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LAWRENCE ENGLISH, the philosopher of sound

Interview by Meritxell Rosell

Photo credit: Andreas Simopoulous

Where does one start when attempting to write about Lawrence English? With a career spanning almost 20+ years and using a broad spectrum of media, his extensive body of work is mainly concerned with the act of [sound] perception and how it integrates political and cultural aspects of society. One of these aspects Lawrence English has been exploring with his practice is the nature of listening and the sounds’ properties for embodiment: I’m interested in the idea of the body as an ear. Lawrence stated a few years ago in an interview from The Guardian. I want to explore the point at which our audition becomes synesthetic.

We have previously reflected on this, the synaesthetic physicality of sound, its capacity to vibrate the molecules that form our bodies, and to feel sound beyond hearing. And in English, this takes a political angle: I think, now more than ever, Carol Hanisch’s statement ‘the personal is political continues to deliver a powerful smack to the mind, he tells. In his PhD thesis, which he completed last year, he proposes a new approach to listening, rooted in the politics of the self through recognition and development of the agentive capacities of our audition.

Musician, artist, curator, academic, writer and philosopher, digging into his vast body of work could be compared to opening “the doors of [sonic] perception”,  a journey of discovery into the depths of knowledge of sound research. How do we exist as sonic beings and vessels? What do we find at the edge of perception? How can we reinterpret our perception of space and time through sound?

Based in Australia, Lawrence English works across music productions, compositions, writings, live performances, and installations while inciting questions on perception and memory. His solo works in drone and ambient, and his series of field recordings [that he publishes mainly in Room40, his self-managed label] is a major reference. Some of the earlier works, such as For Varying Degrees Of Winter and a Colour for Autumn and the series of field recordings, explore nature and seasonality. While several of his most recent solo albums take on inspiration from novels, essays and poems. 

For example, his most recent album Cruel Optimism (Room40 2017) ruminates on a text of the same name by American theorist Lauren Berlant. The album meditates on how power consumes, augments and ultimately shapes two subsequent human conditions: obsession and fragility; a jumping-off point from which a plague of unsettling impressions of suffering, intolerance and ignorance could be unpacked and utilised as fuel over and above pointless frustration. These are probably feelings most of us have been facing with the latest developments of worldwide issues.

The artist also points out that the album was a natural follow-up to the prior Wilderness of Mirrors (Rooom40, 2014), where he was heavily influenced by his frustration with the Australian political environment.  The title again draws its root from T.S Eliot’s poem Gerontion. During the cold war, the phrase became associated with campaigns of miscommunication carried out by opposing state intelligence agencies.

Apart from his solo work, the list of collaborations doesn’t run short either:  Merzbow, Liz Harris (aka Grouper), Tujiko Noriko, David Toop, Francisco Lopez, Scanner, William Basinski and Alessandro Cortini are some of the artists Lawrence has collaborated and been enlarging his impressive body of work. With Alessandro Cortini, they will soon release a collaboration (Immediate Horizon on Important Records), a recording forms their performance at Atonal Festival in 2016. Last month, he also released [via Temporary Residence] a collaborative LP with William Basinski.

The two legends dedicate their first collaboration record to Paul Clipson, a renowned experimental filmmaker and close friend of both artists. The record is named Selva Oscura (or dark jungle) and is inspired by Dantes’s Inferno. In the famous poem, this sombre location [of mind and spirit] indicates the protagonist’s own disorientation, facing life events that have left us disconcerted and wounded. The layers of ambiental and meditative sounds, one after the other, seem to guide our thoughts through obscurity. Something Lawrence English music has been doing for years.

Photo credit: Andreas Simopoulous

You are a composer, artist, curator and considered a philosopher of sound, with a body of work exploring the potentiality of sound and space through memory and perception. How and when do these different interests come about?

I’ve always been somewhat attentive to my ears over and above other senses. This partly comes from my childhood and growing up in Brisbane. I had a particular experience once of trying to see a bird with my father whilst birdwatching. After some failed attempts at using binoculars, he suggested I close my eyes and listen for the bird first. So I did that, and sure enough, a few minutes later, I could localise the bird with my ears and then use the binoculars to find it. This was the first time I really recognised my ears as being able to help orient me in the world.

Since that time, I have been interested in music and sound; probably more so sound, as I consider music to be one of the dialects of sound, so to speak. I’ve had the great fortune to come at this interrogation from various approaches – as an artist but also as a theorist and curator. I’m thankful for what each of these has provided me. I’m lucky to have an excuse to listen deeply on a regular basis. I jokingly describe myself as a professional listener, even though that makes me sound like some second-rate therapist.

Cruel Optimism, your latest album, meditates on how power consumes, augments and ultimately shapes two subsequent human conditions: obsession and fragility. What was the intellectual process behind its inception?

Cruel Optimism borrows its title from Lauren Berlant’s powerful text exploring trauma, attachment and affective relations. When I start a new record, I almost never start with music as the basis. Rather, I am generally looking to examine or unpack some situation that is occupying my focus.

In the lead-up to Cruel Optimism, there was a great deal of unrest here in Australia and also in countless other countries across the globe. I was particularly focused on issues around migration, refugees, territoriality, drone warfare and these new expressions of power that sit beyond how we may have conceived state boundaries.

I found these situations incredibly dense, complex and frankly debilitating at times. How could I navigate and/or apply any positive force towards altering these things? Lauren Berlant’s book I found to be a wonderful tool for helping to unpack these ideas, frustrations and concerns.

At the same time, my family started writing to refugees in the detention camps Australia has set up. We also sent care packages, which we later discovered were confiscated by security staff. Shortly after that, letter writing became problematic as they moved around families and constantly altered access points for writing. Clearly, power was being used to reduce the support networks for these vulnerable individuals and to push back against public expressions of support for them.

Since then, a great deal has been revealed about the systematic abuses and failings of our government and their appointed staff working at these internment camps. We have failed these people. All of these quite gross expressions of power instigated the record’s aesthetic. Ultimately, the record has become a means for discussing these problems and challenges.

I could speak to meritocracy, for example, which is capitalism’s special kind of cancer and denies so much that is important about how we choose to exist daily through generation to generation. And being able to introduce people to the work of Lauren and other writers, who I feel provide a great device for helping us unpack what we see happening around us.

They remind us to be vigilant, to question and to know that our place is to be agentive if we are to have any opportunity to create futures that embrace the qualities that speak to celebrating our communal obligations to one another.

You’ve recently completed a PhD concerning the politics of perception and how listening is performed in agentive and effective ways. Could you tell us a bit more about it?

The study was a wonderful chance for me to read widely, and I am grateful for the opportunity that it provided. Essentially in terms of the new knowledge produced, I sought to theorise a new approach to listening. I think, now more than ever, Carol Hanisch’s statement ‘the personal is political’ continues to deliver a powerful smack to the mind. Its applications are ever-present.

So this approach I propose is rooted in the politics of the self through recognition and development of the agentive capacities of our audition. In it, I essentially develop an approach to listening that considers three key areas; sound as the subject or perhaps the object of the audition, place as the zone in which the encounter between sound and a listener takes place, and finally, listening as this specific process that is undertaken. I separate that from various approaches to more clearly understand its application in creative situations. I developed a theoretical framework called relational listening that is specific to various sonic arts practices.

You are also the founder of ROOM40, the renowned record label and multi-arts organisation putting out releases in fields of electronics, improvisation, experimental-pop and sound art since 2000. Looking back at all these almost 20 years, what have been the most significant challenges to run it?

This is a good question. I think the idea of the label can be problematic these days, at least when compared to the notion of ‘label’ from, say, 2000. Today self-publishing, accessible distribution platforms, and so many other tools mean musicians can directly interface with listeners, in theory at least. So the label is not merely the facilitator of those things any more.

For me, the label is a curatorial project of sorts. It evolves in time and reflects both my interests and pre-occupations, as well as those of the community of musicians and artists with whom I interact. I think the label also is about a cumulative presence. It’s like a spectre, not always clear or fully present but lurking and haunting us somehow.

I feel strongly that Room40 is a friends and family label. I care deeply, on a personal level, for this work and for the people making it. This means a level of investment that is required in excess of simply facilitating production or artwork. In many cases, I am working with artists on conceptual questions, edits, post-production and, in some cases, arrangement.

I just did something like with for Scanner’s Mass Observation (expanded), which is an archival release we are working on presently. The piece required a little reworking for a variety of technical reasons, and in the process of this, I proposed a slightly different focus for the piece. Robin enjoyed that, and so it is now part of that release.

A few years ago, you said in an interview that our relationship with sound is problematic -referring to the fact, the way in the English language, visual words are frequently used to refer to sound phenomena. How do you see this issue evolving with the coming of new technologies (like virtual and augmented realities) where the visual interface is becoming more and more prominent and adding another layer of visual input?

I don’t necessarily see some wholesale shift coming with how we appreciate our senses. In fact, I’m not sure that’s what’s needed. I’m more just interested in provoking a recognition for and celebration of our other senses, especially our auditory capacity.

I think now, with the growing publications around listening specifically, there’s a real interest in engaging with both the conceptual and practical implications of our ears. I think this, in turn, will directly feed into developing fields like VR. There’s a quite a few artists and researchers very focused on this, Garth Paine, at Arizona State University, is very occupied with this in his research, for example. My hope is that as we come to recognise what listening provides us – I mean that at all levels – we can come to celebrate it more fully. I feel we’re well on the path to the party!

Are there any unexplored artistic fields you would like to take your work into?

I am a true believer in Aristotle’s “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”; so by default, this means most things are un(der)explored and ripe for examination. There’s never a shortage of ways to engage in all layers of the lived experience of being!

What is your chief enemy of creativity?


You couldn’t live without…

Good, black coffee.

(Media courtesy of the artist)
On Key

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