It was nighttime and freezing in Brooklyn, in February, when Lawrence English took my call from the “dignified sauna” of his parked Toyota, in Brisbane, Australia.
“It’s sunny and it’s going to be incredibly humid,” he shared in an avid Queensland-ian lilt. “I’m sure this contrasts starkly with where you are.”
He wasn’t wrong. It was 10 a.m. the following day on English’s side of the planet. He was in his car because he’d already met a curator friend for coffee. I, on Friday evening in America, was battling who-needs-a-drink lethargy. But English’s openness and intelligence soon ripped me from sluggishness; within minutes we were consumed in a discussion that easily could’ve hurtled past the two hours that we spoke.
That’s due, in part, to English’s generosity—he is, at least via Skype, deeply kind, and he’s just as interested in his interlocutor as himself. More than that, though, English’s work as a sound artist, curator, PhD candidate, label boss, husband, father, philosopher-citizen, TED presenter and educator opens near-paralyzing avenues into his culminating project: refining, always refining, humility for the possibilities inherent in listening.
“When I’m out past the breakers in the ocean, I listen,” he once told The Guardian. “The high hissing sound of the white part of the waves—the detail in that white noise alone! The distant, rolling, low-frequency sound of the waves on the shore, the people on the beach, a seabird. If you concentrate on one dimension, you realize the complexity of the experience it is possible to have.”
These images are incredibly apt descriptions of English’s work.
“We need to invest as much in sound,” English continued, “as we would any other sensory experience we want to draw meaning from.”
So: Ostensibly, I’ve called Lawrence English to ruminate on his billowy and menacing album Cruel Optimism, to tease out attendant ideas about power and fantasy-making in the work of the critical theorist Lauren Berlant. And we did.
But English’s vigorous commitment to audition—a devotion that’s taken him on field recording voyages to, among myriad other places, the Amazon, Antarctica, and Japan, and to issue a dizzying number of records and sound projects—demands a conversational space that, frankly, doesn’t apply to most musicians that I’ve encountered.
Below, English and I discuss his new record, tropical birds, the politics of listening, Burial, his David Lynch-related collaboration with Jamie Stewart, and much, much more.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me what you see right now. I’ve never been to Australia.
From where I’m sitting, in my car, I can see both indigenous pine trees and palm trees, as well as tropical-looking flowers. At home, I live on a sloping block, and the back of my house is actually 20 feet above the ground, so I’m in a canopy of trees on my deck.
A murder of crows lives in the yard. Rainbow Lorikeets also come everyday. It’s summer, so these migratory birds called Storm Birds—basically like Toucans—fly from Papua New Guinea. It sounds like someone’s being murdered in mid-air when they scream out, and they call at like 3 a.m. This is proper mid-air murder.
How did you become interested in working with sound as a creative medium?
When I was a kid, I’d go bird watching with my dad at this waterfront area of Brisbane that’s now populated with condos. My dad would take us there and we’d look for Reed Warblers on binoculars, which is cruel for children because they can’t control their own eyes, let alone a second set of eyes that’s meant to help them see deeper.
I was constantly looking for this bird, and after several months of not seeing it, my dad told me to put the binoculars down, to close my eyes and listen. He said, “Now that you know where the bird is, put the binoculars back to your eyes and look where you sense the sound is.” I did that and I was able to see the bird straightaway. That was the first time I understood the role of sound as a way of sense-making, as a way of being into the world.
Over the next couple years, that whole side of my life opened out. By 14, I was running a fanzine and tape trading. I’d always been interested in natural sound, or for want of a better phrase: sounds that just occurred. I enjoyed being surprised by the world. Even today, every time I take field-recording equipment out, every time I choose to really engage in listening somewhere, there is surprise. Even in what seem like mundane moments, you have these little explosions, eruptions of unexpectedness that just make the process so enjoyable.
How do you decide to employ found sound versus more traditional musical work in the studio?
I think about what I do as streams of investigation. Something like Cruel Optimism fits with pieces like Wilderness of Mirrors or Kiri No Oto. The preoccupation of those records is density and harmonic distortion. They’re about the uncertainty you feel when listening to heavily layered material. You have to apply yourself and extract out of that experience what it is that you’re seeking in it.
Kiri No Oto, for example, was about the auditory transcription of the visual effect of fog. How is it that you can anchor yourself in something that feels like a deep ocean? You can do that because harmonic elements emerge, or you might anchor yourself to a bass element and everything swirls around that.
There’s also a stream of my work that’s about field recording, about listenership and audition. Field recording, as a creative practice, is about this unification of two horizons of audition: Your interior psychological listening, which you express as an artist, and the technological horizon of audition that is the microphone. The more you can bring those two horizons into relief with each other, the more successful you’ll be at transmitting the listening that you’re undertaking in that time and place, to have it linger in time.
The idea comes first, then the work flows from it.
I’m ceaselessly amazed with friends and colleagues who extract music from nowhere, but that’s not something that I have inside me. It can be problematic, but I actually find it’s useful. Because what I enjoy about music is the opportunity for conversations to emerge that encompass more than the actual expression of the work. The expression might be sound materials in time, but everything that feeds into that is so much more. Cruel Optimism is the sum of two and a half years’ worth of thinking, of trying to process particular experiences and translating them into something that’s sonically effective.
In an essay of sorts, you reference Brexit and the U.S. election, humanitarian crises and Black Lives Matter. You also reference the theorist Lauren Berlant and how her work, which directly inspired the name Cruel Optimism, crystallized your thoughts on trauma, suffering, intolerance and ignorance. How did you find her work, and what did you connect to in it?
Lauren Berlant is an incredibly articulate, intelligent theorist, and she’s ahead of her time. When I first read her concept of “cruel optimism,” I was finishing Wilderness of Mirrors, which is a prelude to this record, somewhat. Because the things that felt like impossible components of the future have been actualized in a way that seemed categorically foreign five years ago. It’s difficult to reconcile how it is that things can shift so radically.
The theory of cruel optimism can be applied to many situations that we face: this idea that we attach ourselves to fantasy objects. It might be the idea of the good life. The fantasy object should make us happy, make us content, make us satisfied, make us feel whole. Rather than that, though, these objects inhibit our ability to locate what will actually make us content. We attach ourselves to the object and to detach ourselves threatens the way we understand the world.
[Michele] Foucault was absolutely right in that the way we describe something eventually forms that object. In Australia, there was a distinct shift in the policies of the government because of language. The word shifted from “refugee” to “illegal immigrant,” and that reformed the way these people could be talked about in the mainstream media.
To work back from that position is problematic because these people are no longer seen as individuals, like you and me, who want to live, who are hopeful for their families and their future. None of that is part of the conversation. Our government has failed us as citizens and has refused these people the opportunity to be, and to be of value.
Cruel Optimism was a way of trying to decompress some of that experience, and Lauren Berlant’s writing set the context for ways that I could begin to think about those problems. I’m just as interested in the ideas that orbit around the music as the music itself. I hope the music is affecting and useful in people’s lives, but I also hope the conversation it sparks are useful in people’s lives.
You also write that these problems suggest “a wider sense of disillusionment and powerlessness.” You say, “the storm has broken and feels utterly visceral.” Do you sense there’s a more pervasive sense of disillusionment and fantasy-making than has existed in our recent past?
I talk about power and expressions of power with this record because I think that’s where these problems stem from. The opportunities we have for agency, broadly speaking in our social lives, are under attack. The concept that somehow you can have a career, or there’s a sense of job security, those things are gone. They don’t exist in the same way they did even 30 years ago. At least we could pretend it was possible then.
There’s a wonderful author called Mark Fisher, who very sadly killed himself earlier this month. In Capitalist Realism and his beautiful book Ghosts in My Life, he addresses his depression through that lens, through a lens of precarity, of the removal of the social structures that gave us a sense of worth and a way to be meaningful to each other and to the world more broadly.
Many of the problems we see stem from people not knowing how to make those connections, how to build community. Strangely, the internet hasn’t been particularly helpful with that. Community is not agreeing with each other, but it is respecting each other. Somehow that’s gone out the window.
I’ve lived in Brisbane all my life, and I’ve lived in this area for the past 10 years. There’s a gentleman here, Graham, who I love dearly. He’s a profoundly curious character, but he represents political views that I don’t hold, and in fact that I’d seek to destroy if I had my way [laughs]. But I have conversations with this man every few days. He’ll stop at my fence with his dog. He’s somewhat amused by how I see the world, and I’m interested in how he arrives at the points that he arrives at. That’s a worthwhile exchange. I don’t seek to denigrate his position. I’ll argue against if I don’t believe in it, because that’s what we should do.
It’s unity in diversity, or unity in difference. We can each occupy our own thing, our own interests, our own loves, our own identities, but we embrace that about each other. We might not always agree, but we can agree to respect our rights to do that. Through that exchange, it challenges us, and constantly able to reassess how we engage with ourselves and each other.
You intentionally collaborated more on Cruel Optimism. What can connection, real physical connection, do for us in these times? Are you hopeful that we can discern how to move beyond the issues that ensnare us in 2017?
I’m incredibly optimistic about the future. But, in saying that, I’m the past. My children are the future and their children are the future. My place is to support them and to love them and to encourage in them a way of being in the world that is reflective of the things we’re talking about. This is one of the most critical things I feel that I can do with whatever time remains for me.
There’s this great quote from Neil Postman, who was a wonderful academic who lived in New York. He wrote a book called The Disappearance of Childhood, and at the beginning he basically said, “Children are the living messages that we send to a time that we will never see.” That’s a profound way to think about the idea of time and our time on the planet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the generation that sits above us, the baby boomers. They were coming out of this boom of warfare that created huge economic opportunity. They absorbed all that possibility and didn’t necessarily transcribe that or make it available to the generations under them. The people we see in power are using a methodology of extraction. It’s about getting everything we can get for what we feel our worldview requires. They grew up thinking this would be forever, so of course they’re going to be attached to that object, that fantasy object. They’re going to do everything they can to maintain because not accepting that is so catastrophic in terms of how they’ve constructed their lives. I can understand the pressure to maintain that belief.
At the same time, I want to refuse that in me. I want there to be an openness and a generosity and a willingness to work and strive for something that isn’t necessarily going to be for me. With something like [English’s record label] Room 40, there have been periods where it’s been difficult to maintain and I’ve had to think about what it means to me.
And, about five years ago, I had what I’d describe as my early mid-life crisis. I asked if it was something I wanted to do with my life. Is this a meaningful way to engage in the world? At the end of it, I came up with this methodology for why I do what I do. If I believe strongly enough in someone’s work, I will do whatever I can to facilitate that work resonating for people as much as possible. It doesn’t matter the personal cost. I want to do these things as richly as possible.
The thing that fascinates me about childhood is the willingness to ask questions that in adulthood you just won’t go near. I want to be more curious. I want to be more willing to try and reach out to things and make sense of them, if not for myself so that I can explain things to the people around me, so we can have these kinds of conversations. There’s great value in thinking about how we exist and not just existing.
So-called ambient or modern composition often works as background music for many casual listeners, but so much thought goes into what these compositions are and what’s informing them philosophically. Does your work demand the same engagement as, say, metal?
The great thing about music is that it’s invitational. The moment your work is published, any sense of control is gone. People will come to the work as they’re going to come to it, and I think it’s equally valid to have those, if you like, passive experiences with music.
And I think it’s the same for metal. I know a lot of academics who write best to metal. I’ve listened to a lot of Merzbow while I’ve been writing my dissertation because it somehow moves your brain to this other space. I’ve also listened to a lot of William Basinski’s work. Someone like William is a great example, actually, of this question of how it is we come to the work. All music functions in different ways depending on how we bring ourselves to it.
There’s nothing wrong with putting on something in the background and doing something else. That’s how a lot of us listen almost all the time. I’ve been obsessively listening in a variety of settings to this one Burial track recently.
“Come Down to Us.” It’s an incredible piece of music, and I just can’t stop listening to it. I was listening to it while I was cooking. I was listening to it on headphones before I’d go to sleep. I love the melodic sentiment. I love the way the drums are looped, or put together. I love the treatment of the hi-hat sections. It’s almost spectral. They’re barely there. It’s incredible, and every time I approach it, under certain circumstances, it’s equally beautiful and engaging.
It opens itself up again and again. And that’s how I think about the work: It doesn’t need to be exclusive situations, where you sit down and focus for 40 minutes. That’s a great way to listen to music, but not all the time.
Sometimes I just want to stare at the clouds, and I want to register that they’re moving, but I want to take in none of the detail. I just want to have them open out this vista, and whatever thoughts happen in that vista, they happen because where I am at that time and place. At other points, I want to watch these plumes pour out of these cumulus clouds. Music is good at that, too. It’s invitational. It asks us to just be with it and we can ask it to be with us, if we choose.
I’d be remiss, for myself and everyone I know who loves David Lynch, what was it like working on the HEXA project?
One, I love [HEXA collaborator and Xiu Xiu head] Jamie Stewart. He’s one of the most incredible musicians and songwriters in North America. What he’s created with Xiu Xiu is something else. In 20 years time, it will have a whole other cultural resonance. It does now, but there’s a whole other dimension to what he does that will open up in time. It was an absolute pleasure to work with him.
David is incredibly prolific. When you look at the work he does and the kinds of the investigations that he does, they’re always very focused, but they’re broad. He’s got an art photography practice that extends into high-concept fashion, as well as this factory photography. Installation design, furniture and the painting work, the sculpture. He’s a tireless worker, that man.
The curator José Da Silva and I were talking about the factory photographs, and I said, “Of all David’s work, this is the thing I relate to most.” They’re such a powerful examination of the end of a time. We’re in a post-industrial economy, despite this strange throwback in contemporary politics to the idea that this thing can be returned to. Those things are gone. They’re being attended to by robots now. It’s not about people anymore. It’s about the mechanization of work.
Because of that, you need less of these spaces, so all these beautiful, brute architectural spaces are now lying there in decay, and David captured that transition, if you like: the final breaths of industry in certain countries. So I’ve always been a huge fan of that from a sociological perspective, if nothing else. And the photos themselves are absolutely beautiful. There was this incredible light and sound in them. You can feel the vibrational pressure of those spaces. I had that in my mind’s ear when we were starting to develop the piece.
I have a huge amount of respect for David as an artist, and obviously as a filmmaker. I had a great opportunity to tell him this story about how, when I was in my teens, I had a big period of cinema. I watched hours and hours, every single night, two or three films an evening, trying to navigate the different kinds of work out there.
I spent a lot of time watching Eraserhead. It was probably the first film where I recognized that sound built so much of it. The exteriority of the world is expressed through the sound. The frame of the visual shot is so limited, but you knew outside there was so much more heaviness and grayness. It opened me up to how spatiality works.
He was so generous with listening to my babbling appreciation. He’s a sweet, inspiring guy.
You’re getting a PhD in philosophy. What do you hope to do with it?
I don’t have interest in getting a job in the academy right now. I started this because I felt as if my brain had atrophied somewhat, in my early 30s, and I wanted to rectify that. I wanted to have an excuse to read widely. I really enjoy theory, and my investigation is very broadly about theorizing listening and recognizing the agentive, affective capacity of listening. How are listenings formed? What are they interested in? How are you piercing into the horizon of listening? If you’re going to share that listening, how does that transmission take place? What are the relational conditions between your organic listening, if you like, and the technological listening of the prosthetic ear of the microphone?
Field recording has become part of the canon of sound arts, but there hasn’t been a conversation around where it is that the capacity of field recording falls.
What I suggest is that listening is inherently creative, and that’s the root from which the creativity of the artwork comes from. It’s been very useful for me to ask what it is that I do and why I do it.