Lawrence English: An Epistolary Exchange


In an email exchange, Lawrence English shares with us some very deep insights about the poetics and politics of listening, and expands upon his collaborations.

GP: Dear Lawrence, thank you for accepting my invitation for this interview. 
Let’s talk about an interest we definitely have in common: Listening. How do you listen?

LE: With intent.

GP: Is listening an active practice?

LE: It’s interesting this idea of ‘listening again’. I think it’s important to recognise that this second (or third, or onward) listening is never the same. It is not an ‘again’ as it is as much a re-listening, a further investigation into materials that are recurring in a different place and a different time.

Listening is very much a practice of the moment. It is in fact a process of the moment to moment where we are both drawn through that process as much as we navigate ourselves through it. By this I mean when we listen we are carving out one path from many thousands of possible paths through sound horizons that surround us. These ongoing acoustic horizons are effortlessly complex and chaotic, and we must determine a path through them and dynamically with them. We enact a listening and react to the dynamism of sound we encounter in this process.

Listening therefore is most certainly active. It cannot be anything else in that if we are not ‘present’, not ‘active’, then we are not listening. Perhaps we are just hearing that which occurs around us, absorbing in a semi-conscious, osmosis-like state. 

GP: From Pierre Schaeffer to Denis Smalley, from Pauline Oliveros to Murray Shaefer. A lot of people have described and categorised different ways of listening that also include a certain political idea at its core. How do you think this activity has changed accordingly to the increasing level of noise in the contemporary society we live in?

LE: Across the second half of the 20th century we’ve seen a huge awakening of the ears, or at least awakening of our potential auditory capacities. Technology has of course played a huge role in this – opening up new ways in which we can come to experience and therefore think about sound. Public address systems are a great example of this. A lot of my performative work is entirely reliant on the sound pressure and low frequency reproduction of sonic material that otherwise would simply not be sustainable (or in fact be able to exist) without the aid of technology. It’s understandable then that alongside these developments, discourses around listening have developed.

In terms of the ways we listen and how we choose to listen, I don’t think our capacities have changed as such. Rather I think the natural trends of our ways to approach listening have just become more pronounced. I feel strongly humans are better at filtering than they are listening. Right now each of us are reducing the amount auditory information that comes into our conscious mind. Listening itself is a process of reduction. It functions as a means of focusing on one flow through a time and place. When I think of listening I am reminded of T.S Eliot’s note to us:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place

Listening is an extension of this recognition of the singularities he recognises here.


GP: Do you think that listening can be a form or resistance against the politics of distraction and the unwanted stimuli of everyday life?

LE: Any process of activation of agency is political. To take control of one’s senses, one’s capacities of being is critical and at times radical. It is something we can never, or should never, undervalue or underestimate. To be agentive acknowledges the willingness of us, as listeners in this instance, to develop our abilities and through those processes heighten a sense of sensory empathy that I believe spreads throughout our day to day.

GP: How does the practice of field recording fall into this? How do you operate in that sense? Is your activity as a field recordist more based on unexpected epiphanies of interesting sounds or do you plan your trips, perhaps doing different recording sessions in the same places to investigate a sound space from different perspectives?

LE: Field recording is always a process of discovery. A process of being present in the chaotic moments of the everyday and working at a process of discovery. Often when I am speaking of field recording and the role listening played in it, I talk about a strange duality that exists for all recordists. Obviously there needs to be research and preparation. Some places are dangerous, some environments present very specific situations that you need to be physically, and perhaps emotionally, prepared for. But you can’t force things into being. You can’t control, the moment you are seeking to control something then I think there’s a distinct chance you find yourself in a state of disappointment.

For me, field recording is a wonderful process of perpetual, moment to moment piercing and following of sound. Piercing in that we are driving ourselves through the sound worlds around us, pulling out certain acoustic points of focus and shunning others. Following, in that the world is not linear, nor is it ever predictable. Instead we have to be receptive to the dynamism and chaos that is the world around us. It’s about carving out ‘something’ from the ‘everything’ that surrounds us. This is not always easy, listening is like any physical activity, it requires training and dedication if we are to be able to maximise its potentials. Field recording is a wonderful training circuit for our auditory capacity and so much more! 

GP: I have read many times about your work that when you compose a piece you start with an idea, an abstract thought or a suggestion, how does this relate with the concreteness of the sounds you gather? Where does your personal threshold lay when it comes to choose how much you process a sound?

LE: I’m not so much concerned with the polar ends of these conversations around sound. I appreciate the ideas of sound unto itself and also the non-cochlear readings of sound, but I don’t subscribe to either philosophy exclusively. I’m more interested in grey scale than positions of black/white. The spectrum of the in-between is always the most interesting place to foster thought and discussion. So for me the way I approach the sound material I gather is very much based on the type of project I am undertaking. In terms of a field recording practice, my greatest satisfaction is when I can make a recording that captures my interests and preoccupations that was my listening in those moments. If I can make no changes to a recording, and feel that it represents my listening in that time and place, it is hugely satisfying.

GP: About different types of projects: Your last solo album was out in 2017, in 2018 you have been active in two collaborative works which definitely had a great impact. One with the Alessandro Cortini from NIN and the other one with William Basinski. Would you describe a bit of your workflow when working on a collaborative project? What sort of compromises do you need to adopt in order to suit the identity of another musician?

LE: I am a huge fan of collaboration. I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a great many artists who I respect and admire. For me collaboration is a great opportunity to understand other artists’ work flows, compositional approaches and acoustic interests. Each collaboration is always very different. Sometimes they start from a very informal common interest, the work with Liz Harris as Slow Walkers is a good example of this. With Alessandro, it opened similarly in an open way. We were commissioned to make a new work for Atonal. Both of us had been enjoying each others solo records and that collaboration really came out of our shared interest in each others work. It was a very natural process. Likewise with William Basinski it worked in a very natural way. We found a common language quickly and the pieces developed very organically. Not every collaboration works like this of course, and in fact some can be quite challenging, but ultimately the lessons learned prove most valuable.

GP: Could you describe some similarities and differences between the way you operated in the two projects both in a technical and a human sense?

LE: I think in the instance of these two collaborations, the process was somewhat similar. It was a very immediate and flowing process. No doubt this is reflective of the generosity and openness both Alessandro and Billy maintain.

GP: Personally I always believed that collaboration work has a certain maieutic quality, it helps pulling out certain facets of our own self that sometimes don’t get the chance to pop out when working alone. Do you agree? If so, which one of your many collaborative project has given you the most unexpected outcomes?

LE: I completely agree. I think a recent collaboration that really challenged me and subsequently unlocked some new approaches was Achromatic, the record I created with Merzbow and my bandmate in HEXA Jamie Stewart. That project really took me sometime to think about how I could approach a sound that is as full, and full on, as Merzbow. I am a huge admirer of how Masami Akita is able to create a sonic intensity that is so present over all frequency bandwidths. It’s a particular kind of brutal magic in my opinion. During the process of that collaboration, I really had to think about how HEXA could operate within that swirling universe of noise. It was such a pleasurable challenge. In the end I was very satisfied by the result of our first meeting.

GP: I have this good impression of a change in the panorama of electronic music. From being a rather academical/elitist world of white privileged males, it is becoming a more welcoming space for everyone to express themselves. How do you see this change happening? Does this influence the choices you make as a label owner?

LE: As far as I am concerned the more diverse this (or any) community becomes the better. There is nothing more boring than existing in a world full of yourself. Just kill me now if that’s going to be the case. In all seriousness though, I think this is an incredibly exciting time in electronic music and culture more generally; it feels as though the collective suite of voices is getting so much richer!

I want to be excited by and support work that I feel reflects a deep interest and dedication to sound. I think it’s a very rewarding time to be exploratory and take time to listen deeply to emerging voices! I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to work with some many artists who honestly inspire me to keep on listening and being attentive.

GP: Just to finish off, would you give us three titles? A recently released record you particularly enjoyed.

LE: I think Caterina Barbieri’s new record is a total killer. I had the pleasure to hear her play three nights in a row earlier this year. She played a bunch of material from that record before it was released. When I heard the album it was just so wonderful hearing how she worked the pieces between the stage and the studio. Totally killer!

GP: An essential record that everyone should listen to.

LE: Eliane Radigue’s L’Île Re-Sonante

GP: A pop album you find relevant and get back listening to.

LE: I’ve been really enjoying the re-issue of that Dendö Marionette record. Natsukashi vibes for me.

Photos are courtesy of Traianos Pakioufakis

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