Lawrence English – Sounds like an autumn echo

June 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, April 25, 2009.

Lawrence English has captured seasonal resonances from around the world, writes Dan Rule.

The sky is a flat, steely grey. The ocean mirrors it perfectly. Staring out from the cliff it’s like the two almost merge. Only the swell lines set sky and ocean apart. They push in strong and clean from the southwest, ruler-straight, like corduroy. They are the first like this for the year; the first of the deep, westerly weather patterns; the first long-range groundswell.

The car park is alive with a low chatter. Some huddle in cars. Others are already unstrapping boards, bracing themselves against the stiff northwesterly. All eyes are on the line-up below. Walls of swell pour into the bay, pitching onto the barely submerged rock shelf, one after the other reeling hard down the point toward. It’s solid out there. Only a few ride. All you can hear is wind and ocean.

The autumnal months have a near-mythical significance to surfers on Victoria’s west coast. They are a time of the first real waves since the previous winter, a time when the coast’s classic point breaks – Bells, Winkipop and Cathedral Rock – reignite under the deep low pressure systems than spin off in the Southern Ocean, not far north of Antarctica. They are a time of both salve and great anticipation, of studying weather charts and waking before dawn.

It’s a different story elsewhere. On the north coast of New South Wales, autumn is a welcomed time of respite, when the very last of the cyclone swells that batter the coast, and the last of the sub-tropical summer downpours.

“Wherever you live, you kind of relate to the seasons differently,” says surfing journalist, photographer and filmmaker Andrew Kidman. “You get to know the how the different patterns work and you keep your eye on different things.”

The fall months hold different connotations – different narratives, different signifiers – for nearly every location. No matter our relationship to the land or water, our psycho-geographical understanding is transitory, fleeting and specific. The singularity of the term bleeds across a myriad of varying experiences and sensations: the patchwork maples and warm hues of Kyoto in October, the crisp, clear mornings of southern California in November, the icy westerly that blows off the Snowy Mountains and strikes the New South Wales south coast in May.

The quality of seasonality has always resonated with Lawrence English. The Brisbane sound artist’s new album, A Colour for Autumn, draws on our various experiences of the season as a compositional guide. “The environment doesn’t just change visually,” he says. “Things like insects and the kind of leaves under foot and the whole experience of how a place sounds changes with the seasons, or depending on what the cloud cover is like or anything. And of course, all of that changes from place to place.”

The record is the second work in a seasonal series by the composer (the first being 2006’s Varying Degrees of Winter) and over its seven ambient, tonal vignettes, uses a palette of field recordings collected during autumn in locations as disparate as Brazil, Japan, France, Brisbane and Tasmania. “The whole idea of taking the seasons as cues came from our kind of weird, generic understanding of them,” he says.

Like surfers and ocean swells, English became enveloped in seasons’ variances. “I think for us in the southern hemisphere, things like deciduous trees during autumn or the idea of a white Christmas is really quite alien and bizarre. And our summer couldn’t be anything less like the European experience.”

That English uses sound as his medium only enriches the dynamic. “Even what people wear can have a real effect on the sonic environment,” he says. “Like in the northern hemisphere winter, you suddenly get that swishing sound from people’s heavy parkers and jackets rubbing against one another when they walk. Or in the really cold environments, it can be completely still in a way that warmer environments never are.”

“Using sound doesn’t tell a different story but it tells the story in a different way.”

English’s awareness of this sound originally grew out of ornithology. His father was a keen birdwatcher and the young English would accompany his dad on expeditions around their southeast Queensland home. “Dad would say that the first thing you have to do is listen, because often the environment is so dense that for you to actually spot the bird, you have to actually listen for where it is roughly and then scour that general vicinity,” he recalls. “I started listening really closely to eventually spot where the animals were.”

The 32-year-old’s work as a composer and sound artist – which includes running distinguished experimental label Room40 and has yielded upwards of 12 solo releases, countless collaborations and site-specific artworks – has maintained a resolute connection to environment and non-studio sound. “That whole idea of sound and listening is something that in some ways I’ve advocated for, or at least tried to make a part of the conversation about music,” he says. “It shouldn’t just be about instruments.”

“There’s a kind of growing awareness that it’s part of the spectrum that makes up the everyday. Aside from taking photos of places, perhaps we should be recording them it as well.”

A Colour for Autumn seems something of a tribute to this. On opening track Droplet, we hear the distant push of the buffeting ‘Mistral’ wind that blows through Marseilles in the first weeks of autumn intertwining with the droned vocals of New Zealand’s Dean Roberts and a bed of synthesised texture and atmosphere. The spacious guitar phrases and tonal subtleties of Watching it Unfold, meanwhile, offer a reflection on the “amazing blue” of the Brisbane sky in autumn’s early weeks. In other passages – with the help of renowned Austrian ambient musician Christian Fennesz in the case of The Surface of Everything – he draws on recordings of the onset of the dense, Amazon wet season, the mist-strewn mountaintops of Tasmania and the transformation of autumn foliage in the great temple gardens bordering Kyoto’s outskirts.

“Recording in all these different environments has really made me think that the way we think about seasonality is totally arbitrary in a way. Obviously, there are seasons and changes, but our experience and our understanding is so heavily localised geographically.”

But according to English, there is one quality that resonates throughout autumn’s many guises, whether visual, sonic or oceanic. “It’s never really a harsh time of year, no matter where you are in the world and I think that’s reflected in the work,” he says.

“The idea of autumn, for me, is that it’s a transitory season; it’s that movement between one harsh time and another.”

“That’s kind of its magic.”

A Colour for Autumn is out now through 12k/Vitamin

Lawrence English plays at The Toff in Town on Sunday, April 19, 8pm, $12 on the door.


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