Lawrence English is a composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. He has released a string of critically-acclaimed albums both as a solo artist and in collaboration with others, covering a wide field of approaches from electronic ambient and drone music to recordings of urban and rural environments. He also heads the influential label Room40, and has presented numerous installations and sound works at festivals and galleries around the world. Following our review of his latest album, “Wilderness of Mirrors”, we thought it was time to ask him a few questions…
Can you tell us a little about how “Wilderness of Mirrors” was made, and what thoughts and situations were influencing you at the time?
“Wilderness Of Mirrors” has been boiling away for a good few years now. It’s been a record that has very much come through a series of iterations that have largely transformed the music — what you hear on this version is completely removed from what was initially played. At the core of each of the pieces you hear on the record is in fact an entirely different piece, something that I worked both with and against to reach this final compositions.
Where this record comes from is perhaps another story. I think over the past few years I’ve been increasingly frustrated by, distressed and more importantly motivated by some serious assaults on what I believe makes humanity worthwhile. To me, at the heart of humanity is the capacity to be humane and this seems to be under fairly constant attack in recent years in my country and also more widely across western democracies. I’m honestly sickened by some of what is happening here at the moment and “Wilderness Of Mirrors” is a soundtrack to that sickness. It’s my caustic distress beacon, a kind of obtuse alarm call, which I hope will be a conversation and thought starter for other people. If nothing else perhaps it’s a soundtrack to recognising these problems and coming to understand that we, as individuals and communities, can make fundamental differences to each other.
Have music and politics always been connected for you? What drove your initial interest in music making?
Honestly, I have never been as concerned with politics as I am now. And by politics I don’t just mean the ideas of state politics, but more over questions of ideology, personal political actions and most things in and outside of that orbit. We are not necessarily any more political than we were say 10 years ago, but what we are is able to action some value choices differently. That comes into how we buy, what we read or choose to access, how we support one another, how we seek to render apathy extinct. Ironically I don’t necessarily want to take up all my time with these concerns, but right now I feel it’s a must-do. We see incredible human rights shortcomings in our country with our indigenous peoples and also with refugees. We also see unethical live export of animals, short sighted environmental policy and generally an expression of hollow ideology that really is text book in it’s cheapness.
I respect politicians and those active in the political arena who can reconcile the concerns of constituents, alongside a longer term view and at the same time represent a strong and informed personal ethics. This is something almost entirely missing here [in Australia] and in a great many countries now. I find elements of Henry Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience timely I must confess, but perhaps not for the reasons he initially intended.
In terms of music making, it’s something I enjoy deeply. I think there is a profundity to sound that makes it one of the most powerful and under-utilised senses. It’s this promise of possibility that I find so seductive and compelling about working with it.
How specific do you think music, particularly instrumental music, can be in referencing concrete political situations? Does the difficulty in making such references audible in the music weaken its power, and what might be done to counteract that? What responsibilities do you feel listeners have in making those connections?
I am not interested in didacticism in music. I think some people and some movements have done that incredibly effectively, inspiring the possibility for change or awareness, even if they didn’t achieve it. You don’t have to look too far past Fela Kuti or Bikini Kill to see there’s a place for a direct line between the two arenas. I am not operating here.
“Wilderness Of Mirrors” came from my personal frustrations, and certainly in some ways the philosophies around this idea of wilderness of mirrors that emerged in the cold war played a kind of spectral aspect to the way I composed the music. But where the possibility does come into it is through reviews and interviews like this. It’s a way of saying, you know, we have brains, it’s ok to use them a little or a lot, just use them. There’s a big difference to being alive and living. I want to live, and I want others to live!
In terms of how politics relates to music, I was having a discussion with some friends about the ways in which music, and I guess protest songs, seem to have become less iconic than they may have been in say the late 1960s. I think in some respects “Wilderness Of Mirrors” is a reflection of this – the personal narratives are there, people are still affected by policy, by governments’ choices to reduce healthcare or education, refugees locked up in detention suffer hardships, but now the issues are more complex as we have access to so much more information about so many more of the concerns we face.
In the late sixties a slogan could be issue-based, Vietnam for example, now there’s just so many issues of concern that we can recognise and potentially act against (or for), so it’s more complex. I think culturally this is something artists can and have addressed. It’s a chance to maybe make a space where we can encourage each other to think and then when that thought is done, act accordingly. I know for me, time is a kind of ghost and the idea of taking time out to think about something seriously is difficult because we lead saturated lives. Maybe this album is a 40 minute space you can occupy…
“Wilderness of Mirrors” is synth-based, but you also make compositions using field recordings. How do you understand the relationship between these two areas of practice, and how has your engagement with field recording changed your understanding of and approach to composed tonal music?
Actually to be honest a lot of the sounds on this record are instrumental in nature. The first piece for example is largely piano, hammer dulcimer and organ. The ways in which the instruments were recorded and also how they were transformed through process is probably why they feel not particularly acoustic. That first sound on the record is in fact a very close miced ebow on a piano. It’s incredible how electronic some instruments can sound when you approach them the right way.
In terms of field recordings, this album is more shaped by them at a distance. I think anyone who listens closely to the world around them will find inspiration and ideas in environments. That might be as simple as an echo between two walls or some reverberant space that makes you want to synthesise that acoustic experience. I think there’s a lot to be experienced and drawn on from what happens around us. It’s merely being open to recognising those possibilities.
Please could you tell us a little about your installation work, particularly your recent collaborations with Keith Armstrong? How did this work come about, and how is your process of creation different when making audio for installations compared with making a record?
I’ve been working in installation for the better part of a decade. Most of this has been site specific, temporal work, but recently I’ve switched over to more gallery based practice. I enjoy both. Over that time I’ve been fortunate to show works all around the place. In recent years I’ve started to spend more time on this work and I’m hoping that’s a trend that can continue. I deeply enjoy working with the material and media of sound and this couldn’t be more different from the process of making a record. In some respects the record for me can take many iterations and whilst that is sometimes the case with the installation work, I find sometimes there’s an intuitiveness, almost immediateness to the work. Ideas boil away, but the work can sometimes just appear, as if all that ethereal thought somehow manifests in an instance. Music making is not like this for me and I am so very amazed being in the company of great musicians for whom this is second nature. People like Tenniscoats or Chris Abrahams for example, these artists are just magic!
I’ve known Keith for quite a while now. I think we met through some of the sound events I curated here and then a couple of years ago we started seriously talking about the ideas of seasonality and how the seasons might be expressed in art. Keith has a great consciousness to his practice that I respect a lot. So we’ve been working on a string or projects that have been shown as part of ISEA and most recently at the National Art Museum Of China in Beijing.
In terms of the day-to-day business of making music and running a record label, what do you see are the biggest challenges at the moment, and also the biggest opportunities?
The biggest challenge – being a decent human and contributing more than you take back from society and the planet.
As for the biggest opportunity, right now I feel it’s a chance to have these kinds of conversations, hopefully to have people read them, think about them and then find ways in which they can make a difference to those around them. It’s important to recognise the potential each of us has should we choose to execute it.
What projects are on the horizon for you at the moment? Who are the artists whose work is exciting and inspiring you currently?
There’s a lot of projects coming up. I just heard my music for Circa’s How Like An Angel will have a season at the Lincoln Centre, that’s good news. They are an amazing avant-performance-cum-experimental circus outfit. There’s a couple of new music projects – a duet with Stephen Vitiello is coming and another with Werner Dafeldecker. I also have a solo field recording work ‘Viento’ coming on Taiga late this year. It’s made from recordings of wind in Patagonia and Antarctica. They are some of my favourite recordings I’ve ever made – violent and unrelenting – so incredibly rich. If you’ve heard one of my concerts in the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard these recordings. I also am starting preparations for Room40’s 15th anniversary, which is next year. I’m really looking forward to it.
As for folks who are exciting me: 2014 is a pretty damn fine year, my friends and associates like Ben Frost, Xiu Xiu, The Necks, SWANS, and Blank Realm have all made amazing records this year. So to be able to enjoy their music is honestly a pleasure!
Many thanks Lawrence!