Lawrence English is an influential sound composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. In this episode of Phantom Power: Sounds about Sound we speak with Lawrence about listening. In particular we think about his reworking of an important work in the fields of musique concrète and field recording, Presque Rien by Luc Ferrari, and the recent premiere of Wave Fields, his own 12-hour durational sound installation for sleepers at Burleigh Heads in Queensland as part of the Bleach* Festival.
Lawrence is interested in the nature of listening and the capability of sound to occupy a body. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. He investigates the politics of relation listening and perception, through live performance, field recordings and installation.
The show includes extracts from the following tracks:
Album: Cruel Optimism: “Hammering a Screw.”
Album: Songs of the Living: “Trigona Carbonaria Hive Invasion, Brisbane Australia,” “Cormorants Flocking At Dusk Amazon Brazil,” “Various Chiroptera Samford Australia.”
Album: Ghost Towns: “Ghost Towns.“
Album: Kiri No Oto: “Soft Fuse.”
Luc Ferrari: Presque Rien.
[♪ ethereal music playing ♪]
This… is… Phantom Power.
On Listening In.
[buzzing sounds fade in, and fade out as Cris begins to speak]
The hive of the sugarbag bee, endemic to northeastern Australia.
[loud music starts abruptly]
The first notes of a piece called…
[more loud notes]
Hammering the Screw.
[scratching noises and metallic noises begin]
Found objects – a 44 gallon drum, a ghost town in far northern Australia.
Just some small extracts from recordings made by today’s guest.
It’s Phantom Power, sounds about sound. That’s Cris Cheek, and I’m Mack Hagood.
[LAWRENCE ENGLISH, pre-recorded]
I’m Lawrence English, and I have been described as a professional listener.
[bullfrog sounds fade in]
Which does make me sound like a very second-rate therapist.
But, it is the kind of thing that I spend a lot of time doing in my everydays. There is a lot of listening that goes on, and I suppose in some respects you know, I’m increasingly interested in problematizing what that actually means, what our relationship is with that way of knowing the world around us.
[music fades in, intense and somewhat sad]
So, Cris, I’m really excited that you got this interview with Lawrence English.
I’m familiar with his work. I always thought of him as the Drone Guy, you know he does these really amazing and complex droning soundscapes, but it turns out, as you’ve just shown us by playing that material, that’s not even the half of what he does.
Yeah, that’s right. He’s a highly contemporary model of the artist scholar, I think. A prolific composer – there’s at least 18 solo records and rising in the current millennium. He’s a sound art researcher, an artist, a fine photographer, and he supports a ton of other artists through his highly influential imprint, Room 40, based in eastern Australia, but genuinely servicing a global audience. Really interesting.
So, Cris, I know today you’re gonna walk us through some of Lawrence English’s recent work, including this recreation of a piece by a godfather of sound art, Luc Ferrari, and also some of his recent albums such as Cruel Optimism and Wilderness of Mirrors. But, what was it like talking with him? Did you find that there were any sorts of through lines to his work?
One of the through lines that I found is that we were always coming back to talk about listening in relation to audience, listening in relation to where you are, to context, listening as a kind of politics, collective listening – all of his projects are situated in relation to the act of listening. As both an artist and as a scholar he’s making an intervention into how we listen and how we filter sound.
I always argue that we are much better at filtering sound than we are at actually listening to it. We’re much more successful at filtering. And all you have to do is go outside and walk around for half an hour.
[everyday sounds cut in – the chiming of a clock tower, a few chattering people, the leaves rustling]
And you realize actually if you stop and then consciously listen you will suddenly recognize all of this material that is going on around you that you have been very successfully filtering with almost no real effort.
[sound of wind lightly blowing]
And I think that’s a great thing to be conscious of because even in social settings, semantic listening, we often still kind of have that going on, and it has implications for Communication Theory as much as it does for a kind of Aesthetic Listening Theory.
[background sound cuts out]
This is really interesting. So, just to get through our day, we filter out the vast majority of what presents itself to our ears.
But we get so poor at paying attention to what’s going on around us that this even happens when we’re listening to others – the semantic listening that he’s talking about, listening to others’ words, we filter those out, too.
Yeah, or we filter out part of what they’re saying, and focus on another part, the part that we want to focus on, or the part that we’re more comfortable with or familiar with.
[music fades back in]
This idea that somehow listening is this given, that we can just all do it all of the time, is a fallacy. It’s the same as any other kind of serious pursuit or practice, it needs training. You look at a bodybuilder, a bodybuilder cannot lift 300 pounds straight away, they build up to that and they build techniques that facilitate them doing it in a way that allows them to maintain their strength over a certain period of time, and I think it’s the same. Listening can be very fatiguing. You talk to people that are potentially introverts, or something like that – it’s very fatiguing for them to be out, with lots of conversation going on, and then trying to navigate their way through it. I think it’s the same way going out and making field recordings. It requires a lot of commitment and focus and energy from you to apply yourself to those particular things as they unfold in time.
[bullfrog noises fade back in]
Because, if you lose that focus, they’re gone. You can never get those moments again. They’re just there for that instant, and then they’re gone.
[music fades back out]
So, Cris, this kind of focused attention to the sound of our lived environment, this is something that you’ve spoken about in our previous episode with Brian House, but we really haven’t discussed soundscape recording and what that is and the history of it.
You’ve got to think about somewhat portable reel-to-reel tape recorders. That makes a huge difference, when you can start to take technology, carry it around with you, to take it on journeys, to take it to some place to record the sound of the place rather than just to record a concert in a concert hall. And somebody like Luc Ferrari – and he was an early pioneer in this field – is known for being an electro-acoustic musician, combinations between technology and acoustic sound.
[music fades in, with pounding drums, flutes, and some electronic sounds]
He’s also known as being a progenitor and pioneer in the field of concrete music, musique concrète, a sense of listening to everyday life with acute perception, or a kind of affective listening, as Lawrence writes about it.
[music and sounds fade out]
So, in 1968, Ferrari is attending a conference in what was at that point Yugoslavia and is now a part of Croatia, a small town, Vela Luka, on the seaside, so we’re fifty years ago, and he gets very fascinated by what he’s hearing in the everyday environment.
[a recording begins; it is old, and contains sounds of footsteps, chickens, and other everyday sounds one might hear in a small village; the sounds continue as CRIS continues]
By the sounds of how people move around that space, donkeys, wagons, carts, the kinds of engines that they’re using to drive with or the kinds of engines that they’re using to manufacture with, the sounds of the voices and the architecture and how the architecture affects the resonance of those voices, church bells, cicadas in the treetops, the sound of the seaboard close by and how the sound of the sea carries over the town at night, and so forth. He spends several days doing not much more than recording in various different parts of the town. He made a composition – it was about 20 minutes long – it was called Almost Nothing – Presque Rien.
[sounds fade out]
And it’s that piece that Lawrence seeks to kind of recreate. He goes back to that town just under fifty years later, and re-records that town, and listens to Ferrari’s compositional arc, and stitches something together that really is in a relational conversation with the act of listening that Ferrari got engaged with.
So Lawrence English is going back to the same town that Luc Ferrari originally recorded in some fifty years ago, and he’s recording there again, is that right?
[Lawrence’s new recording of Vela Luka fades in. Includes sounds of small bells, bugs chirping, and people talking]
Yeah, it’s interesting. I think Vela Luka is a very particular place in that some things have changed a lot and that some things have not changed at all.
It’s quite extraordinary. I can say categorically, there are less donkeys then there were in Ferarri’s day, that is for sure. I don’t believe I saw a single donkey walking. But now I would say there are a lot more scooters than there were before. But, it was interesting certain things that, the character of the architecture of the space was incredibly similar because the nature of the stone had not changed in the sort of fifty years since either of us had been there. Some of the motors were, I’m pretty sure, the same as they were, it’s just that probably I was able to record them in a slightly different way, and I probably approached them quite differently to the way that Luc might have done that. And the kind of language, the accent there is very particular, and I think that is still very much the same. When I play that to other people in Croatia they identify that as a very particular kind of accent that you get in the Adriatic. So, I think there’s scales of time, I think the expressions of time, and that the material influences of sound are at play there. Whether that be the kind of fixed architectural things, the thing that we understand maybe as “space,” it’s in some ways constant, but then the implications of place, how it is that we make the atmosphere that sort of tenuous thing that we understand as “place” rather than “space,” has obviously shifted dramatically in that time. There’s this weird tension there that exists between these things that are lingering and that are fleeting, and they’re constantly kind of pulling at each other in really quite interesting ways.
[sounds of bugs and birds chirping continue in the background]
I think the interesting thing there is Lawrence’s engagement with Ferrari’s act of listening, and feeling that he can hear – sounds kind of weird, but it’s not totally weird – that you can hear somebody else’s listening inside their recording.
[background noises fade out]
I think that for me is actually one of the pleasures of field recording, is that, as a practice, you’re trying to bring those things into focus or out of focus. What it is you’re trying to capture out of a particular moment is so individuated.
[sounds of nature fade in]
It was very much about this kind of concept of Relational Listening, around how it is that the interior psychologicalist thing that we undertake and the external technological reception of the prosthetic ear of the microphone, if you like. What that relationship is there, but also how it is that you interrogate or can interrogate your own capacities for listening.
[sounds of nature continue]
There are lots of different examples where there can be these situations where, suddenly, it’s like, “wow, okay, I was so focused on the bird in the tree that I didn’t hear the highway behind me”
[the sounds change slightly, first to a highway as Lawrence speaks, and then to the sounds of trickling water and other noises before fading out]
But the microphone has no interest in the bird or the highway. It’s just interested in capturing sound.
Yeah, this is a fascinating point, because, on the one hand, English is pointing out that the microphone hears everything, it doesn’t filter out sounds the ways that the human mind does, right? It provides us more of a sense of everything that’s going on – within it’s technical capabilities. But, on the other hand, this brings us up to an important concept in Lawrence English’s work, which is Relational Listening.
[water sounds fade back in]
So, and that’s why for me the Relational Listening idea was so critical, was that I recognized that these things are not naturally aligned, that we need to work towards that, not just our capacity as listeners but our capacity as being able to relate to the kind of auditory capacity of the microphone – it’s critical if we’re going to be able to reflect our listening through that lens, to use a physiocentric metaphor, we have to kind of have that relationship, we have to be conscious of it, it can’t just be a given. It needs to be investigated.
[water sounds continue]
I am thinking about the question of how the experience of memory is continually modifying our experience of listening.
I became quite interested in this idea of [inaudible] almost like memory construction. I think for me, as I return to field recordings, in the same way that if you return to photographs, I think there’s a certain capacity those documents or whatever you want to call them have for shaping our memory. It’s interesting that you can identify yourself or your presence in those things, even though, obviously, it’s not necessarily represented, it might be visually represented if it’s a photograph… when I return to field recordings, in the ones that I feel are most successful, I can sense myself in those recordings, because I’m sensing my listening in that moment. And I think for me, that’s really the value of the field recording, and what I love about people’s work, with field recording particularly, is when I sense them in it, whether that be the technical capacity that they have to transmit that interest, or sometimes just the sense of personality that comes through in the way that people approach a particular environment in those moments.
[water continues and music fades in; water slowly fades out]
The key phrase that I’ve read from Lawrence is the idea of listening to the listener’s listening. So, if somebody goes outside, like Luc Ferrari, and records a particular sound – the trains in the trainyard, for example – because of how they position their microphone, because of how they frame the material the microphone records, what I end up listening to, if I hear that recording, is Luc Ferrari’s listening, in that particular place at that particular time.
Yeah, so a field recording isn’t just a recording of sound, it’s a recording of someone’s listening.
The person who made that recording. That sort of agency, that intentionality that we bring when we do the kinds of focused listening that Lawrence English was talking about earlier, that can sort of be heard through their recordings. You leave your mark on the recording, on the memory that you have constructed, through the recording.
Right. And so that’s the Relational Listening.
[music fades out; distorted technological sounds fade in, which change to soft music]
Help us out, just a little minute, everybody please, if you like the show, go rate us on iTunes, like us on Facebook, hit us up on Twitter. Helps us all to rise…
[distorted sounds again, and an abrupt cut back to the show]
So, I was thinking about the diversity of the kind of things that Lawrence does, and wondering what happens if you pay this kind of intense, close listening to conventional instruments. The recording of them, and the production of the sound from them. And I asked him quite specifically to give me an example of how he produces his sounds.
Oh, is this where we get to find out how he makes those magnificent drones?
Well, you know, the source for what you think is a drone does not sound the way you expect it to sound.
The first sounds on Wilderness of Mirrors, that kind of droning tone, is actually a piano.
[a cut to the droning piano tones that continue as Lawrence speaks]
Played with an EBow, but recorded very close and very hot, so a lot of the artifacting or the kind of harmonic distortion element of that sound is built in to the recording. For me that’s part of the framing and not being able to step back from something to kind of undo it, is in the capture of that.
[droning continues, becoming more intense and then fading into the background]
Yeah, I definitely would not have thought that was a piano. And he said he’s using an EBow – that’s really interesting. An EBow is this little handheld device with a battery in it, and it’ll stimulate a steel string and make it vibrate, and it’s usually used by electric guitarists. And it really changes the attack, so you don’t hear the string get plucked, it just starts vibrating due to this magnetic field. And so, the attack, the beginning of the note, really gets changed, and it often makes a guitar sound more like a violin. And he’s using this on piano strings, that’s really cool.
Right. And I like this term that he uses, recording something “hot.”
Yeah, yeah, turning the levels up and getting these harmonics of distortion going.
Super close miking, contact mics, and so forth to get very different kinds of resonances out of their instruments.
And he’s making this decision from the get-go. He’s not recording a “clean signal,” so to speak, and then adding distortion later in the computer. He’s doing it in real time and listening carefully as he does it. He’s committing.
In some respects, I guess it reflects the practice in listening in field recording, that I’m making a decision in that moment, and that decision is the decision I need to live with, so I need to think about it there and then, rather than this idea of being able to go back and change things later, which, for me, I totally understand in some circumstances that’s really critical, but for the work that I do for myself, I want there to be decisions made that are irreversible, that can’t be changed, that in some respects shape the way that the future of the work will become. There’s a kind of pressure or a weight that gets behind the way that the work is developing, and you can’t really return to a sense of ground zero, or to get back to the roots of that thing. I like the fact that some of those decisions are sort of hardwired, and they inform what that come after them. And there’s this kind of additional pressure or material pressure.
[the music gets louder and intensifies before fading out]
And so I bet these swelling drones, these fields of sound that I normally experience through my headphones or a speaker, must be an incredible experience live.
Yeah, I think I used the word “visceral” to describe the experience of the sound. It’s almost as if your body is being taken over by the sound. Your body, your body-mind, your psyche is being occupied.
Is that something he thinks about in terms of live performance? The bodies of the audience?
Yeah, absolutely. He talks about the embodied listener.
[string music fades into the background]
Yeah, I mean, that’s actually a lot of the performative end of what I’m doing, the sort of synesthetic nexus, I suppose, that exists between audition and sensation, the transitional points where sound falls out of our sense of acoustic audition into the realm of the flesh. There’s that very powerful moment where sometimes you recognize yourself, as in your body, in the sound, in a way that you don’t necessarily get in everyday life. I think that’s one of the powerful things about concerts, is the opportunity for that to be realized, particularly now with the quality of sound systems that are available, and that kind of thing. But it’s also interesting as a kind of collective experience, because I think for me it’s actually, and I say this quite often when I’m talking just before concerts, it is a very powerful metaphor, the fact that we can all come together, to this place, and we all have these very individuated experiences, whether they be the psychological experiences of how the music affects us, or whether they be the physiological way that our bodies resonate in that time and place, and everyone will have those, very different to one another, but we’re sharing this common time and place together, and for me that’s a really interesting metaphor for the idea of community, where we do have all these different opinions and different kinds of value systems, but we can come together and share these things and have a dialogue, whether it be a purely sensory dialogue or something more afterwards. It’s very powerful, I think, to think about it in those terms, that it’s not just this very simple appreciation of performance, but there’s other resonance, you can think of a social resonance.
Partly, Judith Butler’s most recent books about public assembly, this idea of a sort of performative language for public assembly, I think is really interesting. Because it does lend itself, I think, to having ratings that are outside protest, that are about different kinds of gatherings. Obviously, she touches on those.
[music continues, sounding more intense]
Something like Cruel Optimism or Wilderness of Mirrors is entirely born out of these interactions with the broader socio-political cultural sphere. I’m not one of these people that can just make music for the sake of it, I tend to work much better when I’m trying to address a particular theme or difficulty or whatever the case may be. I like a frame, and I like it to be tightly bound. I think there is great energy to be absorbed out of being bound and the kind of pressure that it brings.
Constraints, working with constraints.
Absolutely. And I think it’s one of those things that for me is more and more important. And also because I think it breathes a certain intensity to the way that the work can be expressed.
[music fades out; popping sounds fade in, almost like fireworks; the sounds fade out]
So, you did this interview a little while ago, but you asked him what he had coming up next, and that sounded pretty interesting too.
Right, so here he is talking about a piece called “Wave Fields,” that premiered on the gold coast in Australia, in early April, this year.
[music fades in, ethereal, with deep, long sounds and higher sounds of the same length]
I’m working on a very long duration, twelve hour piece, actually, which will be performed next to a beautiful headland and [inaudible] which is a very significant indigenous site, and people we invited to come sleep on the beach, 200, 300 people sleeping on the beach together, and overnight, basically, the piece runs from dusk until dawn. And it’s a very interesting process, maybe because a lot of the work is to do. I’ve been very interested in the way sound operates in sleep for a long time. This is probably a very particular investigation into that, because I’m also working with the natural environment, the waves are very present there, very strong sound base. So it’s how all these things speak to each other, and how do they speak to each other in a way which facilitates various levels to which the sound can be participated in or experienced in with people, whether it be conscious or subconscious in this case.
So wait, this is a concert where you actually have permission to fall asleep?
Yeah, and I’ve had that experience, too.
It’s too long a story, but at the beginning of the Japan festival with a Noh performance in London, the guy who was the Japanese cultural ambassador said, “feel free to go to sleep; because whatever you see when you wake up, will be the essence of Noh.”
Oh, that’s nice.
So he’s encouraging people to think about the function of sound and hearing during sleep.
When I think about the history of how it is that our ears have operated, they have been our greatest security device. In those very early days, when there was the campfire and nothing else, it was our ears that told us the wolves were coming for us or the bear was behind us, whatever the case may be. Our eyes failed us, but our ears kind of opened up the dark. You have those moments occasionally where you are out somewhere and you don’t necessarily know a space, and it’s dark, and you hear whatever it might be, a twig snapping, footsteps, whatever it is, and you feel in your body a very visceral, tactile response to that audio information that still somehow ties us back to that ancestral sort of way of steering clear of trouble in the dark.
[music fades up from the background again, then fades out, while a new piece starts]
And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thank you to Lawrence English. Today we heard a little bit of sound by Luc Ferrari while Cris was talking about him, but other than that, all of the incredible sounds you heard today were by Lawrence English. We’ve got some great shows lined up for the coming weeks including English professor Jennifer Stoever on her new book The Sonic Color Line, sound artist Leah Barclay on acoustic ecology, and ethnomusicologist Langston Collin Wilkins on the slow, loud, and bangin’ sounds of Houston’s hip hop car culture. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard and talked about at phantompod.org. And those transcripts take a little time to write up and drop, so I think we’re up to episode two – we’re catching up, so please be patient with us on that. You can also subscribe to our show at phantompod.org or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook, or give us a shout on Twitter @phantompod. Our interns are Natalie Cooper, Nicole Keshock, and Adam Witmer, and Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
[music continues then fades out]