27 January 2016
Lawrence English and Room40
a homegrown music label challenges boundaries
© Traianos Pakioufakis
Lawrence English talks about his Room40 label and sound art, his views on arts funding and the fickleness of the music industry.
Edgard Varèse once stated, 'My aim has always been… to throw open the whole world of sound to music'. Last July, at the Open Frame festival of sound and media held at Carriageworks, Sydney, worlds of sounds from various artists-composers were wildly present: some ebbing low and ominous, others rising higher, louder and brighter over the stage and audience in harmonious cacophony. These sounds were at times pleasantly resonant and, at other moments, hypnotic and confronting. The immersive, bodily experience of original works is at the heart of Brisbane-based composer and performer Lawrence English's creative philosophy.
English established his Room40 imprint (which hosts the annual Open Frame festival) 16 years ago. Under its umbrella, he curates a myriad established and emerging artists from electro-acoustic, improvisational and experimental mixed-media fields. Among the label's latest releases is Ross Manning's new LP Interlacing, which continues to explore the Brisbane-based artist's experimentation with custom electronics, electro-magnetic recordings and fan-driven instruments.
Room40 began as English's endeavour to share unreleased music from his peers.
'The label started with a very outward-looking focus. I wanted to link together what I experienced directly around me, here in Australia, with the rest of the world', says English. 'Back then, it still felt Australia was a long way away.'
The label is named after a facility at UK's Bletchley Park, a code-breaking command used by the Allies during the First and Second World Wars. English thought it was a good metaphor for the label's intent: the facility brought together talents and intelligence from various fields. 'I liked this idea of having many minds all concerned with sound and music. Different approaches to similar conditions of possibility', says English.
What motivates English to take a chance on an artist? 'It's very simple, really: if I respect their work and admire their unique voice, then I am willing to do whatever it takes to share that sense of profundity their work brings to me.'
Last year's Open Frame was also a celebration of Room40's 15th anniversary. English recognises that the music industry remains fickle: great music labels are either consolidating or lost; there are endless access and possibilities. 'We need to consider what role we play, what we bring to others. This applies to artists, to audience and also to ourselves', says English. '[Asking the question] Why remains a central point of agitation to be cherished. Just because you can do, doesn't mean you should.'
Australia is only one of several places that English would like Room40 and his music to resonate - he hopes to transgress social and cultural boundaries, engaging as widely as possible. 'Insularity is slow death. Right now, in this country, we seem to be gently strangling ourselves in certain spheres. Nobody likes being choked.'
When asked about the issue of arts funding in Australia, English observes that the arts sector remains under-resourced and laments the wasted opportunities caused by ministerial action and inaction over the past couple of years. 'What we need in an arts minister is someone who recognises the complexity of what art represents and what it means to us as a collective cultural identity. Art is not monotone, it is not singular or binary, it is many things all at once. Art is not helped by the old archetypes of heritage and contemporary.'
'Through our Indigenous brothers and sisters we have generation upon generation of artists contemplating and creating possible readings of the country. Furthermore, art is relational… We need an arts minister who can advocate, meaningfully, to the possible futures we might want for ourselves.'
The unique voice that English recognises in artists is significant: it is required before the artist can convey the work effectively to others. He adds: 'I think this is a huge challenge for artists today. When everything is possible, something (of our own) can feel so distant and untouchable… Once we have our voice, we need to recognise its potential not just to create work, but to open minds.'
Sound art is easily pigeonholed - as with most experimental and alternative music - as a niche genre, although it is often interdisciplinary. Even popular or mainstream artefacts, according to English, are really a re-appropriation of other works - the idea of 'overlaying' (something that artists such as Madonna have continually done in their music).
'Each time we change the lens, the viewfinder reveals a differing perspective', says English whose 2014 solo album Wilderness of Mirrors continues to challenge his current works in similar manner. The album is an intricate lattice of ambient, droning soundscapes and unapologetic white noise.
English's projects are often socially and culturally conscious. Wilderness of Mirrors was inspired by the concept of miscommunication campaigns devised during the cold war. His upcoming works explore themes of obsession and fragility. 'Both of these conditions seem to be at the heart of the socio-political tensions we face…', English explains. 'Lauren Berlant's theory of cruel optimism is a central thread on these issues for me.'
English attributes his success to his family and friends, and an early realisation that belligerence and weakness can be powerful assets. He says: 'I think I came to sound first - through listening - the rest is just flowing waves from the pebble hitting the middle of the pond. Those waves have yet to find shore.'
© Australian Music Centre (2016) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Sandy Tan is a writer, editor, and aspiring composer. She currently studies composition and production at the Australian Institute of Music, Sydney where she mainly explores songwriting and the avant garde in her projects.
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