Lawrence English: “The Shadow of The Zone.” Part 2


Welcome to the second of our two part tangential in depth conversation with Australian sound artist and label honcho Lawrence English to celebrate the release of his stunning new solo album Approach. In part 1 we touched on the album and discussed how he often uses existing culture as an entry point into his numerous creative endeavours. You can find that here. In part 2 we look at his relationship with field recording and his collaborations with Merzbow and Jamie Stewart. Though since we published part 1, Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone has appeared on BBC screens, the bleak and searing 7 part documentary series on the fall of the Soviet Union from iconic British filmmaker Adam Curtis. English provides the score, or perhaps its more appropriate to say the themes and atmospheres, as Curtis uses significantly less music than ever before. We began by discussing this remarkable new work.

Cyclic Defrost: So I see you’ve scored the new Adam Curtis series Russia 1995-1999: TraumaZone. I understand that you only saw an early cut. Did Adam give you any initial instruction?

Lawrence English: I did, yeah. It was a fair way along to be honest, but still without final audio and that end of things. The core narrative was told. This isn’t necessarily the first time that Adam and I have worked together, but this is the most direct work we’ve done I think. On some of the other films I have essentially sent Adam musical references from a whole range of artists, made little elements or helped him connect to certain people, an example being Natalie Beridze who was featured heavily in Adam’s last film.

In some ways TraumaZone started in the same way, Adam shared rough cuts of the films that I watched with my wife Rebecca who has a great eye for things. We made a few notes and sent them over and from what Adam said, they seemed to be helpful. Some of notes were around sound, I thought his radical rethink of this part of the films was amazing. The sound in the rushes and original footage was just so powerful, but there were a few moments where he wanted to open up that a little bit and it was there I made a few suggestions for him.

In the end I made a stockpile of sound materials and sound design tools I guess you could say, and from that process the theme emerged rather organically. It was a really satisfying collaboration in that way, Adam is very generous, but also very much a straight shooter and that’s a huge help. I think it’s important that there’s a sympathetic quality struck between the sound and the film, especially in a work as simultaneously intense and subtle as this is.

Cyclic Defrost: What did you feel your role was? I ask in terms of our previous discussion around sense making, and particularly given I understand that he’s really not using much music in this series.

Lawrence English: I think for this film, my role was really just to offer some very simple tools that could be used to deepen what was already there. Frankly, take me entirely out of it and these films are still utterly captivating. Adam’s natural sense of timing in his edits and his patience in allowing things to hold I feel is just so profound, so any other elements are there just to create a deepening of those qualities in whatever ways they might be needed.

It was really a delight, and a privilege for me to be involved in this film. I feel it’s going to become a very important document of a time in history that will continue to resonate forward for some generations to come.

Cyclic Defrost: Philip Samartzis once told me that most people get into field recordings for a while but inevitably move away. You don’t seem to have. What do you think keeps you involved in the practice? Do you find joy in the act as ritual, or a way of connecting with a place, or is it all about the results?

Lawrence English: Oh, field recording has all my favourite things; sitting quietly, being on your own; carrying gear all over the place….hahah. I jest of course, but in all seriousness field recording is one of my favourite activities. It does require those things I mentioned, but what it offers in return is this intensity of sense and focus which very few other sonic pursuits might. I think this is because it must be a servant to the world around it and all the situations that unfold.

The sound world is a constantly evolving flux, it is chaos and we tap into and out of that chaos when we listen and also when we record. I wrote about this idea in my PhD thesis, and developed a theoretical framework called Relational Listening that I hope acts as a first step towards further theorising how it is that we accept field recording as part of the canon of sonic arts.

There is surely an element of ritual for some artists and also very much it is concerned with connection. I know for me that results are not my primary driver and I think if you were to be focused on that, almost surely you find yourself disappointed and frustrated by that practice. To aspire to a result is to likely seek to control a situation, sound is not about control. We can have agency in our own audition, and that is fundamental, but we can’t control that world around us. We are its servant in those moments.

Cyclic Defrost: Following on, Viento features howling wind from Patagonia and the sheer extremes of mother nature from Antarctica that you recorded in 2002. I imagine these recordings could’ve fit into something like Cruel Optimism or another (I almost said fictional) piece. What prompted the desire to release them as is (in documentary format)? What kind of editing did you do?

Lawrence English: I really do think about Viento and A Mirror Holds The Sky as compositions if I am honest. While they are not transformed, beyond some correctional EQ etc, they are very much about layers of sound co-existing from certain places and times. They create a kind of independent dialogue to themselves, which is absolutely from the locations in which they are recorded, but absolutely not representational of those locations in terms of an idea like documentation.

Some other field recording editions I have made, for example Songs Of The Living And The Lived in, those recordings are somewhat matter of fact. They are me sharing a point of fascination, something or some place that held me and called me to spend time listening to it.

It’s interesting you mention the sounds from Viento and how they could exist on some other more music focused editions. I did use some wind recordings on Wilderness Of Mirrors as control information for compression and other processes, almost imprinting the spectral quality of the sounds into instruments and other materials.

Cyclic Defrost: You kept A Mirror Holds The Sky, your Amazon field recordings locked away for 13 years, before finally releasing them without processing. Was it about finding a place for them within your other work, or to do the recordings justice by not tampering with them? Again can you talk about the approach you took with the editing?

Lawrence English: If I am honest, that decade long year gap between making the recordings and finalising the work was a really necessary process for the work you hear. I made something like 60 hours of recordings from the Amazon. They all hold special qualities that are very meaningful for me, and filled with memory. But I am unsure how many of those would be able to hold other people who encountered them.

I feel strongly not everything recorded needs to be released, some sounds are just for the listener/recorder. What I tried to do then, with A Mirror Holds The Sky, is create a condensation, something that is more than the sum of its parts and an invitation into a kind of hyper-realised sense of place and time. It’s a work of compression and collage in equal measure perhaps.

Cyclic Defrost: When I think of your last few years you’ve released a really disparate range of work, duos, solo works for organ, an electronic work, straight field recordings, it doesn’t seem like you would fare well in the Rolling Stones. Do things need to keep changing for you?

Lawrence English: It’s funny I don’t tend to actually think about this too much, perhaps I should, but you’re right; from the outside it must appear quite schizophrenic. From this inside though there is a type of logic when is centred around discover, interest, fascination and even obsession. This might appear a little more messy give how the timeline of publication works, but quite often the works that I do are fuelled by a certain stream of work that, in my mind at least, shares a common or at least relational root.

For me projects like HEXA’s Material Interstices and the Eternal Stalker record with Merzbow share one of these threads. Similarly the two field recording works we have discussed share a thread also. Even more recently, with Approach, I sense there’s a textural or timbral link there to some of the sounds on that HEXA edition, that said this could just be my reflection of it and from the outside it’s not so obvious.

Cyclic Defrost: Is there a piece of work that you created along the you can put your finger on that helped you work out who you are as an artist or where you are going?

Lawrence English: I think the first record I feel resolved some larger question was Kiri No Oto, at least in a musical sense. I think on previous records I had made, I was trying to marry this idea of field recordings and electronic music. There’s moments of Transit where this resolves to a degree, but the concept of Kiri No Oto, a sound of fog, was really a complete idea and also, to my ears anyway, a successful execution of the concept.

I don’t know if that helped in terms of helping me with a clarity of practice or direction, but it was a pivotal moment where I recognised that it was possible to start out with a rather abstract proposition and use that as a guiding principle for how an album might take shape.

Cyclic Defrost: I was listening to Approach and I was thinking about how within many of your pieces you seem very attracted to grandeur, to size, to epic ecstatic swells that really elevate many of your pieces. It feels like a maximalist approach to ambient or something. What was on your mind when working on the album?

Lawrence English: I think the idea of maximal minimalism, that Charlemange Palestine speaks about is something we absolutely share an interest in. I am interested in density in a lot of the electronic solo works and Approach is no different in that way. I think density can be achieved in many ways, sometimes it’s about amplitude, sometimes it’s about frequency and other times it’s about how sound accumulates form through being layered and transformed or processed.

I am interested in how you can create this sense of effortless depth in sound. I know on Approach a lot of it was done through taking related, but slightly different materials and combining them together. The idea was to create this density of detail that is, in some respects I hope, completely overwhelming. Rather than being caught by the detail you allow it to wash over you, like the sensation of listening to ocean waves. There’s so much going on it becomes an almost singular sensation.

Cyclic Defrost: I wanted to ask you about the influence of Tarkovsky or Stalker or the Strugatsky brothers on your work. You’ve referenced it a few times. What is so creatively fertile for you about this work? Was it helpful in developing a shared language with a figure as imposing as Merzbow for your Eternal Stalker duo?

Lawrence English: I’ve always been a huge fan of Tarkovsky’s work. I mean, they are films you can return to again and again. Just completely special films that exist in their own domain. Stalker particularly holds a very dear place in my heart. I re-read Roadside Picnic a couple of years back and I was struck by how vivid and powerful the book is still. I love how the Strugatsky Brother’s allow the story to unfold and also how they allow the characters to take shape in such a seemingly glacial way. The changes accumulate in such curious ways, it’s almost compositional.

As for Eternal Stalker, that connection came out of some comments Merzbow made after hearing Field Recordings From The Zone. We both realised we were fans of the book and the film, and from there this idea of exploring that idea came very naturally. I found that project very challenging in ways, it asked me to really think about those questions of density and frequency in very specific ways. It was a real pleasure to work with Merzbow, he is such an interesting improvisor and has such an absolute position when it comes to soundworlds.

Cyclic Defrost: I don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘thinking about density and frequency in very specific ways?’

Lawrence English: If you listen to Merzbow all of the sound field is full.

Cyclic Defrost: I’m actually terrified by that, by him.

Lawrence English: Yeah he’s amazing. For so many reasons he is so very individual, he’s so prolific. He is so open in a way I think actually as well. I have a lot of respect for Masami because he’s very much carved his own universe, which is an extraordinary thing to do.

Cyclic Defrost: And consistently done it over so long, and done it in different ways as well.

Lawrence English: Absolutely. To work with him, and I think actually a lot of this learning came out of the Hexa record as well, is trying to find that space where you can exist with him in a kind of collaboratorial situation, can be quite challenging for people.

Cyclic Defrost: That’s the thing I’ve been wondering about. Who are you Lawrence? What is your schtick? I know it sounds really cheap when I say that, but with Masami, you kind of know what his thing is but you’re reasonably more diverse.

Lawrence English: Honestly, I’m interested in sound as a medium and as a mechanism for expression but also as a mechanism for sense making. There’s a pliability to sound that because of this deficiency maybe with listening, maybe it’s being unkind, but if we take it as a secondary position, because it is not the primary way which we encounter the world – there is a flexibility there. Or maybe an opportunity to bend things in ways that maybe aren’t as plausible or possible with other spectrum. I’m interested to test the boundaries of that in different ways.

Sometimes that’s conceptually like in terms of writing or curatorial ideas. Sometimes that is just in terms of my output as an artist. Within that, there’s opportunities for collaboration where you do have to really think about what it is that you do why is that you do it, and how it is that you deal with other people in a way that is collegial, but also that offers something that is a possibility for learning or sharing or however you want to describe it. I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had working with people because I learn so much from them.

What I learned working on that Eternal Stalker record was definitely how it is that you can shape a kind of macro journey in sound through very micro events. It’s almost like you’re going to describe a mountainside. And sure, you can see the shape of it, but it’s actually the trees and the colours and the shifting and the breeze blowing and maybe the rocks. It’s all that detail that gives you the kind of richness of that experience, and I wanted to try and be able to have that, shape the contour in that record, but have all these other elements that meant that you were never really looking at the mountain, you were looking at all of the elements that made them out to be that way. And you were kind of tracing out your own pathway through it.

Every time you go back to it hopefully you trace a slightly different path because there’s so much there to encounter, even in the kind of reductive parts they’re not really singular sounds. I mean the field recordings, for example, are quite dense in their way and seem to be constantly shifting and unsettled, but not unnecessarily dynamic. You know, they’re kind of like these stasis that these other clouds float around, a constant kind of ongoing reveal or something like that.

Cyclic Defrost: That was the thing that I enjoyed the most – the lack of understanding, if that makes sense. I honestly didn’t know how you how you both did it, how you worked together, what you were trying to achieve. I loved the ignorance of it. I expected a kind of pedal to the metal element, obviously with Merzbow, and there were these moments of dread and I enjoyed that. I was really fascinated with how do you bring who you are with what he is and make it make sense in this way. I felt like you were able to really achieve that. But I still can’t really describe it, and I tried to with a review but I still felt like I couldn’t quite get there.

Lawrence English: I think sometimes you don’t need to describe the thing, you need to describe how the thing made you feel.

Cyclic Defrost: That’s all I could do.

Lawrence English: I think that’s actually the best thing because in doing that you recognise the subjectivity at the experience, ultimately.

Cyclic Defrost: I think as an artist you don’t always need to know what you’re doing either. If it works, it works. And who cares how it happened or what you did or whatever. So I think there’s a beautiful thing about the mystery to what the collaboration was and how it happened and what it is. Part of me wants to know and part of me never wants to know.

Lawrence English: Well in some ways I don’t know. I know it sounds strange. I know from a technical sense how certain things were achieved, but the record took a little bit of time and a lot of the time was really thinking about what is that journey about?

Cyclic Defrost: Do you think you’ll work with him again?

Lawrence English: I hope so. There is this other Hexa record which I haven’t had any time to work on, but there’s already material that was recorded last year or maybe 2020 even. But I got the idea of the Eternal Stalker in my mind and that that took over. I’m sure we’ll do another thing. I enjoyed it and I would definitely be up for it. But I want to have the same sensibility in terms of its frame because that helps it become something for me to negotiate with.

Cyclic Defrost: Well I wanted to ask about Hexa, with Jamie Stewart. Can you tell me how you conceptualise this project? I find it dark, mechanical and almost impossibly bleak.

Lawrence English: Jamie Stewart, my partner in HEXA, and I had been talking about a musical project together for a few years before the opportunity to work on David Lynch’s Factory Photographs presented itself. My friend Jose Da Silva was curating a massive retrospective show of Lynch’s work and as part of that he was interested to realise some works that addressed particular themes in Lynch’s output. One of those was Factory Photographs.

From speaking with Jamie, I was very interested to dwell on this idea of the latent sounds in the images and also the implications of memory housed in the photographs. I think there’s such a wealth of ‘interior’ sound trapped in the images. Lynch seems to call it forth, almost with a kind of ritualistic sense to the way the shadow and texture of the photos operate. From looking at them, I almost feel like you can hear them, you can sense the acoustic proportion of the spaces – both as they exist in the photo and how they were when the factories were still living environments.

You can find all the music above and many more of Lawrence’s work here. Though
Themes and Atmospheres for Adam Curtis’s Russia 1985​-​1999 TraumaZone will be released via Room40 on the 28th of October 2022. You can find it here.





About Author

Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.