Lawrence English: ‘Room40 at 15 and The Peregrine.’ Interview by Tony Mitchell


J.A. Baker’s nonfiction book The Peregrine was first published in the UK in 1967 and won the Duff Cooper prize. As an example of the genre of ‘nature writing’, it is outstanding, and was described by Robert Moore in the UK Daily Telegraph in 2010 as ‘the most precise and poetic account of a bird – possibly of any non-human creature – ever written in English prose’. In it, Baker provides a diary in which he tracks a pair of peregrines over the coastal fens of East Anglia – roughly 50 miles from London – between October and April, with an unparalleled degree of intensity. ‘Evanescent as flame, he writes on October 7, ‘peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above. But in the lower air a wake of birds trails back, and rises upward through the white helix of the gulls’.

Little is known of Baker – he was an obsessive bird watcher, a librarian, and also an employee of the UK Automobile Association, although he did not drive, and travelled around his home town of Chelmsford by bicycle. He was not a professional writer, although his 1969 book The Hill of Summer, another piece of nature writing set in southern England, was published, as well as extracts from his diaries, in a new edition of The Peregrine by Collins in 2011. In his introduction to the book in an edition published by the New York Review of Books in 2005, UK nature writer Robert Macfarlane comments: ‘Everything is surprised into unforeseen and beautiful expression by the passage of the hawk and the sweep of Baker’s hawk-like gaze’. Baker’s ‘language [is]so intense and incantatory, and yet also so amok with beauty, that the act of bird-watching becomes akin to a shamanic ritual … Like Ted Hughes, Baker is able to evoke a deep Englishness: to make a long-inhabited landscape seem timeless and mythic’. Novelist Adam Foulds also compared Baker to Hughes, whose first book of poetry in 1957 was entitled Hawk in the Rain, in a review entitled ‘Book Of A Lifetime’ in the UK Independent in 2009.

One of many examples of Baker’s prose conveys the violence wrought by the peregrine on its environment: “A falcon peregrine, sable on a white shield of sky, circled over from the sea. She slowed, and drifted aimlessly, as though the air above the land was thick and heavy. She dropped. The beaches flared and roared with salvoes of white wings. The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds. The falcon rose and fell, like a black billhook in splinters of white wood’. Baker increasingly identified with the peregrine: ‘I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind’. He observed that ‘Movement is like colour to a hawk; it flares upon the eye like crimson flame’. Towards the end of the book, on the brink of the bird’s migration from Essex in Spring, he has a final epiphany: ‘Swiftly now he is resigning his savagery to the night that rises round us like dark water. His great eyes look into mine… I know he will not fly now. I climb over the wall and stand before him. And he sleeps’.

Australian composer and musician Lawrence English discovered Baker’s book on musician and writer David Toop’s desk in London. He was so struck by it that he bought more than 100 copies, giving them to fellow musicians, as well as devising an album based on the book. He sent a copy to German film director Werner Herzog, who included it on the reading list at his film school:’ I was introduced to Werner via my friend and colleague Douglas Quin, who also happens to be one of the world’s finest field recordists. When I was reading The Peregrine, it very much reminded me of how some of Werner’s films have made me feel. Anyway, I sent him a copy of the book and my LP. A few weeks later he kindly wrote and said how much he enjoyed the book, his wife was reading it, and he didn’t have an LP player any longer. I sent a cd to him of the edition, he was in fact the only person with a digital copy outside myself for a few years there. I think what his films and Baker’s writing share is a keenness for the recognition of the incidental. That focus to bring something out of the obscurity of the everyday. It’s a powerful tool when it is used well’.

So how did Lawrence approach making music based on such a powerfully visceral, poetic book?

‘I came at that record with a very strong approach of wanting to pull the text apart and create a kind of musical score from it. For me, Baker’s writing places you there, experiencing the world through his eyes and his ears. I found that so very seductive. So I used some of those detailed observations he makes as a kind of score. Using his descriptions of the land, of objects, of movement, of sonic dynamics and the like to create and colour the tonality and shape of the music. It was an incredibly specific and enjoyable way to work. I’m not sure I will ever find another text that spoke so deeply to me. J.A. Baker didn’t write much, but what he did speaks so deeply beyond the moment of its initial utterance’.

This was in 2010. The album, which has been re-released on CD and digitally in 2015, has a track listing of dates from Baker’s dairy followed by titles: ‘The Hunting Life’, ‘Dead Oak’, ‘Frost’s Bitter Grip’, ‘Grey Lunar Sea’, ‘The Roar Ceasing’, ‘Heavy Breath of Silence’, ‘He Sleeps’, and a final track which is a reduction of the entire album, ‘A Whole Season from Yesterday’. There is an intensity about the music’s extended electronic drones which matches the violence of the bird’s activities and habitat, as well as the soaring, searing arc of its flight. A predominantly dark, atmospheric creation, the mood has a lugubrious insistence which is probably enhanced considerably by a reading of the book, for which it provides a kind of soundtrack. As English, himself something of a bird watcher, as well as a visual artist, has stated, ‘Ultimately, through this ghost of a character, we become the bird in what Herzog so perfectly called a “quasi-religious transubstantiation” – reader into author into bird’.

david toop, scanner and Lawrence English by Greg Neate

2015 also marks 15 years of Lawrence English’s Brisbane-based label, Room40, and he again invoked Herzog in relation to the ‘obsession, struggle and insanity’ of Klaus Kinski’s character Fitzcarraldo in the film of the same name. According to there are 132 releases on various formats on Room40:

‘In all seriousness we’ve made a great many limited editions and before the actual first released in the RM series and the EDRM series we were making cdrs and also a very early digital only release. It was really enjoyable to play with formats and whatnot in the first decade of the label, for example making the mixtapes for the 10th anniversary. That said, with time and resources we’re more reductive now than we may have been a few years back. That’s partly just to do with the scale of the projects we’re working on and what goes into making them happen. Also I think our brother and sister labels have made space for other explorations in format and aesthetics.’

Although there are a number of names on the Room40 roster that I don’t recognise, those I do are people like Chris Abrahams, at least 3 of whose albums the label has released. How did that relationship develop?

‘I have to say, listening to Chris’s Thrown album is still one of my strongest musical memories. I was in Sydney playing NowNow I think and Chris had me over after a concert. I remember sitting in his living room listening to this music in almost darkness. It was incredibly powerful and haunting. Often I had no idea how he was making those sounds. That quality is one of the things that I still love about Chris’s work. He is utterly personal in the way he merges quite abstract sound with the most romantic piano phrases. The results are never as you’d expect. He is a constant surprise and source of inspiration for me. He’ll have a new solo coming later this year with us and it’s totally blowing my ears right now. He is a genius in my books’.

Another is Mike Cooper, an English blues, jazz, Hawai’ian and experimental musician who plays resonating guitar and electronics and who is based in Rome. He was born in Australia, and his heavily atmospheric album White Shadows in the South Seas was released by Room40 among others.

‘It must have been well over a decade ago [that I met him]. Mike has been a regular visitor to us here and I’m for one very thankful of that. Mike sums up the very best of humankind for me. He’s incredibly relaxed about most things, but utterly driven at the same time. He’s lived on his own terms, made art on his own terms and has constantly been a restless experimenter. I think what really strikes me most about Mike is that he is still so very interested in music, art, culture, politics and generally the core things I think make society worthwhile. He is in his late seventies, but is completely engaged and energetic. I truly hope I can share his hunger when I am at his age’.

One of the many of Lawrence’s own albums which is not on Room 40 which I’ve been listening to quite a bit is Transit from 2003, which is on Cajid Media, and features collaborations with Cooper, Ben Frost (before he moved to Iceland), Philip Smartzis, Gail Priest and Cat Hope, to mention just the Australian artists.

‘That’s a long time ago, but I still have some very strong memories from making that record. My friend Scanner and I are heard playing some air hockey on one of the tracks in fact. I think with that record, I was very interested in the exchanges possible through improvising and more so through file sharing, This was the early days, where snail mail was the most common way to collaborate long distance. I enjoyed how the pieces grew through iteration. That record was the beginning and the end of a series of approaches that occupied me for some years either side of its publication’.

When I interviewed Ben Frost in Reykjavík about 3 years ago for Cyclic Defrost, he’d just released his album ‘Solaris’ I think, and he mentioned English as something of a mentor.

‘Ben and I have been friends for a very long time. I have a profound sense of respect for him as an artist and a friend. His solo work has gone from strength to strength and I am pleased to have had a tiny hand in helping delivery those offerings. Ben has a very strong sense of aesthetics and a great way of tearing open ideas. I admire his willingness to be instinctive but reflexive. I have a great deal of time for him, both artistically and as a dear friend’.

One surprising person on Room40 is the Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts, whom I’ve been listening to a lot recently, a 7 inch featuring Jackie Oates, with ‘Marches, Quicksteps, Laments, Strathpeys Reels and Country Dances’.

‘Alastair is a gem of a songwriter. He has one of the most amazing voices and spirits out there. That 7″ was towards the end of the time where we were making special limited editions. He was touring here, so we thought it a perfect chance to work on something together. The original idea was quite different to what was released, but those works are so spontaneous, they have an energy I still find so very invigorating’.

I dug up a copy of a Room40 compilation from 2005 which was released with the Wire magazine. Australians like Abrahams, Oren Ambarchi, Phil Smartzis, Robin Fox & Clayton Thomas and English, as well as DJ Olive, David Toop and others appear on it. The roster seems to be huge.

‘We’ve done a couple of samplers for The Wire… in terms of the artists we work with, I guess given it’s been 15 years, I’ve had the chance to work with a great many folk I respect and admire deeply. I say quite often now Room40 is a friends and family label. I like to maintain a strong personal connection with all the artists who work with us. I think in many respects, it’s this connection that gives Room40 its meaning. I am not interested in the ideas of commercial music so to speak. Obviously I want all the artists to grow and prosper (and the same for the label too), but I am not motivated by the promise of some financial gain as a motivation to work with an artist. I can honestly say I have the utmost respect and admiration for each and every artist we’ve worked with. I believe in what they do and I want their work to gather new ears and hearts.

Congratulations on fifteen years of Room 40. May there be at least another 15!

Room40 is celebrating it’s 15 year anniversary via a series of performances from the likes of Jim O’Rourke, William Baskini, Chris Abrahams / Louise Curham and of course English himself. More details can be found here.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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