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Interview with Lawrence English

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
All is well thanks. I am on a train bound for Tokyo – presently riding alongside the Sea of Japan – just lovely.

What's on your schedule at the moment?

Right now I am touring Japan. It’s been a great chance to perform with some wonderful musicians and to spend a little time working on my live concerts. I’ve also had the chance to visit a good number of curious spots on this tour, which has been fantastic. In September I return to Australia for a fairly hectic few weeks – presenting tours from NikaSaya, aus, Cokiyu and The Pancakes, as well as two festivals – Frankly! (It’s a pop music festival) and Open Frame the annual room40 festival.
I also have the pleasure of presenting a concert from mr Van Dyke Parks – one of the great artists of the 20th century I think! There’s also a swag of new releases for both someone good and room40 – so it’s a fairly busy time!!

Regarding your current tour of Japan, how are you approaching your sets?

Actually this tour I am playing a harmonium and singing a little in the concerts. They also have a lot of field recordings, combined with the more textural elements of the recent recorded works. I have to say it’s been a real pleasure to play so many shows in a condensed period – it’s rare to have such good spaces and audiences! Not to mention great hosts and wonderful food!

Many Sound Artists are reluctant to hit the stage for various reasons. Your schedule, however, suggests a remarkable fondness of performing live ...
I think the concert environment for electronic music is a difficult one to work in – given the expectation of ‚performance’ – but that’s something I actually enjoy exploring – seeing what it is that works and why. I think, my recent concerts have tried to match a sense of focused listening with a more performative, perhaps more ‚musical’ approach to the recorded material. I liked to hear how different combinations of elements function together and how it is different aspects can be brought into and out of relief.
A lot of the concerts I make tend to merge a variety of layers and densities – and from that comes a kind of spatial depth that I really do find fascinating. The whole notion of vibrations in air is so simple, yet the variation in experiencing that is almost limitless.

You seem to believe that there is an intersection between the worlds of experimental- and pop-music, as well, don't you?
Absolutely and I think we’re seeing that divide being bridged more and more every year – wether that be through the ambient avant-pop stuff that has been surfacing in recent years or the more experimental pop traditions that are emerging I think we’re really seeing a swell in this kind of work and it makes me excited to hear that. I think you only have to listen to someone like Tujiko Noriko to hear the possibilities that these two sound world might have when combined.

From your experience from touring, do audiences all over the world react the same to particular sounds or its there a cultural component to their appreciation after all?
I think what’s wonderful about sound – and particularly more concréte sound – is that everyone interprets it in a different way. For example, when someone comes to a concert and I might play some wind recorded in the Amazon – that person may never have been there so imagines some kind of wind that they have encountered elsewhere. I feel strongly that when people listen to music and sound they call upon their own previous experiences and social/environmental understandings. There’s an aspect of imagination that I like to think plays into the work I do – I want people to immerse themselves in the sounds and find meaning for themselves. In some ways I guess the music and sound works I create tend to invite people not only to listen deeply, but also to seek a personal understanding – they create their own reality from their past experiences housed within the sounds I present – that can be literal or imagined I suppose.

Do you try to reserve some time occasionally to discover a city or country „by ear“?
Most certainly – almost every single place I have visited has some kind of unique or unexpected sound quality. Right now for example I am enjoying the numerous species of Semi (Cicada) that exist throughout Japan – Honshu and Kyushu for example are radically different. I always try to spend a little time on each tour field recording or simply listening to the spaces I come in contact with. That said it’s a difficult thing to do with schedules – so increasingly I try to make focused trips for field recordings – as I did in the Amazon last year and earlier this year in the far north of Queensland.

For an album like „A Colour for Autumn“, you consciously used field recordings from all around the world. What are criteria for perefering one recording over the other – just their acoustic characteristics or a  mood and history related to a particular place?
For A Colour For Autumn and a number of other records actually I’ve used field recordings not only for their sonic qualities, but also as compositional cues or memory triggers. For the more musical projects I undertake, I tend to extend the way the field recordings might be used – as today there’s simply so much music containing sound from the field – part of the challenge I’ve always felt is to find an individual way of using those sounds, not just simply plonking them into the piece as another ‘sound element’.

The criteria for A Colour for Autumn came down to the seasonal aspect of the record – so many of those sounds were chosen as they symbolise or characterise a particular aspect of the environment that was influencing the record. The recordings of the ‘Mistral’ for example in ‘Droplet’ actually informed the way the piece opens, and the record as a whole as it was one of the first places I visited after thinking about this seasonal set of records that I am presently working on.
For me the field recordings tend to have a personal reference point and that’s something I can use to inform how the pieces develop, but for a listener, I am conscious those connections are not there, so ideally the recordings must obviously serve a broader purpose.

Would you say that sounds or even field recordings suggest certain musical ideas or do you rather have a particular musical motive in mind at the beginning and then set out to find the appropriate sounds to realise it?
I definitely feel there’s a strong connection that can be drawn from a range of influences and then applied to the ideas of musical form. Architecture, the smell of a city, the movement of people, the static nature of a landscape – any of these elements can be highly influential for a piece I find. These influences might not be expressed in a radical or obvious way, but often they underpin particular sound shapes or concepts that drive the records. The record Kiri No Oto very much is an example of this.

Do you create a dedicated palette before beginning the actual recording process?
Not really. To be honest I feel a good deal of my work is process oriented – where I’ll start with one group of elements or concepts and then over the period of a record they will be transformed, reduced, expanded and exploded – and generally I am always testing new elements and subtracting as needed… it’s a very fluid process…

...and a time-consuming one. Those two releases you talked about, „It's up to us to live“ and „A Colour For Autumn“ took years to complete. How do you stay focused on and true to the core message over a long span of time?
Projects like A Colour For Autumn take time to realise in that there’s a number of stages to the project. For example this seasonal series of record is very much about visiting locations and thinking about how the ideas of seasonality are expressed. So for example the next record is focused on summer – so this present trip to Japan is part of that record in some senses. Also experiences from 2004 in the USA and China in 2006 are also fuelling some of the thoughts about this record, so the time is really in contemplating what it is I want to explore from a given project.
I usually find that the time allowed also gives me a chance to find a sound world that I think will fit well and lend the record its own feel and sensibility. I kind of relish having the chance to work with different sound ideas and textures – so for me there’s no difference between a record like Studies For Stradbroke and perhaps the Tenniscoats record Totemo Aimasho – they both have unique sound qualities that I find engaging and the process of being involved in both was rewarding for a whole range of reasons.

Has the idea of releasing some of your live sets ever presented itself to you?

Ironically I just made a live cassette for Japan – but this kind of came off the back of a series of analog concerts I did this year with harmonium, keyboards and voice. One of the pieces is actually dedicated to putting a stop to the annual Drive Fishing of Dolphins in Taiji Japan – people can read up on this issue at - and I implore people to help out in spreading the word on this issue. For one thing it’s one of the worst abuses of sound I have ever come across…

You seemed to be longing for a holiday last time we mailed. Any chance of that happening soon?
Not likely, but heck you’ve got to have something to look forward to... even if it never arrives...

By Tobias Fischer

Top picture by Samm Bennett

A Colour For Autumn (12K) 2009
It's Up To Us To Live (Sirr) 2009
Kiri No Oto CD 2008
Studies For Stradbroke (Winds Measure) 2008
For Varying Degrees of Winter (Baskaru) 2007
Object - Asobi (Sensory Projects) 2007
Happiness Will Befall (Cronica) 2006
Transit (Cajid) 2005
Ghost Towns 3" (ROOM40) 2004
Object - Pandemic (Quatermass) 2003
I/O - Calm (ROOM40) 2001

Lawrence English

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