Name: Lawrence English
Occupation: Sound artist, field recorder, label owner at Room40
Current release: Lawrence English teams up with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu again for another release of their HEXA project. Entitled Material Interstices, it is available from English's very own Room40 imprint.
[Read our Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu interview]
[Read Jamie Stewart talk about sound]
If these thoughts by Lawrence English piqued your interest, visit his personal homepage for more information and current updates. Or head over to his social media profiles on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud.
You can also read our previous Lawrence English interview, where he expands on a wider range of topics.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
It’s interesting for me to think about my childhood encounters with music, as early on they were somewhat limited.
I think I was maybe 7 or 8 before I really knew there was any other type of music other than classical. My parents only really listened to music in the car, whilst driving, and always the radio was tuned to our local classical station. I imagine I was likely surprised when I heard pop music for the first time. I remember one of the earliest pieces of music I was given was a Beach Boys compilation CD, the type of cheap Best Of you’d find in a bargain bin, even the cover was a total cliche of some kind of blue wave with a surfer on it. I remember listening to that CD a lot when I got it. I guess it must have been about when I was 8 or almost 9. And from that point on my musical world exploded outward.
Over the coming years I became much more curious about music. I started playing the drums, after building myself a kit out of stuff I found in our kitchen and under our house. There was a late night music show here in Australia, Rage, where artists would program their favourite videos. From the age of 10 or so I was waking up before dawn to go to flea markets with my mother and I remember watching the tail end of those programs as I ate breakfast. I remember seeing videos like "How Soon Is Now?" By The Smiths, "Mountain Song" by Jane’s Addiction, Bad Brains' "I Against I" and also a great live video of The Dead Kennedy’s playing "Holiday In Cambodia" (that video is actually up on YouTube with the Rage logo!) and all these other songs. It really helped me realise how little I knew about the world and it inspired me deeply. There are generations of Australian musicians who owe part of their musical education to Rage.
From there I got into tape trading and making fanzines, as well as experimenting with music in various ways. It was such a blurry time, in that all things fed into each other in these strange feedback loops. I owe so much to having time then, and willingness, to be curious and open to the affective qualities of music.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
There is no question I owe a great debt to many folks who have come before me. I don’t necessarily think of this as a kind of linage, that perhaps simplifies things in a way which is pointlessly reductive, but I do recognise the importance that these people have played in my life. That might be in terms of an approach to music, or more generally how to be ‘in’ the world.
I’ve been very fortunate to meet and spend time with folks who for me encapsulate a dedication and a life long curiosity with sound. People like Tony Conrad, Eliane Radigue, Ellen Fullman, Pauline Oliveros, Phill Niblock or David Toop, these people I have been able to spend varying degrees of time with and I am richer for their encouragement, enlightenment and provocations.
I am so grateful to so many people who have shared their ways with me and shown me a generosity that I try to reflect in my own interactions with people I meet.
[Read our Ellen Fullman interview]
[Read our Pauline Oliveros interview]
[Read our David Toop interview]
What types of sound do you personally prefer to work with? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
I love sound that is affective. Sound that sits below the surface of emotion, that haunts and calls to us in ways we don’t necessarily understand at first. Dissonance, distortion, uneasy harmony and pulse, these elements I find open new appreciations for sound, especially in music.
I think familiarity is something I am less interested in. I don’t want music to tell me what to feel, what to expect. I enjoy music that asks you to come to it, to reach out and sense how it might (or might not) fit into your life.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
I think there is never a shortage of sound sources to collect and explore. Almost everything, with the right perspective and focus, can be a point of fascination. I always remember, during my first tours in Japan and Europe, I spent a lot of time listening to the incidental sounds that fill the city. I was very focused on the sounds that people would generally filter out or ignore as part of the urban soundscape.
I feel strongly, humans are far more efficient at filtering out information than we are at tuning into it. That process of focus, or diving into a sound field is actually demanding and requires not just an agency, but a determination on behalf of the listener. We don’t always have that stamina needed to engage, so from that perspective it’s understandable why there’s so much filtering going on.
Some artists use sounds as a means for emotional self-expression, others take a more conceptual approach or want to present intriguing sound matter. How would you characterise your own goals and motivations in this regard?
I’m not sure you can truly seperate out those interests. I think sound is complex, it’s multifarious and whilst we might think we are working with just one strand, in fact there’s always these other implications and relations that sound opens to us. Like when you hear an instrument - you might be struck by the melody, but simultaneously you can understand the space in which the instrument was being performed and potentially also the materiality of the instruments parts.
Whilst we assume there’s a kind of singular reading of sound taking place, it’s actually not as reductive as that and if we start to dissect it there’s so much that can be revealed about a certain moment in time.
The artist Lawrence Abu-Hamdan is responsible for a series of works that very much tap into sounds capacity to reveal aspects of the world that might otherwise be overlooked or concealed. My goals, primarily, are to be open to the full possibility of sound.
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds?
I think this operates in a few ways, dependant on what kind of work I am doing. In some cases I am led by the sounds, this is especially the case with field recording, where much of the joy of the practice is in that attentiveness to the unfolding of sound. It’s a type of practice where you are simultaneously being led by the sound field, but also cutting a way through that field, seeking out the aspects that fascinate and compel you to keep listening with an intensity and desire.
When it comes to music I think that occurs in a different way. Sometimes an instrument can reveal itself in the same way a sound field might, the more you play it the more it makes itself available. Often though my work is more about process and transformation of sound. That process is a type of mutual exploration and aspiration. You may have a sound in your mind’s ear, and you are trying to actualise that in the real world, but as that process takes place and you listen to the sound that’s being actualised and that sound in your mind’s ear might change. It’s a real time sculpting of the imaginary and the actual.
I often enjoy the tension that results from this, where you’re having to reassess how you feel about the nature of the sounds and that capacity to be responsive, which is never the same day to day, informs how the sound ultimately resolves. It’s unsteady at the best of times and there in lies the beauty of our relation with sound.
Which tools have been most important and useful for you when it comes to working with and editing sounds?
Patience. To rush music is to work against the environment of time, which provides its lifeblood.
The possibilities of modern production tools have allowed artists to realise ever more refined or extreme sounds. Is there a sound you would personally like to create but haven't been able to yet?
It’s a very interesting moment for the ways in which we can control and contour sound, there’s no doubt about that. I had the great pleasure to visit my friend Perrin at Meyer Sound in Berkley a couple of years back and experience some of their infrasonic subwoofers first hand. These are generally used in conjunction wth pyrotechnics to help create a sense of embodiment to light displays in concert settings. This was a fairly extraordinary experience I must confess, and I feel as though there is something in the way sound can occupy the body through low frequency that is yet to be properly investigated in my work.
If I’m honest I think the energetic and vibrational capacities of our planet and the environments that surround us are awesome, and we can always seek inspiration from their capacities.
Many artists have related that certain sounds trigger compositional ideas in them or are even a compositional element in their own right. Provided this is the case for you – what, exactly, is about certain sounds that triggers such ideas in you?
I tend to agree with this idea of how certain sounds can spark potential compositions or at least approaches to the creation of new work.
Having worked with field recording over the past two decades, environmental sounds have played an important role for me. In many ways how these sounds inform my work can be quite direct. Historically, I have used field recordings as reference materials for certain kinds of sensations, or timbres, that I want to try to explore or replicate in pieces I am working on.
Albums like Kiri No Oto are entirely based on this approach and were focused on that uneasy blurring between environmental sound, and musical sound. That album was an exploration of how sound can be made to bleed into itself and how we can appreciate qualities from all sound materials and come to sense them as being of a ‘musical’ nature.
I’ve also used these kinds of material in ways they aren’t so familiar. For instance on Wilderness Of Mirrors I used a lot of field recordings, especially dynamic ones like those of windstorms, as information to feed into side chains for example. I’d record static or held sound materials on organ or guitar and then imprint the dynamics of the field recording onto it, creating this very particular quality. It was as if the ghost of the environment was haunting the instrument.
Sound operates on such an affective level, for it to reveal new ways of knowing, of thinking and even of being is not so surprising.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
It is a complex and evolving entanglement. The uncertainty of its outcomes is never lost on me. This fragility is both its blessing and its curse.
The idea of acoustic ecology has drawn a lot of attention to the question of how much we are affected by the sound surrounding us. What's your take on this and on acoustic ecology as a movement in general?
There is no question that sound affects bodies. In the physiological sense the weaponisation of sound has become a pressing issue. I wrote a short history about it a few years ago and since that time the role of sound and its implications for the body have only become more pronounced, an example being the much spoken of ’sonic attacks’ on diplomates in Cuba and China a few years ago.
In a more urban sense there’s increasing awareness of what sound means in terms of its effects on people’s day to day lives. Those in areas with increased noise floors can suffer a range if varied conditions that manifest both mental and physical symptoms.
Acoustic ecology is one of a number of practices that sit in parallel to our understandings of how sound operates and moreso how sound reveals an impression of the world to us. We’re increasingly seeing longitudinal acoustic studies, conducted in remote areas, that are revealing various aspects of places that were perhaps too remote for actual field work. The temporal quality of the recordings too offers a perspective on place that can be very useful in a quantitative way.
I have the utmost respect for those scientists working on this field and also for artists who draw on the quantitative aspects of acoustic ecology. From my side, I am more concerned with the qualitative reading of place through sound, so don’t tend to draw too heavily on acoustic ecology methodologies. To do so would be disingenuous to all the amazing folks working in that field.
We can listen to a pop song or open our window and simply take in the noises of the environment. Without going into the semantics of 'music vs field recordings', in which way are these experiences different and / or connected, do you feel?
Fundamentally they are not different.
Any difference lies in social, cultural and linguistic nuisance, and also in the expectations we maintain, or are taught to maintain, around certain practices. For instance, you mention popular song. I’d argue that quite often we’re not really listening to pop music, or at least not deeply. Many casual listeners might just engage with it as a means of creating an acoustic mask around them - a desire to block out something else, if not in terms of amplitude at least in terms of a psychological awareness. Popular music, by its very nature is designed as a form of entertainment. We are often encouraged to sing along or join in with it in other ways. This is a vital and ever-important function of social interaction through sound, but it is not necessarily concerned with an intensity of listening, and there’s necessarily nothing wrong with that.
Similar to the other scenario you describe, of listening out the window, I’d hazard to say many folks are not overly engaged when undertaking that activity either. As I mentioned before,I feel that humans are far better at filtering than we are at actually listening. Listening takes effort and practice. It’s not something that can be maintained indefinitely. Even now as people read this, if they actually think about their audition and about the sound world around them I think they would be surprised by what is going on that they are not tuned into.
So perhaps when we look deeper into this question, the point of difference may not be in the content of our audition, but mores in the application of it. Are we listening, if so how and what for?
From the concept of Nada Brahma to "In the Beginning was the Word", many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you're taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?
I have been spending a lot of time in recent years researching around the idea of vibration. It’s an emergent area of investigation for a whole range of disciplines including philosophy. I think it is not impossible to develop a vibrational ontology that taps into aspects of embodiment, physics, space, learning, language and so much more. Recent discoveries, like those of gravitational waves, about the impacts of infrasound on objects, on the capacity of the body to be affected by sound operating outside of our everyday perception; all of these areas suggest a profundity to the role sound can take in our desires to understand that which is around us. Even something as simple as the Big Bang, carries with it a resonance and vibratory quality that seems like a perfect root for our vibrationally motivated discussions and ponderances to come.
Sound may not be a foundational element of existence, but it sure as hell resonates those materials and that resonation gives them life.