Lawrence English is an Australian composer, artist and curator living in Brisbane. Founder of Room40, one of Australia’s finest independent, experimental record labels, English has managed to deliver excellent pieces of work for over a decade. His compositions span a wide range from ambient to drone and field recordings creating complex soundscapes that challenge even the most open-minded listeners. Restlessness and thirst for evolution in sonic art has enabled him to provoke new approaches through research and experimentation. A politically aware artist who is not afraid to speak his mind with extensive knowledge about the World Wars which is usually found referenced in his projects. We had a conversation with Lawrence about his latest album Wilderness Of Mirrors, a title borrowed from T.S Eliot’s poem “Gerontion”, and his opinion on various subjects from art to politics and more…
There is a strong conceptual idea behind your album. How did a phrase of T. S. Eliot‘s poem “Gerontion” became a source of inspiration and the title to your new album “Wilderness of Mirrors” and why is the correlation to espionage and the Cold War era so appealing?
I think one of the aspects that really interested me about this phrase “wilderness of mirrors“, was how strong a visual metaphor it was and how it might be possible to transgress that notion of the visual in favour of a sonic reading. To me that phrase has a very strong sonic connotation, ideas of reverberation, reflection, feedback; all these ideas are central to how it is I think about and work with sound. I’ve known the Eliot poem for some time, but a couple of years ago that particular phrase and Gerontion started to resonate with me. The poem is truly provocative, it invites such a layered reading and I find this density appealing. In some respects I’d like to think I share that interest in perspective and layering with the music I make. The phrase really came into focus whilst I was watching an Adam Curtis documentary. There was a sequence talking about how the phrase came to be associated with misinformation in the cold war and somehow that reading really brought into focus a lot of the concerns I have with contemporary politics. It was a timely reminder and the album benefited from that.
I don’t have an interest in just creating work for the sake of it. There’s enough wastage out there already and we simply don’t need any more!
Another thing that really impressed me was the period that you took to complete this album. Two years in the making… One should think “Why did it take that long?” especially if you think of how fast the music business works now.
Music is all about time. A multiplicity of time; in creation, in listening, in memory. It reflects all the elements that govern our understanding of time and it only reveals itself in time, there’s just no other way around it. The more linear and non-linear time you give a piece of music, via listening verse memory lets say, the richer it becomes. As to why Wilderness Of Mirrors took as long as it did, partly that was the process I set up for myself.
Coming out of The Peregrine, the album before this, I really wanted to reconcile and address some of the lingering questions I had. I wanted to find what the unanswered questions were formed in making music and how I might propose some methods to test them. That takes time, if you are really going to investigate and drill in it. I think another reason was I wanted the pieces to sit for a while, to organically find their relational place to one another. There’s also the fact that making work is pleasurable and challenging all at once. More and more I am conscious of how I work and what the work means, I don’t have an interest in just creating work for the sake of it. There’s enough wastage out there in the world already and we simply don’t need any more!
I believe there is a certain beauty in challenging and even haunting the listener. Do you get any sort of pleasure in creating discomfort with the uneasy listening parts of your compositions or is it an experiment to discover people’s musical boundaries?
What’s intoxicating about music is perhaps best summarised by a phrase William Burroughs used to brandish ‘Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted.’. I find this phrase a little like Wilderness Of Mirrors, it has a poetic sentiment and opens itself out to be interpreted in multiple ways. When it comes to making work, I think this summarises how I’d like to think the game should be played. If we know where it is we are headed, if we can see where it is the beginning, middle and end are, then there’s a kind of lack. The answer is never as satisfying as the question. In terms of what I wanted to achieve with Wilderness Of Mirrors, I wanted to leave a mark on people. It’s that simple. I don’t believe that which comes without some friction or effort carries much worth. It’s like food, those meals that are worked over, or are made up of items you’ve grown and strived for, they linger in your memory. They are more than just the moment of consumption. They are a seed that germinates something more than just the instant of engagement. I want that for the music I make. I want it inside you, not always in the conscious, perhaps even better buried in a shallow grave of unconscious, occasionally raising itself through the thin crust of soil to roam in your conscious like a rogue corpse.
The two principal elements of the album is harmony and distortion. Isn’t it quite oxymoron though that two nearly opposite elements such as harmony and distortion co-exist? Opposites attract or is there a fine line between the two like a harmonic distortion?
For me these two ideas are somehow very much on the same wavelength. Harmony, unlike melody lets say is more about an aesthetic concern than something narrative to move the listener on a musical journey. Similarly, distortion is a question of aesthetics, how it’s deployed and on what or how intensely it’s exploited all radically transform the potential of any sound. Once there are multiple layers of distortion brought together then you have an opportunity to explore a kind of harmony with these layers, a harmonic distortion that can be subtle or create a seriously crippling wall of noise. I think what ultimately makes these ideas relational and more over powerful is the use of dynamics. It’s that contouring that allows music it’s license to occupy us to differing degrees depending on where it is we’re listening.
Obviously “field recordings” play another vital role in your music. How do you get these recordings? Do you search in a music library or record them yourself?
I’ll confess to a great interest in field recording. It’s one strand of what I do and how it is I want to explore the idea of sound and space. I don’t think I’ve ever used library recordings for any projects. For me what makes field recording interesting and profound as a practice is the idea that you are in some way broadcasting a listening of a given time and space. What I am hoping to do with my field recording work is share an internal experience, my internal listening, with other people. To do that, to share your listening, requires you to be able to marry what it is you’re listening to with how it is you are able to record. It’s a marriage of the organic ear and the prosthetic ear of the microphone. The success of a field recording to some degree is how those two ears relate to one another. I call this idea “relational listening”. It’s something I’m spending a good deal of time researching and theorising at the moment. Ultimately, I don’t tend to draw a distinction between sound’s origins. I feel that field recordings can speak just as powerfully as music. They just need to convey how it is you, as the field recorder, are listening, what you are listening for and how you prioritise the focus of your listening in any given time and place.
As a politically aware individual and musician, has the state of restlessness and political instability around the world or even in your country, Australia, affected your music?
The short answer to this is yes, I feel there has been a great many shortcomings, stemming from what I feel is an application of hollow ideology. Inherently this is political and presents itself in a whole range of ways. In my country, Australia, we’ve experienced a considerable undermining of many of the core tenets that make our society worthwhile and ultimately meaningful. These have included a new assault on universal health care, support for those in need and refugees, amongst other things, which typify a general reduction in compassion.
“Guillotines and Kingmakers” was the first track title to get my attention. Do you think such elements exist in our society?
I think it’s a wonderful metaphor for what we see around us all the time. The execution of one, begets the kingship of another. In some respects I feel this speaks to the ideas of a meritocracy, something I feel fails to properly address the complexities of community and the social contract I personally hold as valuable. We make a choice to be thoughtful, to be considerate to that which is around us. This may take more effort than mindless consumption and utter focus on the self, but it’s through this effort I’d argue that meaningful societal (and personal) progression is made possible.
Is there an association between sonic art and modern art as we know it today?
Yes, without a doubt. In so far as the practice of sound, visual or physical contemporary arts all share a root of investigation, a desire to seek ideally and to encourage others to do so. I think perhaps where sound is different is the concise history the art form has. In the visual arts, there’s a correlation between portraiture, photography, video art and the like. There’s a way of seeing that traces a lineage through a 40000 year history that stems back to our earliest renderings in what should be considered sacred sites around the world. By contrast, sound in a reproducible state, has a history that goes back a mere 160 years or so. It’s incredibly young. And really its been only in the past five decades or so we’ve started to consider how a sonic art functions in it’s own right outside of the discourse of music. So whilst there’s an obvious association, it’s one in which the language to explore those relationships is still be teased out. It’s an active, eruptive space and that’s exciting!
It’s about how you show people the doorway into the world you want them to experience… It’s merely a matter of seducing them to peer inside.
Being a sonic artist, how do you respond to negative criticism from people – with perhaps more mainstream taste or untrained ears – unable to understand your music? In other words who is your target audience?
I believe anyone can have a meaningful experience with sound, so I guess that means my idea of audience is about as broad as you can imagine. That said, you’re right not everyone has the cultural capital to comprehend, analyse and potentially appreciate this kind of work. This isn’t isolated to sound works though. It’s the same case for theatre, poetry, cinema, dance, visual arts and just about every other cultural pursuit. For me, the question is about how you show people the doorway into the world you want them to experience. Then it’s merely a matter of seducing them to peer inside.
Which pioneering artists changed the way you conceive music and in which way have they shaped your artistic direction?
That’s a difficult question to answer. There’s a great many artists that have inspired for a whole range of different field.
Sonically people like Akio Suzuki, David Toop, Brian Eno, Toru Takemistsu, John Cage, Jamie Stewart, Orenette Coleman and Michael Gira have all made me consider the potential of sound and music in differing ways.
In visual terms, James Turrell, Richard Serra, Steve Roden, Marco Fusinato, Hiroshi Sugimoto,Eugene Carchesio, Sol Lewitt, Christian Marclay and Donald Judd have all made me consider the notion of perspective and perception.
In literature I think my advocacy for J.A. Baker is well documented, The Peregrine still haunts me daily.
As an art director and founder of ROOM 40 has there been a modus operandi that you follow?
From the outset there’s been a kind of curatorial aspect to what Room40 does. I think the best way to summarise that is not so much by a particular kind of sound, more an interest and focus of the artists in the work they do. Room40 draws its name from the code breaking facility in the UK that was active during the first and second world wars. Metaphorically, I wanted to replicate their approach, they brought together military personal, chess players, crossword enthusiasts, mathematicians and a whole range of other seemingly unrelated minds. What they shared was a passion for the same study of codification. I wanted to bring together disparate minds, all united with a passion for sound. I’d like to think that is still at the core of what we do as a label and multi-arts organization.
Ben Frost and I once avoided being blown up by Russian terrorists on a train we were meant to catch…
You get to travel a lot. Which has been the most Weekid moment while on tour?
Now that’s a curious one. I have enjoyed a lot of weird and wonderful experiences on the road. Ben Frost and I once avoided being blown up by Russian terrorists on a train we were meant to catch, but decided to fly instead…that was enjoyable, if that’s a word for it. But seriously I think almost every tour has moments that are completely life affirming. Seeing old friends, meeting new ones. Eating, that’s become a primary focus, I am always on the look out for outstanding culinary experiences. And good coffee… my god, good coffee can just be life changing! It’s a blessed existence at times.