It’s rare to actually find Lawrence English performing in Brisbane. The veteran composer and media artist has been a mainstay within the local arts community for the better part of two decades but recent years have found him settling into more of a curatorial role within Australia and delivering the majority of his artistic performances abroad. His last major performance in the city came courtesy of the Open Frame festival in 2010 – over a year ago.
Tonight would appear to be English’s attempt at making amends for lost time. Concluding his own Syncretism concert series, English has conspired to launch both his new Lonely Women’s Club Ensemble and his new solo record The Peregrine in the one night – with the current incarnation of the former ensemble (encompassing, among others, fellow Brisbane experimentalists Dan Lewis and Andrew Tuttle) providing the opening act for a full-fledged solo performance.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both performances differ considerably from both English’s last performance in the city. The Lonely Women’s Club set is the more surprising of the two. Comprised of a quartet of organ-players led by English on laptop, the Lonely Women’s Club’s debut Australian performance is a lush, polytonal drone that – in a similar fashion to the minimalist classical it in part pays tribute to – seems to suspend conventional understandings of time and dynamic.
The set is, at once, a singular yawning expanse of drone and a thousand shifting micro-movements. The four organists adjust their notes and chords very carefully and very gradually while English’s conducting is limited to little more than a few discreet hand gestures – but the performance nevertheless seems to ebb and flow quite restlessly and colourfully within the tectonic framework. It’s genuinely difficult to tell how much time has elapsed when the set is concluded.
English’s solo performance is more conventional, in that it is the composer delivering oceanic waves of sound from behind a laptop, but is still actually quite surprising when compared with previous performances (and, for that matter, the album he is launching this evening). Whereas his last performance was an exercise in blistering aggression – torrents of sampled Antarctic winds punctuated by blasts of sub-bass and layers of harmonium drone – tonight is a more lyrical affair.
English is still dealing with vast walls of sound but the audience is seldom overwhelmed by proceedings and it’s surprisingly easy to pick details out of the maelstrom. Previously, English’s fascination with harmonic distortion has led to the occasional formless set but one can easily detect the powerful melodic undercurrents of his work in tonight’s performance. Strangely, his renditions of The Peregrine material are clearer and more accessible in performance than on the record.
For those who’ve already heard the (already quite exceptional) record, this is a surprising delight. Performed in the Judith Wright Centre’s theatre rehearsal space, The Peregrine seems to bloom and expand into an even more spacious and luxurious listening experience. Inhabiting the sound, one can appreciate the sheer level of detail English weaves into his broad compositions – from the basslines that anchor the tonal shifts to the strange, unclassifiable sounds that decorate the melodies.
If there’s a word for the performance, it’s balance. English’s habit of only performing occasionally in Brisbane means there’s a specific continuum connecting each of his performances and, while previous performances over the past handful of years have gravitated towards either brutal walls of noise or small, intimately realised soundscapes, tonight the composer manages to bring the two sides of his work together into a singularly exciting concert experience.
SYNCRETISM: The Evening with Lawrence English
Venue: Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts
Date: 17 November 2011
Bookings: judithwrightcentre.com | 07 3872 9012