An old man in a drafty house – An interview with Lawrence English

 “An old man in a drafty house.”

Lawrence English is not an old man nor does his house, a Queenslander style building in the heart of Brisbane, appear particularly drafty – at least not from my removed point of view. Like T. S Elliot’s Gerontion, the poem that inspired English’s latest album, our time-lines are somewhat blurred. While Lawrence’s day is coming to an end, mine is merely in its infancy and thanks to the wonders of the internet I can get a glimpse of the inside of his home studio from the other side of the world at the opposite side of the day. “It’s the new New world”, Lawrence quips about his home country, before delving into the Wilderness of Mirrors. He has a way of speaking which places the next idea on his tongue some time before the last has escaped his breath, and I often find myself incapable of keeping up with his train of thought as our interview commences.

“On The Liquid Casket, that very first sound you hear is actually a piano with an ebow. But it’s been mic’d very closely and very hot, so it had this kind of in-built saturation to start with, which was a way of saying whatever I recorded was fixed and there was no way of going back from there. I like that as a starting point.” It’s the perfect place to start our journey through Wilderness of Mirrors. The album goes from that opening point to create an exquisite textural embrace for the invested listener. He sites Elliot’s poem as the preliminary influence for its conceptual framework. “I think it’s like an incredibly profound piece of text. When you think about it, it’s an incredibly visual metaphor, but at the same time it probably translates into a way of approaching sound efficiently. I think for WoM, I wanted to try and find a way of coming at sound from a different perspective, which is through the idea of vision. “ English regularly relies on visual metaphors through the course of this interview and he often tries to elucidate a musical idea that can’t accurately be conveyed through the use of symbols like words.

Signs are taken for wonders”

I mistake this for a reduced listening investment from the composer, but he’s quick to correct my perception of this phenomenon. “I think the idea that you are a tabula rasa when you come to sound is not necessarily what Schaeffer intended for reduced listening. I think what happens with that, and what really interests me about working with sound and music, is that there is a kind of exchange. You present this material, but every single person that hears it, brings him- or herself in to it. You know you can’t tell people what these things mean. We can have this discussion and from that people can extrapolate how I perceive these sounds, but when you hear a record and when I do, what we hear, we project ourselves into.” Lawrence goes onto suggest that it’s up to the listener to create the narrative as s/he wallows through the rich resonances that make up the album. Due to a large sonic vocabulary in contemporary society, our approximation to sound is no longer fixed to a single idea or feeling for the listener according to English. “There are so many possibilities that you are instantly reducing the capacity to make something feel a particular way and I think constraint is actually important.” Constraint is an important theme on this album, and in fact universally for all of Lawrence’s work. He has had a prolific output with releases numbering into the twenties. Some of these include collaborations and field recordings and Lawrence makes it clear that these different aspects of his output can both make sense together or individually. For Wilderness of Mirrors, English spent some time reflecting on earlier works and attempted to “reconcile some of the questions that have been posed by the other records.”

One of these questions was around rhythm and it related to our preconceived ideas of music and the accessible elements that are inherent in music made for popular consumption. On the title track for instance, a timpani beats out an irregular rhythm swathed within the harmonic development that makes up the bulk of the song. “It’s not a front and centre thing. I wanted to kind of find a way that I and have this tension between the multiple layers of material that are happening at the same time, but have this idea of a wilderness of mirrors imbedded in them in terms of reflection and iteration but still be able to find room for something like a drum.” As elements, like these drums come through on the album, Lawrence can’t help resigning himself to a graphic illustration of what he tries to achieve in his music again. “It’s like Stripping. There’s nothing less sexy than coming out naked. What you want is the seduction of that thing and that is what I want from music. I want to be seduced by it and I want to seduce other people with it.” This idea of subversion and exposition is also strengthened by the harmonic distortion English continuously utilises throughout the album. It’s a technique he came to while experiencing Swans, My Bloody Valentine and Earth in live situations. “Seeing them and hearing them live just brought into focus one of the things I wanted to have as a kind of point of entry to the record. I respect and enjoy them very much. It was a pleasure but it was a pleasure that had a positive outcome.“ The inclusion of Swans is quite interesting here since it shares a connection with friend and past collaborator Ben Frost. “I think AURORA is an incredible record. He’s made he’s best record to date in my opinion.” It appears that the Swans connection however is just coincidental and probably attributed to the mere fact that they are active again. But I digress, lets get back to harmonic distortion. Exposing second and third resonance frequencies, the composer excites a mid band saturation, like that first sound of the piano you hear on the album. “You have this feeling of its almost too much and its just a little bit too rich somehow.” The effect of this technique then presents the listener with a third element in an amalgamation of two sounds that blur the edges of both, but to explain this more clearly Lawrence reverts to a narrative tome, relying once again on visual aids as a way into his music. “I was coming to Poland to do a festival and it was very early on the train and I wasn’t able to sleep very well. So I was up quite early and I was looking out of the train window and we came to a town just before Krakow and basically there was this very misty, foggy, smoggy unknown town and I could see there was this church steeple and spire in the middle of the town. If I focussed on the steeple, I could see the crucifix and I could see the detail of that spire, but the moment I tried to bring it into relief with everything else behind it, it just became grey, and I thought that’s a beautiful kind of way of thinking about sound. You can have these individual moments when you can focus on a piece and you can somehow pull them to the foreground. But the moment you try and put them back into correlation with each other, it just becomes this wash, this wall of noise, this wall of sound.”

 “History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors…”

Lawrence’s account of that event is reminiscent of Elliot’s poem and its strong natural themes. I also recollect the composer’s field recordings works that often include wind, which again strengthens the relationship with Gerontion. “Actually there are no field recordings on the album that you hear as sound. On every piece in the record there’s some kind of element of field work that’s just being used to kind of contour or shape a particular instrument or tone.” The effect is a sound that’s not manipulated by the regularity of a machine or human, but rather a more random component chosen from nature. “There’s something there that’s organic and natural about it.” It works well alongside the ideas of harmonic distortion in creating remarkably unforgiving moments of tension on the record, which acts as an open invitation for deeper reflection in the wilderness of mirrors. And this becomes the essence of English’s work as a composer, especially on this record. ”I want people to drown in it. Some people like a swimming pool and I like an ocean.” The listener needs to submerge him-or herself in the compositions. Wilderness of Mirrors does not allow for a perfunctory listening experience and to complete the encounter you would have to plunge head first into the murky waters of the album in order to savour its fruits. Here Lawrence again offers a visual cue during our interview. “I’ve looked at photos of Ryōan-ji, which is this Buddhist temple in Kyoto. I looked at photos of that for 37 years. Then in February I took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and I went to Ryūhon-ji. I saw it with my own eyes and I recognised that every photo I’ve ever seen is not that place and can it never be that place.” By way of this analogy Lawrence insists that his music needs a personal investment from the listener, similar to the composers own. “Invest yourself in that next step, and suddenly it’s not some two dimensional photo of some rocks with a pattern in them.” It’s this beautiful imagery that Lawrence creates both musically and in his words that bring me back to Gerontion and it’s not merely the striking visual aspects of that poem that serves as the only connection to the compositions on Wilderness of Mirrors.

 “A dull head among windy spaces.”

The inner turmoil that the narrator goes through in Elliot’s seminal work appears to be something that the composer can also relate to. As we get further into our interview I sense that Lawrence is getting comfortable and ready to share some of the personal investment he has in WoM.This record comes from a great deal of frustration that I felt with where I see a lot of the world going, but particularly Australia. We’ve had what are essentially some very disappointing human rights abuses in the last few years and a political malaise that’s disappointing and effectively just toxic. So the record is a personal outpour from me.” It is noticeable in the upfront timbral elements throughout the album. Layers of very rich textures tend to distort intermittently as their frequencies amplify each other momentarily. The frustration that Lawrence feels comes through the auditory landscape he’s created and instead of confronting the listener it invites him/her in to ponder the reflexive qualities of the work and some much larger questions. “There’s a great American Media philosopher, Neil Postman, who wrote a book called ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’. Which was about public discourse in the age of television. His argument was that in an age where certain kinds of ways we interact with the world and each other become standard, but really they are obtuse and make no real sense. We are in an age of distraction, where you can literally be distracted the entire day and get nothing done but still have a fairly rich day, and its interesting how often we really get to think deeply.” At this point of our conversation, Wilderness of Mirrors gets set aside for the more universal question to the purpose of music. “I think what we’ve forgotten some way along the way is that there’s a recognition of an art form that’s inherent in the way that music is created.” Lawrence believes we’ve set our sites so firmly on the commodification of the art form that true experimentation –not the kind conducted in a white coat, but the kind that questions the language of music’s role in a society – is often neglected. “I think music is one of those areas where you can really push at the edges of what expectation and engagement can be for an audience and also a composer.”

It’s these types questions English raised during the making of Wilderness of Mirrors that make it such a profound piece. Setting aside the intricate investigation of a piece of sound, what you have left is an album that continuously pokes at the fabric of our understanding of sound and music. It leaves its listener exasperated at the thought of all that has gone into the work and there’s nothing left to do but drown yourself in the ocean Lawrence English has created for you. It’s a provoking piece of work and it intrigues even after the fact. Lawrence explains it perfectly throughout the interview using his visual and oratory analogies and after our conversation the only thing left to do is listen to it again. “That’s why I am so happy to be talking about Wilderness of Mirrors, because I know why it exists.”

 “Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.”