Lawrence English, the 38-year-old ambient musician and sound theorist, has enjoyed an unusual career. His pursuit of field recordings has taken him from the Australian outback to the waters of Antarctica. Once, he was struck by lightning while recording the sound of rain on his metal roof. (“I did get a recording of it,” he says. “It just sounds like a hum — like lightning and then a hum on the recorder as the recorder burns out.”) And while his hometown may be remote, he has managed to collaborate with Ben Frost, David Toop, Tujiko Noriko, Grouper and Francisco Lopez, among others.
In a roundabout way, all of that activity began along the banks of the bay in Brisbane, Australia, the city in which English was born, raised and still lives.
It’s all condos and parking lots these days, but when English was a kid, it was a “huge, desolate wasteland” where his father took him bird-watching. “I would go and walk around these swamps with these reeds, and there’d be this one bird called a reed warbler, a small brown bird, kind of nondescript, but it has this incredible call, one of the most amazing, electronic, frenetic, synth-like calls — the ultimate synthesizer bird. You just want to plug in a cable and record it. They’re brown, and they’re usually hidden in the reeds, and my dad would say, ‘Just close your eyes and listen, and once you’ve got a sense for where it is, open your eyes and look for it.’ That’s the first time I ever thought of sound as spatial — something that can be used to give identity to something that’s a completely abstract idea.”
Fittingly, if you were to describe English’s music in geographical terms, you might compare it to the mouth of a river, flat and wide and shimmering. It’s also governed by a kind of tidal push-and-pull, tugged between unadorned field recordings and expressive ambient music — between the documentary purism of his Antarctic windscapes, for instance, and releases like Kiri No Oto, A Colour for Autumn and his masterful new album, Wilderness of Mirrors, in which is drifting compositions take on an unprecedented heft.
The tension between abstraction and its opposite is at the heart of much of English’s music. Consider his 2008 album Kiri No Oto, an eight-track suite of pink noise and rumbling low-end that compares to some of Tim Hecker‘s more blown-out fantasias, right down to titles like “Organs Lost at Sea.” (Hecker has recorded for English’s Room40 label.) Its title, a Japanese phrase, loosely translates as “the sound of fog,” and the genesis of the album came during a train trip from Germany to Poland in 2007. “Somehow, Polish rail has this incredible feeling of anti-gravity,” English says. “It constantly feels like it’s slowing down. So I couldn’t really sleep. We were going forward, but I constantly felt like I was rolling out of my bunk. Then we pulled up in this town just before you get to Krakow, and it was really foggy, really dark and heavy. I remember looking through the town. There was this church with a spire and a crucifix on top. When I stared, I could make the shape of the church out. I could make the spire out and the steeple and the crucifix; I could see that. But the moment I tried to bring it into relief with the rest of the environment, it just became grey. So Kiri No Oto is basically an auditory transcription of the visual effect of fog.”
Listening to the album, that “transcription” plays out in the tension between foreground and background, between detail and diffusion; it is at once a kind of philosophical experiment — how do we separate the part from the whole? — and a deeply Romantic treatise on the ephemerality of experience and the passing of time. “I’d never been to Poland before,” he says. “I don’t think I’d ever been that far east. It was still the time when they had the checkpoint where you change from the German to the Polish side, which was just fantastic, because the German guard was such a cliché of Germanic giantness, and the Polish guy was so sweet. Like, ‘Please spend your money in our country!’ It was still that time in Europe, which feels like a long time ago, but really, it wasn’t.”
Before he began experimenting with field recordings, found sound and ambient composition, English played in some “really terrible bands” — one of them, an industrial act called Dogmachine, recently re-formed to open for Pop Will Eat Itself in Brisbane — and ran an open-ended label “with no curatorial focus” other than the fact that its acts were all Australian. He says, “We did a spoken word record, we did some early hip-hop records with the emerging Australian hip-hop stuff, we did some weird punk rock stuff. It was basically whatever I was interested in, we did.” He eventually folded the label when his distributor went out of business, quite literally from one day to the next. (“I went in one Friday to get my check, and they said that it was coming in on Monday,” he says. “So I went in on Monday, and they were like, ‘Hey, great to see you again. We’re bankrupt!’”)
“I’d already been thinking a lot about a more focused way of doing things,” he says, and around 2000 he launched his new venture, a label called Room40 that would maintain a distinct focus on sound art. “It was around the time that Sonic Boom was happening, and Bitstreams,” he recalls, citing two influential exhibitions that took place in the U.K. around the turn of the millennium.
This would probably be a good place to note that, as much as place plays a central role in English’s work, so does distance — specifically, the distance between Australia and the outside world. “I remember in the ’90s, there were three or four formative things that happened that were for me, like, ‘Oh my God, this is what I’m interested in,’” he says. “I saw Boredoms in 1996, and I thought, ‘Holy God, I have to be a part of this thing. [Sound artist] Francisco Lopez came. David Shea arrived in the late ’90s. But that was it. It wasn’t like there was a thing every month — it was a few things across five years. We were still a long way away then. Even with the internet, it wasn’t until the early noughties that [Australia] felt more in touch.”
In a roundabout way, though, you could say that the distance he felt in the 1990s helped shape the sound of his latest album, Wilderness of Mirrors. In 1991, My Bloody Valentine were booked to play in Brisbane. But English was just 15, too young to get in the club, which was located in the basement of a “huge” shopping center. (“Brisbane was another place then,” he says, “unsure of itself, like the early days of puberty.”) So he did the next best thing: He went to the club and stood outside, listening to the walls rattle and imagining what it must be like inside in the dark, in the roar. Twenty-two years later, he got his chance to find out when My Bloody Valentine returned to Brisbane. Within a few weeks he also got to see Swans, one of the few outfits that can contest My Bloody Valentine’s title as loudest band in the world.
English’s work has tended to gravitate towards the quieter end of ambient music, the realm of rustle and scrape, but the one-two punch of those shows immediately suggested a different path for his next album — specifically, to attempt to manufacture the effect when your ears are subjected to extreme pressure. “You can never really bring about the actual physicality of what a large PA sounds like in your body, but what I wanted to do was find a way to have that sensation that somehow your ears are doing that thing where it’s too loud, and they’re doing that compression — it’s a mid-band saturation thing, I’m sure of it, where you get to a point where you can’t take in any more information and your ears feel like you’re compressing the whole time. I love that. And I love what that does to audio, so I tried to replicate that in a whole bunch of different ways.”
To create that information overload, he began massaging together sounds from a wide range of instruments and sources: synthesizer, electric guitar, electric bass, a “massive old church organ.” (“I actually have like eight hours of that which will probably turn into a very minimal record at some point,” he says.) The classical percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson played for him. He used recordings of wind as a side-chain controller — in essence, letting the wind’s vagaries determine the shape and texture of another instrument’s musical output. And, as would any good follower of John Cage, he left plenty of room for accidents. “I found an old piano in a country hall I was visiting for a project, and I recorded a bunch of stuff there,” he says. “During that recording, the microphone preamp battery ran out, so there’s seven or eight minutes where the recording gradually builds up this white noise and hiss, and that became part of the record.”
The overall effect, a bit like Kiri No Oto, is of a vast, almost incomprehensible blur, where rumbling low end erupts into a coruscating glow, and colors explode and consume themselves, over and over, gold into black into gold, like metal in a forge. “It was really about trying to make it blurry,” he says. “In the same way how field recordings worked on something like Kiri No Oto I wanted to have instruments work in the same way, where you’re not really sure if they’re acoustic or electronic. Everything just coexists together. I think it’s interesting when you’re not sure, that’s the fun part. When everything’s very discrete and functional, you understand it the moment you hear it. That’s how pop singles work. You’re instantly comfortable. That’s great for pop music, but for me it’s death. I don’t want instant comfort, I want you have to spend a little bit of time to get yourself acquainted, and the more time you spend, the richer the experience is.”
In other words, close your eyes and listen. The reed warbler’s in the bushes somewhere; the pleasure is in pinpointing it with your ears.