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.’’