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Recommending Books Through Sound: A Short Interview with Lawrence English

The idea of composing music for a narrative is not a new one. There’s a lot of history there.  Still, the practice isn’t so common anymore.  And even less so—is there a precedent?—when applied to nonfiction.  (If I’m wrong, we can at least agree that the emphasis on literature-inspired compositions and their composers is not as prominent.)

Enter Lawrence English:

Australian composer whose impressive career includes a decade-plus discography of experimentally-leaning solo and collaborative works, sound art installations, and a stint as curator of the dependably wonderful Room40 record label. English recently released The Peregrine, based on J.A. Baker’s book of the same name. He also recently published a book titled Site-Listening: Brisbane, a guide to interesting ‘listening’ locations in and around the Brisbane area. Two reasons to talk with him briefly in a roundabout quasi-literary way about his recent, amazing album.

Or books as a way to talk about music: or music as a way to recommend books:

Potter: Your most recent work, The Peregrine, is based on J.A. Baker’s book of the same name. Can you tell me a little bit about your history with the book, its style of prose and why you felt compelled to use Baker’s words as the impetus for sound?

English: I actually discovered the book whilst visiting with David Toop in London. It had popped up on his radar and was sitting in a pile of books on this desk. I opened it to a random page, read a paragraph, and was totally awestruck by Baker’s ability to describe sound and, more broadly, the environment. He was able to create such provocative and powerful images through his use of words. I found it very natural to imagine sounds and textures that might draw from and sit alongside the written word. I always very much made this record with the express intention of hopefully convincing people to read the book and discover his work.

Potter: In addition to titling your record after Baker’s book, the movements in your composition are marked by the titles of the different sections within the book. When approaching the composition of The Peregrine, would you describe your efforts in terms of translation—transcribing in a literal way the mood and movement of sections or very specific passages of text into music—or something closer to homage—using specific sections of text as a catalyst for creating something new? Would you talk specifically about how you dealt with the text in that process?

English: Ultimately this is an homage. I feel very passionately about Baker’s writing and wanted to offer just a little personal reflection on how that has impacted on me. That said, I did use many passages from the book as compositional guides and reference points. I drew a lot of his descriptions of shapes, landscapes, textures, and, of course, the motion of the falcon. I wanted to reflect on some of those elements and use them directly to shape the sounds. It’s the first time I’ve ever really worked in this way and to be honest I very much enjoyed it.

Potter: You also recently published a book, Site-Listening: Brisbane, a travel guide of sorts that provides recommendations for various areas in Brisbane rich with specific sounds (accompanied, of course, with field recordings from locations featured in the book). Did your affection for field recordings affect in any way the tools you used to compose The Peregrine? Would you talk about the instrumentation on the album and how Baker’s prose influenced your decisions on what to use?

English: I think one of the elements that always interests me about field recordings is the natural layering and dimension of the sound that occurs. I think once you really start listening to that you realize the power of it. The infinite depth and how small, subtle changes (say in frequency or timbre of sounds) can affect the ears in profound ways. One of the things I wanted to explore on The Peregrine was this idea, and follow up my interest in harmonic distortion. I also wanted to emulate Baker’s ability to build very engrossing passages out of very simple and small concepts or situations. The book is so wonderful in that way, even the most trivial can be profoundly compelling when viewed through the right frame.

Potter: Having been engaged as a listener, particularly of the album format, for a long time before I became engaged in any intelligent way as a reader, I’ve noticed that I often equate artistic gestures in books to movements in terms of music and albums I’ve listened to. Is this something you can relate to? Did The Peregrine come to you in this way? Are there any other books that you feel are ripe in terms of their potential for composition?

English: It’s a good question about the relationship of text and music. Many people have inquired about the idea of why we don’t have more soundtracks to a book. Admittedly there’s a kind temporal issue with how a book is consumed (i.e., over many repeated sittings, taking sometimes days or weeks—versus a film, for example), but it is interesting to me that we don’t see quite so many homages or attempts to explore this relationship. I do think there are strong linkages between these differing forms of expression.

For me, as of now, no other book has really invited a really substantial response from me. Who knows what lies around the corner though….

Potter: Returning to Site-Listening: Brisbane, this book, while perhaps more explicitly a handbook than a narrative (though, there are certainly narratives embedded in the mapping of sounds in a specific location), sees writing as an act of responding to or translating sound. You have a long history of collaboration, have you ever considered composing in order to have your music translated into narrative prose?

English: It’s not something I’ve actively thought about, I must confess. Though I do believe that records should maintain some kind of narrative. That need not be linear, but to my ears, the most compelling records and the ones I tend to find myself returning to always have a sense of flow and direction. Simply placing unrelated materials together and pressing them up together doesn’t always make for the most rewarding listening experience, I find.

(Be sure to check out another informative interview with English, here.)

  • Nick Francis Potter is the author of New Animals and Big Gorgeous Jazz Machine. He currently teaches in the Digital Storytelling Program at the University of Missouri.

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