Review: Lawrence English – Songs Of The Living And The Lived In

As a start-to-finish journey, Songs Of The Living is pretty startling. No doubt these recordings have been picked for their ability to enlighten us to those animal sounds that exist outside of our familiar sonic routines; far away from the sounds of a Western world that cradles many of us in traffic noise, television emission, computer fans, office chatter and public transport tannoy systems. Thus I find myself hurtling between distant places (South America, Antarctica, Japan), plunged into environments that effortlessly burst open my personal bubble of sound culture and geography – if they can be likened to anything familiar to me then the link is most often tenuous, as my brain fumbles for reference points with which to relate to the distant cries of the Amazonian howler monkeys (like a trickle of water croaking its way down a sink), or the chorus of shrill drones made by cicadas outside Australia’s Mt Isa (like a hyper-charged electric fence). Perhaps the most remarkable of these is the two recordings of the Antarctic fur seal: the first capturing its lion-esque growls and bizarre falsetto whoops, the second consisting of its steady respiratory rise-and-fall during sleep. On the latter, one suddenly feels aware of English’s role in the process and the unsettling proximity to his subject. I can imagine him sat agonisingly still by the seal’s side, desperate to avoid making any unwanted noise; not only because even the mere rustle of a coat would shatter the Antarctic’s icy veil of quiet, but also because of the risk of intruding on the seal’s slumber.

…And The Lived In is the companion work, switching focus from subjects to collisions of object and landscape; situations rendered animate via electricity, societal processes and natural phenomena. Life is as present in these recordings as it is in the vocal cord vibrations of the howler monkeys on Songs Of The Living, yet it exists as a culmination culture, event and action: the rattle of flimsy walls on either side place the listener in the sheltered midst of an Antarctic storm, the slap of dripping water reverberates around the ape caves of Oregon, while the lo-fi music, “aaah”s of wonder and judder of robotised plastic movement evoke the sickly bustle of a Japanese toy store. As with Songs Of The Living, transitions occur without a mere moment’s breath – no sooner has the listener collapsed into the grass of the New Zealand wetland than the Mamori bird caller wails into audibility, as the listener tumbles dream-like through English’s remarkable (and beautifully documented) travel diary.