It is possible that listening to music consists less in distracting the mind from “acoustic suffering” than in struggling to reestablish animal alert. What characterizes harmony is that it resuscitates the acoustic curiosity that is lost as soon as articulated and semantic language spreads within us. — Pascal Quignard, from Hatred of Music
Since 2014’s A Wilderness of Mirrors, Brisbane-based artist and Room40 label head Lawrence English has been investigating the role of music in terror and warfare through harmonic density and extreme dynamics. His latest album, Cruel Optimism, also focuses on fragility and power (or lack thereof) in the face of human greed, malice, and intolerance. Despite the album’s foreboding bent, it is a work built upon affirmation—encouraging resilience, solidarity, and defiance despite recent global calamities. “This record is one of protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures”, Lawrence writes in the album’s liner notes. With Cruel Optimism, we are kindly invited to engage in endless dialogues just like this one. For, if anyone’s qualified to talk about the primordial, often unacknowledged link between sound and violence, it’s English. We talked enthusiastically about an array of subjects, such as the politics of perception and colonialism, the (mis)uses of technology, the unfortunate depoliticization of music, and the video for Cruel Optimism’s “Negative Drone,” premiering below. Our conversation is after the jump.
Cruel Optimism is out February 17 on Room40.
AdHoc: Your new album is titled after Lauren Berlant’s 2011 book Cruel Optimism. How did you encounter her work?
Lawrence English: I read the book in 2012, and since that time those ideas have been boiling around. In some respects, the root of those ideas was in Wilderness of Mirrors. Lauren Berlant is one of the most interesting theorists in North America now because of her very particular take on social issues—particularly trauma, but also the idea of cruel optimism itself, this idea that there are certain kinds of fantasy objects that we’ve become obsessed with, and that those fantasy objects act as a blockade towards some idea of happiness or satisfaction or contentment in life. Maybe it’s easier to be obsessed with the fantasy that’s unattainable, rather than trying to reposition your life and your desire towards something more satisfactory. It feels like right now that’s what’s happening in America, Australia, and the UK. People are attaching themselves to these things that they think somehow will make the situation better. When I read Cruel Optimism, it really stuck with me. The political environment is very particular right now. The album was an opportunity to have a critical discourse around that.
Your last album, Viento, underlined the physicality and unmitigated force of the wind. What struck you most about recording in extreme conditions in Antarctica or Patagonia?
I think you can feel like that every day [laughs]. You don’t have to be in Antarctica or Patagonia to feel that way. I think they share an affective concern. I’m interested in how we perform, both as physical bodies, but also as emotional bodies… There’s this duality between the mind and the body which I think is very interesting to play with.
All the records recently have been about that phenomenon and how it is that we position ourselves as listeners, as agents—as having political will—and how we express ourselves on those situations. There’s a very automatic and normative way of engaging in the world, and I feel strongly that those discourses are not serving us in the way that they should. We need to be asking better and more questions all the time because the rate of change we’re experiencing is phenomenal. The opportunities we have are so widespread that we don’t necessarily take advantage of them because it’s almost too complex to try and navigate how it is we can take advantage of them. I’m focused on creating work that opens dialogue towards saying we don’t necessarily have to instantly look for answers or engage in preconceived notions of what we should be doing. We need to ask better questions of ourselves, of each other, of the technology we have at hand and how it is we use them in the day to day. The music is a positive affirmation of self, of people engaging and striving as objects of projection into the world.
How do you square this affirmation with the bleak titles and tenor of Cruel Optimism?
I hadn’t really thought of them as bleak titles [laughs]. The “Moribund Territories” piece is about what I believe should be a decay in the way we think of territorialization, colonialism, and post-colonial environments. In my country, there’s a complex set of relations. We are essentially still a colony. We took the land from the indigenous people here and the relationship we have with them is not anywhere as rich as it should be. We are visitors in this land. The way I’m articulating it through those titles is more about positioning for questioning and not accepting that state as it is.
The piece “Negative Drone”: drones are this incredible technology with so much potential. You can already see these positive uses of drones. I was watching a short documentary, about the guys doing the drone footage in the pipeline protests in North Dakota, and seeing the way they were using that technology as a way of surveilling, gathering evidence, and enforcing civilian power. Also, in Afghanistan right now there’s these two guys who built this fantastic new minefield deactivation drone, which can basically sweep in and it means people don’t have to go in and deactivate mines. But at the same time, we have this people so far removed from the consequences of their actions…
I’ve spent many hours researching drones and watching drone surveillance footage. Also, kill footage—videos where lives are being expired on the screen. Watching some of that stuff you realize there’s questions to be asked. Drones are powerful technology used in an automatic way. They go into the same tropes and approaches, but done in a way that removes some of the humanity out of the exercise. Why is it we’ve defaulted to these things? Why is this going on and why aren’t we in touch? This is where the idea of “Negative Drone” comes from. These things are out there, but there’s not necessarily a way to cast a light over them in a meaningful way.
Can you talk about the “Negative Drone” video?
The video is fixed on surveillance possibilities. People don’t realize how powerful these technologies are. The creation of drones is already radically reshaping the industrial-military complex because financially they’re cheaper to design. The traditional fighter planes are not selling as much. In the video, you’re seeing through the eye of the drone. We need to learn what their eyes have the capacity of seeing and what it allows them to do. I’m interested in the different spectra of vision and sound we can delve into.
You recently wrote a fascinating article on the history of noise as a weapon. I also thought of Gonçalo F. Cardoso and Ruben Pater’s “A Study into 21st Century Drone Acoustics.” How do you settle between composing music meant to acclimate the ears to sonic warfare, and creating soundscapes meant to offer solace or relief?
When I make the work I know what is poured into the pieces. The power I exert is in the creation of the works, but the moment those works are published that power is removed—and it goes to other people and they take it however they want to take it. They are not singular executions of ideas. A lot of what I do is about that uncertainty, about how things are unfolding in time, whether that be trough saturated, harmonically distorted elements working together, or whether it be in a counterpoint between the harmonic content of the pieces. When I listen to music from other people, I know the associations and experiences I’m having are not the experiences and associations of the composer. What I think music does, and why I like having conversations exactly like this one, is that music is a way to open a doorway into a dialogue. It’s a great opportunity for us to discuss things vigorously.
In other art forms—like in visual arts, even in performing arts—there can be a politically critical position whereas in music (and it may have to do with the way we have positioned music since the 1950s as more a form of entertainment over an art form, which I think is a real crisis for music generally) we have done away with the opportunity to have these conversations. That’s a shame because I want to know what people think. I’m interested in ideas primarily. It’s not so much about a didactic sense within the pieces. They’re more like gateways. Through something like a performance people come together like a public assembly. You can use that in all manners of ways, whether it be a social or political space. Or all at once. That’s part of the appeal for me.
I often ask people to lie on the floor during concerts, which is a completely different way to engage with the work, and what that does is activate a different kind of sensory possibility for the audience. That’s hugely important because it starts that process of questioning: What is my relationship to performance? What is my relationship to music? Why is it I’m drawn to these things? Those kinds of conversations are important because they provide a way of knowing ourselves better.
Speaking of music as a means of opening conversation, you enlisted an impressive cast of collaborators on Cruel Optimism. Can you describe some of these exchanges?
I’m incredibly grateful to have had the chance to work with these people. Over the last decade, most of the records I’ve made have been on my own. What I realized leading into this record was that I had some ideas that I didn’t necessarily want to have as controlled or fixed. I wanted to have people pushing back against what I was doing. A lot of the collaborations came out of that process. When I was thinking of particular qualities, I would have someone in mind. For example, someone like Chris Abrahams [of The Necks], who I have the utmost respect for… We had long distance conversations and I would send him parts—some relatively complete, other times sparse. And then he recorded responses. I basically gave him esoteric notes as to what I was curious about and he graciously took those poetic evocations and translated them into something useful in a way that was unexpected to me.
At the other end, with direct engagement, I was fortunate to have Norman Westberg [of Swans] come and visit… The piece “Negative Drone” for example, is very much down to Norman’s playing on the baritone guitar. He became the spine of the piece. Later, when I went to Texas a few weeks later, Thor [Harris, also of Swans] branded out that process. Then Werner Dafeldecker added this beautiful double bass part and the piece just became this evolution as each element revealed itself.
Still, the album is very cohesive. Throughout every track the sound is unmistakably yours.
All those elements work together and against each other at the same time. That’s the beautiful temporal tension of music. What I enjoy about music like this is that I can come to it in a lot of different mindsets and draw something out of that experience. It’s not a singular pursuit… It’s about having all these elements together, but to not have them as necessarily discreet. I want things to blur. I want the edges between them to be unsteady because, in that tension, things become more compelling, more sonically interesting. The uncertainty is what makes it seductive.
What about Cruel Optimism’s cover image?
It’s one of first infamous images of a tornado in North America in the late parts of the 19th century. You must turn it upside down to see it. It was taken by G.F. Green. I’m interested in the idea of turbulence and severity in the environment and what happens when you invert that. I started to research where it came from and this image is fake. It was circulated to the press at the time, and even though the editors knew it was fake, it was a convincing fake, so they went with it. I thought that summarizes so much this situation: a parallel conversation happening in the cover image that I didn’t even know was going on. I found it fascinating and serendipitous at the same time. It is this projection of a phenomenon. but actually the projection is not a phenomenon. It’s a construction. This record is about how we approach things, how they’re constructed, and what that construction means for us when we engage with it.