the way in which he has caught the rawness of the air, and the sheer brutal reality of the peregrine’s meaning within the landscape and the environment. It must be said that for all its relatively small size, the domination of the peregrine is near total – the mere ghost of its presence, soaring a mile in the air, is enough to effect behavioural changes in the wildlife for miles around. Smaller birds dive for the thick cover of hawthorn hedges, cockerels throw their harsh shrieking into the sky, rabbits and hares escape to their burrows and the likes of starlings, wood pigeons, plovers and lapwings will take to the skies in their thousands, desperately trying to outflank our gain height on the hunting bird. With this is mind, English’s huge scurfy drones act as something like an elemental theatre, within which the smaller increment details highlight individual phenomena.

A track like ‘Dead Oak’ (a favourite haunt of the peregrines), for instance, and the track it bleeds into, ‘Frost’s Bitter Grip’, both use this arena-like technique, and the roar of the surface drones do have the feel of the upper air, and the granular detail becomes like the murmarations of desperate starling or lapwing flocks, banking and swarming in the viciously cold winter wind. ‘Frost’s Bitter Grip’ and ‘Grey Lunar Sea’ also manage to portray, using a mixture of high thin metallic and broader cloud-like drones (not dissimilar in texture to some of the sounds Basinki captures in the warping tape recordings of the Disintegration Loops), the shattering cold of the winter of 1962/3, during which countless birds died and significant parts of Essex’s North Sea coast froze for months on end.

The latter stages of the album follow the cyclical ascent away from the bitter winter into the warmer heights of spring. ‘The Roar Ceasing’ is the beginnings of this great thaw, ‘a day made absolute, the sun unflawed,’ and English evokes the subtle tonal changes by shifting the drones to a brighter register, using spare buried piano motifs to replicate the movement and release of all that trapped water. The closing track ‘And He Sleeps’ follows the last entry in Baker’s diary and details his last meeting with the peregrine before it migrates. In the text, Baker uses the cover of the sea wall to get close to the peregrine, as close as he has been throughout his period of pursuit (enslavement?), and eventually he comes within four meters, surprising the bird, which does not fly but fixes Baker with a stare before finally falling asleep. It is a moment loaded with significance as it marks a moment of acceptance, an acceptance which Baker had been seeking all along, and also a kind of mourning – a mourning that the pursuit was over (you sense the ‘and he sleeps’ applies as much to Baker as to the bird) but also something more expansive as Baker believed he was witnessing the extinction of this species in the British Isles. English’s fibrous, crying drones take on a new level of significance against this backdrop but in the familiar recourse to the same roaring elemental nature of the sound, instead of resignation, there is a note of defiance: with hindsight, we know that the peregrine has survived the massive downturn in its population and is back in its old haunts, the ancient eyries roosted once again.

There is a danger that with such a straight up homage to another work of art that the devotee could become paralysed by reverence and simply deliver a polite glancing blow that in fact fails to revere at all. I don’t think this accusation can be levelled at Lawrence English’s The Peregrine. Instead he’s created a piece of sonic theatre that doesn’t overtly romanticise Baker’s undertaking, and doesn’t shy away from the facts of the cold horror of  the peregrine’s domination of its environment or the harshness of the conditions of life. The record also recognises the silences and quiet hollows of Baker’s mythic landscape and his place within it and gives them breath. In the end, the music is subtle and powerful enough to be able to stand alongside the original text.

Soul? I don’t know what soul this is about.

Former Russian ballet dancer Mura Dehn witnesses James Brown live:

His emphasis on ego breaks all bounds. He is like a newborn baby in tantrums to enforce his will… He leaves you astonished and awed because of the mark of genius and madness… The rest is a tremendous scream for something that he wants more and more of – and gets – and is ready to give his life in order to retain it forever… Soul? I don’t know what soul this is about. Nothing one could live on or remember when one goes away…. He is a mythological personage. What he asks for is love – boundless – which can never quite fill his craving. At the end of all that inspiration, talent, sorcery.”

“Maybe because it was repressed so long, it comes out in this boundless way – in strength and in complaint. That may be true, but theatrically speaking, a performer has to produce what our times demand – a monster personality to be sold for ‘phantabulous’ profits. James Brown is unprecedented. A man touched by divine power. He absorbs. He stuns. And yet you don’t feel enriched. You cannot live on what he reveals. You simply experience him, and he is fabulous.”

Jacques Derrida/Ornette Coleman

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JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that prewritten music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No. I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we often understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.

It’s because of Borges. He’s hiding somewhere (probably in a mirror) cackling maniacally, knowing damn well that somewhere Jacques Derrida is always interviewing Ornette Coleman. So it goes. Jacques Derrida interviews Ornette Coleman

Robert Ashley, The Backyard

Transcription of the words from Robert Ashley’s ‘The Backyard’, side 2 of Private Parts, released on Lovely Music, 1978. The piece, with minor alterations, later became part of Ashley’s opera Perfect Lives. Lifted wholesale from MandrewB’s tumblr.

The Backyard by Robert Ashley

She makes a double life.
She makes two from one and one.
She makes a perfect system every day.
She makes it work.
She stands there in the doorway of her mother’s house
looking at the grass and sky and at where they meet,
never once thinking thoughts like
“It’s so like a line”,
or “the difference is so powerful”,
or “Which way shall I take to leave?”
My mind turns to my breath, one.
My mind watches my breath, two.
My mind turns and watches my breath, three.
My mind turns and faces my breath, four.
My mind faces my breath, five.
My mind studies my breath, six.
My mind sees every aspect of the beauty of my breath, seven.
My mind watches my breath soothing itself, eight
My mind sees every part of my breath, nine.
My breath is not indifferent to itself, ten.
She never thinks of possibility
or of how probable it is that they have come together.
Those thoughts never enter her mind.
Nor do thoughts of sports.
She has no desire to improve her muscles.
For her, piano playing is the only mystery.
It’s so beautiful, and how they do it no-one knows.
She gets catalogues of every sort in the mail.
Everything imaginable is pictured.
She finds her way among the pictures without hesitation.
She is not afraid of happiness.
She is entirely without shame.
The numbers are made of rubber or something like that.
They stretch.
They never lose their shape.
They are ageless.
They don’t need repair.
They need attention and respect.
She thinks about two things that I know of.
One is elevation and that comes clothed in light, so to speak.
She loathes the dark.
She sleeps in light.
She likes highness.
Four thousand one hundred twenty-eight feet here.
Four thousand two hundred eighteen feet there.
And the body of the house itself.
Fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents here.
Forty-eight dollars and twelve cents there.
The other is proportions.
Coincidence isn’t a mystery to her.
The margin’s always wide enough.
Forty-two or forty with twenty is always sixty-two or sixty.
And I mean forty-two with twenty can be sixty as well as sixty-two.
And the other way around.
Just as ten and twenty can be thirty-two or thirty
Or twelve and twenty can be thirty.
She stands there in the doorway of her mother’s house
and thinks these thoughts.
That fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents is more at attractive than fourteen dollars because of the twenty-eight.
No-one likes or dislikes zeros.
And that forty-two or forty is fixed in some way.
She thinks about her father’s age.
She does the calculation one more time.
She remembers sixty-two.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
She remembers forty-two.
“Remembers” is the wrong word.
She dwells on forty-two.
She turns and faces it.
She watches.
She studies it.
It is the key.
The mystery of the balances is there.
The Masonic secret lies there.
The church forbids its angels entry there.
The gypsies camp there.
Blood is exchanged there.
Mothers weep there.
It is night there.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
That number translates now to then.
That number is the answer, in the way that numbers answer.
That simple notion, a coincidence among coincidences is all one
needs to know.
My mind turns to my breath.
My mind watches my breath.
My mind turns and watches my breath.
My mind turns and faces my breath.
My mind faces my breath.
My mind studies my breath.
My mind sees every aspect of the beauty of my breath.
My mind watches my breath soothing itself.
My mind sees every part of my breath.
My breath is not indifferent to itself.
She waked at ten.
She remembers ten.
She left the dark at ten.
She waked in light.
So forty-two or forty or forty-four is fixed.
Fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents is more attractive than fourteen dollars.
It’s just that way.
The firmness of it is a consolation.

Three men had loved her.
One a decade on the average.
Uncertainties are wrong.
In this scene there is one shot.
Giordano Bruno comes to mind, whoever he is.
She is in the doorway of her mother’s house.
She faces south.
We see it two ways.
First is the house behind her and the great Northern constellations.
She looks away from difference and discrepancy.
Magnetic north, true north, the north star path…
It’s too like the calculations.
Except that ten and forty-two are fixed together.
We are looking west.
She is on the right edge of the shot.
She is Earth.
We are the sun.
People are gathered in the backyard.
This is the celebration of the changing of the light.
They do it as often as they can in summer.
They come to talk.
They pass the time.
They sooth their thoughts with lemonade.
They say things like:
“She never had a stitch that she could call her own, poor thing”.
And, “Carl’s still president over at the bank, ain’t he?”
And, “Now if I was doing it…”
And, “She didn’t cook much, never really had the time, you know”.
And, “I wouldn’t say that, not at all”.
They are the planets in this scheme of things.
Giordano Bruno’s shot.
The problem is the arc.
The changing angle of the shot.
It defies geometry.
The drawings of a geocentric solar system, when we meet them in the books, make us avert our eyes.
Heresy is heresy.
We make one great, weird curve from the east edge of the backyard,
looking west –
She is on the right edge of the shot –
across, following the equator of the backyard, to the west edge,
looking east.
Now she is on the left edge.
At some point, midway, we face,
both looking at the center.
The center is between us.
Except that for the purpose of the shot, or in the interests of economy,
she doesn’t move.
She is standing in the doorway of her mother’s house.
The doorway to the back porch.
The backyard is the south.
Behind her the great northern constellation rises in the majesty
of its architecture.
Well, maybe that’s a little too much.
Let’s just say that contradictions are behind her.
And in the backyard, god, this set of circumstances
that is indescribable with our geometry.
A picnic of sorts.
A celebration of the changing of the light.
And we glide through that chaos, facing her,
watching her,
studying her.
Not circling her, remember.
Circling, but not circling her.
She is circling.
We are circling.
Now she is on the left edge.
Caught still in her accounting of those three decades silently.
She is so beautiful.
A pre-industrial equation.
God, this is sentimental.
This is the hour of the mystery of the barn swallows.
One, where do they go in daytime?
Two, do they never rest?
Three, when you buy them in the store, made in China, on the end of strings
they do exactly what they do alive.
Four, how is that possible?
The idea of the changing center is not in anything we make.
Our toys run down.
On the other hand, of course, the Chinese are said to not take pictures.
At least not of the outside.
Six of one, two times three of one, five plus one of one,
nine minus three of one, half a dozen of another.
It would be perfect if, as we made the great curve
through the heavens of the backyard,
providentially or accidentally, depending on
your point of view, each of the planets would move exactly
in the path and at the speed and with the purpose
of the expression of the other idea.
Maybe that’s too much to wish.

Giordano Bruno.
I think they burned him.
He was too positive.
Fight fire with fire.
In this shot he is wrong about the larger order, whatever that means.
There is just the sun and earth and some center that they share.
All other facts in this heaven,
One has climbed a tree,
Two are eating watermelon,
One always says it’s getting late,
One succeeded at the plant,
One works at the bank,
The specialists.
They are just straight lines seen wrong.
Sundown, one, the time it disappears.
Gloaming, two, the twilight, dusk.
Crepuscule, the twilight, three, the half-light.
Twilight, four, pale purplish blue to pale violet, lighter than dusk blue.
Civil twilight, until the sun is up to six degrees below horizon
enough light on clear days for ordinary occupations.
Nautical twilight, until the sun is up to twelve degrees below horizon.
Astronomical twilight, until the sun is eighteen degrees down,
more or less.
Clair de lune, five, greener and paler than dusk.
Dusk, six, redder and darker than clair de lune.
Dear George,
What’s going on?
I’m not the same person that I used to be.