Deep Listening With Lawrence English

Learning to listen—to actually listen—can be a revelatory process. So overloaded are we, each and every day, by constant visual stimuli, that depriving ourselves of one of our main senses, sight, and focusing intently on what we hear can be a truly aural epiphany. Of course, sounds also incessantly clamor for our attention—walk through a shopping mall on a busy day, say, and be subjected to a barrage of audial impulses—but, if you’re lucky enough to be able to strip away some of these layers of noise, you will never hear the world the same way. Try it: close your eyes for a minute or two, and purely focus on what you hear. How much of this information might you have missed if you hadn’t experienced this particular moment in this particular way?

Lawrence English has spent a good chunk of his lifetime listening. Actually listening. He is a composer, an artist, a “philosopher of listening.” He has run his small Brisbane-based label, Room40, since 2000, curating output by artists – many of them of the experimental mindset – of the likes of Grouper, David Toop, Taylor Deupree, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Merzbow, and Tim Hecker, among many, many others.

And he is a field recordist. English’s latest release, A Mirror Holds the Sky, documents a trip he made to the remote Amazonian jungle in Brazil in 2008. “The visit […] remains one of the most deeply affecting experiences I have had. Each time I hear a screaming piha, which many would identify instantly thanks to their prevalence in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, I am transported back into a place that, to this day, features regularly in my daydreams.” | a. tobin

Aquarium Drunkard: How did you come to this project and to the rather remote recording location, Lago Mamori, deep in the Amazon?

Lawrence English: I’ve always enjoyed a fascination with the jungle. I’m guessing a lot of this is rooted in two things, the first of which is, as a small child, watching Sir David Attenborough wandering about in them. The Living Planet still stands out in my mind as one of those fundamental opening moments. I suppose I saw it in 1985, when I was eight or nine years old and rather impressionable. The jungle seemed so promising and so in excess of the environments I came in contact with around where I lived in Brisbane. I should say, as well, that I actually credit Elizabeth Parker’s score as sparking some early curiosity for electronic music. At the time, I had no idea what instruments made that music, but I know that it affected me in ways I couldn’t yet comprehend. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop really set up a generation of us—of this I am sure.

The second place this interest comes from is listening to the stories of my father, who grew up in the tropical jungles around Malanda—which is Ngajangi country in Northern Queensland—and to my grandfather, who spent his younger years in the jungles of Papua New Guinea working at times as a zoological collector for various Australian museums. He discovered a species of snapping turtle, amongst other things. Hearing them recount these places, which filled them with wonder and excitement, no doubt sparked my own curiosity.

I had wanted to visit the Amazon for quite some years, so when my friend Francisco López started his residency program there, I thought it was a perfect way to come to a place with a very specific agenda: to listen and listen deeply. That’s exactly what happened over the weeks we spent in the jungle and on the lakes. It was a remarkably special time, one I still find myself daydreaming about. As well as listening, I recorded a lot of sound from the environments we visited. It’s funny, but it took me many years before I could make sense of what I had recorded. The overwhelming qualities of that environment—its density and presence—were just so profound. I had to negotiate what the recordings meant, and how that differed to my experiences and memory of that place and time.

AD: Upon listening to these recordings, the overall feeling I get is one of being “overwhelmed” by nature—by layer upon layer of birds and insects, by the felt atmospheric and hydrophonic environments surrounding me and playing out through my headphones. How overwhelming was your initial impression of the Amazon, and how clearly did you see a path to making your first field recordings there?

Lawrence English: “Overwhelming” is an apt appraisal of my initial sensations there. I am no stranger to tropical jungles; I have visited many here in Australia and other countries, but the scale of the Amazon at a macro and a micro level is astounding and humbling. It is a place where you can truly recognize how insignificant you are. In the Amazon, you are just another animal, a mammal, with the same vulnerabilities and needs as any other. It’s a sensation so few of us actually have to deal with in a meaningful way, and I feel this is actually a missing link in contemporary society—to be in touch with that sense of being reduced.

What struck me most about the Amazon—as opposed to some of the other jungles I had spent time recording in—was the fact that there was a sense of “no-space.” In each square meter, it felt as though there were thousands of animals, all crying out, trying to stake some acoustic claim, a territory, or to find a mate. I realized very quickly that the idea of capturing individual elements or subjects was almost going to be impossible.

The jungle did not permit space or, in some instances, differentiation. When you started to listen, you had to navigate and filter out certain overpowering acoustic elements, like crickets or frogs, and peel back those sounds to reveal others masked from the casually engaged ear. It might sound like a good problem to have, but the intensity of that listenership was profoundly fatiguing at times. I can think of only a handful of moments where I was able to get a sense of depth of spatial separation whilst in the jungle. Only once was I able to get above the canopy, and this moment resulted in a recording of horned screamers that, to this day, I am very attached to. They are a marvelous-sounding bird!

AD: Chris Watson once taught me something that is, of course, rather obvious: our world is very focused on the visual, and by simply closing our eyes—physically limiting our senses and actually learning to listen—can we discover so much more, things we don’t otherwise always perceive. I believe you came to develop an interest in field recording in a similar manner. Could you share your encounter with a reed warbler with us?

Lawrence English: Chris Watson has taught me many things too, and I am always indebted to him for his incredible generosity and support over the years. He is truly a one-of-a-kind listener and recordist. We’re all so much richer for having him in our orbit. You’re right though: I did develop my interests in listening and sound through a failing of the eyes when I was young. It’s funny how small moments in your life accumulate a sense of value or weight as you move forward from them. I think my experience of listening for the reed warbler is certainly one of those. That bird is responsible for so much of my sonic awakening.

When I was a kid, growing up in Brisbane, my father would take my brother and me to the riverfront, which was formally the port of Brisbane. It was completely derelict in the 1980s, bar the odd take-out shop for the last few dock workers. We would travel to a place at the farthest end of the port and play on these amazing mineral sand hills. Behind them was an overflow for a creek that ran into the Brisbane River—and because it was an overflow, there were always patches of marsh, full of long reeds and grasses. My father would usually sit and draw or read whilst we ran ourselves stupid on the Sandhills, but once we were suitably exhausted and calm, he would often encourage us to go birdwatching with him. My father was many things, and a birdwatcher was certainly one of them. I hold that interest today through his keen and passionate tutelage.

In this area we used to visit, there was one bird in particular that always captivated me. It was the reed warbler. It had this incredibly dynamic voice. I mean, stick a knob in the back of it, and you’d have yourself the best handheld synth you could ever wish for! The thing about this bird is: they are small, brown, and tan, and they hide in the reeds, so seeing them is pretty darn tough. On one excursion, I was clearly very keen to see the bird, and my father passed me the binoculars. Now, giving a child binoculars is just cruel really. They can barely understand their own senses, let alone the hyper-vision that a technology like that provides. I was having no luck at all seeing the bird through the binoculars – and after a few more failed attempts, a tantrum, and likely some tears of frustration, my father said to me: “Put down the binoculars, and close your eyes… Listen for the bird, get a sense of where it is, and then bring the binoculars back up to your eyes.” So I did this. Of course, no luck on the first few attempts… but after a few more tantrums and pointless weeping, I listened and looked… and there it was: the reed warbler in all its tiny glory!

This was the first moment I realized I had ears. I know that sounds like a silly thing to say, but this was the very moment I realized we could sense the world in ways other than with our eyes. I also had recognized that listening was a way of orienting ourselves in the world—a way that reveals often starkly different qualities and understandings that our eyes simply cannot.

AD: Of course, I’ve also got to ask a technical question for the geeks! How has your field recording set-up changed over the years, and—more importantly—which techniques do you use to record? (On a field recording trip to India, recording tigers with the aforementioned Chris Watson, I used his recommended technique of taping two DPA 4060 omnidirectional lavalier mics to an upside-down coat hanger. This rather rudimentary set-up might have looked rather wonky, but it afforded me the chance to hang mics somewhere and to use a long cable to create enough distance so as not to disturb my subject.)

Lawrence English: Well, I have to say the coat hanger/DPA 4060 combo is a favorite of mine too—and actually, I’m pretty sure it was Chris Watson who first showed me the power play that is a coat hanger in the field!

I actually have a few different set-ups that I use, depending on the circumstances of the recordings. I really love the Sennheiser 8020s and 8040s. I find that, as a pair, they are a really versatile microphone that operates well in different environments. For the Amazon recordings, I used a few different set-ups, a Telinga parabolic microphone, an audio technica mid-side shotgun, and a few other omni arrays for more environmental recordings. Microphones, of course, act as an external membrane for us. They are the “ears” for the transmission of our listening when we are recording. I think it’s really important to consider the pre-amp for the microphone though, as that’s the device that allows for the best performance of the microphones. I think the Sound Devices MixPres are as solid as they come. I used the Aquarian Audio hydrophones a great deal on that Amazon trip as well.

I have to say, though, that I am really a fan of less conventional or even “incorrect” field recording techniques. Some of my favorite field recordings I have made are the result of completely going against positions which are technically correct or acoustically sound. Quite often, it’s that sense of unsteadiness or the unexpected sensing of space that a strangely placed pair of Sennheiser 8020s gives you that really unlocks some quality or (extra)sensory potential of the places we visit and record in. There’s a piece on Field Recordings From the Zone which is very much this case in point.

I think, in some respects, my theoretical proposition, relational listening, reflects this idea of unconventionality. I think sometimes if we are to match our listening and the audition of the microphone – and create that relation which is the extension of the microphone as an external diaphragm for the ear – the two don’t need to always be physically proximate. They are not the same “organ,” so we need to explore how it is we unify the internal listening that is our creatively-led listening in place and time, and the external technological audition of the microphone.

AD: The recording is often the stimulating part of a project, especially as it involves travel and new experiences. But then… how were you able to approach the daunting task of whittling down over 50 hours of recordings? Did you go in search of a lyrical or narrative story for this project?

Lawrence English: If I am honest, the reason these recordings are only surfacing in some qualifiable way now is that it took me a very long time to come to understand them—and moreover, to understand how to work with them. One of the additional challenges of this material—in terms of working with it in a compositional sense—was this intensity of activity I mentioned previously. It took me many attempts to try and find a pathway into how I could work with these sounds technically, not to mention creatively. I actually learned a great deal working on this piece. I think every project teaches you a little, but this one taught me a lot… and patience was one of its lessons!

Structurally, I guess I was thinking about the trajectory of the environments, the temporal shifts of the day and night, and also the transition into the wet season I experienced whilst there. In many ways, the sounds led this piece; they opened up ways of connection. It was a very organic process in the end.

AD: How has your time spent in the Amazon changed you, along with the perspective from which you view things?

Lawrence English: At the end of the time there, on the final evening, I remember looking out at the horizon, and somewhere, distantly, I could see the glow of some lights. It was a town perhaps, reflecting off clouds gathering for a downpour. In that moment, I realized I had absolutely no idea what had happened in the world outside of the jungle directly in front of me. I could tell you about the dispute that morning between a pair of male howler monkeys or about the crocodile that had upset water birds in the night, but I had no idea what was happening back in the “real” world. It was a wonderful and liberating feeling—a recognition of being present to a place and a time. I’ll be honest: those moments don’t present themselves so often for me. I have obligations and responsibilities to many folks, which I need to honor. So that was perhaps the great take-home for me.

AD: For 37 minutes, I was transported to the Amazon from the comfort of my couch here in the Netherlands. And, while it wasn’t always an easy listen (feelings of being exposed to swarms of insects and ominous thunderstorms), I was “there” for that period; I was able to share a small bit of your enormous experience, and it moved me on an emotional level – something that can be quite difficult to achieve. I’d like to ask you if you can remember any field recordings made by others that have, in turn, elicited an emotional response from you as a listener.

Lawrence English: Since we’ve spoken about Chris Watson, there’s a piece of his, “Sunsets,” from Stepping Into the Dark, which I find completely haunting. I don’t recall where that recording was made, or what it is of, but I know each time I hear it I am transported to that place, which is of course of my own creation. What I admire about artists like Chris is that he allows us to be listening with him in those moments. Our ears fall where his fall. It’s a wonderful passing of sense somehow.

Douglas Quin’s recording of Weddell seals from his Antarctica edition is another work that completely overwhelms me. Those recordings were a massive driver for me to try and get to the Southern Continent.

Liz Harris made a recording of a storm in Aljezur, Portugal, that I think is utterly captivating too. It’s as though you are sheltering from the storm. It is visceral, but somehow kept at a distance. A remarkably affective recording.

For me, the thing that captivates me about field recording as an art form is the opportunity—in those moments where a really focused and considered recording takes place—for us as future listeners to share those interests and preoccupations of the person making the recording. We might, for a few moments, share their listening and, in doing so, unearth something about our own audition we didn’t yet realize.

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