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Tone Glow 112: Lisa Lerkenfeldt
An interview with the Australian ambient musician about her listening practices, exploring stormwater drains in Melbourne, and her new album 'Halos of Perception'
Lisa Lerkenfeldt is an Australian composer and ambient musician whose works unfold in patient, minimalist manners. Prior to releasing solo music, she was part of a duo with Grace Anderson called Perfume, where the two would explore identity and sexuality in improvised live performances. Since then, Lerkenfeldt has released a string of records, finding her voice with multiple albums that arrived in 2020: A Liquor of Daisies, Collagen, and A garden dissolves into black silk. More recently, she released Shell of a City, which features durational contact microphone recordings of a highway structure. She continues to explore hidden resonances with her newest LP, Halos of Perception, which was inspired by her expeditions into underground networks in Melbourne, aided in part by members of the historic Cave Clan. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Lerkenfeldt via Zoom on October 9th, 2023 to discuss her listening practices, collaborating with the video artist Tristan Jalleh, and the diaristic nature of her recordings.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: You just came from your tour in Japan. How did that go?
Lisa Lerkenfeldt: It was so good. I had four shows across three cities. I traveled with two friends. It was special. I was performing extended mixes from a new album coming soon on Shelter Press. Respect is inherent in Japanese culture which makes for deeply engaged audiences. So, five stars (laughter).
I wanted to ask, can you tell me a little bit about where you were born?
I grew up in suburban Queensland and on the Sunshine Coast. Not much to report here other than it instilled in me a vivid imagination due to its quiet nature. It was, naturally, very beautiful and contributed to a strong sense of the seasons and the natural cycles, which informs my practice and continued interest in ecologies.
Was there a point at which you recognized that you needed something more than what Queensland could offer you?
I think it was during high school, when I suppose you are developing your identity and beginning to explore social and cultural systems. I can’t think of one moment—it’s many small moments where I felt alarmed by a lack of critical rigor, alienated by conservatism, or just very different. I strongly remember a search for something else, something more, my people. I left young. Now having lived in both Sydney and Melbourne, these cities have just been a far more sustainable and generative reality for me.
You mentioned that there’s so much natural beauty there. Growing up, were you the sort of person who was very attuned to the environment around them?
Definitely. I love listening. It’s a practice. When you have that awareness, everyday is like cinema. I’m constantly perceiving all these interesting aspects, which, I guess, aren’t revealed to everyone. I’ve always been quite enchanted in that way, by the simplest things. Listening is just one of those inherent things to me—I was sampling the radio from age five, and I’m still sampling (laughter).
Was there a favorite space to be in for you when you were growing up? Somewhere you could go and just listen? Alternatively, was there a favorite sound that you appreciated growing up?
I love the ocean and its continuous drone. My nervous system responds instantly to seeing the horizon, as if it’s the one thing I can count on. A continuous sound is something that I can really distinguish as being throughout my life and where I’ve lived. At the moment in Melbourne, I now live by a river, which has a highway on it. So, I sleep to the drone of the highway. This certainly informed Shell of a City (2023). In this way I have always loved and felt comforted by noise.
Were your parents also interested in sound and music? Were they encouraging of your practice?
It was actually my grandparents. I am Italian-Danish-Australian. A hybrid. With my Italian grandparents, there was always a piano in the house. Whilst my mother had learned the piano as a child, it was abandoned relatively early. I think access to that informed me from an early age. I did have classical training as a child, and I could identify, quite early on, that the spirit of improvisation was my preference. My parents supported the musical path, but it wasn’t one of their direct avenues.
Do you have any favorite musical memories of your grandparents that you mind sharing?
I actually can’t recall them ever performing on the piano (laughter). They loved dancing. We would constantly be going to the Italian Club—a community center. They would host these get-togethers and dances; they were ballroom dancing all the time. And this was a very elderly couple, quite passionately stealing the spotlight. I just remember the notion of how music can really bring the spirit out of people and create this situation, for a shared experience. These are precious memories.
Do you like to dance yourself?
Actually, no. I’m not very good at it (laughter).
Did you go to art school in Melbourne?
Yes, I went to the Victorian College of the Arts.
I’m wondering when you discovered your preference for improvisation. Was that in school?
I think it was during that early period of classical training. I appreciate having a repertoire you can play, but in another sense, it was not in any way allowing me a voice. I loved the generous nature of improvisation, just being with an instrument, playing. Listening to something that has never been heard before still excites me.
Do you remember any teachers who gave insight into the kind of arts practice that you have today?
I can’t identify anyone specifically from that young age, in terms of the musical training itself. But I really see the contribution these people had just to the ability of my hands (laughter). What I’m comfortably able to do, I’m really thankful for. It wasn’t really until I gained access to the resources of art school and started looking at key figures in female electronic composition—Pauline Oliveros, Éliane Radigue—that things really started to speak to me. I could identify myself in this lineage of history, but it came quite late.
The older I get, the more I realize that you’re never too late to do anything, really. I was just reading an interview with Astor Piazzolla, and he was expressing that it took him 40 years to really understand who he was as an artist.
I feel you. I performed with Satsuki Shibano and Yoshio Ojima in Tokyo. Two environmental music icons. I can’t be sure of their age, but just to see artists performing at later stages in their career is really exciting to me. I still feel I am only beginning.
I love that you performed with them. I know they were just in the States, but only played in Portland and California.
They were heading there straight afterwards. I returned to Australia and then immediately flew to Sydney for this festival called Volume at the Gallery of New South Wales. I was booked to play this amazing show with Ellen Fullman and Theresa Wong. The programming by Lawrence English brought senior career artists and emerging artists together in the same event. I appreciate this.
Do you remember where you were when you first became aware of Pauline Oliveros and Éliane Radigue’s music? What was it like to hear their works for the first time?
It was during art school and I felt it physically. It was electric. It was definitely late at night in the computer lab at art school, listening to these extended works (laughter). I realized that all of these instinctive actions that I had been doing for years were suddenly connected to something larger than myself. I also felt this way when first encountering musique concrète. Suddenly I could locate my practices in history.
Can you speak more about these instinctive actions?
For many years, prior to really using them in any way, I had been field recording and sampling. It was just the act of stopping and listening, and then listening to the playback and the distance between those two realities. I was very interested in that and I still am. It wasn’t until receiving training in Abelton at art school that I was able to integrate and use it as an instrument itself, as a material. In terms of Éliane’s work, it’s just this very subtle, slow forming tendency she has—these very longform works that reveal themselves over duration. This is very much something that I do, even when I’m just playing for myself. I always push myself to spend longer with a sound to see what else I can hear in it—to listen for what it might reveal to me.
It’s easy to assume that you can understand the full capacity of something because we rely on our senses so much to do anything in this world. I love A Liquor of Daisies (2020) because when I hear that piano chord over and over, it feels like a reminder that I am in the process of listening, but there’s also an evolution happening within the piece too.
That’s beautiful, thank you. With A Liquor Of Daisies, I began to explore these dreamlike or trance states that are achieved through repetitive motifs. Three piano loops fall in and out of time with each other over a shared duration. I called it an unfolding fantasy in the field of time. It is really just me alone in iso, beginning to explore playing with an orchestra of machines.
I know you met Grace Anderson in art school, and you two have a release together as Perfume. What things did you learn through that collaboration?
We’re still close to this day. It was a project based on friendship. In the beginning, performing alone… I wasn’t ready for that (laughter). So we had this project, a noise band, where we would bring anything to the table and improvise. Collaboration teaches you to listen—to each other, and the world around you. It was quite often electronics and everyday objects on a table, mic’d up, and exploring possibilities over these 30 or 40-minute periods. We had a lot of fun together exploring our feelings. It was a cathartic project in that sense, because you were able to really express yourself on the day.
In many ways, I still use music like that. I need to play regularly, for my health. As young people at that time, we were both thinking about identity and sexuality and the binaries and the world around us. Exploring that through noise was an open but powerful form. And it was really one of the best ways to connect with the local community as well. We just met so many people with that project, who we are still really close with to this day. It was also fun.
I’m curious if you could speak more on how this project served as a conduit to explore sexuality and gender identity.
We worked with fashion designers subverting expectations with clothes, amplified disused objects to give them a voice in late capitalism, and considered the performance and gestures of femininity. The music was often like an atmospheric storm. I think deeply and use projects to begin to explore my position on things. I’m not big on binaries so the project for me was a language of in-between, a language of abstraction.
I was first working with the comb in a Perfume set, and making this very extended feedback, which later on led to Collagen (2020). The object is a tool that is used throughout history, to beautify or to groom. These ideas—of what is beautiful, who defines it, how it can be subverted or expressed in new ways—link back to early Perfume discussions.
You mentioned that these performances were very fun. Is having fun an important facet in creating music for you?
To be honest, I just can’t think of a better thing to do (laughter). It’s one of my favorite things to do—spending an hour with an audience. I feel blessed to have that opportunity to perform and create these shared experiences together. That, to me, is really fun. It’s always going to shift in intensity depending on the work itself and what the work is dealing with, but even in terms of the curating that I’ve done—for live shows, or when I have my launches—I think it’s really important to think across what else is happening in your city and who else to engage with on those special events. It’s like party planning together. I have a more holistic approach in terms of my work and the people’s work that surrounds me.
I think a lot of people only understand your work as these isolated artifacts in the context of your discography. But you mentioned how important it was to think about your local community. Could you speak more about that, and their importance to your practice?
In terms of Australian music history, electronic music is relatively young, ambient music is even younger. So when we find each other we connect and come together. I think that’s one of the first things that really stood out to me about the difference between Sydney and Melbourne, just how generative and generous the community is here. Everyone is really dedicated to their own craft yet we all remain in conversation. The shows that I really enjoy going to are just the most obscure billings across genres, which is really fresh. I think dialogue is critical. Being in conversation with different people across the community is such a big part of having a sustainable creative life.
Thinking about sustainability, you mentioned earlier how it’s important for you to play regularly for your health. Can you expand on that?
I find that my practice is quite diaristic. It’s just a way of documenting where I am at any time. I totally appreciate that there are these abstract artifacts that you mentioned, which is the discography to date, but I think over time, more and more will be revealed that paints more of a diaristic portrait.
Does it feel vulnerable for you to make this music?
Yes, but in a way that I’m happy to share. I think that’s quite important—vulnerability and tenderness—and sharing. My work engages with ecologies of care. That’s what I call them. I often see my work as a possible or speculative futures. I am always thinking about safety in the design of these places, for myself and others.
For me, your musical output started to become more solidified around 2020, with Collagen, A Liquor of Daisies, and A garden dissolves into black silk. Could you speak to the development of your music from around 2015 until these releases in 2020?
Yes, things began for me as a solo artist in 2020. I still feel like I’m really just discovering. And now, post-tour, I’m excited to do some recording of this new material because I’m quite clearly seeing a path forward. Until that point, it was really just very early experimentation, as we were discussing, and being willing to share that vulnerability and becoming with the community. It all kind of coincided for me with the pandemic and being forced, for the first time, into full-time studio practice. What I was able to do in a single year was quite amazing to me because I’ve never allowed myself that dedication or time before. It was a bit of a breakthrough year for me.
Could you speak a little about this daisy, the Xerochrysum viscosum, that A Liquor of Daisies was about? What about that flower led you to want to write a poem about it, to think about it for this album?
I liked the concept of this endless flower. It has a straw-like appearance and it chases the sun. It looks like it could live forever. It’s visually harsh, but cute. It was a point of interest that mirrored the longform structures I was working with in sound.
How is it mirroring the structure?
They are also known as Everlastings. They are paper flowers that hold their shape when dried and are quite popular for long-lasting dried flower arrangements. A Liquor of Daisies was one of my longest releases. It’s a very sweet flower, and it’s a native flower. With my interest in ecologies I’m always looking around at how things connect to one another. I do keep a diary, and many titles come from it. So it’s just these moments where I experience metaphor, or the desire to see a metaphor come to life.
I’m often eating and drinking flowers. In Japan, actually, I ate so many flowers. I often garnish my drinks with a single piece of sage and a small violet. Actually, there’s a tiny picture of that on the cover. So the work comes from an image of a half-truth. And at the time, I was really taken by Maya Deren’s films. They were very cyclic in structure and trancelike and dreamlike. So it was building on that too.
I love hearing that.
I still really love works like that. Actually, Maya Deren’s works were involved in that festival I just played in Sydney too, which was amazing.
You mentioned that you keep a diary. How does poetry and writing inform your musical process?
Music is its own language. Diaries are a safe place to consider things. Where I begin to think about storytelling. In terms of world-building, writing is a really nice pathway in. Field recording and diaries are my methods of noting your observations, what has been revealed to you that day.
The next project, Halos of Perception (2023), looks at this very surreal landscape of hidden rooms and chambers, and is set within a tunnel network under the city. Every time I would experience these sites, I would really want to write about them because the atmosphere was so different. The sounds were very surreal. The acoustics were inspiring—the way sound would refract through the network.
Over time, I’ll share more of this writing, because it goes hand in hand. Halos has a poem with it. With water up to her knees (2022), too. At first my tendency was very reductive, suggesting only a poetic title and a situation for interpretation. I don’t like to reveal everything upfront; I’d prefer to create layers of meaning and hidden details to discover over time.
I’m thinking about the graphic notations for Collagen, which is a more abstract presentation that still informs the work. How did you use these notations to explore the ideas related to the comb on that album?
I am interested in these languages of abstraction. It was a project of gestural noise, and I was creating these maps for myself in many forms of notation to be able to recall how a sound was created.
With Shell of a City (2023), you were recording sounds of a highway structure. Many people, when they think about listening to the sounds around them, they’re often thinking about the sounds of nature. How did listening to these manmade sounds affect your recording process?
Yes, lately I have been listening to infrastructure. It’s an evolution of my listening practice and a way of reimagining cities—a way of reflecting on place. But there were two key works that I think influenced the piece. One is an album called Glass (2018) by Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto. They amplified the walls of a glass house while performing inside. They were using the architecture as an instrument, which I just thought was conceptually interesting. And then there’s an Australian sound artist Alan Lamb who mic’d all of these wire fences in the Outback. And they just have a very hollow, haunting resonance.
That’s Night Passage (1998), right?
Yes, Night Passage. An impulse beyond logic compelled me to do it at the time, but now that I reflect on it, it’s only because of these works that I was drawn to do it (laughter). I think hidden resonances—hidden rooms and spaces—have been a big subject for me over the past couple of years while I’ve been forced to be in the same place.
I know with Shell of a City you had a listening walk. Is it important for you to be moving your body when you’re listening, as opposed to sitting still?
It depends. I do both, of course, at different stages. The listening walk was a really cute event. I find with a lot of field recording, the source is rarely revealed. It’s unusual to have a direct experience of the sound itself. When I plugged into that during the act of recording, my first thought was like, “Did I pre-record this?” It was very beautiful on its own (laughter). That was quite a surreal moment. It was special to see people have that same experience during the walk. I wanted to share this readymade concert I found.
This idea of hidden resonances is also an aspect of Halos of Perception, with the network you mentioned. Could you tell me more about what it was like to make these recordings?
That work is built on a season of enchantment that I had at the underground. It’s framed as a set of dream loops within abandoned infrastructure. I became really interested in found acoustics and finding these other sites for shared listening. I had started to do these field recordings in the storm drain outlets, which are found at different intervals throughout the city. Then by chance, I was at a flea market and I saw an image of what, to me, looked like the ideal amphitheater, which was this beautiful tunnel. I asked the seller to tell me about the image. He was like, “Oh, that’s B’s, you should talk to him.” And it turns out this person is one of the original members of the Cave Clan, which was really prominent during the ’90s. They were mapping the storm water network and hosting parties, doing a lot of exploring underground, and lots of painting. But the community and pathways existed only by word of mouth. I mentioned to him that I had started to do this fieldwork, and he was like, “Oh, I’ll take you to The Maze.” So suddenly, I had a network guardian who was really able to take me inside these spaces. It revealed an alternative history of my city.
What sort of things do you remember feeling while exploring these networks?
I think the atmosphere is something you really notice. It’s pitch black, entry is often by a manhole, and you’re scaling a ladder 10 meters into the earth. One of the most instant experiences is the reverb. One of the spaces I really liked had this natural 32-second reverb, so suddenly, you’re speaking and the echo is like a mirror both refining and distorting the words. And the same goes for any sound that’s either reproduced or produced in this space. I collected a lot of samples and re-sampled a lot of sounds in these spaces, and they were just so affected by the atmosphere itself. In some parts, it was like walking through a cloud of condensation. In others, these small waterfalls would fall through the manholes or cracks, and there was a lot of moss present. The atmosphere at those places really had the same negative ion-rich feeling of being by a real waterfall. That was really surprising. A concrete chamber but so lush. The atmosphere, refractions, and the sound quality were the strongest takeaways for me.
You have the track on the new album called “A fragrance of moss and chalk.” I’m curious if scent is an important sense for you in terms of understanding your environment.
Yeah, I’m burning incense right now (laughter). It’s something I love, and this notion of fragrant electronics is something I quite like. Hence, Perfume. I like being able to create these atmospheres through sound that might evoke other sensations or sensory awareness as well.
Oh that’s awesome, I’m a huge perfume nerd.
What are you wearing today?
My favorite fragrance that came out this year is by Dusita. The fragrances are by this independent Thai perfumer, Pissara Umavijani, and she has this one fragrance called Rosarine that I really love. It’s a really nice summer rose.
Nice. In Japan, I had a couple of fragrance days actually. I found this incense producer and their shop is called Lisn. It’s based on the idea of listening to fragrance.
Oh my goodness.
That is so me (laughter). It’s just about resonating with scent. That was quite spectacular. And then on top of that, I was recommended a super sento which is a semi-private bathhouse. You have the opportunity to choose your light setting. They offer daylight, sunrise, and sunset. You can select your fragrance—there are three essential oils, which you then pour on the hot coals in the sauna. And you select from three different tones of ambient music and go through this cycle of 15 minutes in the sauna and two minutes in the icebox three or four times. It’s spectacular.
I’m so envious right now (laughter).
The depth and attention to detail is immaculate.
On the new album, and on a track like “Stairway to the interior” in particular, how do you determine the treatment of piano? I really enjoy the way it constantly ebbs and flows so you can get a sense of how cavernous the space is.
“Stairway to the interior” references a real site known by word of mouth as The Great Stairway. I made a reverb for the piano to mirror the natural acoustics I experienced here. Alongside this work, I was working on a collaboration with the hyperreal video artist Tristan Jalleh. The work itself explores composition, performance, and animation. In some ways, each track is building into this larger narrative. It’s perhaps the most narrative work I’ve done—I hope to tell more of a story with the six tracks—but it’s still highly abstract (laughter).
Each track kind of lights up these lost chambers and underground histories in a patchwork of this reflective, musique concrète, and instrumental composition. Filmmaking itself is quite illuminating as I am a highly visual person. Tristan builds animated worlds from photographs and handheld video footage. The film we co-directed is built from photographs of my fieldwork in these spaces and my dreams.
What was it like to work with a video artist? Was the film made in tandem with the work?
It was amazing. Yeah. The prelude to this work was With water up to her knees. Shelter Press released a single with a B-side on cassette, around the same time that this work premiered in Melbourne at a major electronic arts center, The Substation. I presented an audio visual performance and a hybrid ensemble show with two cellists, a poet, the film and myself. In the lead up to that, we developed the film for Halos of Perception.
How’d you first find out about Tristan?
He is based between Melbourne and Thailand at the moment. I’ve seen some of his works in Melbourne previously with an interest in abandoned cities or collapsed sites. We had been in touch by email. This notion of a hyperreality really speaks to me. I think that’s something I started to explore with A Liquor of Daisies, when we introduced this augmented reality filter for the tour. I developed this with Stephanie Overs.
What interests you about hyperreality?
The distance between reality and its image or playback. I think a lot of what you’re hearing through my work are moments where I had a hyper-sensory experience or response to a sound. It’s really just a collection of those moments. When I find them, I suddenly become very alert and something shifts, and it’s really a state that I’m transferring. So musically I share these moments or scenes like a simulation. Tristan’s work especially explores an animated reality which is so HD it is hard to distinguish between reality and animation. I love this speculative space. As well as this I work alot with playback techniques and find this a beautiful space for sampling and experimentation.
Is there anything else about Halos of Perception that you’d like to talk about?
My last thought is that, when I was visiting these sites, it was like being in a myth or a web of acoustic mirrors. So these songs come from a very special place. I would visit these sites with friends and have these experiences of shared listening and then return to find ways to compose around them and incorporate them. Some of the songs like “The painted room” mirror those experiences of refraction. I imitate walking through a tunnel where you have no idea what’s ahead. Sounds appear out of nowhere.
I’m sure if you were to visit these places, to go back into the “real world” would be such a jarring contrast.
It is. Even just returning to daylight. It’s very basic, but after being in pitch black for three hours under torch light, the contrast is high.
There’s a question that I always ask at the end of every interview that I want to ask you. Do you mind sharing something that you love about yourself?
I love that (laughter). What do you love about your hands?
I mean, they look good, and they can do things (laughter). I have very long piano hands.
Lisa Lerkenfeldt’s new album, Halos of Perception, is out on November 3rd, 2023 via Shelter Press. The record, as well as Lerkenfeldt’s other music, can be found at Bandcamp. More information about Lerkenfeldt can be found at her website.
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