Alien Observer: London, Loneliness And The Mono No Aware Sensitivity Of Grouper
I’d always remembered how the experience felt; the dissolution, the melancholy, the fatigue. But I’d never set to words the cold reality of a homeward post-rave passage, a dissonant journey from the warmth of an anonymous crowd to the silence of solitariness and absence, from heaving club to half-vacant vehicle, from packed dancefloor to the sparse chug of a night bus. Engaged in a rocky serpentine crawl – or an occasionally jolting, train track slipstream – and filled with the tired eyes and reclusive language of an exhausted congregation (people going home, people barely waking up) I couldn’t think of a more lonely transfer, at least in everyday encounters.
Although I’d be quick to emphasise that this often ephemeral experience pales in comparison to many of the more intense permutations of loneliness that beset many, there was a certain texture to this experience that spoke of a quotidian loneliness, an unacknowledged, universal loneliness, perhaps even a self-indulgent form of fixation, but a loneliness all the same.
As I’ve taken these journeys more frequently over the last few years, there have been piecemeal revelations, either in the moment or in the aftermath of the exertion. Scrappy ruminations on the experience, the surroundings and the music that would often accompany me and consolidate me. In these glimpses of clarity it felt as if I experienced some small dose of loneliness, either personally, in the eyes of those around me or in the landscape itself. Accordingly these episodes were revealing something about loneliness, London and music; their contours and their connections with each other. These were trivial misadventures but in a small, fractional way they showed how the contemporary dysfunction of London bruised, ignored and shuttled the lonely. More importantly listening to the music of certain artists emphasised how a state of loneliness could be contended with and channelled, how music of a certain hue could evoke grace, power and courage in calling upon it and facing it down, even if the ache could not be wholly extinguished.
One artist that has done that more than any other, and who’s work has often found its way onto my devices in these remote, liminal hours, is Liz Harris aka Grouper. Over the course of a decade, through myriad mediums (CDRs, split EPs, 7”s, LPs) Harris has, by virtue of a vaporised, transcendental signature, distilled loss, ruin and loneliness in the sonic properties and atmospheric affect of her work. Steeped in echo, tape decay and a voice that often falters on the verge of disappearance, hers is a wounded world-of-one vortex that seems to contain impossible, paradoxical currents of redemptive tenderness and crumbling surrender, both a maelstrom and a private prayer, a slow severance of occupancy and a miraculous medication for the forlorn.
I know plenty of people who have heard her and continue to laud her work but it always felt as if, in the act of listening to her, you alone were tuning in (a trite notion but one that holds true), taken to empty plains that were raw and bare yet sacred, just as exposed as you were commiserated. This felt particularly special at 4am on a deathly quiet night bus or an early ‘morning’ tube, temporary conveyors that felt far away from where I had been and seemed to be heading nowhere.
I can remember one particular night coming back from the Village Underground in Shoreditch. Across the road from the station and in full view of that heinous pop up monument to ‘cultural’ capitalism (Box Park), there was a man sprawled out on the pavement, face down and just a few metres from the road. Everything about him seemed black-and-blue; a stained, brutally dog-eared figure left in the gutter alongside bulbous black bin liners. It was clear he’d been here for quite some time. A more desperate picture of vagrancy than the customary brutality.
I stopped for a few moments, the way that people do for those on the street when they know they can offer little help. Voyeuristic glances and hesitant indecision. He was alive but there was no way he was waking up. Gaggles of drunken gangs flocked by, a maul of hyena laughs, cocktail dresses and blokes in All Saint Deep Vs with squaddie haircuts. I thought about the bars in the vicinity, the way they ironise and co-opt ‘authenticity’ and ‘grit’. The ‘distressed’ look. I thought about this man within it all, an inconvenient reminder of culpability in the pseudo-chic shitscapes of Shoreditch. I was guilty too, mashed and useless, gawping and offering little practical help. A few other bystanders showed more initiative so I got on the train and retreated into the safe reticence and controllable immersion of my headphones, a decision that compounded my guilt further.
The same guilt at the sight of another person’s ruin permeates Grouper’s ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’, both in its devastating, clouded undertows and in its underlying conception, a record that was awaiting me that night, primed and ready on the internal memory of my phone. In discussing the origin of the record Harris recalls encountering a shipwrecked sailboat on Agate Beach in Oregon whilst walking with her father. After its discovery, the removal took a few days and in this time she returned to survey what objects remained and revealed the poignant, uncanny resonances that this encounter held for her:
‘I remember looking only brieﬂy, wilted by the feeling that I was violating some remnant of this man's presence by witnessing the evidence of its failure. Later I read a story about him in the paper. It was impossible to know what had happened. The boat had never crashed or capsized. He had simply slipped off somehow, and the boat, like a riderless horse, eventually came back home.’
Although I had wanted to help the man I encountered, I felt the same sense of intrusion on personal pain. This man hadn’t disappeared like in Harris’ story yet his presence was experiencing a similar process of erasure, a man who had slipped out of the consensual flow of life and was, at that moment, being eclipsed not only by a few oblivious stragglers, but by the whole city, which was asleep and not listening.
In the wake of this experience the music took on a new layer of meaning. It was as if the tragic inspiration for the record had, in my mind, been altered, reshaped. It now seemed to fit with a street view pathos that took London streets as it’s site of loneliness and felt apt as a subjective adaptation, especially at a time when rates of homelessness and poverty are rising and social statistics charting loneliness have led to sensationalist though not unfounded claims that London is the ‘capital of loneliness’. In listening to the record and thinking about the fate of the man at the side of the road I felt that I was at least providing a feeble form of acknowledgement, a preoccupation that became a vain attempt to atone for my helplessness at witnessing his condition. Even vainer now, as I deliberate whether this piece of writing is an ignoble tribute, a dodgy fetishization of the subdued. Nevertheless, the moment, and the music that was heard in proximity to it, seemed to matter.
‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’ and much of Grouper’s work can be related to a Mono No Aware sensibility, a Japanese term defined as ‘a capacity to be, or the experience of being, deeply and spontaneously moved by various poignant manifestations of nature, including human nature; especially a sense of pathos arising from intense awareness of the impermanence of earthly things.’ Such a capacity is one that’s willed to the surface by Harris’ work. ‘Ruins’, the last Grouper LP to emerge, took its name from the physical ruins (old estates and a small village) that were dotted around the landscape of Aljezur in Portugal, where Harris was engaged in an arts residency. But the central, sorrowful spirit of the record is marked by the emotional fallout of a recently ended relationship.
Again, no one needs to go to Portugal just to see and feel ruination (although it probably helps for inspiration if you’re making a record) On a night bus home from Shepherd’s Bush once I noticed a light out of the side of the window, not the sodium glare and dull Halloween orange of a street light, but a light that was flaring, in bursts, spilling up out of a black bin and reducing what was once solid into a gelatinous, opaque gloop. There was no one else around to witness this, it was late/impossibly early. I thought to myself these things usually burn themselves out and I imagined the aftermath, all acrid smoke and charcoal burnout. The Great Fire of London. I thought to myself mockingly of an ill-conceived metaphor for the city’s combustible pressure. The money pouring in and the resentment escalating (again) Filtering quietly into my ears at the instant I saw the fire was Grouper’s ‘Ruins’, a record that had been partly inspired by a different, infinitely more poetic vision of architectural decay. This fire felt like the nearest I’d get to such a scene – at least at this juncture – and it seemed to parallel what I was hearing, even if the nearby glow from the Chicken Cottage proved disillusioning.
For all its urban mundanity, like the man I had seen at the side of the road, this moment stayed with me, intertwined on this occasion with the severely stripped back, aching nocturnes of ‘Ruins’. There was something simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking in the sight of a bin fire that not even the arsonist (accidental or otherwise) would stick around for. A cremation no one attended; heightened by the voice of someone who was contending with their own experience of damage, both material and abstract. I concluded that the signs of London’s abjection and loneliness only revealed themselves to me either at night or in the throes of a faint, barely broken morning.
I was reminded of these memories and connections recently with the first release of new Grouper material in over two years. ‘Paradise Valley’ – Harris’ first output in two years – only comprises a couple of tracks, two declarations of august serenity. Although defined by a finer calm (mirrored by an artwork which shows a sun that looks like it’s setting for the last time) that distinguishes it from the misted dread of ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ and the bare soulful deprivation of ‘Ruins’, it couldn’t help but evoke these former encounters. In that recall, it reminded me of how far music can travel, the prisms through which we appreciate and contextualize it and the overlap between separate locations and different lives, made temporarily less distant. Mingled with that recall too is the thought that, in its Mono No Aware sensitivity, Harris’ work unlocks what often remains hidden, avoided or dismissed. In this case, the significance and inevitability of solitude on a wearisome journey home in contemporary London. The things that fall through the cracks, seen in cold, unforgiving light. Forgotten vagrants and impotent vandalism, signs of desperation and anger/indifference; lives and happenings that fall outside the purview of conventional metropolitan regularity. The destitution, the surrealism, but also the reality. In witnessing that and refuting the voguish veneer and consumerist avoidance of the current moment, there’s room for consolation, a palliative clarity. A refusal to ignore loneliness and ruin, to try and understand it and look to combat it. Even when you’re half-cut on a night bus.
Images taken from Patrick Keiller's "London".