Lawrence English

Lawrence English talks about Kiri No Oto

Left: Lawrence English. Right: The cover of Kiri No Oto.

For over a decade, Lawrence English—a Brisbane, Australia–based musician, record-label owner, installation artist, and festival organizer—has served as a nodal point in the international network of experimental musicians and sound artists. His label, Room 40, has released more than fifty records by musicians from four continents, and he is increasingly busy as a record producer. Kiri No Oto, a new album of solo material that blends field and studio recordings, is available from Touch Music.

THE IDEA FOR Kiri No Oto gestated for about three years and finally came together last winter on a train ride from Berlin to Krakow. While gazing out the window through the early-morning mist, I realized that if you look through fog, you must focus on either one element in the landscape or the landscape as a whole; you can bring into relief one object or none at all. The fog interferes, and in creating the record, I tried to translate that visual effect into sound. A listener can attempt to absorb the sound mass or decide to focus in an effort to better connect with a particular frequency spectrum or texture.

I tried to achieve this complexity through the use of harmonic distortion. There are two kinds: First, there are mathematical relationships within a harmonic system that one can look at and exploit, and then there is a simultaneously looser and more conceptual version, in which you create a series of harmonically related elements that move in and out of sync with one another. Both create different types of clouds, or sound masses, that, properly manipulated, can signify a particular kind of experience. The great challenge in making a recording and sending it out into the world is that each person who experiences it does so in a different way. In fact, I just played the record for a friend from Germany, who said, “I understand this music so well because you’re from Australia.” He “heard” the broad swaths of sky visible here; of course, I made the album, in part, while thinking about his country.

That’s one of the great things and one of the limitations about sound as art: It’s not as encoded, as broadly sociologically constructed, as are visual objects. With only little more than a century of recorded audio, sound artists and their audiences haven’t consolidated the codes and languages for relating the experience of it as fully as have visual artists. This is in some way analogous to the situation of sound art within the institutional landscape in Australia, where there has been only one exhibition that could be considered a sound-art show. (There is a heritage—albeit a relativity short one—of this type of exhibition in the United States and Europe.) Therefore, a lot of the activity here still takes place in private gallery and performance spaces and more informally within the arts communities.

Visual cues often play a role in my work, and one of the first catalysts for the development of this record was Kiri [Mist], a short 1971 film by Hagiwara Sakumi in which a gentle scrim of white mist slowly dissolves to reveal a mountain in the distance. A later visit to Oamaru, in New Zealand, consolidated the idea of masking and visual distortion as central to this album as a whole. While no one who listens to the record will necessarily think about Hagiwara’s film or about Oamaru (which manifests itself in the final track), the transcription of visual or embodied experience into the auditory realm is important. The record, itself a condensed version of my experience, opens out into the listener’s world and creates new experiences of its own.

In a way, I’ve replicated that process in the recent live shows in which I’ve performed this material. I use no visuals; the venue is almost entirely dark. But since I’m playing through quadraphonic and sometimes octophonic sound systems, I’m able to fill the space with sound, condense it down to one small object (the snare drum, which I use alongside an oscillator and a speaker), and then expand it once again.