THE FACE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - LAWRENCE ENGLISH Sound artist

WHEN you talk to a sound artist, you have to lis­ten to a fair bit of un­con­ven­tional think­ing such as: the sound of air­craft fly­ing above our houses is not such a bad thing, if only we could learn to let it in, not block it out. Or that in the fu­ture sound in­stal­la­tions in our art gal­leries will be just as ad­mired and talked about as vis­ual art.

Lawrence English takes sound se­ri­ously and he’s never hap­pier than when there’s too much of it. While he’s sym­pa­thetic to suf­fer­ers, he even finds tin­ni­tus — ring­ing and buzzing in the ears — an ‘‘ in­ter­est­ing con­cept’’. It gives him an op­por­tu­nity to think about what he calls our dis­con­nect with sound, the way we turn on one sound, such as the car ra­dio or our home stereo, some­times just to block out oth­ers.

‘‘ I’ve be­come ob­sessed with the idea of in­ci­den­tal sound,’’ the 30- year- old says as we sit at a street­side cafe a short walk from Bris­bane’s city cen­tre. The cof­fee ma­chine is hiss­ing, there are con­ver­sa­tions ei­ther side of us, cars shoosh by, planes roar over­head, and ev­ery now and then the door to a nearby toi­let slams shut, re­leas­ing a pun­gent waft of ef­flu­ent and an­ti­sep­tic.

It’s eas­ier to cope with ex­tra­ne­ous sound, ap­par­ently, than smell. ‘‘ We’re amaz­ingly good at block­ing out sound rather than tak­ing it in,’’ English says. ‘‘ There’s a lot of re­search into the fact that as you get older, you get less ef­fec­tive at do­ing that and it can be­come dis­ori­ent­ing.’’

Sound art, for English, is about com­ing at the ‘‘ au­dio soup’’ of our ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence in a pos­i­tive rather than neg­a­tive way. It’s about dig­ging out the sub­merged sounds, then find­ing ways to com­bine and layer them so the lis­tener has an op­por­tu­nity to med­i­tate, along with the sound artist, on an idea or theme.

His latest ob­ses­sion is air­port noise. He has spent many hours in the past few months crouched at the end of a run­way at Bris­bane air­port, cap­tur­ing the sound of planes tak­ing off and land­ing. Th­ese are his field record­ings, the start­ing point for the kind of mu­sic he cre­ates, not on con­ven­tional in­stru­ments but on his com­puter. His air­port record­ings are be­ing turned into a sym­phony for the Queens­land Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in July, dur­ing which he and other com­posers will com­bine their med­i­ta­tions on the theme of travel in a se­ries of per­for­mances.

Be­fore air­ports, it was the cold that set English think­ing and com­pos­ing. On a trip to Ja­pan he woke one icy win­ter’s morn­ing to find a pris­tine blan­ket of hard snow had fixed the land­scape in an eerily beau­ti­ful tableau. Sen­si­ble folk would have bur­rowed be­neath the blan­kets. English went out with his record­ing equip­ment. The re­sult was a CD, For Vary­ing De­grees of Win­ter .

English knows and works with many mu­si­cians and com­posers, but when it comes to con­ven­tional mu­si­cal skills he cheer­fully ad­mits he has lit­tle com­pe­tence. At school he was the de­spair of his mu­sic teacher. Even now he reads mu­sic very slowly and says he can only noo­dle on the gui­tar.

Tech­ni­cally, he’s not a mu­si­cian at all. What he does is ‘‘ trans­form sound’’.

‘‘ Peo­ple ask me how there is art in record­ing some­thing. But it’s the same as play­ing a gui­tar; it’s got to do with po­si­tion­ing, with the gui­tar be­ing used and a per­sonal style. The mi­cro­phone is like a gui­tar: it’s an in­stru­ment ar­tic­u­lat­ing space. Only mu­si­cians who think an in­stru­ment is the only way to ar­tic­u­late sound and space will scoff at that.’’

English be­came in­ter­ested in sound when he was a child and he cred­its his fa­ther, a Bris­bane oph­thal­mol­o­gist, with tun­ing his ears to the po­ten­tial of record­ing. He and his brother would go with their fa­ther to the port of Bris­bane near their home in Hamil­ton to wan­der in the open spa­ces, watch­ing out for birds and small an­i­mals, clam­ber­ing up the dunes of min­eral sands that were un­loaded there, fos­sick­ing about in the near- city waste­lands. That’s where he de­vel­oped his in­tense in­ter­est in nat­u­ral sounds and the am­bi­ence they cre­ate. The word am­bi­ent, when used to de­scribe sound, makes many peo­ple shud­der: all those whale record­ings and run­ning wa­ter that are sup­posed to make us con­tem­plate the uni­verse but be­come in­stead more ir­ri­tat­ing than a jaunty mo­bile phone ring tone.

‘‘ New age has a lot to an­swer for,’’ English says. ‘‘ It’s ru­ined the term am­bi­ent, which I think is one of the most im­por­tant phe­nom­ena of the 20th cen­tury. It bas­tardised the con­cep­tual frame­work and de­liv­ered it in a far less in­ter­est­ing way, in the same way that so much pop mu­sic has ru­ined what pop mu­sic should be about or mod­ern art ru­in­ing what mod­ern art is about.’’

What English likes about be­ing an am­bi­ent artist is that it gives him the ex­cuse to go to ‘‘ in­ter­est­ing places and sit qui­etly for a few days, lis­ten­ing’’. One of his favourite sound en­vi­ron­ments is cre­ated by the Ja­panese suikinkutsu , the wa­ter- drip­ping gar­den or­na­ment that has also be­come part of the new- age panoply of ob­jets- de­banal. When he first came across one in a Bud­dhist tem­ple in Ja­pan, the ex­pe­ri­ence was any­thing but or­di­nary.

‘‘ It’s art that isn’t to do with putting an im­age on a wall, it’s to do with the en­tire wall and the house be­com­ing part of the art,’’ he says.

" You sit in th­ese beau­ti­ful gar­dens, with this sound of drip­ping, and you’re meant to con­nect with your an­ces­try. I un­der­stood where the Zen forces come from through that com­bi­na­tion of land­scape, the sound within the en­vi­ron­ment.’’

English runs a busi­ness called Room 40 that or­gan­ises con­certs, pub­lishes record­ings and acts as an on­line meet­ing place for mu­si­cians and sound artists from across the world. He is mar­ried to an ed­u­ca­tion aca­demic and for part of the year he teaches a course about mu­sic and so­ci­ol­ogy at the Queens­land In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. Ex­ploratory and ex­per­i­men­tal au­dio, English says, is un­likely to make him rich, but he be­lieves one day sonic artists will be sought not only by art gal­leries but also to de­sign in­stal­la­tions for peo­ple’s homes.

‘‘ Sonic art­work is the same as vis­ual art­work, you have it there for when you choose to look at it or lis­ten to it. It needs to be part of the ver­nac­u­lar and it will be­come as im­por­tant as other art forms. For that to hap­pen, we need to be con­scious of the value of sound in our lives.’’

Pic­ture: Lyn­don Mechielsen

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