Lawrence English is by his own admission a “Professional listener”. This artist, composer and curator has achieved a lot, especially after founding Room40 in 2000. The latter is an organisation that has published musical editions, books and DVDs as well as curated events and installations both nationally and internationally. Room40 is celebrating its 15th birthday with a special, two-day festival called Open Frame at Sydney’s Carriageworks. It will see a number of special commissions and world premieres. Some highlights include: sonic wizard, Jim O’Rourke; one third of The Necks AKA Chris Abrahams; and artist, Louise Curham.
The AU Review sat down with Room40 founder and festival curator, Lawrence English to toast to 15 years, learn more about the upcoming birthday celebrations and to discuss creativity, thinking and what it’s like to create cutting edge, experimental music.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? We understand that your background includes working as a composer, artist and curator.
It’s true at various stages of my life I have been all those things and more. I suppose to summarise all that I do, you could say I’m a professional listener. By that I mean a great deal of my life is spent listening in various ways. In the past month, I’ve produced a record with the folks from Blank Realm, performed music as HEXA with Jamie Stewart for a commission relating to David Lynch’s Factory Photography, I’ve made field recordings in a number of locations, I’ve written music for a film and mastered numerous editions for artists across the oceans. The thing that ties all this together is listening and the versatility that sense allows us, should we choose to exercise it.
What was the inspiration behind Open Frame Room40?
Room40 is an imprint and arts organisation I started 15 years ago. As part of the anniversary celebrations, we’re taking our annual festival Open Frame to Sydney to present it with the amazing Carriageworks space! That venue, and its curated program sets one of the great benchmarks for progressive programming in this country. Open Frame has previous taken place in Brisbane and for our 10th anniversary we took the program to London.
The label was started with a number of key focuses. The first was the presentation and distribution of a range of artists whose music I had come in contact with that was, at that time, unreleased. I felt compelled to find other ears for their work and that has stayed at the core of what the label is about. I also felt strongly in the early days that sound as an art form required some serious advocacy here in Australia. In the early 2000s, Australia still felt a long way away, the connectivity of the net was just opening up, so we were determined to reach outward and connect likeminded artists and audiences.
What can readers expect to see at Open Frame Room 40?
I think it might be better to focus on what they might hear, but that said this year we have a very strong audio visual focus, with Makino Takashi from Japan, Louise Curham from Canberra and Paul Clipson from San Francisco all presenting visual materials as part of their performances. As to the program, this year I really wanted to try and mark out the edges of the sound world’s Room40 has explored since its inception. To this end the work of guests like William Basinski and Jim O’Rourke (who we commissioned to make a multi-channel diffusion work, which will be presented remotely), have been central point of inspiration and have challenged me personally to keep pushing.
Open Frame is very much about the recognition that listening to music and sound can be utterly profound. It can touch us in ways that few other senses can. For my performance, I am especially interested in activating the body, making the body as ear. Low frequency vibration is very powerful and there’s a point of synaesthetic tension better the sense of hearing and touch that can be explored in performance. Unlike home listening for example. It’s really about your whole body being consumed in sound.
How would you describe Room40 to someone who is unfamiliar with it?
It’s an ocean. You’re in the middle of that ocean. You can swim in any direction, but these waves of vibration are all around you. I recommend just allowing yourself to be swallowed by the ocean and be reborn!
Room40 has been involved in publishing musical editions, books and DVDs as well as curating events and installations. Can you tell us about some of your highlights from working with Room40 for the past 15 years?
There has been a lot of highlights. Personally I can speak to the experiences I have valued. There’s moments like the first time I heard Chris Abrahams’ “Thrown”. This sticks out in my memory as that music haunted me deeply. I wasn’t sure how he’d made it and that totally fascinates me to this day. Being able to see friends like Ben Frost grow and develop into truly outstanding artists, that brings me a great deal of pride and satisfaction knowing I had some tiny part in those narratives.
I think most of all it’s the fact that Room40 has become like this extended family. I often describe the label as a friends and family affair and it really does feel like that. That is what I value, the human aspect, the fact that we are helping, in whatever small way, artist who I deeply believe in and admire.
What are your picks from the Open Frame Room40 Line-up?
Honestly, it’s just a line-up that demands start to finish attention!
Open Frame Room40 features a number of world and Australian premieres and new collaborations. How did these come about?
I’m always interested to provide opportunities for new ideas to take shape and develop. The collaboration between Robbie Avenaim and Austin Buckett for example came out of both of them being interested in similar but wholly different approaches to rhythm, repetition and complexity. Both of them had mentioned the other to me at some point and I sensed there would be something unusual and beautiful revealed should they be in a position to actualise some of these ideas. Equally, the O’Rourke diffusion is the result of my interest in what Jim does. He doesn’t tour outside Japan any longer, so we’ve been looking for a way to create a project together and this was the happy chance to make that happen. As for Hypnosis Display, I am so pleased this work will be experienced here in Australia, both Grouper and Paul Clipson are outstanding artists in their respective fields and this unison is truly something!
You have been involved with cutting edge and experimental music for some time. In your opinion what makes a song or collaboration good?
It’s simple, if you feel something. Nice is death. Nice is like an opaque cancer that is eating away at potential of the creative arts. Art should make us feel, it should linger beyond the moment of its encounter. What I hope with my work for example is that it can be embedded in the listener and comes back to them across time. Each time it returns the context of that moment sheds new light of what the work may have meant previously and how it might be consumed in the future. Art needs to reach inside us, deeply.
Paul Dempsey once wrote, “You’re not the first to think that everything has been thought before”. How do artists involved in creating cutting edge and experimental music keep things fresh and exciting?
Basil Bernstein had a wonderful provocation to all artists, philosophers and thinkers, to think the unthinkable. The idea that everything has been thought of before is filled with hubris. Here we are at the start of the 21st century and I’d argue most of us are not thinking enough or deeply enough at least. Even if every thought had somehow been manifested up to this point in human history, it is entirely contextual, for example how we understood and discussed communication 100 years ago verses now couldn’t be more different and complex. Likewise music before and after the age of reproduction called for a radical rethinking of what role sound and music plays in our lives.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers of The AU Review about Room40, Open Frame Room 40, etc.?
I think William Burroughs, channelling Hassan I Sabbah, said it best. “Nothing Is True, Everything is Permitted”(sic). Let’s open our ears!
Open Frame Room40 plays at Sydney’s Carriageworks on July 30 and 31. For more information and tickets please visit:http://openframe.room40.org/
Originally published on 12 May 2015 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/interviews/room40s-lawrence-english-toasts-to-15-years-and-creating-experimental-music
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