Brisbane-based composer and media artist Lawrence English has worked across a number of fields. He started Room40 at the turn of the century, and the label has grown to encompass a variety of cultural activities, from releases and books by sonic adventurers like Grouper, Motion Sickness Of Time Travel, Ben Frost and Oren Ambarchi, to curating events and installations, as well as connecting with the network of interested ears around the world. In this monologue, drawn from his recent Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio, English details his ways of thinking about music, sound, listening, performance, and how those he’s come to work with through Room40 inspire him.
What I find moving about adventurous music is that, when I return to it, it’s not a repeated experience. I might anticipate certain things, but what I discover is another dimension to the sound. When I’m performing my own work, what I’m interested in is a situation where the potential of the sound can be realized. I think particularly with this most recent record, Wilderness of Mirrors, I’m interested in occupying the body. I want people to be consumed in the sound, and I want the physical presence to be evident in the work. Increasingly, that is what the power of live performance is for me: that it moves beyond the interior and speaks to the cerebral.
If you look at the tsunami in Southeast Asia a few years ago, the elephants left. The dogs left. The birds flew away. All the animals recognized that low-frequency vibration as the sound of terror. Human beings have lost the capacity to recognize this kind of phenomena, of the potentially of vibration in the body. I’m very interested in prodding people to realize that their body is a device for listening; that bones resonate, that the body itself resonates. It’s not just about your ears. It’s about the whole, systemic function of the body.
It is a very profound experience when you recognize that nothing is absolute.
I think what’s also powerful about sound is that under certain circumstances, in terms of sound pressure levels, there is no choice but to embrace it into the body. I find it seductive that music can activate physiological responses; that music is very much about recognition, of the synesthetic possibility of sound, of physical sound in space; that you are hearing sound, but you are experiencing sound through touch. Your body is vibrating within the clothes that you’re wearing, that parts of your body are vibrating in ways that don’t happen very often, like the hairs on your hands or the hairs on your head.
There is something very powerful about recognizing that your capacity for language is reduced in certain circumstances, too. I’ve done concerts where I’ve used very low frequency if people are talking, to modulate their voices, so they become unable to communicate with one another. That is a very profound experience when you recognize that nothing is absolute.
Marina Rosenfeld is one of the artists I’ve been most profoundly surprised by, in this regard. She is a tireless experimenter, and has a vision for her work that I’m utterly beguiled by. When I first heard P.A./Hard Love, I could barely wrap myself around it. She had brought together incredibly disparate elements and made sense of them. When she was talking about involving Warrior Queen I didn’t quite understand what she meant, but then I heard it, this concrete dancehall, and it’s mind-boggling.
The fact that she comes from an installation practice, too, and translates that spatial temporal disjuncture into a recorded format, I think is a very unusual approach, multi-disciplinary approach. She’s not making an album. She’s not making an installation. She’s making this hybrid thing that, somehow, sits somewhere between worlds.
At one moment, you’re in what you imagine could be a very open space, like a warehouse with speakers, then suddenly you’re in a club, and you’re being clobbered by this pounding rhythm and amazing voice. Her ability to find humanity in very abstract sound material is what summarizes her so well – and it’s disarming, too. You’re getting this very personal impression of, in some respects, very conceptual work, but it’s also approachable and human. I think that comes down to the way that she conceptualizes her projects and the breadth at which she thinks about her work. It’s not just making a record: it’s a series of contingent streams that intermingle and break apart, and come back together again.
Our ears are much better filters than they are listening devices.
The Art, and Act, of Listening
For me, the idea of listening is the central premise of my interest in running a label, in introducing music to people, and also in my practice as an artist. I’m interested in the capacity and the reasons why we do and don’t participate in certain kinds of listening. Human beings are incredibly good at filtering information. Our ears are much better filters than they are listening devices. The challenge for us is: how do we begin to recognize how it is we’re participating and listening? Are we completely unconscious? Are we just letting it roll over us? Or are we consciously, politically, performatively undertaking listening?
With that, I think it’s really interesting the way that we come to understand our ability to listen, and to recognise what audition can be. There isn’t necessarily a fixed position with sound, and I find that powerful because it means that you need to invest yourself. You need to build these kinds of structures, and the willingness to investigate the potential of the sound. That takes effort, too, because I think we are conditioned towards a desire for absolutism.
It’s down to how we like to pigeonhole genres of music, or to understand things in a codified way. There’s a code, and we recognise and speak in that code, so much so that we feel uncomfortable when we’re outside of that code. I think one of the challenges with adventurous music generally is that it’s not familiar territory: that as a listener you have to come to that, and be willing to traverse whatever shape that’s going to be. It’s not easy, but the rewards are huge if you’re willing to make that effort.
As an artist, I think about listening as a performance. I don’t perform all the time, but when I do perform I’m very active, conscious and agentive about the kinds of preoccupations I have with my listening. For me, that is hugely seductive. I love that feeling of listening to someone and knowing that, for a time, we’re together.
Music is a time-based art; you have to give it time, and the more time you give it the greater the connection you have to it. When I’m sharing that time with that artist, in listening to their work, I somehow am one step outside of myself. It’s as though I’m inside someone else’s world, for that brief moment.
Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?
The first time I heard Chris Abrahams’ Thrown, I was at Chris’ house in Sydney. I think we’d been at a concert, and I was staying with him for the evening. We were sitting down and Chris said to me, “I’ve got this record I’m working on. I’d be curious to know what you think about it.” He played it to me and, quite honestly, I was scared – I think. It was genuinely one of the most unsettling records I’d ever heard. I didn’t know how he’d made it. I didn’t know what some of the source material was. I didn’t know how it was that he had come to that point of combining some of those elements together compositionally.
Generally speaking, I think there are two kinds of music: rhythm and melody, and harmony and pulse. A lot of the work on Room40 is about harmony and pulse, and they do not the kinds of rhythmical patterns that we associate with popular music in the West. The meters that we understand, that have come to us from popular music, condition us to appreciate certain kinds of things. It’s the familiarity that makes us feel comfortable. I’m less interested in feeling comfortable within that moment, however, which is why I found Thrown intoxicating.
I want the music to push at the edges. I think that’s where the really interesting place is, right at that point where you’re not quite sure. My question is: how can we make ourselves unsure?
It was one of those records that the lack of resolve, somehow, between the shifting notes of the positive organ and the harsh contrast of the DX7 and piano – made the seemingly unrelated become incredibly powerful together. Thrown pushed me out of what I understood music to be.
I am still thankful to this day that he played me that record, and that he was open to me releasing it, because Chris is a genius. I’ve heard him change a piano into an electronic instrument several times in concert. It’s uncomfortable at first, but from that friction you get a kind of pleasure, because it really is about this opportunity to completely reconsider your expectations.
For me, what I hope to continue with Room40 is that, if people listen to the catalogue, over 15 years, there are numerous possibilities to reconsider your understanding of things like song, rhythm and quality. I want the music to push at the edges. I think that’s where the really interesting place is, right at that point where you’re not quite sure. My question is: how can we make ourselves unsure?