In the Mind’s Ear: Talking with Lawrence English

The third interview in my QLD Poetry Festival series, sees me chatting with renowned composer and sonic explorer, Lawrence English. I have to say, I am excited beyond words about Lawrence’s involvement this year and this interview explains why…

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QPF is thrilled that you will be taking the stage as part of the Saturday night event, The Star Folder. This event sees you working with some of the poets on the program to produce a new body of work. What excites you most about a project like this?

Well I have to say I find the name a rather exciting proposition to start with. It’s part Arthur C Clarke, part tabloid – it could be some intergalactic compression or an aspirational dossier young Hollywood types hope to end up in!

In all seriousness though, this is a wonderful opportunity for myself and video artist scott morrison to trial a series of deconstructivist approaches to language, text and ultimately poetry. We’re both very interested in the transition of the macro (sentence, phrase etc) into the micro (phoneme) – and what the spectrum of possibility might be along that pathway. Once words or phrases become repeated they take on new capabilities as tools for both visual and auditory stimulus and we’re keen to test in just which ways that can be played out.

The poets we’ve been fortunate enough to work with have all kindly handed over their words and voices for us to transform, extend and explode.

I love that you are excited about the title of the event. The Star Folder is the title of a poem by MTC Cronin. Are you familiar with her work? And speaking of poets you are familiar with, who are the poets you love to read or who have had an influence on you over the years?

I’d confess to being aware of the reputation more than the work itself. Everything Holy is in fact the work that I first came in contact with her work. I’ve not had a chance to read any of the books for the past half decade or so.

I have to say it’s only very recently that I’ve found some poems that directly feed into my work – that’s not to say I don’t value the form – more just that the written word has not been a place I’ve sought inspiration for the kind of pieces I’ve been exploring. That changed fairly radically with the book ‘The Peregrine’ (which I honestly feel is a very long, free flowing poetry work…of sorts) and most recently I’ve been spending some time thinking on Gerontion – specifically the phrase ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’, which is in fact the title of a new solo LP I am working on presently. That collection of words I find profoundly provocative and insightful – somehow so very fitting of many of the challenges of the modern age.

Gerontion is right up there with my favourite poems by Eliot, so I can’t wait to hear how his words are helping to shape your new album. With your last album, The Peregrine, how did you discover J.A. Baker’s text of the same name? And I am really interested in what role the text took in the creation of the album.

I first discovered The Peregrine some years back whilst I was visiting with a friend, David Toop, in London. He’d just ordered a copy and it was sitting on his desk. Being an admirer of the bird, I picked it up and within a page, I’d decided I needed to order a copy for myself. What struck me first was the articulation of sound in his writing. To me, Baker seems able to create sound in the mind’s ear in a way very few authors can – truly stunning.

In terms of how the book shaped the recordings – often it was quite literal – taking Baker’s phases and descriptions of spaces and objects and using them as kind of compositional shaping tools. It was an interesting way to work and I’m not sure all texts lend themselves to this approach, but Baker’s work more than surely does.

Will you be transforming the poems of Jennifer Compton, Ian McBryde and Anna Fern in a similar way, or are you taking a completely different approach?

I’d say this will be an entirely different process – for the peregrine – it was taking those written materials and using them as a way to shape abstract musical concepts. For this work, myself and scott morrison are working with the poets – jennifer compton, ian mcbryde and anna fern – in very ‘concrete’ ways – using their voices and faces as material sources from which the sound and video world can be created. It’s an exciting process of discovery as we reduce the texts, gestures and voices into radical new forms.

I want to finish off with a grandiose kind of question… what do you think should be the relationship between an artist and the society they live in?

Well, that is a wide sweeper of a question.

Honestly, what keeps me involved in making works is a very simple proposition – ideas.

We have these quite amazing brains encased in our skulls and it sometime surprises me how much time, as a species, we spend trying not to use them.

Lets take something like TV as an example. Now not all TV is bad, but lets face it, a lot of it is there to ‘help me wind down’ or ‘turn my brain off’ – and lets be clear there’s nothing wrong with rest…but what other daily activity would you spend 3-5 hours doing consistently. People watch an awful lot of TV that does nothing but occupy time…if even a fraction of this time collectively was spent on other pursuits – writing a letter on a topic you feel important to your local politician, taking a moment to visit with people who might need company or assistance, tending some native trees in your yard that might provide food for other native mammals or birds – just a little bit of time spent thinking about ways to make this world somewhat better than what it is – to me, that sounds like a good plan…

So to summarise, I guess, my role I’d like to think is to share my excitement about ideas. About using these wonderful clumps of soft tissue that can make so many wonderful things happen. We’re faced with challenging times in this country – questions about who we are and ultimately who we want to become – a small bit of thought and the odd bit of action for all of us might just make a world of difference.

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Lawrence-EnglishLawrence English is a composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. English utilises a variety of approaches including live performance and installation to create works that ponder subtle transformations of space and ask audiences to become aware of that which exists at the edge of perception.

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