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INTERVIEW: Lawrence English
Eoin Murray , January 24th, 2017 16:19

Talking to the Australian composer about his new album and the era of increasing political and social uncertainty in which we find ourselves in in 2017

Australian ambient and experimental composer Lawrence English has spent the better half of two decades exploring the visceral potential of sound.

The founder of the Room40 imprint, who last year collaborated with Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart on HEXA, a commissioned sonic response to David Lynch’s photography exhibition Factory Photographs, he will be taking that project on tour this February. As well as that, he will release his new LP, Cruel Optimism, on February 17, an album which sees him look at the construct of power. Cruel Optimism, he says, "meditates on how power consumes, augments and ultimately shapes two subsequent human conditions: obsession and fragility".

tQ caught up with English to discuss the feeling he has entering into the new year and the ways in which both HEXA and Cruel Optimism reflect on and respond to the era of uncertainty and darkness we find ourselves crawling deeper and deeper into.

You had a very productive 2016. What are you looking forward to in the coming year?

Lawrence English: 2016 was actually a curious year for me in that it was the extreme opposite to 2015. In 2015, the Room40 15th anniversary and obligations of touring with Wilderness Of Mirrors meant I was away for much of the year. Last year I wanted to spend more time at home to work on projects and that’s luckily what happened. I travelled a few times here and there, like to record with my friend Thor Harris in Austin, Texas and to Los Angeles to visit Jamie Stewart, work on the HEXA recordings and more importantly to go out to the desert and experience that amazing part of the world.

Really though my year was split into two main sections: writing and recording the last pieces for Cruel Optimism and completing the HEXA recording. Then the last third of the year I spent writing for a PhD that I am in the final stages of completing. It is concerned with the politics of perception and how it is we execute listening in agentive and affective ways.

As for this year, I can already sense that it’s going to be a rather complex one, which is, if nothing else, interesting. There is a lot for us all to be thinking about, questioning and we must start seeking better ways of being. I think what I enjoy about a new year is the promise of what is to come. Even if those promises aren’t always granted, I think there’s a renewal that can be found in the seasonal transition – for you guys the winter solstice and for those us us in the southern hemisphere the summer one – there’s something primitive in it. Our bodies recognise that and somehow our minds do too I sense. So I guess, here’s to better questions for more radical and inspiring futures.

Cruel Optimism shares a title with a wonderful, if frightening, text by theorist Lauren Berlant. Can you talk a bit more about how you reflected on that text in composing the record?

LE: I think Lauren Berlant is one of the most important critical theorists in America at the moment. In ‘Cruel Optimism’ she outlines so many of the conditions that have manifested themselves presently. The idea of cruel optimism, that we attach ourselves to certain fantasy objects like the idea of the “good life”, and that those objects can actually become the barricades precluding us from finding any sense of satisfaction or contentment is incredibly relevant when you consider what lies ahead of us geo-politically.

I was particularly mindful of Ms Berlant’s writings on trauma and affect when I was working on the music that became Cruel Optimism. The last few years have been incredibly trying and difficult for so many people in so many places and I was, in some modest way, seeking to explore and consider those conditions people are facing through the record. Specifically how expressions of power impact on us and shape out day to day lives in the broadest possible sense. I was interested to reflect on the idea of affect, as I think sound operates in a very particular and pronounced way affectively. By saying that I mean that there are degrees to the way sound affects us, both in an interior sense, through listening, and then synaesthetically there’s a relation between bodily affect through physical sound, which unites the tactile sense of the body, and the aural.

During the performances for Wilderness Of Mirrors, I became very aware of this affective experience that is simultaneously individuated and collective and which occurs during performance. I’ve been thinking about this and what it means when you examine it through the lens of pubic assembly. There’s an interesting bodily politic that is present through physical music, in that the bodily experience is individuated, but the collective experience is in some senses an occupation through sound. Some of these thoughts I expect will be more developed over the course of Cruel Optimism transitioning into a performative environment from a studio one.

Amid the darkness, is there any sense of hope for the future to be found in this album? ‘Moribund Territories’ ends with what sounds, at least to me, like a light breaking through somewhere.

LE: I do truly believe so. I have optimism and am incredibly hopeful for the future. I often say to friends, it’s always darkest before the dawn, and lets be frank there’s a lot of darkness out there right now, at least at a macro level. But once you drill down through that I think there’s so much light, or at least the chance for it to erupt and illuminate the dark. I’d like to think that Cruel Optimism is a bit like that. It recognises the intensity of the dark, and the forces and energies that are within it, but it is never content to accept that as the normative state. In some way it’s about rearranging those forces, redirecting them or redefining how their power and meaning is expressed. Certainly this was partly a method I used for composing with the album.

I honestly feel, as difficult as periods like this are for so many of us, that they can be used as a means for radical rethinking and reconnection with some of the fundamental qualities that have made human societies and communities worthwhile and valuable. Maybe Cruel Optimism, as a record at least, is a personal soundtrack for contemplation of possible futures. We all just need to strive towards these new ways of being.

I sensed that Berlant’s ‘Cruel Optimism’ could be linked to the growing desire in people for physical isolation, and a craving for vague digital validation. The flickering hope of an online message allows their own cruel optimism to thrive while a real life interaction proves too unstable and fragile a thing to risk. I found it interesting then that on this record you took to inviting more and more musicians in to collaborate and share in the creative process, such as Thor Harris, Mats Gustafsson, Mary Rapp and Tony Buck. Could this be a form of protest against that isolation?

LE: I think you’re right. There is certainly a reading of virtual spaces and lives as being cruelly optimistic. Perhaps it’s a cynical, or at least suspicious, reading of the potential of those spaces, but I think we’re right to be suspicious of them as their form is not something we can readily appreciate. We barely understand the physical world around us and now to have wholesale dived into a virtual world raises a great many questions about what these places are and how discourses are enacted within them. They are, literally in some cases, formless. That can make the nature of communication and existence within them powerful in potential and problematic in practical execution. I think Werner Herzog’s Lo And Behold documentary touched on some of these themes acutely.

In terms of the collaborations, actually yes, what I wanted to embrace was a sense of community and that expression of collective engagement that makes community interesting. So when I reached out to these fine musicians, what I was seeking out was different perspectives to my own. I wanted to be surprised and I was surprised by what the conversations and exchanges created. Each and every one of the musicians who played on this work allowed me to listen to the music in a different way and that was a wonderfully revealing experience for me.

What can we expect in the line of a tour for this record? Will it feature live collaborators and musicians?

LE: The key aspect I want to expand through the performances of this piece is the idea of affect as it pertains to that idea of listening and the body I spoke about earlier. I’m excited to experience what is revealed by the work once it is played back at scale. No plans yet for collaborations, but you never know.

You will be touring the HEXA project with Jamie Stewart in February. How will live performances differ from the record itself? Does the show involve much improvisation? How will different venues, spaces and even audiences will impact on the performance?

LE: I’m very much looking forward to these performances with HEXA, I have a huge amount of admiration for Jamie and his work, so to be able to spend some time together presenting these pieces is a true pleasure. In terms of how the concerts will function, it’ll be an interesting process as the record is in fact a translation of the original commissioned performance we did at the Gallery Of Modern Art in 2015. So those compositions were forged from the raw materials and the idea of that concert, so I imagine that there’ll be a curious process of iteration now taking some of the structures and themes from the album and applying them back to the performance setting.

There’s been quite a bit of improvisation thus far and I imagine that will continue into the future, but I imagine now the guiding principles we’ve laid out for the work will act as a kind of shaping tool that we can apply to the improvisations. As to the spaces, I always think of that as part of the situation that forges how the music works. I think critically though in this case it’s how we speak to those spaces that exist in David Lynch’s Factory Photographs. They are such powerful and loaded images.

Those Factory Photographs have a very haunted, spectral tone. HEXA then, explores sound’s ability to infiltrate, abrade and occupy the body, much in the same way industry has infiltrated, abraded and occupied nature. The ghostliness and lingering death of old industry is still very much there but there is a physicality which gives the sounds a visceral sense of the present. Would you say that at the core of this project there is an ecological warning? Or is it more a reflection?

LE: When I first encountered David’s photographs, the thing that struck me was that he was capturing the end of something. When you look at the images, especially over the period of the decades he shot them in, you really can sense the final breaths of mass production and the capital dream of the 20th century. Here we see these enormous structures that dwarf the human form and look like they should exist forever, coughing out their final moments of smoke and gradually rotting away. Their concrete bones cracking under the weight of their own presence.

So I think, yes, there is an ecological reading, but there is also a political one. That nothing is forever, that the system and the promises that fuelled the 20th century are not those we need to carry forward with us into the 21st century. That the mechanisms of mass-production, which feed capital’s demand for endlessly growing consumption in one generation can radically effect the possible futures for subsequent generations. Furthermore, to undo the effects of one generation’s actions is not temporally relative.

What is done, cannot be undone in the same timeframe. Like the factories themselves, the effects linger, they haunt us long after their final breath.

Cruel Optimism is released on Room40 on February 17

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