Lawrence English’s art is delicate, yet full of deep discourses. The spaces he carves in his music are carefully considered during his unique process. His discipline is spread throughout many genres of art beyond music, such as photography and curating. In this interview, we focused on his music and, more specifically, his new album: Cruel Optimism. His passion for what he does and the genuine interest for his audience shows in his responses.


Could you give us a brief introduction to your new album?

Cruel Optimism borrows its title from the book written by American critical theorist Lauren Berlant. I feel Ms. Berlant’s writing is some of the most important critical theory being published in North America at the moment. Particularly, I feel the theory of Cruel Optimism is especially useful when considering a great many of the social and political crisis that are unfolding around us day by day. Berlant outlines cruel optimism as ‘a kind of relation in which one depends on objects that block the very thriving that motivates our attachment in the first place’. When you apply this idea of attachment to what we see around us it’s clear that many people are clinging to attachments that ultimately are not serving them and not providing them with the contentment and security that is critical for us to live well or better yet thrive.

For me though, it was her writings on trauma and affect that I found most provocative and insightful. Whilst I was making Cruel Optimism, I was researching heavily into a lot of topics that carry with them intense suffering. The Syrian refugee crisis, perhaps summed up best in that deeply affecting image of Alan Kurdi’s beautiful little body lying there on that beach, the use of drone strikes is various countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere and the impact of those events on regular people’s day to day, and the serious questions around civil rights that emanate from racial, gender and related issues. I found Berlant’s writing a critical tool in analysing how this affected me and how I could work to address these concerns through the music.

Do you have specific rules/ways/methods of making your albums? What is your process?

I am not one of these people who can just pull music out of nowhere. I am constantly struck by these amazing human beings who can just find music, it’s as if they have a little antenna that just pokes up out and tunes into it. I tend to work in a far more process driven way, a way guided more intuitively through ideas than musical desires. So me for a great deal of uncovering what a record will be, or can be, is about setting up a tightly bound frame. That frame allows me to drill into what it is I want the music to explore and then in turn ultimately informs what the work becomes.

Lawrence English - Cruel Optimism cover
Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism cover

With Cruel Optimism for example, there was obviously all of the research that set the focus of the mindset, and also I guess in some ways I wanted to unpack those responses to all that through the music itself. But I also tend to draw on certain interests that reflect, in a less direct way, the ideas that guide the record. So, for example, this record was very much about density, spurred on by the constant flow and layering of crisis after crisis. I wanted to see how that could be manifest musically and how in doing it, that relief could be found. That hope can prevail even when buried under what feels like an endless cascade of difficulty, precarity and suffering. So density became a real focus for this record and through that focus I learned a great deal about how it is I approach composition and what interests me in the relation between the musical elements themselves.

Do you consider this album as a whole object, or a mixture of different components?

I think it’s both. I tend to want to create ‘records’ in the same way that I create artworks. I’m less interested in the ideas of ‘tracks’ or ‘singles’, though to be fair I actually really like the limitation that a ‘single’ provides for the expression of an idea. I tend to want to create pieces that can collide or overlap and in that process something else is born of how they interconnect. An example from Cruel Optimism is Somnambulist and Moribund Territories. Each of those pieces is actually a lot longer, but in the final layout of the record they are overlapped by a couple of minutes and what happens through that is perhaps what I enjoyed about the pieces most of all. It’s wonderful to be surprised by what happens when creating work. That is actually one of the reasons I invited people to join me on this record, the collaborations were a source of constant surprise and joy.

Where is the ideal place for your art/music? Where should they be found?

I think the opportunity to be affected and to discover the sublime is everywhere. Honestly, I do. Not a day goes by when I am not transfixed by something that might otherwise go under my radar of conscious investigation if not for the fact that I am present and attentive to that moment. Perhaps this comes from my work in field recording, when you’re in the field you are constantly listening with a great intensity and an agency which I think heightens the way you generally relate to the world. It’s like exercise, the more you do it, the more readily your body opens up more and more, and your capacities grow.

Lawrence English, Wilderness of Mirrors
Lawrence English, Wilderness of Mirrors

As to where my work should be encountered, to be honest I’m not exactly sure. Thinking of the music specifically, I believe that once I complete a record, once it’s published the control I had of it is gone. I hand over that experience to audiences and they will hopefully find a way for it to become valuable and useful to them. It might be whilst travelling, or cooking or as a means of really zoning out and listening deeply. My only hope is that it brings some richness and dynamism to people. And ideally that it opens new doorways and questions for them that linger with them in time.

What does it mean for you to use field recordings in your music? What meanings do they generate?

I’ve been writing a great deal about listening recently, as for me this is actually the root location of where the creativity in field recording comes from. To this end I developed a theoretical position I call the ‘listener’s listening’ which outlines the framework through which the act of listening, as it pertains to field recording, is completed. This particular approach to listening requires the listener to heighten their attention and simultaneously embrace multiple aspects of the embodied relationship that listening requires. This position is an intermediation of the artist, sound, place, and technology. Sound, as the object of listening and thus field recording, is ongoing, chaotic and fluxing, and it is through this that a listening pierces. The field recording then is a temporal capture of that listener’s listening. The listener, as an agentive practitioner, carves out a unique listening that reflects their interests and preoccupations, from any number of other possible listenings in that place and time.

So I think, yes there are many meanings that are opened up by listening and by field recording. That’s the wonderful thing about the sense of audition, it is invitational. It asks us to bring ourselves to the sound and contextualise it using all the socio-cultural understandings we have collected up to that moment in time. We complete the work. It’s a beautiful way to think about engaging with art.

Lawrence English at Berghain, photo by Marco Microbi
Lawrence English at Berghain, photo by Marco Microbi

It seems like your art exists somewhere between the borders of things. In other words, your practice isn’t fixed in one field. What connects it?

If I was to pick one thing that links all of the output together it’s a fascination with ideas. To borrow Bernstein’s great provocation, I truly feel that we must strive to think the unthinkable. By that I mean we need to seek out new ways of approaching ideas, to be restless, but rigorous, to appreciate the smallest detail and realise that there’s an entire universe of possibility captured in the endless black of this dot:

Inside that tiny point is limitless depth and a universe of possibility unto itself. I feel there’s a very strong relation between that and the work that I do. Themes if you like, of practice if not aesthetics, that guide the way projects and outputs might speak to each other. Something like the politics of perception that I have spoken about at length, this to me links very strongly to my practice of listening for example, but also to the nature of bodily affect in performance. How it is that sound affects the body, how it is our body is an ear and what that means when we start to contemplate our relation to sound and ourselves.

What would you like to say to an audience who is new to your music?

There’s nothing more thrilling than not knowing, than reaching into the darkness of uncertainty with open hands and seeing what reaches back. I believe seduction is found in what is hidden, not what is revealed. There’s categorically nothing sexy about a stripper who arrives on stage with nothing on. So in short I guess, life is tremendously short and precarious; so live, respect and love and most of all reach into the dark with all you have and embrace the experiences that brings to you. Music can be one of those dark places.

Do you have any upcoming shows or events?

I do… I’ll be in the UK and Europe this month and then in North America in March and April. I’ll be performing some solo concerts as well as presenting Factory Photographs with my friend Jamie Stewart as HEXA.

Upcoming Dates:

EU

  • FEB 13 MILANO, IT @ SAN FEDELE
  • FEB 18 THE HAGUE, NL @ REWIRE X KORZO

HEXA UK/EU

  • FEB 14 THEATRO DELLA COMPAGNIA FIRENZE (IT)
  • FEB 15 THE FORGE, LONDON (UK)
  • FEB 16 THE LANTERN, BRISTOL (UK)
  • FEB 17 HOWARD ASSEMBLY ROOM, LEEDS (UK)
  • FEB 18 REWIRE X KORZO, THE HAGUE (NL)
  • FEB 19 GLASGOW FILM FESTIVAL, GLASGOW (UK)
  • FEB 22 IFZ, LEIPZIG (DE)
  • FEB 23 VOORUIT, GENT (BE)

USA

  • MAR 26 BROOKLYN, NY TBC
  • MAR 28 CHICAGO, IL @ THE EMPTY BOTTLE
  • MAR 29 SAN FRANCISCO, CA @ THE LAB
  • MAR 31 LOS ANGELES, CA @ ZEBULON
  • APRIL 5 IOWA CITY, IA MISSION CREEK FESTIVAL