Lawrence English Interview

Hi Lawrence, how are you? It’s a pleasure to meet you. First things first – happy new year! I hope you had a great holiday season. What are your thoughts, hopes and expectations for the year ahead, both personally and for the world in general?

Pleasure to be in touch and thanks for the questions…

It’s a big question about what this year holds for us all. I think at a macro level inevitably it’ll be a year of huge challenges, but also potentially a critical opportunity for us to ask some serious questions about who it is we are, as societies, and as individuals, and who it is we want to strive to become.

I think each century takes a while to roll over into the next. For example you can look at the commencement of the first world war as a demarcation of the 20th century erupting into being. I can’t help but wonder if 2017 is the year where the 21st century is born. These political and social anxieties we see being expressed through phenomena like Brexit or Trump feel very much like the death throws of the 20th century and the notions of the world that have guided the baby boomer’s generation politically, socially and economically. This generation is in its final stages and is making one last push to drive their ways of being onto the rest of us. I don’t feel the generational divide has felt so pronounced in my lifetime.

My hope is that through examining the fall out of these situations, we can start to reassess the seemingly a priori ways that our societies have been constructed through the late parts of the 20th century. There’s no doubt, we have a huge crisis with politics as it has come to be understood through the 20th century. The precarity bred by late capitalism and lingering neo-liberal agendas has come to effect more and more of us. We can all see trickle down economics is a misnomer. The crisis is systemic and incredibly complex, so for us to begin to approach it can seem overwhelming, but I feel stronger than ever we need to ask ourselves, what is it we value around us? Or perhaps what is it we want to value and how do we begin to address the power structures that bare down on those values. I look at my children and I see in them the future. I want for them a planet that can sustain them and their children too should they decide to have any. I want an ethical system of politics which listens to them and moreover broadly encourages them to care for those around them and to recognise the potentials of community as a powerfully affective social opportunity. In summary, my hope is that we birth a new century this year, even if it’s a difficult birth that calls us to exert more energy and focus than we might want to give, we must try and start to reassess our possible futures and move towards them with vigour and intent.

How would you describe your new record, Cruel Optimism, and what were your thoughts and motivations behind it? How did you turn thought into sound, and what made you choose these specific sounds? Both philosophically speaking and how you went about physically creating the music.

Cruel Optimism borrows its title from a book written by the American critical theoriest Lauren Berlant. In my opinion, Ms Berlant is one of the most important theorists writing presently. Her theory of Cruel Optimism is extremely relevant when you start to examine the reasons why we have arrived at such a peculiar moment politically and socially. The theory of cruel optimism suggests that we attach ourselves to certain fantasy objects, for example the idea of the good life, and those objects actually become the barricades precluding us from finding any sense of satisfaction, contentment and quality in our lives. I found this theory and particularly her writing on trauma and affect in the book incredibly profound and inspirational. In those texts I uncovered ways that I could start to address the experiences and sensations I was having witnessing this procession of what I consider to be abhorrent expressions of fear, greed and inhumanity unfold around me.

Books such as this are incredibly powerful tools we have at our disposal for each of us to begin to approach difficult questions. They offer a framework or at the very least a starting point from which we can internalise the possible meanings of these manifestations and then ultimately use them as the raw materials of expression in whatever creative practices we might undertake. So the record became a way for me of meshing those concerns into a compositional methodology. I wanted to reconcile the intensity of the situations, the affective sensation that those situations produced in me and my desires, frustrations and hopes for how things can be made better, with the music I was creating. In some cases those intensities were imprinted acoustically in the record, through the use of actual sound materials from protests or from the machineries of control such as drones, and in other cases the connections were more to do with investigating a certain affective sense that was relational for me. The critical aspect was making sure the record maintained a sense of investigation and questioning, as if it’s always searching. I think when you listen to the album there are so many possible paths you can take, within each of the pieces, that ideally it invites people to make their own journey through it and consider the things that are important for them and to them. This record is an invitation for people to listen and internalise the sounds as it’s meaningful and useful to them.

What were you feeling emotionally while you were recording the album? What emotions do you think permeate the record?

During the making of Cruel Optimism there was obviously a lot of very difficult social and political matters to attend to. I drew very deeply from those. In some respects the record became a way of dealing with those sensations, as I said before, the connections were at times very direct. At the same time I’ve experienced moments of incredible joy and wonder, the memories of which I will carry to the grave. That juxtaposition is somehow very much buried in the core of this record’s compositions.

In terms of the emotional character of the record, I feel strongly that the record is an expression of what so many of us feel day to day. Great hope and love, and at the same moment great disappointment and perhaps even disbelief at the things going on around us. I hope that when people engage with the record it offers them a chance to bring themselves to it and allow their emotions to permeate the record. For me that opportunity for people to invest themselves in the music is its real value into the future.

Was the process any different for you this time around. Given the subject matter and the general vibe, was it as enjoyable a process, or was it more a necessary one?

Cruel Optimism was a process of completely new methods of music making and production for me. It was easily the most challenging piece of music I have ever made. Wilderness Of Mirrors held a lot of challenges too, but this record presented a whole other dimension to how the work was realised. Partly this was down to a sense of self criticality that I find is more and more present in how I approach work. A few years ago I came to realise that just because you can do, doesn’t mean you should do. That’s not a good enough reason to create or publish something. The reasons need to be more considered. So a lot of the pieces on Cruel Optimism are the result of a relentless search for what I could hear in my mind’s ear. Initially when I started out, I was interested in questions of density. I kind of took Lemmy’s quote of ‘everything heavier than everything else’ and twisted it to be ‘everything denser than everything else’. So that idea of saturation and harmonic distortion took on a new intensity in the creation of the record. What was most gratifying was that the results weren’t just louder music, but more a recognition that amplitude is not relational to sonic density. The quiet sections of the record are often more dense than some of the louder sections. Loudness and density are not the same, even though sometimes we might imagine they are.

It took some of the pieces many months to be resolved and they were a puzzle of iteration, editing and continual transformation. The collaborations that I undertook on this album were hugely important and lent me a great deal of inspiration. I’m indebted to all the musicians who played on the record as it was their responses to my esoteric notes and commentaries that often pushed the pieces into unexpected places. Honestly, their responses to my provocations greatly impacted on my thinking for several pieces. If enjoyment existed anywhere in the making of this record it was in these collaborations. There’s a photo I published on my blog taken at Thor Harris’s place when we were recording. It was early one morning and Thor was recording the tubular bells that ended up going into the piece Crow, when I look at that photo I am filled with overwhelming happiness. It was a fine day, made all the better by spending time with Thor and Conor who was engineering the session and that damned fine coffee those gentlemen made for me. Likewise the time recording with Norman Westberg and The Australian Voices, the vocal ensemble who sang for me, were really special times and I had the chance to recognise the power of collaboration.

Cruel Optimism is “a meditation on…challenges and an encouragement to press forward towards more profound futures”, a record existing in a world where unimaginable horrors are daily occurrences. In spite of this, do you feel that the record is a strand of hope?

I believe music is primarily about hope. Like that saying goes, the blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad (sic). My making Cruel Optimism was a way of trying to navigate the hopes and frustrations that have been pressing on me over the past few years. From a personal perspective, the record has offered me a huge opportunity to consider and address a range of questions that are important to me. It gave me a chance to approach sound in a focused way and to reach out to approaches and methods that were unfamiliar, but ultimately hugely rewarding.

Now, with the album complete, I pass that over and with that I accept that its potential meaning and value is now in the hands of others. I do hope that people can find meaning in it, find solace and find the energy they need to navigate their own journeys in the coming months and years. I know personally the music made by friends and colleagues I find hugely inspirational and a constant reminder the world is full of endles wonder and exquisite thought! This new Xiu Xiu record for example is a monster of intent. And the latest composition from William Basinski is just so elegant and engrossing. Also the work my old friend Ben Frost is toiling away on is equally powerful. I find great joy and power in their works, great inspiration and great hope to carry me forward!

We seem to be edging closer to a pretty dark future, one which may or may not be permanent and / or irreversible. ‘Cruel Optimism’ is a powerful record, both musically and as a statement, a “protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures”. How important do you think music, and art in general, is in the face of such worldwide negativity? And what role do you think music can play in times such as these?

Music functions in a very special way. It makes us feel, but it doesn’t really tell us how to feel. Those feelings we have experiencing music, as listeners, are constructions that reveal a little about how it is we have got to that particular point in time. If we connect to the music again at a future date, the experience we have with it is not the same, we listen differently and it makes us feel differently. It reinforces or redirects prior listenings. In this way I think music is an incredibly powerful tool. It’s also powerful because it presents opportunities like this, for a conversation that extends out of the music itself. I think increasingly this is critical and almost a responsibility for all involved. I believe music has great potential to affect and with that comes a need to address it how it deserves.

I know from my own youth, the interviews and thoughts posed by cultural figures I was interested in were hugely influential for how I started to approach some of the questions and challenges that are ongoing in my life. Music is political. Listening is political. Art is political. The expression of agency is central to the worth of the work. I was deeply saddened to read of Mark Fisher’s passing today. He is a great example of how these conversations interweave. His writings on music, politics and depression all wove together in this beautiful and elegant way. I am so sorry that the one chance I had to meet him was lost to a soundcheck that ran overtime by someone playing on a bill with me in Zagreb. To think of that missed opportunity to thank him for all his work. Such a shame to not have him with us anymore.

In terms of music directly, I think its role is twofold. Firstly it is a chance for us to be consumed and in that process have an opportunity to let our minds work differently through questions and issues we are encountering. The personal listening time, those stolen moments where you are encased in sound on a train or late at night, I find open out your mind and in some small way reposition you from the habituation of the day to day. I think any move towards recognising and breaking those day to day ritualisations is valuable as it allows a chance to question how we see, experience and perceive things around us. New perspectives bring new hope. Secondly I see music as a point of nexus, where conversations can occur and questions be forged. It’s a physical and virtual meeting place where the idea of public assembly is central. I’ve been thinking about this a great deal in terms of the concert setting. I’m increasingly conscious of the political setting concerts can be. They represent a coming together, a unison, of people sharing time, place and sound. The sound occupies everyone collectively, and unites them, but at the same time there’s a completely individuated psychological and physiological experience for each member. I feel increasingly this is a wonderful metaphor for how societies can function, a collective engagement, but still valuing the criticality of individual experience and expression. Unity in difference. I am interested to explore these ideas more as Cruel Optimism unfolds further in a live setting.

In the digital age, music is increasingly being seen as fast food, a throwaway commodity, something to be eaten and then consumed before moving quickly onto something else. What are your thoughts on how music’s being consumed in the modern era?

I must admit I think a great deal about this question. This idea of music as a disposable commodity isn’t actually so new. I feel that since the 1950s really, our relationship to music has been a problematic one. When I say problematic I should perhaps say I’m speaking from a cultural perspective not so much an economic one. The introduction of the single as a rapid turnover object and the growth of the record industry was the first significant step to where we are today. I think that model which essentially prioritised a sense of disposable music, where songs were a kind of aural candy that provided sweet entertainment but no significant nourishment, set up a certain cultural relation whereby music was recognised as entertainment, over and above art. I truly believe in music as an artform. That is not to say that music can’t or shouldn’t be entertaining, but it is to say that music is not merely a form of momentary distraction or some half listened to background canvas whilst you do something else. Music is an incredibly affecting temporal artform. It reaches each of us in ways we can’t quite often articulate. It lingers inside us and reconnects us to places, people and times in our lives in a way few other experiences do. It reaches so deeply inside us and can affect us with such force it’s overwhelming at times. For this reason, amongst many others, I think music is one of the most profound art practices that is available to us as a species.

As to the question of consumption, it’s true there is just so much work available now it can be daunting. So much of it is great too, we’ve had a wonderful democratisation of musical equipment and the opportunity for making, which has resulted in a flood of sound. At the same time the growth in the digital music realm has meant a shift in the power structures around how music is recognised and what exchanges occur during the consumption of music. 20 years ago, the exchange was primarily an economic one, in that you when to a record store and you bought a record or two, whatever your budget allowed. You took those home and for that week or month, however long it was before you had more money to buy music, you listened to those purchased objects. You were, in some respects, encouraged to spend time with them and you came to appreciate them even if at first they didn’t completely connect with you. The economic exchange encouraged an investment of yourself in the record because supply was limited.

Now, with streaming, supply is almost limitless and everything is accessible. It’s a smorgasbord of sound, which is wonderful but it presents a great shift in our relation to music. Now, the exchange is not so much economic, but rather is exclusively about time. When we make an album we are asking people to give us their most precious asset, time. It’s the asset they can’t buy more of. So with that proposition comes a responsibility as a musician, I believe, to create work at is worthy of that listener’s time. We have the opportunity to publish everything, but should we? When I am working on new projects this idea is paramount in my mind. The edit is god. I mean that both at a micro level and as a more holistic way to approach that is made available to a public, not just the creator. If people are going to give me their time, I want to ensure that the encounter they have with my work is affective and that it lingers with them. That doesn’t mean they have to like it, rather just be affected by it. Ideally I want the music to nourish them, challenge them and make them consider their relation to sound, to timbre and all those elements that become music as we know it. I want people to be able to return to these records and be able to fall deeply into them, each time deeper or differently and have the record reveal new things, not just in itself, but ideally in the listener themselves.

And finally, what’s in store for you this year, artistically speaking?

I’m working on a new HEXA project right now with my friend Jamie Stewart. That’s the first project off the rank this year. I also have an inkling of a new record…something that is boiling away very slowly inside me that has in some ways been a parallel to the timeline of Cruel Optimism. The other major projects for me this year are a number of large-scale installations happening at some museums here in Australia. They are likely going to take up any spare times between touring. Of course I also have Room40 ever present in my day to day. This June we’re presenting another Open Frame festival too in Sydney, as well as our concert series at the Institute Of Modern Art which is on going. It’s going to be another full year I suspect.

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