Lisa chat’s with Lawrence English about Wilderness of Mirrors. (Music Interview)
Wilderness of Mirrors
Lawrence English is one of the most important sound artists working today. I was lucky enough to get a chance to listen to his amazing new album, Wilderness of Mirrors this week, which resulted in my writing about it here. It left me with many questions, and Lawrence was kind enough to answer them for me. You will see from the below, but before I launch into this beautiful series of questions, here is a cut and paste from the wiki about him, which should give some context to the uninitiated. I’ve left all the links in, so if you feel compelled to explore, the rabbit hole is open:
His recorded work is widely published on a variety of respected labels including 12K, Room40, Touch Music, Crónica, Baskaru, Winds Measure and numerous others. His sound works move across a broad range of spheres from electronic based composition, through to evocative field recordings that seek to reveal those sound spaces largely ignored or inaudible. His Studies For Stradbroke edition for example drew out a variety of hydrophonic atmospheres from Stradbroke Island – capturing sounds as delicate as sand grains in motion. As a producer and studio provocateur English has worked extensively to develop a unique perspective on the possibilities of deconstruction of expectation within song form, esoteric electronic processes and structural arrangement – working with artists such as Blank Realm, Ben Frost, Tujiko Noriko, Tenniscoats and The Rational Academy amongst others.
I’ve left the questions below in one piece – exactly as I sent them to him. The beautiful responses are all Lawrence English.
Lisa – I understand you are a lightening strike survivor? Can you say something about that experience? For example, does it exist inside you in a profound way, or is it one of those experiences that loses all romantic potency in its reality?
Lawrence – I think I’d be foolish not to say that it has left some lingering something inside me. Those kind of experiences come with a certain rupture to the everyday. That’s important actually, to have those ruptures, life can be lived with merely the faintest pulse and I must confess I’d prefer not to lie on my death-bed wondering about what could have been.
If nothing else, I realized that even in the seemingly mundane activities of recording in this case, life teeters on an uneasy edge that is only as stable as the moment allows. I was lucky all things considered, it felt like I was hit by a brick wall at 100 kilometers per hour, but I survived.
Lisa – In Geronition, the Eliot poem that uses the phrase Wilderness of Mirrors, there is a line: History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, Guides us by vanities. The Speed with which things change currently enhances these cunning passages, these guides by vanities.Wilderness of Mirrors seems to be an intangible (and also tangible) pathway to an expanse beyond immediacy that, while enormous, exists separate from a spiritual definition. (Lawrence, tell me if this isn’t clear – its very difficult to describe) Is this the tone you were looking for when you made Wilderness of Mirrors?
Lawrence – I think what Eliot’s poem speaks to is in some respects what I value about music and sound. There’s a way that music infiltrates you, it is utterly cunning and so very much brings to mind questions of temporality and perception. Ultimately, the moment a sound is perceived by us, it has expired, that moment is forever gone, but for an instant exists as individual experience before it’s translated to memory (or simply vanishes). I think this idea of expired sound, the moment of extinction upon perception, speaks somehow very deeply to us as a species, especially when you start to look at the ideas of memory. I think wilderness of mirrors, by the visual ideas of the title alone, does suggest some attempt to repeat, to echo, to try and maintain that which is constantly dying, constantly fading. In that respect it’s both melancholic and really very beautiful in that way that fragility often is. I think that’s one thing we tend not to think about as much as we should, we are fragile, this place we live, it’s fragile and perhaps we don’t realize just how fragile it all is.
Lisa – Why does sound transport us so well?
Lawrence – I guess there are a few things at play here. For one, we’re so very visio-centric, that when we actually pay attention to one of our other senses then suddenly they awake something that lies dormant within all of us. On top of that I think what sound does best, and certainly what I love about working with sound is that it’s an invitational medium. Especially music, being for want of a better phrase ‘non-representational’ what it does is offers the listener a chance to embed themselves within the sound and from that point create some kind of internal narrative or meaning calling on their understandings, their experiences, their socio-cultural baggage they bring to that moment. I know from using field recordings in concerts, alongside the music, not two audience members experience the sound in the same way. One person here’s a storm on a boat, someone else the sound of a windy night at their grandmothers. It’s totally personal and this is what makes sound work for us and absorb us, it’s an invitation to explore the interiority of ourselves, to wade into that ocean of memory that is often sidelined in a visual environment. The more you wade, the richer the experience and the bigger the ocean of possibility.
Lisa – More than any other art form, the drive to colonize sound is pervasive. That’s “my” song, that takes me back to “my” memory, that represents “my” generation etc. Do we control and restrict sound because it is dangerous? Do we seek to take ownership of sound to avoid what it is when it is not controlled?
Lawrence – As much as we might try and own it, sound is promiscuous. That’s it’s most seductive and at times confusing quality. It is fugitive, it moves around corners, carries through physical materials, penetrates our bodies, not just our ear drums. Sound can never be ours, it can’t be owned, the opportunity to revisit it can be owned, but each re-visitation brings with it a new perspective, a vista of variables upon which the conditions of that listener are different to those that came before it.
Lisa – What can loud do that soft can’t?
Lawrence – Now that is a nice question. At it’s simplest, perhaps it’s this; we have two sets of ears at any one time. The ears attached to our head, that offer us a kind of psychological listening, an interior experience based on what I was speaking to before. Then there’s the body as ear and it’s perhaps here that sound pressure comes into play. One of the main thrusts behind Wilderness Of Mirrors comes from the experience of pure physical sound I had whilst working on the record, specifically in the company of bands like My Bloody Valentine, SWANS and Earth. Each one of these group uses sound pressure to affect the body, to make it resonate, to make it vibrate and with that comes a kind of instant synaesthesia – touch and audition activated in unison. It’s low frequency and volume that affect the body most efficiently I feel and certainly from my own experiences this has been the case. So what I think loud does, is awakes something with us. Something primal and at the best of times profoundly affecting.
Lisa – One of my favourite things about drone is its ambient space doesn’t imply spiritual awakening. It exists inside itself, present yet still uncontained. Do you have a similar experience of this style of music?
Lawrence – I think the dimension of static music can be truly amazing. The challenge I think is how that movement is made and how you can trick the ears into this kind of altered state, whilst still building complex, shifting music. I know for me, one of the greatest challenges in making something like Wilderness Of Mirrors is finding that pacing, the speed at which constants can be eroded and how it is new sounds coalesce in time. Takemitsu wrote very well about this idea as well, specifically about the implications of multiple layers of time working in pieces of music. I had his words firmly in my mind during the making of several pieces over the past few years.
Lisa – Tell me more about the statement “A pure white out of absolute aurality.”(it’s so beautiful)
Lawrence – I’d like to think, that sometimes in rare moments, sound can subdue the other senses. I can create a moment in time where there is need for nothing else. This doesn’t happen all the time, but very occasionally it can. This is an absolute aurality, perhaps what all musicians strive for?
Lisa – In Wilderness of Mirrors, the singularity at the core of each piece is reflected back upon itself until it is the “thing” we hear. You call this erasure through auditory burial. Why is it an erasure, and not a created thing? Does each piece mean the obliteration of the original, or its transformation, or its naturally evoked enormity?
Lawrence – In the case of this record actually there was a process of actual erasure. I would record one part of a piece, then re-record over that part and then remove the first part, leaving the second, then repeat the process. Over the course of this process, something may start as a melodic progression, but by the end of the processes there’s merely a harmonic shimmer of what was once there. I used this process a great deal on Wilderness Of Mirrors. Eventually all the various lines and elements that were transformed were brought back together, and more. It’s at that point that all the repeated transformations, performed elements and echoes of those original elements come together and create these very dense waves of sound. These unexpected collisions of sound would spur on further additions and subtractions. The pieces were breathing in and out like lungs, expanding and contracting until they were completed and effectively frozen.