A ‘drawing room’ is not usually a room full of pens and pencils and paper and naked ladies and nice bowls of fruit to sketch, but a room in which, or into which, one withdraws. To ‘withdraw’: that is, to ‘depart to another place in search of quiet or privacy’. In a 16th Century English house, a ‘withdrawing room’ was one to which the house-owner, his family, and perhaps a very distinguished guest or two, could withdraw for more privacy. It was not as private as the bedroom (the domain of entirely private things like sleep and sex) but more private than the living room, where social engagements took place, where active living was done. Nothing exactly is done in the withdrawing room: it’s not a sphere of action. It is a retreat. After being out in the world, one withdraws into privacy to recover.
Privacy is also the name of a project by Laurel Knapp. She hasn’t put anything out since 2010, and I can’t find a lot of information on her. But she put out two very short, very simple EPs called Without Mercy and Songs, both of which are very worth hearing. I’ve never heard such intimate music before. Nothing but nylon-stringed guitar and voice – her singing a quiet, throaty whisper in your ear. It’s naked music. I feel almost like I shouldn’t be allowed to listen, like I’m invading her privacy. This is music that belongs in the bedroom. No song is longer than a couple of minutes, but they hit with a quiet power. Songs, in particular, I have played hundreds of times, and still think about often, six years after its release. When I’m in a certain mood, I retreat into it, withdraw into it, and am, for lack of a better word, healed by it.
Part of the pleasure of music is in sharing another human being’s inner experiences, feeling what they feel. But most music doesn’t take us all the way back to the bedroom, like Privacy’s does. Music, after all, is also a performance. Whether it’s recorded live, in a studio, in a bedroom, or pieced together on a laptop, it is performative in nature. Just the presence of a microphone there, recording, makes you sing differently, play differently, as anyone who has tried to record music will testify to. It feels like being watched. You are aware that people will be listening.
So, music is both private and public. It belongs, then, in the drawing room, in the withdrawing room, the liminal space between the bedroom and the living room. Though there is bedroom music and living room music, most music exists (metaphorically, at least) somewhere in the middle.
This week, I’ve been listening to the new Mary Lattimore album, At the Dam. In some sense, this is very much a record that’s out in the world. It is travelling music, made on a road trip Lattimore took with a friend, the music improvised and recorded in different cities, different states. The track titles testify to this wandering spirit: ‘Otis Walks into the Woods’, ‘Jaxine Drive’, ‘Ferris Wheel, January’. But it’s also a soft, meditative album, and its journeying feels like a different kind of withdrawal, as travelling often does – a withdrawal from day-to-day life, a temporary respite. Describing recording in Joshua Tree, on the porch of a friend’s house, with the desert stretching around her, she says it ‘felt like a residency on another planet’.
I discovered Lattimore back in 2013, when she put out a short record of improvised harp and electronics called The Withdrawing Room. I listened at first because I loved the title, its multiple layers of meaning: not only a room to withdraw into, which Lattimore’s music certainly is, but also a room that withdraws from view, that vanishes. I quickly fell in love. Like Privacy’s music, it felt purpose-built for withdrawing into. I could close my eyes, sit in it, sleep in it. It was a space for reflection and for recovery, a space to immerse myself in. I emerged out of it feeling refreshed, renewed. I distinctly recall feeling more patient, as well, something slowly developing music like this tends to make us.
The first piece of music on The Withdrawing Room is a long meditation called ‘You’ll Be Fiiinnne’. Like the rest of the album, it was entirely improvised. The piece both describes and enacts the process of withdrawing (into art and into yourself) and emerging again. Let me attempt to describe it. It opens with a beautiful falling melody, luscious layers of harp enveloping, comforting, overtly pretty at this point, in a way that maybe feels like a kind of pure escapism. The cascade of melody eventually dies away and the whole thing goes very quiet for a moment. Then out of that quiet, a stormier, noisier, cathartic mid-section emerges, repurposing melodic material from the first, but with the electronics becoming more prominent than the harp itself, shaping it into a spewing tempest, frothy and bubbling and chaotic. Part of it was apparently made by scraping a 9 volt battery along the low wire strings. It’s dark, interior, like we’re deep inside her mind. Then the final part of the song returns us back to the harp, with another ‘falling’ melody, though softer, sadder than the first, as though changed slightly, coloured slightly, by the tempest in the middle. And then it suddenly fades out and ends, like a door being shut (or perhaps flung open again).
The structure of the album as a whole has this same three-part pattern: light, dark, light. Withdrawing into the darkness, emerging back into the light. After an almost stately harp introduction, the second track, ‘Pluto the Planet’, takes an unexpected left turn into abstraction, evolving into a stark, quick-moving composition, playing off shadows and sparks of light. We are both deep in the interior (it feels almost claustrophobic) and deep out in space. Fully withdrawn: far from the world. I picture the immense darkness of space in which Pluto hangs in its orbit, in which it is enveloped: a tiny, lifeless ball of rock. And yet, by the end of the piece, light has been kindled in the darkness. Pluto becomes a ball of mirrors, myriad light beams shimmering within it. This is Pluto the Planet, not Pluto the ex-Planet. It feels like a reclamation.
Then the third and final piece, ‘Poor Daniel’, picks up the lighter, waterfall-like tone of the first, picking up almost where it left off, like waking from a dream, and spinning another beautiful harp melody into a quickly expanding, shimmering climax of electronics, a final ecstatic bliss. It’s the sound of leaving the room, returning to the world. If to withdraw is to leave, to renounce, to retreat, then here we return, confirm, accept.
Check out The Withdrawing Room here. To finish, here’s some of Mary’s new tunes to enjoy: