Review: Lawrence English – For / Not For John Cage

A blurry mushroom lingers ghost-like on the cover of For/Not For John Cage. Here, the centenarian composer manifests through the hazy lens of English’s sound: outlines and textures smudged together, colours bleeding outward via thick applications of reverberation, with shapes retained but definition lost to the soft mercurial flow. The album derives itself from a body of English’s work that bares John Cage’s distinctive presence: either through the influence of his processes and interests (chance operation, Zen Buddhism), or in the form of English’s re-imagined soundtrack for Cage’s film One11, which he put together alongside video artist Scott Morrison. English chooses not to specify how each track relates to Cage’s methods for the most part – besides, Cage’s ultimate artistic emphasis rested with the sound itself rather than the process behind it – and thus the presence of Cage preoccupies the work in a more mysterious and fluid manner, haunting English’s creations and even English himself (perhaps in the form of a ghostly mushroom).

Those who enjoyed The Peregrine from last year will find a much sparser and more meditative work in For/Not For John Cage. Interestingly, while the former immersed the listener from each side, collapsing inwards in waves of drone and harmony, the latter sits quietly at the centre of the stereo mix, surging gently outward and back in again as an eternally revolving ball of soft electronic tone. The links to Zen Buddhism often feel like the most prominent – many of these pieces appear to rise and fall gently like the human breath at resting pace, luring listener focus further and further inward into the hypnotic cycle of activity. Meanwhile, what appears to be chance operation ends up tugging tonality into dissonance and then back into accidental harmonic alignment, eternally shifting between gloopy shapes via English’s trademark watery movement – for “Jansia Borneensis” it tilts and drifts between pitches like a buoy nudged across a calm sea, whereas “Naematoloma Sublateritium” quivers across microtones like a thin sheet of metal wobbling in slow motion. The fact that For/Not For John Cage progresses with such an organic imminence is testament to the influence of the man himself; taking almost any other artist as a basis for inspiration would have involved restricting one’s composition methods to accommodate the techniques for which the artist is synonymous, whereas utilising John Cage only helps to facilitate a quest for musical liberation.