Lawrence English – The Peregrine
01/10/2011 § Leave a comment
“Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.”
A trip to London several years ago brought Lawrence English into contact with JA Baker’s book The Peregrine, one of only two pieces penned by this little-known author. On picking it up and reading a few words on the hunting practises of the barn owl, English commented, “before I finished the paragraph I knew I needed to own this book”. It’s easy to see why. The novel covers in explicitly personal, articulate and poetical detail Baker’s experiences obsessively following a pair of peregrines from early autumn to late winter in the landscape of East Anglia. Little is known about JA Baker at all – who he was, where he worked, what his other interests were, or even his true name – apparently he gave nothing of himself away. The book had such an effect on English that he centred a 12″ vinyl album around it, and his ambient work of the same name is a heartfelt homage to Baker’s publication.
Such selflessness was apparently the main thread of his writing. More intent on his cause than himself, English reports, “at no point does the idea of humanness come to dominate”: Baker appeared to see himself as little more than a medium, an envoy, a passage for nature that could be shaped and folded by his experiences. He was nothing but a channel in the landscape with a deep understanding of the frequency of his surroundings on a highly subtle level. The same could also be said for English’s own music. This album is an extremely downplayed piece of work indeed, giving us tier upon tier of smooth, cold ambience, but laid so crisply and thinly upon one another that their seams are almost entirely imperceptible. English created The Peregrine intentionally in such a manner, not spoon-feeding us with meaning and suggestion but letting us entirely work our own edifications, experiences, and natural desires into his piece. It is the freezing point of the colder months in musical format, beckoning our own interpretations.
Initially, the album is not a work to be heard but felt, indirectly sensed, not presupposed. The Peregrine hinges on minimalist changes all pinned down by harmonic, elevating, ethereal ambient chord progressions. Occasionally English will throw very slight touches of other instrumentation in, but the majority of the work is one long, sustained free-float through a cold ambient landscape. The music is not so much about discovery, but about reminder, the reawakening of the discovered. There is a sense of totality, of familiarity all the way through, English’s uplifting choral ambience making us feel all the more enlivened and positive.
The Peregrine is very much a soundtrack piece though. It is the song of flight, the song of air’s essence, the song of freedom. It is about not moving while remaining static, of transport through thought as well as movement. Unfortunately, as a piece of work which changes very little for the 34 minutes of its length, it may be a little too inactive for most of us. It reveals its great twinges and subtleties casually and conspicuously over time but they are so minimal that most of the album will come across to many as overly similar. For most of us there’s a danger that it’s simply too inactive and changeless to be consistently interesting. This is not ambience with spice, with core, with a beginning and an end. It is one axle of an ever-spinning cycle of nature, two interchangeable halves of a circle. Some parts never feel truly complete while others come across as airy, heavenly environs in which we have left our past self.
To me though, this album is not so much a compliment to the work of JA Baker, as an introduction. The is doubtless English’s intention since he has used the descriptions and the imagery of the novel to map out the sound of the album, and he hopes it’s one which will inspire others to pick up the words of the author themselves. As a standalone work of ambient it’s maybe too transitory: the beautiful sounds herein may be uplifting and in a sense, purifying, but if we don’t possess the same pages of reference as English does, the album comes across as too sparse in variety and content to inspire multiple playthroughs. However, this may well be English’s last laugh – on reading Baker’s book we may find hidden messages and passageways open themselves to us, enacting the imagery of both this musician and his inspiration. It’s a clever concept, and one which English would be all too delighted for us to explore.