Patrick Morris - Augur of
Question: is Patrick Morris a serious musical maverick, or a
grand wizard of post modern cultural vacuity? Answer: he is both.
Morris challenges us, like a good martial arts fighter, by
disarming us of every musical and cultural yardstick we have before
we are able to make a judgment. His power is to provoke an
astonished hush upon the clamour of our most ingrained musical
Born in 1948, in Highgate, North London, a trained musician,
philosophy graduate, and sometimes journalist and critic, Morris has
influences which are as diverse as his artistic tenor is puzzling.
His world is no less coherent because of this. Indeed, what he
produces is sophisticated by being quite simple. The words of Miles
Davis are written in stone: "It's not what you play, its what you
don't play ..." . So it is in the gaps between items on our check
list of musical and cultural references that the complex and
portentous world of Patrick Morris opens up.
By his own admission the sizeable oeuvre of songs, ensemble pieces
and piano music stands out against the background of contemporary
music, much of which finds justification in Boulez and Stockhausen.
In the songs, particularly, Morris' unique alchemy consists in his
transmuting the base metal of the aforementioned, along with Dylan,
Waits, Tim Buckley et al, into his own specialised post-modern
alloy. The listener is in safe hands from the point of view of
craftsmanship and artistic integrity as Morris clearly wears a
thoroughgoing musical erudition, evidence of which seeps from the
formal and stylistic assuredness of any piece you care to listen to.
When listening to his intensely focused, personal songs the feeling
is that you've met your maker and the prognosis isn't good. With awe
and anticipation you hear his plangent voice telling it like it is.
The predominant mode of Morris' music is one of reverie - poetic
rumination that intertwines despair and moribundity in a tapestry of
regret. This restricted ambit invites criticism that his artistic
range is limited. To some people this may be justified. But the
particular force that inheres in his music is such that any desire
for variation in mood is suspended. Incantatory, spellbinding and
complete in itself, it serves as an effective antidote to the
built-in obsolescence of much popular music, which is so easily
destroyed by the very appetites that seek it. (If you want hip hop
then listen to So Solid Crew, if eclecticism, then check out world
music.) Morris knows what he wants to say and says it with
conviction. Take "The World of Mr P ..." (1999), an album of songs
that stands out as a colossus of authentic songwriting in the
crowded, inhuman world of electronic pop. It's an example of what a
real artist can do with basic materials. In this case, keyboard and
voice. Poems by Vicky Raymond, Gerard Manley Hopkins and A.E.
Housman form the settings of songs of an altogether different kind.
The album opens with "Closing Time", a spare contemplation on the
sense of pointlessness associated with old age: I shall wear green/
gold when I'm old/ and paint my nails/ colour my hair/ and not
notice when people stare/ I might just might take to drink/ and chat
to myself/ as I totter along . These lines imply a dislocation with
the world. A suitable gambit for an artist whose style is far from
derivative and who is not attempting to celebrate in a self
consciously avant garde way The Future.
Morris' music is inclined to stare blankly at the world and be
vulnerable, alone. In "Closing Time", for example, the piano
accompaniment proceeds at a stately hymn-like pace. Low octaves
alternate with fragile voicings organised about a central hook. The
melody soars, a repetitive chant returning constantly to suspended
4ths and 9ths. It never finds its way home, making the musical point
that perhaps there isn't any home at all, anywhere. All doom and
gloom you may say. But the song's power lies in the contemporary
truth of its message: that a feeling of disconnectedness is
inseparable from the essential bleakness of daily existence. Morris
makes of "Binsey Poplars", a poem by G M Hopkins about the felling
of a favourite vista of trees, a tour de force of stoicism and loss.
Matching Hopkins' unsentimental, elegiac tone Morris adds a quality
of foreboding by deploying his stock-in-trade big bass octaves
underneath tremulous, rolling major ninth chords. The effect is a
feeling of anger at the futility of the "progress" which has
shattered the trees' bucolic splendour. The song speaks of the loss
of what is familiar and powerfully articulates a sense of woe.
Is Morris a one trick pony, a saturnine character who renders his
projected angst about the world into technically unsophisticated
songs? Where's the rest of life you may ask, love, death, politics?
Its absence in his work suggests not so much a limitation as a
result of a painstaking process of reduction and a skilful economy
of means. By creating an emotional vacuum in his songs Morris makes
room for questioning and doubt and for an ultimate exposing of the
cost to humans of embracing Modernity. The songs examine what
remains after the rewards of Progress, which have proven surplus to
human need, have been dispensed with. In this case, it is tempting
to describe his style as "residual" because it suggests the eternal
recurrence, like Halley's comet, of Modernity's unfulfilled
aspirations. After all, it is Modernity's greatest achievements,
abundance and freedom, which find distorted form in his musical
settings to poems about hair salons - "Crowning Glory" - or a day
at the office - "Demonstratives". Modern existence reveals itself
as ruin rooted in the peripheral ignominies of quotidian life. If
you admire Morris' descriptions of reality, then you will recognise
the sense of longing he divines through a chipped high-cultural
lens, and the deft interplay between the general din of human
bewilderment and its fugitive, scarcely audible echoes.
RETURN TO TOP
The World of Mister P...
"Augur of Ruin"