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LAWRENCE ENGLISH: COMPOSER, MEDIA ARTIST, CURATOR

AM’s Baz Bardoe chats with Australian-based composer, media artist and curator Lawrence English.

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Lawrence English – a path less travelled.
I first met Lawrence English when he was a member of the industrial rock group ‘Dogmachine’ back in the 90’s. I was playing with a similar type of outfit called ‘Ragewar’. We had been playing to some big crowds in Melbourne and Adelaide, and had successful trips to Sydney and Canberra, so when Dogmachine invited us to support them up in Brisbane we happily accepted. It turned out to be a terrible mistake. The return trip took the better part of a week, and what happened on the road is best summarised by the fact that our bass player left, never to be heard from again. It reinforced my decision to pursue my own path, informed by a more ambient sensibility.

Some years passed until I began to become aware that English had created an alternative record label and event organisation called ‘Room 40’, and was pursuing a far more esoteric style of music. His reputation for creating evocative and esoteric music that blended electronics with organic sounds grew and grew. Time it seems has played strange tricks because quite a bit of it has flown past and yet it feels like only yesterday that I last spoke with him. It was great to re connect with him, and he graciously agreed to answer some questions.

I started by asking him to give a bit of background to his career to date.

In terms of seriously making work in a solo capacity, I really came to things a little late, when I was about 26. To be frank, prior to this I felt like I didn’t have anything substantial to contribute. I’d been involved in a lot of different projects, from industrial bands through to the early phases of Australian Hip Hop. I enjoyed all of those projects and learned a great deal from them, but in terms of actually articulating something meaningful that was entirely my own that didn’t really start to unfold until I started serious exploring musique concréte and field recording.

I think upon really connecting with that work things started to open out for me. I started to understand the language around sound was not the same as the language around music. Music is in fact just one of the dialects of sound and when we start to become multi-dialectical things become more interesting. At least they did for me.

From there I have pretty well just continued smashing my head against the wall and exploring what comes out of that process. I’ve been doing it for a while now and I am still regularly perplexed, shocked and inspired by what is revealed. Working with sound and music is an endless abyss, should you be willing to let yourself fall.

Tell me about Room 40? What is it? What is its intent? And can you outline a bit of its history?

Room40 was born out of what I perceived as lack connectivity between the amazing artists operating in Australia and abroad. This was particularly acute in Brisbane where quite honestly the 90s was something of a cultural desert for this kind of engaged sound work. We very occasionally had national and international visitors and Festivals like What Is Music?, didn’t get to Brisbane until the early 2000s, under the invitation of Room40. Room40 has always been about reaching outward, about a belief that there’s all of these different communities and like minded artists across the planet who are asking similar, but specialised questions. I wanted to make those connections more apparent and I wanted to build a node so there was a chance for more back and forth. Selfishly, I wanted to hear these amazing artists, so if no one else would do it…I’d bring them here.

At the same time as all that was happening, I also was hearing some amazing music, being made by all sorts of people from John Chantler to DJ Olive that was, at that stage, not getting a wider release. So Room40 was a way of facilitating these musics being heard more readily. I wanted to support artists I believe in and to this day, that is how I feel about the label, as a means of supporting people I believe in to make amazing work.

I am noticing a trend towards anachronisms……vinyl…….modular synths etc. Do you think people are fatigued by modernity? Is it a matter that some trajectories of technology are simply not as good as those they were intended to replace? What are your thoughts on this?

Maybe we are fatigued with the vagaries of post modernity. Of the promise of everything that a lot of contemporary DAWs provide, the endless increases in fidelity for the sake of itself. Maybe somewhere we’re yearning for the modernal reassurances that seemed to somehow beget a more simplistic and manageable world.

As far as formats go, I think vinyl had one thing really going for it – length. I really enjoy records where I am left a little hungry at the end. I find about 40 minutes of music is a good length to articulate a set of ideas and indeed to listen to some. You can of course go longer, but I think there’s an art in the editing of music and vinyl encourages that greatly.

On the musical side, the reissuing of all these classic synths and the growth in bespoke modular systems is relatively understandable I feel. These instruments give a finite possibility and require you to drill into them. This process, of limitation and framing I find really powerful as a tool. It means the user has to explore the potentials of the instrument as a means of acquiring a certain thing they’re looking for. As I eluded to before, I think the choice and possibility offered by many DAWs and programs today can be crippling some some artists, especially younger ones who are searching for their voice. Less is more I tend to find.

Lawrence English

Everyone says it – the music industry is dying. Punters now have an expectation that music will be for free. The old model of making an album, selling copies, and being paid seems to be almost entirely gone. I know that personally I have the same costs……yet no one is getting paid anymore. It has always been tough, but bands and artists who have very successful track records are all saying the same thing. Even the old model where you toured to help sell records doesn’t work for smaller artists – you can lose a bundle touring……what are your thoughts on this and what is the way forward?

I think this is a crisis for artists to sustain themselves. It exists in many fields associated with publication and mass reproduction, so we’re not alone.

Really though I think this needs to be part of a bigger discussion around value. I think it’s easy to fall on the familiar when we’re thinking about these questions. We’re so conditioned to quantitative analysis and on the economic value of work that all of the really critical value information in art making is largely sidelined. The qualitative is a critical concern for this conversation. Music and art are more than just economic inputs and outputs. They are these affective forces that contribute so much more than economic capital. There’s cultural capital to consider, as well as the social ramifications. Music and art are critical ways for us to ask questions about ourselves, to provide us with ways through we can consider ourselves and reflect concerns and desires that are often too elusive to address in more direct ways.

I feel strongly we need to be considering the politics of art making and the politics of audition greatly as we move forward. It’s too easy to just go with what already is and has been. It’s up to us to think the unthinkable.

During the 90’s ‘ambient’ music saw a huge resurgence with Orb, FSOL, Aphex etc all hitting mainstream charts. Robin Rimbaud described the chillout spaces of the time as being a kind of ‘cultural nexus’. In 1999 we saw the emergence of the term Ambient Media which describes advertising that merges with the ubiquitous environment to influence buyers, much like how ambient music can be engaged with on a more unconscious level, and in turn influence the listener. From here we have Ambient Awareness/Technology/Organisations etc. Do you think you can mount a case that Ambient music has played a role in changing the thinking around other areas of culture and social organisation? I am thinking especially of people exposed to it in chillout spaces and experimental music spaces during the 90’s and how the underlying approach may have caused them to look at more subtle ways of approaching things.

I think if we think about ambient, conceptually, as an exploration of place, as the affective, dynamic flux of become and unbecoming rather than space, as static and the setting for affect, then there’s a real value in ambient approaches. They allow us to consider the shifting and temporal positions we hold as listeners in the moment. Ambient music similarly is in a constant state of becoming and unbecoming, as it invites an active relation with the world around it.

I always appreciated the way, say Eno’s On Land, merges with whatever is around it. Every time then you listen to that record it invites a different sensation. It melts into all around it and embraces it. Even on headphones I find this occurs.

I know from my side there’s a real osmosis that takes place in my music making, ideas that might seem distant or unrelated fuel entire conceptual approaches to album I make. I feel more enlightened readings of ambient, that maybe sit at a meta level above music deeply shape these approaches.

Do you have a preference for live or studio work?

I think there’s a conversation to be had between these two parallel worlds. Recently I’ve really enjoyed what that conversation is bringing about. I have just completed a new solo record and a great deal of the studio approaches used on that record bare the teeth marks of the touring I’ve done for the past couple of years.

Both of these satisfy different aspects of my interest in sound. Broadly, I suppose the studio is for the mind and ear, the stage and live sound is for the body. My body and those of the audience soaked in physical sound.

Outline some of your gear.

In the studio I am using a lot of outboard from Shadow Hills Industries, Manley, Empirical Labs, SPL, Crane Song, custom FCS, Moog and the like. A great deal of the way I generate sounds for my work is through transformation and iteration. so these tools are critical in helping to achieve that.

Some career highlights?

In the recent past, I’d say working with Jamie Stewart on the HEXA project exploring David Lynch’s Factory Photographs would be one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve had the chance to undertake. That record has just come out, so I am pleased to have it finally in the world.

Recently, I had some wonderful opportunities to perform on some amazing sound systems last year at Berghain for CTM festival and Mangha for Unsound Festival.

Also had some fantastic opportunities to travel for field recording projects. Antarctica was a particular highlight, as was spending time along the Macdonald Ranges on Arrernte country. This past week I’ve been recording inside a hotel on the Gold Coast, documenting the electromagnetic and vibrational sound worlds that sit outside the everyday sense of listening. It was amazing to really tap into the circulatory system of the building. The power really pulsed like a heartbeat.

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How do you see the future of the kinds of music that interest you? It seems to me that the mainstream is now almost a desert in terms of creativity – not something you might have said in the late 1960’s or even late last century…..can experimental music survive if there is less and less chance for it to come to the attention of a wider audience?

It’s funny, I think there’s never been more opportunity to access audiences, but in the same breath the challenges of reaching people have never been so huge. In the past, the musical exchange was about economy. You bought music, you had a limited budget to do that, so what you bought you gave time to. Now, the musical exchange is about a different commodity, time. People have all the access in the world, there is no limit to the streaming (for free) that can effectively happen, so now what we are asking listeners to do is give us time. To listen again and again, and in doing that to not listen  to something else. It’s an obvious statement to make, but it is one that really is critical I feel.

I have to say generally, I have a good deal of hope for all music to persist and develop. I think things move in ebbs and flows….sometimes one area is brimming with promise and other areas are not…but not a year goes by when I don’t hear at least one pop song that opens up a thought or potential idea that hadn’t crossed my mind. I would like to think that all artists are hungry to create powerful works, some perhaps are just more hungry than others when it comes to new and uncharted realms.

In a wider sense……there seems to be a mass dumbing down. 17 of the top 20 TV shows are ‘reality’ shows. Everything seems to be delivered in smaller and smaller soundbytes. Few people seem capable of analytical thought. The ‘news’ is just native advertising. And so on. Thoughts?

The good news is, for TV at least at the other end of things you have shows like Black Mirror. They are shining examples of the power of the small screen. I agree, distraction is a huge question for all of us to deal with looking into the future. I think Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows mounted an excellent argument around this question. For me, I am certainly conscious of these things when I approach the day to day. I think, like Kenneth Goldsmith suggests, wasting time on the internet can be a golden experience, it’s just about how much time and ultimately to what end.

For what it’s worth I am not a fan of reality tv…for one thing, it’s not reality…so if it can’t even name itself correctly, what good is it?!

Some advice for young people…….the industry and has never been tougher. Brian Eno might advise ‘don’t get a job’ so you don’t lose your creative focus, but is this even possible anymore? What would you advise to people entering the music caper?

Perhaps people might like to read this, my guide for young people looking to make their way as hustlers in the world of art and music.

http://room40.org/le/writing/LE_AYoungPerson_sGuideToHustlingInTheArts.pdf

For more on Lawrence English:

http://www.lawrenceenglish.com/

www.room40.org

 

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