In Profile: Lawrence English, Wilderness of Mirrors

Gail Priest

Lawrence English

Lawrence English

Lawrence English

Lawrence English is perhaps Australia’s most prolific producer of exploratory electronic music. His untiring work across his suite of labels—Room40 for electronic music, Someone Good for edgy pop and A Guide To Saints for old-fashioned cassettes—has significantly contributed to creating a context, locally and internationally, for experimental and alternative music. His personal discography alone lists 21 major releases over the last 13-years, the majority of which have been on overseas imprints. However his most recent album, Wilderness of Mirrors, brings things back home to his own label Room40—fitting, as the new release has a particularly local and personal agenda.

Political music

The press release for Wilderness of Mirrors declares the album a political statement. The title is drawn from Gerontion, a TS Eliot poem from 1920 which is clearly inflected with the emotional aftermath of the Great War. The press release explains how the phrase “wilderness of mirrors” was subsequently used in the Cold War to reference miscommunication between international agencies. In an email interview I asked English to extrapolate a little on the motivation behind the album and its themes.

“This past couple of years I have been utterly frustrated and angered by what I see as a completely underwhelming, if not toxic, political environment. We’re a young country, we have an incredibly high standard of living and have been very successful over recent times and yet we fail so many of the crucial tests when it comes to creating a humane and progressive society…This makes me angry and some of that aggression has been funneled into this record.”

Jaques Attali told us that noise was political, but in the 21st century is electronica? I ask English if he believes sound can communicate politically. “When you look back to the protest songs of the late 60s for example, sure there was a dialogue between politics and music, the songs were addressing these grand narratives that were clearly defined and understood in a kind of holistic way. I’d argue today we are faced with the antithesis of this, countless, evolving and shifting political battles on all fronts—humanitarian, ecological, ethical and such. It’s impossible to address the grand narratives in a meaningful way anymore. The complexity is too great, issue to issue, blow to blow, we are up against this torrent of hollow ideology and, at least here, clichéd patriarchy.

“How I think this recording interacts with politics is first and foremost personal. Much of the frustrations I have felt fuelled this record and gave it the intensities it has. This was the first time in my life I’ve found myself so incensed that the only fulfilling way I could address it was through making a work like this.

“More generally, I think what sound can do is offer us imagination and opportunity to contemplate that which lies around us, specifically music that is not rooted in language. Without words, music can suggest all manner of possibilities to all manner of ears. If people read these kinds of conversations, then perhaps my angst over the state of things might resonate with them through the music, but if they hear it cold, it might simply fill them with an energy that only sustained full frequency sound can. I’m not interested in being didactic with the art I make, I appreciate everyone brings themselves to the work and that’s the beauty of it.”

Wilderness of Mirrors

Wilderness of Mirrors

Composition of erasure

This passion has paid off, Wilderness of Mirrors is arguably English’s most arresting output to date. It’s almost a signature of English’s sound that it is slippery and amorphous, but in Wilderness of Mirrors the music grabs you by the ears and the throat from the first second of the opening track, evocatively titled “The Liquid Casket.” It feels like you’ve come in on the middle of an argument and you have to remain absolutely present so as to not lose your place and be subsumed. All the tracks have a hard edge that grows, like an increasing pressure wave—a thick rumbling chord, with pulses, textures and tones emerging and submerging without losing intensity. The tracks segue into one another and while there are dynamic changes you are never left to relax. However some of the English-style elusiveness remains in the sound palette—you can never be quite sure as to what you think you are hearing. This is not uncommon in electronic music, but here it makes you restless; you really seem to need an answer. Is that a voice? Is that piano melody I can just make out? What crazed orchestra is this playing at the bottom of an ocean?

English explains the process he employed to make these ghostly sounds. “Wilderness Of Mirrors has come from a long process of elemental shift and erasure. At the heart of each of the pieces is some single-celled sound organism that has evolved through the duration of the album into the final living, breathing music you hear. Those initial elements are almost entirely gone in the finished works, but some are still buried close enough to the surface that they have a presence. Essentially what happened across quite a few of the pieces was a process of introducing an element, recording against it and removing that element, it was at times a glacial process and often those initial elements were merely points of agitation for me to work against, a kind of creative friction point that I could use to incinerate the sounds that followed.

“It may sound naïve, but I don’t think of myself as making experimental music. There’s really not that much experimenting here beyond what all musicians and composers might partake in. Sure, it’s lacking some of the aspects that make music instantly familiar, like drums in every song, but beyond that it’s not so unfamiliar. To me, Wilderness Of Mirrors shares more with the outer orbit of SWANS’ saturated walls of sonics or the final 20 minutes of every My Bloody Valentine show. These were the groups that in some way influenced the album’s colour and tone. What you hear is a bunch of instruments all gasping for air as they are systematically plunged and held in caustic bath of electronics.”

Musical politics

Of course, in order to be prolific you need longevity and the reality is that English has persisted and flourished when many other artists have fallen by the wayside. I asked him what has kept him going as both an artist and producer and how he sees the music ecosystem in Australia.

“If we examine music we have two very discrete ecologies—that of heritage music, which largely exists and persists thanks to the bilateral funding arrangements between the state and federal governments, and then there’s the rest of the music sector which must make other arrangements for its survival. Looking at many of the state orchestras and opera companies, it would appear that having all that support hasn’t necessarily brought about progressive commissioning of new Australian work or any kind of inspired repertoire, which is a shame as this results in fewer flow-on effects to the rest of the sector.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with supporting these behemoths—groups like the SSO and ACO are utterly world class—but I do think it raises an important question around equity in the arts. Why some companies have guaranteed survival almost no matter what they program or how they perform and all others are put under stringent analysis against criteria of excellence and the like. Even from a neo-liberal perspective, it makes little sense to approach these institutions as we do. We have a live music sector worth something in the range of $2.55 billion according to Live Performance Australia and of that, classical music represents just $135 million. Contemporary music towers over this figure, but if you look at how funding is distributed it does not reflect this fact. Rather the opposite. I think there’s room for all kinds of music out there, but we should aspire to equity in the arts.”

Lawrence English, through his efforts as an artist and label manager, as well as a gig and festival curator, certainly offers an excellent example of Australian contemporary music’s vibrancy, vigour and relevancy.

Lawrence English, Wilderness of Mirrors, Room40; http://emporium.room40.org/; http://lawrenceenglish.com

See also Lawrence English’s thoughts on Kyoto and the nature of time in our Dreaming Cities survey

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. web

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

30 July 2014