Lawrence English / The language of sound

Lawrence English, Australian composer and curator in conversation with Maria Abramenko about his practice and the language of sound.

Lawrence English, Australian composer and curator in conversation with Maria Abramenko. Talking about art, his curatorial practice and his latest album.

How do you balance all of your creative activities, as curator, artist and musician?

Ever since I started out in this life, I’ve used a methodology of multiple streams of activity as a means of survival. When I was still in high school, I started a fanzine and then a cassette label and then the first year out of school I started my first proper label, started organising shows and kept on writing, both as the editor of my zine, but also for various music, art and culture papers in Australia. At that time I was also performing in a couple of second wave industrial bands and around 1995 I started to create my first solo music, which was mostly collage oriented and not particularly interesting beyond the interrogation of how juxtaposing ideas can create unexpected relations. So, from the onset I have always worked on many things in the same breath.
In terms of this idea of balance, I’m not sure this is something that I’ve ever really subscribed to. For many years, my life curating and organising far outweighed my time spent making work for myself. I am in no way upset about this, as frankly I draw a great deal of satisfaction from curation and especially from making opportunities for others to share the work that I find inspirational and more over critical to a broader reading of cultures, be they sonic or otherwise.

Can you tell us a bit more about your experience in sound curating?

Curation and specifically sound curation is a practice I have explored at various times over the past couple of decades. I’d say the last three years have been the most satisfying in terms of the projects I have untaken. In January 2018 I had the opportunity to present Genesis P-Orridge’s survey exhibition “Loyalty Does Not End With Death”. Working on that show with Genesis was a pleasure and the scope of the exhibition moved far outside of their work in sound and focused more on their radical work around thee Pandrogyne. The past 18 months I spent researching for two exhibitions that were opened early this year at The Substation in Melbourne, Australia. The first was a career long retrospective of the Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki called “Sense Of Ēko” and the second exhibition was “Reframed Positions”, a major survey of the work of American artist Terre Thaemlitz. Both of these exhibitions took some time to distillate. The nature of the artist’s work is always littered with complexity and in both these cases was deeply conceptual. In terms of the actual works from Suzuki and Thaemlitz, they couldn’t be more in opposition, and I say this as a positive. Each exhibition required some markedly different approaches to unpack the works; some more text based and the other more performative. I think curation is a perverse practice ultimately, its boundaries are amorphous and it’s this quality I find most appealing about it.

Is there a difference between music and sound art in your opinion and if so how would you describe it?

If sound is language, then music is a dialect of sound.

Can you tell us more about your “Room 40” project.

“Room40” is 20 this year. It started out in a time when Australia was still very much removed from the rest of the world, and especially Brisbane where I was living. Initially it was started with three main focuses, to publish works, to present performance programs (and by default to make connections between artists and communities through these events) and to advocate for sound art.

That final point was very much a response to the art communities in Australia during that time. At an institutional level there was a serious dearth of expertise in and, being honest, interest in the curation of sound artworks.  The works were ephemeral, non-visio centric and difficult to install, a trifecta that meant they were significantly marginalised at a time when the Northern Hemisphere was celebrating the potentials of sound through exhibitions such as “Sonic Boom” which was curated by David Toop. The first 5-7 years of “Room40″’s actions were very much focused on strategies to heighten awareness of these emergent practices within the Australian context. About a decade in, things had shifted considerably and this part of it’s focus faded away. It was a reflection of a growing and articulate array of voices that were advocating for sound, which has since continued to flourish. Today, “Room40” hosts an annual festival “Open Frame” (though not this year, of course), has proceeded over 350 editions for artists from all over the world and is increasingly publishing small edition artist books and multiples. I describe it as a friends and family label, and community remains a massive driver for why I engage in this work.

How would you describe your visual works, and how are they connected to your sound?

In terms of a gallery practice, I have always been interested in making works that consider sound, but which perhaps are not necessarily sonic in and of themselves. Sound, and more precisely listening, plays a central role in how I approach my gallery based, and installation work. A piece such as Audition which I created for the Asia Pacific Triennial at the Gallery Of Modern Art was utterly concerned with sound, but was largely silent. The piece called on the spectator (redefined as listener) to orient themselves between a pair of 2.5m parabolics, in a room being articulated by a 29Hz sine wave. As you entered the room, you felt or heard nothing, but as you move towards the objects, you exited the zero point of the sine wave and start to feel an intense pressure, a sensation that becomes more complex as you approach the parabolic sculptures, as they cause you to second guess your sensing of the space. We tend not to spend much time considering how our ears help us shape an understanding of the world. This work addressed this shortcoming and reminded visitors that whilst we are consciously dominated by our eyes, they are only part of the sensory world we must come to engage with moment to moment. The idea of latent sound, something my friend and collaborator David Toop wrote of so eloquently in his book Sinister Resonance, is a concept that has been particularly resonate in works I’ve created in recent years. The image series Solicitudes primarily concerns itself with this idea, of how sound can haunt the visual. Increasingly it’s these extended investigations into how sound can be read and approached that are dominating my practice. Whilst I have a huge appreciation for the acoustic within sound artworks, it seems like an important moment to consider the questions of materiality, listenership and sound within a broader and more embedded context.

What are your future plans?

Right now I am working on a new solo recording. This work stems from a conversation I had with the British film maker Adam Curtis about 18 months ago. I hugely admire Adam’s work and his capacity to weave intensely complex geo-political narratives into expansive but approachable films is extraordinary. This recording is the final edition in a trilogy of recordings that began with “Wilderness Of Mirrors” and was followed up by “Cruel Optimism”. This one again draws its inspiration from the curious geo-political situations we find ourselves tangled within. This is a surreal period in human history and one that is both shocking and shockingly beautiful all at once. It’s hard not to want to dwell in these juxtapositions. This past month I published a new work for Pipe Organ, “Lassitude”. It’s an ultra minimal exploration of a 19th century organ that is capable of effortlessly deep minimal vibration. A magical device.

Listen to Soundscapes vol.17, a playlist curated by Lawrence English.

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