Lawrence English is media artist, composer and curator based in Brisbane, Australia. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. For over a decade, English has traversed a divergent path where musical and environmental sources are granted equal focus. Published widely on respected imprints including Touch, 12K and Winds Measure, English also curates the ROOM40 imprint and organises numerous events across the globe. For comprehensive information please visit www.lawrenceenglish.com & www.room40.org
ER. You have a mixed media background, how did sound emerge within your overall practice?
LE. It’s probably safe to say that sound was my first interest and that has facilitated the chance to explore a range of other media art approaches. More often than not it’s a sound based principle, experience or concept that drives my mixed media works. An example of this perhaps is the ‘Isentropic Process’ piece I made several years ago – which used sound as a basic starting point, but the focus of the work was on the physical manifestation and visualisation of sonic phenomena – in this case low frequency vibration. Likewise I worked on a piece last year called ‘A Distant Echo’, which involved the gathering of field recordings on magnetic tape, cutting the tape apart and then making a sculptural work from it, again the ‘sound’ played a central, but silent role.
ER. Can you talk about your label’s origins and how you balance your own artistic output and that of Room 40?
LE. This balance is an increasingly curious act I must confess. But in all fairness the pleasure of working on other people’s sound, introducing it to new ears and the like is something I value very highly. When we started Room40 in 2000, there were a couple of things we wanted to achieve. The first was to create an opportunity for a range of musicians I had been in touch with, to release sound works they were having difficulty finding a home for. At that time there were only a few labels coming out of Australia and now the majority of those have vanished. I have a feeling that Room40 might actually be one of the more ‘senior’ (in age that is) labels involved in this kind of sound work in the southern hemisphere now.
Room40 also started out of an idea to create an umbrella that could sit over a suite of activities – publishing editions, curating projects and exhibitions and also presenting festivals and concerts. Since its inception Room40 has very much been about this idea of linking a range of related activities, rather than simply being a label or production house.
ER. Can you talk a little about the concept behind the work A Colour for Autumn and the series that began with For Varying Degrees of Winter?
LE. The ideas behind this series of albums came very much from travelling. Having had the chance to travel widely over the past decade, I found that seasonality is manifested very differently in parts of the world. Even with these variations though there seems to be common themes or feelings attached to the seasons. So the record series is about this relationship we have to seasons.
As I write this for instance I am in Patagonia and it’s summer – but not the kind of summer I have experienced before. That said yesterday in Rio Gallegos, I watched families make their way to the side of the river to enjoy what little sun there was. The actions were the same as a family in Australia, but the subtlety of it, the uniform, and the kind of objects taken varied drastically as the climate demanded.
I’d like to think the albums are more an invitation to consider seasonality and its qualities, rather than saying ‘ok this is summer, or this is winter’ – ideally it’s just a set of possible sonic sparks to get people thinking about how they encounter a given season. Also I felt that Vivaldi had had the strangle hold on the four seasons for too long now.
ER. How important is the word ‘process’ when making your works?
LE. In my case, I find process to be a very central pillar in my work methods. It’s something I find important on a number of levels. In the first instance, process tends to suggest time for transformation/consideration to occur – that might be transformation for example in form or content, or simply in the textures of composition or impression of video work.
For many of my recorded works, and also artworks, I tend to sit with a concept or theme and work through it over an extended period. Kiri No Oto for example was a record where the idea came long before any actual audio was produced and that is something I find resonates deeply in the way I approach what I do – for the moment at least.
ER. How important is context in your recordings, in a sense how a listener understands the ‘where’s’ and ‘when’s’ of listening?
LE. To be honest, I’m not always so interested in this idea of placing the listener directly into a space or location by being prescriptive. I feel the idea that somehow a place can be recorded and then be ‘presented’ as absolutely representative of that location is more than a little problematic.
In my opinion the art of field recording is in the perspective the artist places on the environment, much the same as photography. The tools, the positioning and the perspective of the artist tend to shape the kinds of ways a space might be represented. Take artists like Francisco Lopez or Chris Watson – in many respects they are polar opposites in terms of the equipment and presentations of the works they create, but they both are responsible for some of the most evocative field recording publications of the past 10 or more years.
I guess with projects like ‘Studies For Stradbroke’, I use the name of the location, but the sounds recorded are those that sit outside the usual human hearing range/experience – hydrophonic recordings in the case of that edition – so rather than being a telling indication of what might be heard, it’s merely an invitation to imagine what the this place might be.
ER. Are you concerned with definitions of ‘music’ and ‘sound’ when considering your own practice?
Definitions are great for conversation and debate I think. There’s been some great texts in the past couple of years that start to dive deep into what the relationships with music and sound might be, but in terms of my own work I don’t spend too long worrying about if something is music, sound or otherwise.
ER. Do you see your installation, gallery based works as a different entity to published recordings?
LE. To be honest, yes. While I think it’d be easy to draw connections between the interests or investigations in both recorded and gallery works, for me the gallery sets up a largely different discourse for the person coming in contact with the work. With a record, once that piece is published you relinquish control of how that piece is experienced – the kinds of equipment people listen to it on, whether they listen on speakers or headphones, with or without other sounds around them etc. In the gallery, and with some forms of site-specific installation, you actually create spaces in which the work can be experienced, and that is a large part of my interest with this kind of practise.
LE. Good question and one that I am constantly conscious of – It’s a fluctuating situation. Some concerts are almost entirely improvised and others are more structured. I guess it depends on the situation, I’d like to think I am flexible enough to move freely between more composed pieces – like variations of pieces from records I may have recorded to completely freeform improvised sections when I perform live. I spent a good deal of time playing improvised shows up until three years ago – some of them I enjoyed greatly, but I have moved away from it a little in the past couple of years.
Partly this was to do with the interface of the computer as a tool for improvising. I was looking for ways to exploit it, and that took some time. I think it’ll be an ongoing process too – trying to find the best interface to get the results I’m after.
ER. What is the Brisbane soundscape like, any favourite spots you like to record?
Brisbane is actually a wonderful place for sound. For instance this summer it’s been a real wash of cicadas – their high beating pulses modulate so well in unison. It’s really something, at times deafening, but for me always a pleasure to encounter. What I think I enjoy most about Brisbane’s sound is that it indicates quite strongly for me times of day or year. There’s on particular cicada for example that calls on dusk, a large green insect with a bulbous abdomen – its call is a lower frequency than other cicadas and it’s almost as if the day is deflating when that call starts up. The heat has passed and the coolness of the night is ushered in with this constant mid range tone.
Nearby where I lived we’re spoiled for birds and other wildlife too. The creek at the end of my street for example is home to some 30 species of bird, countless insects and all manner of small mammals. That along with the grasses and trees (that sound when the wind is up) makes for a fairly rich sound environment.
I don’t tend to record so much in Brisbane, but outside the centre, say for example Brisbane Forest Park or Stradbroke Island I have visited for recordings that have since been published.
The first time I focused on sound I was actually quiet young. My father and grandfather were both keen naturalists, so I’d go bird watching with them. The particular memory I have is of travelling to a small flat land covered in cracked earth and small swamps. In the reeds of the swamps lived reed warblers and we used to go looking for them. To find the birds though you didn’t use your eyes at first – instead your ears. The reeds were too dense to see the small birds, so we’d listen, roughly locate the bird and then look for it. This was my first time of thinking of sound in space – trying to locate objects in an environment and in many respects that has been an ongoing interest in my creative undertakings.
ER. And finally, as always Ear Room asks; what does the term sound art mean to you?
Art concerned primarily with, or celebrating the matter of ‘sound’ – physical, conceptual, acoustic and more.
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