Lawrence English

Wilderness of Mirrors

“There is no more beauty except in struggle,” wrote F.T. Marinetti in 1909, underlining the commitment of the Futurist movement he spoke for to an art and politics of revolution. Libraries would burn, museums would be flooded, and the foundations of venerable cities would be smashed to pieces as the shock of the new — new technologies, new literature, new art — transformed the consciousness of Italy’s youth, driving them to overthrow the corrupt and decrepit ruling order that governed over a decaying society the way one tends graves in a cemetery. Marinetti ultimately found his revolution in Italian Fascism, but countless artists from all points on the political spectrum embraced the aesthetics of shock in the hope that it might effect genuine political and social change.

It wasn’t to be, of course. Following state Fascism’s spectacular self-immolation as the Second World War drew to a close (a demise the Futurist Manifesto both predicts and embraces), capital moved quickly to commodify the aesthetics of shock and put it to work consolidating cultural power and generating financial profit. Today this aesthetic is most commonly found at the multiplex cinema, where it forms a key ingredient of Hollywood blockbusters: the rapid, relentless oscillation between tension and release, peril and rescue, prepares and ritually purifies the viewer to welcome the final salvation of a return to the status quo and pre-existing power relations at the end of the film.

There are other ways in which violence, politics, and art can intersect, however. One that is perhaps relevant to Lawrence English’s new album “Wilderness of Mirrors” is the need to bear witness, as a political subject, to injustice, coercion, and other social evils. This does not necessarily mean discursive testimony; it can also mean the transformation of materials in response to outside forces, the way rock formations bear witness to millennia of geological activity. From this viewpoint, music that superficially resembles an aesthetic of shock instead gains its hardness from the intense weight of sedimentary political pressures bearing upon it, soft grains consolidating and cementing into solid stone. On “Wilderness of Mirrors” this manifests as broadband ambient noise, a sheer wall rising from deep thick bass to towering pinnacles of treble, with little in the way of melodic or harmonic figures that would condense raw physical force into recognisable shapes.

We now have two ways in which violence is integrated into an artwork at a level where it no longer remains simply subject matter, but becomes form. How does one distinguish an aesthetics of shock from a bearing-witness (or indeed from a third becoming-form of violence, the prophecy of future catastrophe)? From a distance they look similar, if not identical. The onus is thus placed on the audience to determine context, to trace the trajectory of the blow as it hits them, to map the direct and collateral damage. Perhaps even the violence of a Hollywood blockbuster can veer off-course, strike the wrong convoy, raise the wrong questions in the wrong minds. Surrealist founder Andre Breton once wrote of the aesthetic pleasure of grabbing a pistol and firing randomly into a crowd. Turning music (or any kind of art) into an offensive weapon is guaranteed to have effects, but the guarantee doesn’t extend to ensuring the effects you wanted or predicted.

The context from which “Wilderness of Mirrors” issues, and in the light of which it asks to be understood, is one of a strong commitment to social solidarity with humans and with other animals — a commitment well documented both in public statements and in a professional life that resists the reduction of each of its aspects to an economic transaction. I tend to think, however, that it is with the kind of work documented on English’s releases for Winds Measure (“Studies for Stradbroke”, “Suikinkutsu no katawara ni”) that the sharp end of this political-artistic praxis is to be found. That music’s attentiveness to small, contingent, and everyday sounds is in my view more disruptive to bigotry, self-interestedness, and short-termism than aggression. Yet one cannot overlook the becoming-form of violence; its power is as seductive as its inherent morality and politics is ambivalent. Today’s carefully managed and controlled media landscape makes the possibility of landing any kind of blow seem attractive. But history is not simply the history of violence, and it is shaped as much by accumulations of small, imperceptible movements as it is by grand, spectacular gestures — perhaps more so. Listening is the method by which the moment is to be judged.

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