Lawrence English “Everyone else bunkered down in the shelters there, but I was like, ‘I’m going to go outside and record this storm.’”

I want to know a little more about how your setup has evolved, what sort of strategies you’ve come up with to record sounds.

It varies situation to situation. In Antarctica I had these DPA 4060s, which are very small, high-sensitivity microphones. But they’re very flexible, they’re an independent pair, so you can position them in certain ways. Certainly with those wind recordings, for example, a lot of what I was trying to do was get the asymmetric feeling that the wind had, because it was chaotic. Even when flying in one direction, [wind] sort of shifts and alters and phases, and I wanted to get that sensibility out of those recordings. So I was trying to set up quite strange stereo fields, even beyond a notion of omni, but not quite bi-directional, binaural. [It was] a little bit nauseating because it felt like the proportions were not quite right. I have this thing called a Telinga, which is a Swedish parabolic microphone. It’s mostly used for people to record bird song. Because it’s a parabolic, it focuses the sound really strongly. I used that a lot in Antarctica particularly for some of the recordings that are on Songs of the Living and the Lived In — those two editions are on the room40 website people can download for free. There’s the sound of a sleeping seal. I made that recording using the Telinga. It was focused — it was quite a distance away like 10, 15 meters, but it was focused on the nostrils of this seal, just opening and closing while it slept, and you can really feel the flesh of it. Whereas this other one on that particular edition, which is a skewer eating a penguin — that recording was made with a DPA 4060.

I set them up right next to the carcass of this penguin that I’d seen for a couple of days getting worse and worse. It was clear that [probably] its parents had been killed at sea and it was starving. It was young, it hadn’t fledged yet, so it couldn’t go in the ocean. It was clearly a target for a lot of the other penguins, so I knew it was going to die, there was nothing I could do about it. So when it died, I set up this case with the microphones next to it, because I knew that the skewers would come, because that’s what they do, skewers are basically like the vultures of Antarctica. So I set them up and got that very intense recording where you can literally hear the beak in the innards of this penguin. I wanted that intensity of the focus, the real tactility of the sound. Sometimes when you are cooking or something and you’re cutting up meat or vegetables before you do the cooking, when you do it, you do it on a chopping board and you don’t actually listen to it. But if you get close to it, like teeth in something like a watermelon — I mean, that’s what they use a lot of the time in sound design for films, you know, melons for stabbing — if you get close to those things, the kind of richness of the sound is really quite extreme. It’s very physical, very tactile, somehow feels at times very fleshy. I wanted to capture that sense of it being very much about the flesh.

So it really varies situation to situation. I really like atmospheric recordings a lot of the time, a more omni [approach]. And there are these very particular approaches you can do that give you a sense of space and dimension. But I also like it when it that goes just a little bit too far and you get this disorientation that happens in the recordings. Because often when I’m listening, the thing that captures my attention is the stuff that is slightly disorienting that you recognize that there’s something that changes in the horizon of listening that’s really strange that you want to try and capture with the microphones.

In the entire time that I was at Marambio, I saw one bird — one living thing. It was the most dead place you’ve ever been.

Something physical happening?

Yeah, that there’s a movement or… you know, I think [that’s] one of the challenges with field recording, and I talk about this a fair bit, particularly in terms of the relational listening thing. Relational listening to me is about that procedure of translating what it is that you have in your mind’s ear when you’re listening to a space, the kind of interior, psychological listening, [and] when you’re doing that, how you can externalize that. I mean, the device is the microphone and the recorder, so, how do you bring those two things into alignment? Often, they’re not aligned at all. The way the microphone behaves is not the way that your ears behave, and also not the way your mind is prioritizing certain kinds of things.

You were talking in that piece for FACT Magazine about how the microphone is a listener like our ear is a listener, and I think that kind of stopped me in my tracks a little bit when I was thinking about how technology listens in maybe the same way that a camera sees.

Definitely. Francisco Lopez has a great saying about that, you know, he describes the recorder as a non-cognitive listening device, and I like that idea. These things, particularly when they’re in the field, there’s an almost romantic vision of these machines. There’s that poem, “All Watched Over by Machines of Love and Grace,” which is a great poem from an American poet in the 70s. It has some great lines about some computers in the forest with the deer, and these amazing kinds of juxtapositions. I like that idea of these little recorders out there in the forest, gently listening to something they can’t understand in the same way, ironically, that we can’t understand it. Our ability is no better in terms of a cognitive, perceptual understanding of what’s going on — you can listen to a bird song, and have not a clue about what [it is about]. I mean, we understand vaguely, maybe, that it’s a territory call, or that’s a call to attract a mate. But when you think about something like the whole thing around orcas and orca captivity, like [how] an orca can follow with exacting detail most commands given by human beings — it can understand what it is that we are asking it to do, and to perform. But the moment that it opens its mouth, we cannot understand a single thing that comes out of it. To me that really spells out just how ignorant we are a lot of the time. We think we’re very intellectual and capable of so much perceptual understanding, cognition, but at the same time, there’s this blanket inability or disregard for all of this other communication information that’s happening outside of our current range of understanding.

When I listen to those recordings on the Viento record, the fact that it’s material that’s been edited down and then packaged on a reproducible musical object that we can put on our record player — that removes us from the original event one time even further. So the music is representational, but when I hear it and I hear these violent winds, to me it can be very calming and very ambient and lulling.

I think this goes to the classic questions around the idea of acousmatic listening. The reduced listening, where you’re trying to extract the sound from its source. Pierre Schaeffer, when he was talking about that, I think what he was trying to say was [that] we should listen very carefully to the sound and be able to assess the sound within its own universe, rather than placing it in a social context to understand it. I don’t think it’s absolute. Particularly later in life I don’t think he was so much about this ‘it’s either that or nothing’ kind of approach. Lately there’s been a lot of conversation between someone like Francisco Lopez and Seth Kim Cohen, who really criticize that approach to sound unto itself. I think actually it’s about this middle ground, where we’re able to really heavily put time into listening to sound, but also recognize that sound fits into a socio-cultural framework, and we need to be able to apply both ends of that together to kind of come up with a reading of sound that is as detailed as a reading of visual materials we might work with [might be]. What I love about sound and music is that it’s invitational. It invites you to apply yourself, your socio-cultural baggage, your experiences, your understandings of the world to the work. So when [I’d] use those sounds Patagonian recordings in concert, I’d play these recordings each night, layers, sort of folding over the top of each other, and it was just amazing how many different readings I had of that. There were times when people’d be like, “Oh, that reminds me of the time I was at my grandmother’s house when I was a child, and there was a huge storm, and I remember the shutters of my grandmother’s house closing all the time.” Another person was like, “Being trapped on the boat — that was such an amazing moment in your concert.” And I asked them, “Which part was that?” and they said, “There was all this clanging, and…” and then they’d explain that they’d been on a boat in a storm, and the boat was rocking back and forth, and they imagined themselves being there. When I listen to it, I remember being in Patagonia and disturbing these poor plovers as I was walking through the grass. Because it was so windy, they’d jump up in the sky and basically be blown half a kilometer away from their territory and have to walk back up the road to get [where they were]. So they’re very distinct personal memories of that place that won’t be shared by anyone else. But the thing is [that] it activates inside us some of the memories that we have that can only be accessed by, or are best accessed, through sound. In the same way that sometimes when you smell something, the acuteness that you get from that experience, you can look at a picture of it, or you can smell the smell of that thing, and in your mind, the smell might activate something much more rich in terms of memory. And I think sound does the same thing, because we are not always attuned to it, not always thinking about how it is that we cultivate a relationship with sound as much as we do with our eyes, for example. When we do have one of those moments where we pay attention to it, suddenly we realize, wow, we have this incredible capacity that we’re not paying attention to. That is basically the crux of what I’m interested in with working with sound a lot of the time. With my gallery practice particularly, that’s what I want — I want people to recognize themselves as a sensory being, that in fact, there’s not just one dimension to your sense. There’s multiple dimensions and the more that you drill into them, the more that you become aware of them, the greater and the more interesting the relationship we can have with them is.

I was thinking about it in relation to some books I had when I was in college about theories of vision, and how centuries ago, we were making these zoetrope toys to create optical illusions, question our sense of what we visually see as reality, and the fact that we’re doing that with sound these days I think is kind of an interesting sensory leap for us. When you mentioned smell, I was thinking about the ways we’ve developed to record smells as well.

I mean we’ve always historically cultivated certain kind of smells, I think. Whether it’s even just something as simple as putting flowers in your home. Visually, yes, they’re pretty, but also there’s that smell of the flowers that in some strange way connects us to the outside world. That’s kind of why we do these things. But just speaking to the whole visual perception thing, I just wanted to say, this James Turrell exhibition, I don’t know if you know this American light artist?


He’s incredible, I totally recommend you look him up. It’s just color. He had this retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery in Australia. It’s about a two hours flight from where I live and I just happened to be there installing work at another gallery. There was this thing he made called The Perceptual Cell, and it’s a kind of dome you go inside [that’s] white. Then he just pulses light into this dome in different ways, and honest to God, it’s the first time I would ever describe myself as experiencing, visually anyway, a profoundly psychedelic experience. Like, I recognized the failings of my organs. It was absolutely mind-blowing, completely one of the greatest visual experiences of my life I would say. Turrell for me is a huge influence anyway, I’m a big fan of how it is he thinks about space and dimension, and I think what he does with light is exactly what I’m interested in doing with sound — that it’s in time, we can’t understand it in a second. The interesting thing for me about working with sound is that it’s about its persistence over time. Even in terms of a sentence; I can say a word, and in the moment you can see what that word is, but for you to make sense of the sentence, the rest of the sentence needs to be occurring in a time after that. And it’s the same with field recording. You can’t just hear a second and know it. Or, you can’t just hear a second of a song and know the song. You might know the note, or you might know something else that might be part of the textuality of that material. But you don’t recognize the whole song, and in some respects you never do, because the moment you’re perceiving — even right now, the moment you perceive my voice, it’s gone forever and it can’t be returned to you. There’s this kind of constant extinction with listening that I really like. It’s beautifully poetic for me, this idea that the moment that we perceive it, and the moment that it’s in our ears, it’s already gone, and it can’t be bought back. It can only be exhumed from the grave of our memory, you know?

You mentioned that you have incorporated some field recordings into your live performance material. I read in an interview that with The Peregrine, for example, you were specifically trying to keep field recordings and actual concrete sounds out of that music. Are there moments where you feel like it’s appropriate to combine the two, or do you make a conscious effort to keep those compositional approaches separate?

I think it ebbs and flows. Specifically talking about The Peregrine, I did not want to have any field recording in there, partly because my first instinct was to go to East Anglia after I read the book and wander around and maybe make some recordings, and that [would become] part of the record. But I thought actually that’s not part of what this experience for me is about. What I love about The Peregrine as a book is that I’m experiencing it through the perception of John Alec Baker through his experiences in this place. And I think that’s the same [thing] I love about field recordings, when I listen to a recording by Chris Watson or a recording of Francisco Lopez, anyone that is really attuned, is that you’re perceiving the world or an impression of the world through their ears. I find that really powerful. What I love about field recordings is that it’s this way for you to listen differently somehow — or hopefully, anyway. With The Peregrine, I realized that what I was experiencing was this other time and place that I’ll never be able to go to, in a way that I’ll never be able to understand and perceive, because [Baker] spent essentially a decade in this area following these birds, making diaries about them, and I thought that somehow it opened out in a way that I could never possibly [grasp] from going there and spending a year or two years. It was just a very particular vision, and also the way that he was interacting with the environment around him gave it a very particular kind of perspective. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t try to falsely introduce my impressions of that time and place. So I used the book essentially as a compositional score.

There are descriptions in the book that I used to create things like envelopes, and the number of elements that might exist in a song. “Grey Lunar Sea” is built around his description of this vision at the sea wall; the number of events that happened in the piece are almost transcribing the way that he talks about the land and the water. In that kind of circumstance, it didn’t make sense to have field recording material there. Whereas with some of the really early records like It’s Up to Us to Live, that record for me brought together quite strongly field recording — not that you necessarily hear them as field recordings, but there’s a lot of material content from field recordings and instruments together in this very tense relationship. And Curing the Auto as well is very much about this blurring of the line between environmental sound and instrumental sound, and how under certain circumstances you don’t perceive one as different from the other. For me, I don’t perceive there is a difference between sound and music. They’re just different dialects of the same language, and we choose to understand or pay more attention to one dialect than another, or it’s easier to understand one dialect than [it is] another. For me, certain versions of English I find harder to understand, like a really strong Glaswegian accent I sometimes struggle with a little bit in the same way that I know that when I speak to some friends overseas, they often say, [that they find] Australian accents very difficult to understand. That’s absolutely fine, it’s just about attuning yourself to that process of listening to it. When you’re in Glasgow for a few days, suddenly you just break through it and everything is completely clear. And it’s the same with sound and music for me. I think if you are attentive to it, then it rewards you. If you’re not attentive to it, then you get lost and confused and you get bored, because you can’t necessarily make sense of it in the ways that you should. Does that make sense?

How you sustain something that is inherently not on the radar of any kind of understanding of popular music?

It definitely does. When you were talking there, I was thinking about how in the same way that you made a musical work out of the words in The Peregrine, someone might be able to interpret your field recordings in a similar musical way.

Definitely, we’ve done that actually. Some of the recordings from Antarctica, my friend Werner Dafeldecker made a kind of opera piece where some of the ways that the musicians were playing was essentially guided by the dynamics of the field recordings. And certainly, on Wilderness of Mirrors, for example, the only place that the field recordings really exist is in control information. So I wanted to imprint the dynamics of a wind recording. I wanted that to affect the sound of a piano tone, or an organ. So you get these spectral ghosts of the field recordings imprinted into the music itself.

That brings another almost visual aspect to it as well, something that you can see while you’re recording the wavelengths, in the same way a painter paints based on a photograph or something like that.

Potentially. In some respects it’s one step further in that I’m… I guess the painter can then interpret it, but I guess I’m setting a number of variables, and within those variables, the material is affected. If I’m playing along with the recording, then that does shape [it], because there’s a kind of feedback loop between one and the other, the dynamics and the way that I play. Yeah, it was an interesting way to work and I enjoyed it particularly for Wilderness, because it really had for me a strong connection to some of the (for wont of a better word) political complexities that I was interested in and that was fueling the fire for the record.

So you’re coming to the United States soon — is that for sure happening?

Definitely, September I’ll be around.

Are you thinking about bringing your microphones? Is there a place in the United States that you’re especially interested in recording?

When I came in 2012 to do Substrata, I did a thing at LACE in Los Angeles. What was really great was because of the nature of the tour, every day or every place that I went, there was time for field recording. So literally I went recording with Liz Harris in the Ape Caves, because we were just hanging around for a few days. We went out there and recorded some pretty amazing recordings in the caves there. And in Seattle, we went north up into the Pacific Northwest forest kind of vibe, which was really good. And then in L.A., we did this incredible walk from Las Villas all the way along the L.A. river, myself and Steve Roden, and we did this listening-walking recording. I really, really enjoyed that.

This time, though, to be honest, it looks like it’s going to be a pretty heavy schedule of shows. I’m going to be playing as much as I can, so realistically, I don’t know if I’m going to get that much time for field recording. Hopefully I’ll be coming back to do some proper field recordings in North America, because it’s actually one of the places I haven’t spent a lot of time recording, mostly because when I’ve come, historically [it has been] to play shows, and the nature of the schedule meant that there just wasn’t a lot of time. It’s also because when I come, I see friends that I haven’t seen in a long time, so I try and prioritize that because more and more I recognize that what I love about this, and certainly like the idea of room40, is that it is kind of an extended family. So I like to see the family [laughs].

One last thing — I wanted to talk about The Peregrine a little bit more because you’re reissuing that album. What was the decision making process there, why did you feel like now’s the time to do this? What’s it like going back and revisiting that piece now.

It was interesting, it had always been in my mind to make it available digitally, because initially I did a number of records that were only available on vinyl in a row, like that one, Lonely Women’s Club… and I was interested in (and I still am very interested in) the way that certain formats make you listen to a work. I think at that point, I’d come back to a certain way of approaching records. I had this hard drive of music that I’d collected over a long period, ripping my old CDs and all sorts of things, and one day it just died, and I lost everything. I lost a terabyte’s worth of music, and I was left with not many albums. I had about 20 records, and I just listened to those intensively for the better part of half the year. I realized, actually this is what is really great about music — when you are able to put it on and just focus on it and revisit again and again. And each time you listen to it there’s this other layer that’s excavated. It’s like you’re digging deeper into the music somehow, and I loved that experience. I thought one way that can happen is when you make the commitment to listen to a record. There’s a kind of physical thing that goes on, and it’s a very particular kind of listening, it can’t be done on the move, you’ve got to be fixed in an environment that you probably know quite well.

So there’s a different kind of relationship with the visual materials around you. I wanted to make a few records like that, but then with The Peregrine, I knew it would always recur again, because for me, honestly, I’ve had a… the only word is ‘obsession’ with that book, it’s one of the most profound pieces of text I’ve ever read in my entire life. And I want to share it as much as I can. The opportunity to talk about it again and again, I have no problem doing. I’ve sent hundreds of copies of that book out to people that I think would enjoy it, because I believe so strongly in it. You know, I have four or five copies of it sitting in my cupboard right now that when I meet someone and we’re talking about it and it’s like, “Ah! I really want to read the book,” I can say, “I’ll bring it to you.” I’ve sent it to friends, [like] Ben Frost [who] read it, loved it. Verner Herzog, I happened to send it to him through a mutual friend of ours, Douglas Quinn, and it’s now listed in his essential reading as a kind of observational text in his film school. I’m a believer in great work needs to be shared. When you experience great work it’s about getting other people to experience it because it’s what pushes us forward. They set a benchmark for what’s possible for us as creative individuals to make things happen.

So, in terms of why I wanted to do it now, in some respects it’s been quite a while since I read the book now, and certainly quite a while since the record was completed. It’s nearly five years since the first versions of the record were being done. So I felt like it was a nice time to return to it, particularly because there’s quite a gap in terms of the discography when something like The Peregrine drops out. The records before that like Curing the Auto and It’s Up to Us to Live — they’re five, six years ago, more than that even in some cases. There’s a gap there where you can really trace the lineage between the records, and for me there is a thread that ties through a lot of the material. There’s a place for the records to be heard in succession in a way. And it also gave me a chance to revisit the material. I’d been playing a couple of the pieces live, certainly this last tour in Europe, and I’d just done a couple of festivals here in Australia, and I played two pieces from The Peregrine which I’ve really enjoyed coming back to, because I now hear them in a completely different way, and I’m willing to let them be different than what they were on the records. And I like the license that time gives you sometimes.

It’s also I think because it’s the 15th anniversary [of room40]. We’re going to be reissuing Tim Hecker’s Norberg, and Apondalifa as a 12-inch. So there’s a little bit of that stuff going on, where we’re trying to either just revisit some of the things that aren’t available anymore, or haven’t been able to be heard in a particular way, and I think The Peregrine was one of those for me as well.

[Photo: Marc Behrens]

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