At the Edge of Sound With Lawrence English

Photo by S. Simpson

Lawrence English is a one-person force of nature. Between his label, Room 40, various solo and collaborative projects, his own writing, and so much more it’s a wonder he finds time to breathe. Truthfully, this unerring, forward-pushing nature is something I deeply relate to, and seeing and hearing all that English has accomplished this year alone is a big source of inspiration. But this conversation is not about all of that. 

Last week, English released two separate albums built around environmental recordings, the solo A Mirror Holds the Sky and Breathing Spirit Forms with David Toop and Akio Suzuki. His work with environmental field recordings is almost unparalleled and both releases showcase different aspects of his innate ability to capture these locations. They’re mesmerizing, beautiful releases.

I interviewed Lawrence throughout August about these albums and his interest and approach to field recording. Both albums are out now on Room 40.

What first got you interested in environmental recordings? Do you have any specific memories of environmental sound from when you were a kid that really caught your attention and has stuck with you?

I think the first, somewhat, serious batch of environmental recordings I made must have been in 1997 or early 1998. Around that time I got my hands on a Minidisc recorder and a very basic microphone that was meant to be used with home video recorders. It was an incredibly rudimentary setup, but what it offered was a really significant opportunity to record remotely with a very small footprint. It opened a thrilling range of possibilities, as the Minidisc really provided the chance for quick checking of recordings in the field and you could learn swiftly how to better your technical craft. 

Before this time I’d made some recordings with my walkman, but these recordings were more a process of understanding the idea of recording itself, like exploring cut-ups, stopping and starting, and juxtapositions. This was incredibly important of course, but it wasn’t so much about being in a place and trying to seek something out of those moments. It was more just about considering the structural implications that recording and recording mediums might mean.

I have a memory of a particular recording I made around that time which was the sound of my feet walking on the mudflats at the mouth of the Brisbane River and at the same time recording a pair of Pied Oyster Catchers, I ended up using that recording on a very early album I made. It’s very telling of the wonder that field recording represented, this idea of being present in a moment in place and your presence interacting and influencing that moment in various ways.

When I was much younger there are certainly moments where I was very aware of, and interested in, sound. My experience of Reed Warblers with my father, which I often talk about, is one such example. I have another intense memory of listening to Black Headed Flying Foxes raiding the mango trees in my parents’ backyard when I was maybe 7 or 8. It was pitch black and there must have been hundreds of them all feasting on the fruit, their voices were agitated as they squabbled with each other I remember finding it deeply frightening, these alien voices calling from the dark

You just need to lean in, listen in, and allow yourself to become available.

What are some of your favorite sounds and why are they your favorites?

This is a tough question to answer. If I am being honest, it’s very much time and situation dependant. I mean there are recordings I am very attached to. The recording of Horned Screamers I made in the Amazon for example. I love that recording because it took me almost a decade to identify them and that was entirely down to Jean Roche’s wonderful Birds Of Venezuela LP, which tipped me off. For the longest time, I didn’t know what had created those sounds, I had thought it might have been a monkey. I love not entirely knowing what a sound source is and having to research into it. Literally this week I identified Piranha in one of the sections of A Mirror Holds The Sky. Those recordings are literally still revealing themselves!

I made a recording at Peron Station in Western Australia a few years ago, which was released this year by Superpang. I have a deep attachment to that recording also. Partly it’s the hauntological qualities that are carried in the recording. There are moments where I swear you can hear these voices murmuring and whispering. I’m aware it’s likely the wind in the building, but the intensity of the recording really captivates me still.

Generally what captivates me about field recordings is how the subjective sensing of the place plays out. I think very mundane settings, examined with a curious ear can become very compelling. You just need to lean in, listen in, and allow yourself to become available. It’s when recordings are attempting to somehow make a gesture towards being documental or objective, that’s when I tend to find myself tuning out. I am not interested in representation in that way. I am interested in the creativity that I think is a function of listenership in field recordings.

I want to get into A Mirror Holds the Sky next. First, what’s the story behind the name? It’s a wonderful album title.

Thanks. It’s funny, it was a title that very much just arrived, which frankly I wish would happen more often. It’s a reflection, pun intended, on the relationship between the lake and sky. There were days where you’d be floating out of the water and you’d look into the stillness of the lake and just seeing this suspended sky, trapped in the uppermost layer of the water. It was utterly surreal in moments, really quite something.

You ended up taking a trip to the Amazon, facilitated by Francisco Lopez’s Mamori Artlab residency – how exactly did the trip come about? Did Francisco approach you or was it something else?

The Mamori Artlab residency was something being offered annually for a while there and was arranged by Francisco. He had sent me a note about it the year before I think, and it completely caught my attention. I had always wanted to visit the Amazon, and knowing the focus of this residency, it seemed like a perfect way to approach the trip. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have been able to visit there. 

What surprised you most about the Amazon?

Honestly, the density of sound. 

I have spent time in many different tropical rainforests over the years. My family hails from the tropics here in Australia, so I have a connection to that place which traces a familial line into the rainforest. The Amazon however is something completely different in that the density of life is just so profoundly rich. Literally, in every square meter, there are hundreds of insects, amphibians, birds, and mammals and they all want to stake a claim, often using their voices, or bodies in the case of many insects, to do so. I was struck by the lack of distance in the sound field for most of the time. The sheer amplitude of the sound in close proximity meant that it was difficult to get a sense of depth or to feel as though you were listening in to the jungle. The immediate space around you was often just completely overpowering and shrunk the horizon of audition to a matter of meters, sometimes even less.

On the occasions there was an opportunity for a listening that extended beyond the immediate surroundings it was really exhilarating as you realized that the jungle just went on and on, in all directions, and here you were a meaningless mammal somewhere in the middle of it all. The Amazon humbles you, and I mean that in the best way possible. It reduces you, it reminds you that ultimately you are just another animal in an expansive zone of animals and plants, and you are no more or less important than any of them.

Your wife, Rebecca, was also along for the trip and helped capture some of the sounds we hear on the record, and I liked how you pointed out the importance of that and how her approach and interests with field recording are different than your own. What was it like, for you, working on the project and going through the recordings, and hearing what she captured? Did you all talk about your approaches to the recordings or anything before or after?

During this period, when we had the opportunity to be traveling on a few projects together, Becks was a massive help. She was and is still a trooper and I’d argue a very resourceful and skilled recordist. She is incredibly patient and some of the recordings she captured are the happy result of that patience. For the Amazon trip, she recorded extensively, we both would use different setups, like alternate microphone configurations and set up in different places for recordings and that revealed how localized some sound events could be. 

It was very interesting to go back through recordings made between us at the same time and in a relatively similar environment, as quite often they are markedly different. I think it spoke in some respects to the different kinds of things we might discover and find interesting in a place. For instance, if we were recording along the lake, I might have been very focused on frogs at the shoreline, but Becks would find a bank of insects just a little way into the jungle and would set to record there. There’s obviously a temporal and spatial relation between the recordings, but each of them maintains a very discreet sensing of that time and place. 

Photo by M. Behrens

What was it about working on the piece for Chico Dub’s Festival Novas Frequências that really unlocked this archive for you and helped you finally put this album together?

I can be really honest and say that for almost a decade I had no real way to properly interrogate these recordings in a kind of holistic fashion. I’d obviously listened through the recordings, and a lot of them are fascinating and unusual, but they are also very dense and full. There’s almost no way to marry the sounds up and work with them in a somewhat compositional way. 

I think up until this time, most of the recordings I had made available from that trip were singular studies, like the Horned Screamers I mentioned which was released on Songs Of The Living. Chico’s invitation really forced my hand in a sense. His request for a piece that could be diffused during the festival allowed me to approach the recordings with a fresh intent. I think it really helped too that he suggested the piece be performed in an outdoor setting, where there was a chance for the recordings to speak back into another environment. 

Working on the piece for the diffusion, I suddenly heard new ways to approach the sounds and relationships that could be struck between them. It was actually a massive learning process for me. I was really happy for the opportunity as I love to be challenged and also to unlock new methodologies for how to approach sound.

You’ve also got an album with David Toop and Akio Suzuki, called Breathing Spirit Forms (another fantastic title!), coming out at the same time as A Mirror Holds the Sky. How did the idea for these site-specific recordings first come together?

That year, I had invited Akio and David to Australia for a series of projects and performances I was curating at the time. David had come in part for a residency which took place at Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast. It was during this time that the ideas for Entities Interias Faint Beings took shape I believe. Whilst they were not traveling together, I had arranged a moment of cross-over in their itineraries where there was a chance for a collaborative concert. That took place at the Institute Of Modern Art as part of a series I curate there called MONO. It was a very special evening. Directly before that, I had arranged for the three of us to travel together to Tamborine Mountain, which is halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. It’s such a special place, a sub-tropical rainforest where various micro-climates thrive. We have discussed the idea of undertaking an improvisation together, but following the first session, we all decided we should enjoy some more. It was a very special exchange and both David and Akio are incredibly generous, not only as players but as listeners. I am in awe of their capacities to allow sounds to hold and to emerge from places and situations that are at times so very unexpected. They are a source of huge inspiration and wonder for me.

It’s funny in a way, as these recordings have been sitting dormant for a long time also, partly for similar reasons to A Mirror Holds The Sky. I’ve often played these sessions, but it wasn’t until recently that I listened to them and knew how to approach them. They could never replicate the sensing of the forest and each other we shared during that time, but I heard ways the recordings could hint at those experiences. It’s like the sounds just needed to sit in that time-locked moment in the forest for a while before I was able to really sense what they were and how they could speak to each other. 

Photo by Bryan Spencer

Can you talk a little about how you’ve come to know David Toop and Akio Suzuki?

I’ve had the fortune to know David now for two decades. He was amongst the first artists I invited to Australia. 

I had been, and am still am, an enormous fan of his writing and thinking on and around sound. I was also very much struck by a number of his recordings. His work for Obscure was available to me in the 1990s and I heard Spirit World sometime in the late 1990s I guess. That record was so geist-like in the way it opened these portals to imagined places, illustrated only by sound and voice. David’s work is so utterly affective, it operates below and outside senses of emotion or other known ways to express. He creates these utterly personal works that somehow open up something unforeseen, or unexpected within me and I expect many others who listen to his work.

Akio’s work I am fairly sure was introduced to me by David. I think David had a copy of Odds and Ends, which I must have listened to at his place. I think I managed to order a copy somehow and was completely obsessed with it. I had no real idea how Akio was making those sounds and I wanted to know more. I think in 2004 I was able to get in touch with him and I invited him down to Australia after that for a series of performances. I still remember being struck by how profoundly unique his approach to sound was. This idea of ’throwing and following’ has really served Akio well. I think on that first trip Akio stayed with us for some time and we became fast friends, which has been the case ever since. We also made a recording together, another site-specific one of sorts, Boombana Echoes. To me, Akio represents a very special connection to a type of artist who is increasingly rare in this age. His curiosity and enthusiasm are catching and I can only hope I hold that same spark when I am his age. 

Something that continually strikes me when I listen to the album is how everything is so symbiotic.. the sounds you all are creating often sound as if they are a natural extension of the environmental recordings. “Leaving No Trace” is a great example.. the flutes sound like strange birds, the percussive sounds like rocks tumbling down a hillside or rustling leaves, and twigs snapping underfoot – or on “Its Winter Already” where the shortwave radio (or electronics – not sure which!) sounds like a storm in the distance. It’s tremendous. What kinds of conversations and considerations happened before recording to figure out and make sure you all were integrating into these natural sounds? Or was it all spontaneous? 

Actually, we didn’t discuss anything related to the work at all. That side of things did just unfold in a totally organic way. I think that was one of the things I had to grapple with when working on the edits of the pieces. To find a way that ensured that sense of openness and the flowing nature of the pieces was maintained. 

What we did talk about though in the time before we recorded was the environment. Tamborine is a very special place. It holds a lot of stories for our indigenous people and when you step foot on the mountain, and you are open to it, you can recognize this deep sensing of time and you are just a blip in that evolving story. We were able to hear a display from a Lyrebird, which was magical. I think that captured something in our collective imagination. We could barely see the bird, but we could hear its complex calls cutting through the forest and filling it up somehow. Similarly in the moments before we recorded at night, standing there in the forest with this deep sense of reaching out into that blackness with our ears, that very much shaped our attentiveness I’d suspect.

What were some of the biggest challenges with this project?

Being patience. I think work needs to arrive in its own moment and thankfully this has done just that.

Akio Suzuki’s drawing of Lawrence English, David Toop, and himself.

And lastly, I still can’t leave this without asking about the drawings of Akio Suzuki included in the book… The drawing of the three of you as cats is one of my favorite images from this entire year. You must have been thrilled when you saw that. What else can you tell me about the book?

I truly love Akio’s manga. When I was working on his retrospective exhibition Sense of Ekō, I visited him in Kyotango. It was incredible to see his archive and that so much of his life has been diarised through these representative little characters. Akio has this wonderful way of capturing the essence of a place or situation in his drawings. The images he sent through for his time on Tamborine absolutely capture the moments we shared. The one of us performing is so vivid for me, it’s as if the sound is lifting off the page into my mind’s ear.

Any last thoughts relating to these releases or environmental sound and field recordings before we end?

Don’t forget to listen.

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