Patrick Morris - Augur of Ruin

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 prejudices.   

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.

Jonathan Wiltshire


The World of Mister P...



"Augur of Ruin"