Mark Roberts from The Enright House trades intellectual asides with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM on classical music, post-rock, and the album A Maze and Amazement LP.

*   *   *

The Enright House: A Maze and Amazement LP

MARK ROBERTS is a very nice man. He’s very intelligent too. And he also makes wonderful music with The Enright House. Ostensibly a solo project, the Christchurch artist has released a A Maze and Amazement LP and added a few more members in the process. A Maze and Amazement LP is a beautiful album, complex and dense, but highly accessible. It’s a languid dream, shifting between melancholy and uplift, heavy on mood and texture. In other words, it could probably be described under the term “post-rock”, but there is so much happening here, it’s a little too reductive to try and sum it up in a term or two.

Roberts’ mother is an opera singer, and consequently he was steeped in a classical music tradition. “I was into music virtually by birth”. His mother “didn’t believe in babysitters” so he “basically travelled with her my whole life.” He grew up in Germany, and moved to Chicago and spent five years studying composition and philosophy. Some of his father’s family lived in Christchurch, and Roberts came out to visit. He met a professor in the philosophy school and they instantly clicked. Roberts is working on his masters in philosophy, and incorporates some of his academic ideas into his music. “The album was my way of letting go of my youth in Germany. It’s very much nostalgic, very much autobiographical, but not necessarily always regretful. No doubt the album is steeped in melancholia, but that's not all there is. For every moment of sadness, there are also a great many moments of sincere gratitude and tenderness to be found in these songs.”

This personal nature of the music has made it difficult to collaborate with others, and it’s only recently with the live tour and new work that Roberts is starting to find his feet with other musicians. “It’s been really hard, it’s been hard. The main reason for which this was difficult is the fact that these songs are completely and entirely private. Everything about this record I did on my own, in the privacy of my living room and in my bedroom, here in New Zealand and Chicago. It’s always been something I’ve done by myself. Of course live, I’m not by myself, we’re a group, everyone for themselves tries to reinterpret the music. In many cases it benefits from that, but it runs the danger of diluting the initial idea. What it ends up being is this fascinating world, where I discover new things about the music. At the same time, it’s a difficult arrangement, an uneasy arrangement, I do feel, I don’t know, it’s difficult being in a band where not everyone has an equal say. We’re trying to work on that. We’ve finished writing one song, which is totally awesome. It was a wonderful experience.’

He has an immense love of classical music. “There are so many composers that I love and adore”. Outside of the obvious suspects, he’s also a huge fan of the early neo-classicists (e.g. Shostakovich) and the minimalist composers (e.g. Reich, Glass) of the 60s. “I strongly believe that virtually everything that we consider avant-garde and complex in today's popular music is largely child's play compared to the majority of classical music out there. I mean, I love the music I write and it brings me happiness and joy, but deep down, in my heart of hearts, I know that much more is possible.” This drew Roberts towards popular music bands who have similar views – bands like Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Mogwai, Sonic Youth, The Books, who he adores “for their spirit and efforts to find new paths to musical meaning.” He does admit though “there is no denying that all of us are still a long ways away from reaching anywhere near the complexity that a lot of classical music exhibits.”

Post-rock is a label coined to describe bands like Mogwai and Godspeed, bands that The Enright House are getting most frequently compared to. “I can’t say that I am particularly uncomfortable with people using the label as a means to convey something about the sound of our music, especially since audible traces to the genre are actually present in our songs. And yet, A Maze and Amazement is most definitely not a post-rock album in the narrower sense of the term ‘instrumental rock’.” While he’s not particularly comfortable with the idea of reducing music to a single catchphrase that avoids “critically engaging with the music”, Roberts admits that he’s “always rather liked the term post-rock for its audacity to state the obvious, namely that music-as-it-is in this case rock, can and ought to be transcended and followed by something better. I mean, let’s call a spade a spade: popular culture is hideous, nauseating, flat and mundane, and it’s high-time we demanded more from it and its music.”

It’d be fair to say for a lot of people, popular music is not meant to aspire towards any sort of higher art, but that’s not going to stop Roberts from trying to intellectually engage with his music and allow his audience to so. It’s an admirable sentiment in a musical landscape that can be too purposefully Luddite for its own good at times. “I agree that our popular culture is profoundly anti-intellectual, but I don’t allow myself to worry about it. I will always be proud of my life if I can manage to stay true to my values and passions. Rationality, individualism and education are the cornerstones of everything I hold dear, and the idea of giving them up in order to appeal to audiences is just unfathomably revolting to me. Art, after all, is not a service industry. And the real terror I dread is not being unpopular, but rather the utter loneliness and self-loathing that are the natural consequences of deserting one’s values – avoiding the latter trumps any concerns I might have with the former.” That’s not to say Roberts is embarking on a one-man mission to eradicate the simplicity of popular music, and he’s definitely not trying to badmouth the more “popular” variants of music. “At the same time, I think that music that is a little bit simpler is actually important to people. It’s not that only stupid people like simple music, I desperately need simple music. You don’t need to read Ulysses to find profundity, you could read a short haiku. I’m not sure pop music should turn into classical music, but I think the distinctions might blur.”

He also suggests that the classical music world is closed to many musicians. “I think what separate pop music and class music, is completely different traditions, and what has kept a lot of people out of classical music is that it’s largely based on very disciplined learning on instrument or skills.” This has the effect of pushing out musicians who haven’t from an early age learned and mastered their instruments from the classical world. However Roberts suggests these type of musicians could perhaps lack the spontaneity of popular musicians, while the popular musicians might lack the inability to write complex pieces of work. However he does think the boundaries could potentially become increasingly blurred, where the divisions “make less sense”, especially given modern technology creating a more “user driven and interactive” audience model. Roberts mentions a band like Rachel’s as a group mixing both classical music and indie rock. This questioning of boundaries means Roberts wants to push his music even further. “Despite loving this album to bits and feeling intensely proud of it, I must also admit that I do occasionally feel a slight regret at not having allowed myself to push the envelope just a bit further, by drawing more from my training as a composer.”

Roberts is doing his masters thesis on how human societies often find the broken “beautiful”. He’s interested in “why some people find the broken not beautiful despite its condition but because of its conditions. I’m still looking for an answer”. Practices like putting a folly (“a ruin that was deliberately built as a ruin”) in 18th Century English gardens, the ethics of art restoration, the aesthetics of “poverty” and the aesthetics of the “used” in Japanese tea ceremonies are some of the wide areas that Roberts has drawn into his thesis and he suggests that “part of what you find beautiful is what you can’t see, what your imagination has to supply, which all contributes to the beauty of the thing that you have seen.” We see both “simultaneously the vivid proof of an enduring human spirit, as well as the undeniable proof of death and its petrifying relentlessness”, a dichotomy that has helped shape Roberts view on music too. “Popular culture’s hedonistic obsession with the pristine and the new, by contrast, are absolute anathema to me. It's nothing but a desperate conjuring act, since the pristine never is and never can become a reality. Our pop culture is all gloss and air kisses, fake sensations and hollow intimacies, so why not start from a point of truth and embrace the imperfect right from the outset? Why not go further yet, and nurture it?” I wonder if this means Roberts would set out to deliberately “sabotage” his own music, construct his album almost like a folly, a ruin, and indeed, he chucks in moments of distortions or scratches, moments of unconventionality that subscribe to this fragile sense of beauty.

Roberts recorded considerable amounts of music in preparation for the album. I have this huge collection going into the hundreds, of very raw demos.” Some songs on the albums are first takes recorded in five hours, while others took a couple of years to generate. For a mood heavy album however, he doesn’t approach the album with that in mind. “I never set out to create a mood or an emotional tenor for a song or an album. In fact, the reverse is the case. I find myself in a certain mood, and then write music that directly mirrors my inner world. I am, in that sense, fictionally incompetent. Whatever melodies, harmonies and rhythms pour out of me are nothing but the real-time soundtrack to my thoughts and feelings at that very moment. Only later, as more time passes, do I begin editing them.” The duality that is created by his fascination with the imperfect also comes through in how his music is constructed. “I wanted music to reflect what I see in the world. I see a constant conflict between beauty, and what I suppose is ugly, hideous. I think it applies to everything, the world is full of dualities, of people doing incredibly good and kind things, and being able to be downright immoral, across the board.” Roberts also includes spoken word into the album, a reaction to the “fundamentally theatrical” nature of music. “Hearing the spoken word and the sounds of our environment through music, gives me a sense that the music I am hearing is less of a fiction and more connected to the world of experience.”

All this has resulted in a rather shimmering piece of work. A Maze and Amazement LP could be accused of over-extending itself at times (and potentially use a little trimming at points), but it’s ambitious and gorgeous to listen to. While approaching his music from an intellectual angle, it’s also a stirring piece of work, that reveals more and more to you every listen. Unlike say, Godspeed! You Black Emperor which thunderously document an apocalypse, this is much more personal, much more insular. “I think music that has a lot of heart in it, a lot of thought in it, it can be beautiful and simple, in that there will be enough complexity for people to discover. Usually discovery takes time.”