Picture this: our intrepid photographer arrives late and sweaty (we must assume) to the venue, parks his bike, and approaches the entrance. The area outside is ill-lit and completely deserted. As his hand reaches for the door handle, the entire building starts to vibrate. The windows and doors rattle, the bricks tremble and even the pavement outside murmurs underfoot. One intense tone wrenches through the building, and as he makes his way through the corridor, past the empty cloakroom, it intensifies.
Inside, the room is dark but for a set of neon red strips on the stage. Under their ghoulish glow the audience lies strewn across the floor, as if stunned by the aftershock. I am lying among them, but the shock, though real, is mostly metaphorical. The man at the centre of all this, Lawrence English, introduced the piece with a recommendation that we experience it lying on the floor. There is some initial awkwardness, but as soon as the first dark waves of bass come crashing through the floor, it is clear that he knows what he is talking about.
Of course his previous body of work proves this on its own. Through his work both as an artist and a thinker, Lawrence English has long been interested in developing ideas around the bodily experience and politics of listening. The piece he is presenting tonight is Cruel Optimism, which draws its inspiration from a book of the same title by the theoretician Lauren Berlant. This is English’s most collaborative piece, including contributions from, among others, Swans percussionist Thor Harris and Austrian artist Heinz Riegler.
From down here on the floor, the initial impression is of sheer violence, an intensity felt directly through every limb in contact with the hard surface. For the first minutes I am coming to terms with a feeling of helplessness, an awareness of another being affecting my body in such an un-ignorable, un-interpretable way. Maybe because there is nothing I can do but experience it, the music stops becoming a medium, and becomes a complete object.
The first passage feels like being stuck in the loudest and busiest of city intersections. Subway trains of unimaginable size barrel through the earth below, sirens phase in an out of each other. A high pitched buzz covers all of this, swarming here and there until the bass collapses away and the buzz becomes the frothing sound of a wave after it has crashed. At other points the sound is positively monolithic, an insistence that occupies each body until it is suddenly swept away and replaced by something which is almost choral in quality.
It is very hard not to sound utterly ridiculous in recounting this, but as I consult the track list afterwards they seem to bear out my own listening: “Hard Rain”, “The Quietest Shore”, “Pillar of Cloud”, “Exquisite Human Microphone”. Needless to say, I will be lying down at concerts more often now.