Loscil‘s City Hospital is a work of multiple layers that take time to exhume. Wist Records’ jackdaw reissue has made the EP even more mysterious, which works to its advantage. As each layer is peeled back, the listener gains a new perspective.
The story begins with the author Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957), best known for the novel Under the Volcano and a lifetime of excessive drinking. The first of many low points in Lowry’s life was the suicide of a friend who also wished to be a love interest; the second was a 1936 stint in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital following a separation from his wife. This latter event was the inspiration for an autobiographical novella, Lunar Caustic, which be began writing that year and continued writing throughout his life, with hopes of turning it into a novel; it was finally published a decade after his death.
Lunar Caustic‘s protagonist, Bill Plantagenet, wanders around Manhattan in a drunken stupor before checking himself into a hospital. Like Lowry, he is a seafarer, and the early scenes take place on a ship at dock. He, too, is at the tail end of a dissolving relationship. He has also left behind a career as a pianist. In symbolic fashion, a friend asks him to imagine the building he is in, deserted: “All that would be left of the piano would be the keys; all the rest would rot.” But always there is the threat of the unknown, impinging on his fate: “he felt the encroachment of a chilling fear, eclipsing all other feelings, that the thing they wanted was coming for him alone, before he was ready for it”.
Plantagenet asks his doctor, “Can’t you see the horror, the horror of man’s uncomplying acceptance of his own degeneration? Because many who are supposed to be mad here, as opposed to the ones who are drunks, are simply people who perhaps once saw, however confusedly, the necessity for change in themselves, for rebirth, that’s the word.” Lowry’s own life ended in suicide, perhaps the suicide of the bottle. He never escaped, never changed. Fittingly, Wist Records has dedicated City Hospital “to everyone struggling with mental illness.”
Penguin’s Modern Classics Series re-presented Lunar Caustic in paperback form in 2011, and it was picked up by Wist Records for The Book Report Series a year later with a score by Loscil (Vancouver’s Scott Morgan) including piano by “B. Plantagenet” (spooky) and snippets of Edward Grieg’s “Death of Ase”. This latter piece comes from the suite Peer Gynt, based on a play by Henrik Ibsen, and is in turn based on a fairy tale about a procrastinating poet who is also an avid drinker and who never amounts to what others imagine he might become. (He also suffers a shipwreck.) Ibsen is a more successful poet than the imagined Gynt, perhaps in direct opposition to his own ancestry, as Ibsen’s alcoholic father is also from a long line of seafarers. The surreal aspects of Peer Gynt match up with the surreal imaginings of Lunar Caustic, as well as to the disorientation of Loscil’s City Hospital.
In Wist’s reissue, postcards, photos, and maps vie for attention, inspiring the attraction of the objective observer to the reasons behind the disaster. Perusing the materials is akin to the thrill of discovering hidden documents. But while theories abound, the specific causes of mental illness are elusive, and the eye cannot tell the full story. An excellent overview in the liner notes (written by Mark Goodall) connects the aural sections of Lowry’s work to their expression in Loscil’s score. Loscil’s entry in The Book Report Series is one of the most attentive in connecting specific instances of text to sound, as shown in many easy-to-match segments, beginning with the early lapping of waves and continuing with the introduction of piano. More important is the matching of the mood. Loscil’s work has always been melancholic, but here he aspires to greater depths. The suite remains in a constant state of fugue, as sonic clarity is obscured by fuzz and drone. Even a fog horn does little to cut through the cloud. A pulse, slower than a heartbeat, reflects the dredging of a half-lived life. If at the end a slow awakening seems apparent, the student of Lowry’s trajectory knows that this focus will be only an interlude. The waves wash in again. Time abrades and decays. Only the words remain. (Richard Allen)