Robert Curgenven on grindcore, recording in the desert and the Irish experimental scene

Robert Curgenven is an Australian-born artist based in Ireland who produces albums, performances and installations. His work emphasizes physicality, our embodied response to sound and its correspondence with its architectural context, the weather and its physical production via air. His recorded output includes SIRÈNE, pipe organ works, for his Recorded Fields Editions; Oltre and Built Through for LINE imprint; and Climata, recorded in 15 of James Turrell’s Skyspaces across 9 countries.

Curgenven has produced works and installations for the National Gallery of Australia, the Centre for Contemporary Art in Toruń, Palazzo Grassi in Venice, transmediale in Berlin, and the Australian National Film and Sound Archive. He has also presented live performances at festivals, including Maerzmusik Berlin, TodaysArt, Cork Midsummer, Sonic Acts, and UH Fest Budapest. Robert is playing at the SHAPE showcase at Gamma Festival 2019 in Saint Petersburg

I’m curious about your musical evolution.

I started off learning on an Electone organ at quite a young age, so I’ve been around music for over 35 years now. I was about 9 or 10 when I was home alone and, while using just the pedals on the organ, I made a plate fall off the top shelf in the next room from only the bass. So at a fairly early age it was impressed upon me that sound, especially bass, is quite physical. I’m still quite impressed by how manipulations of bass pressure can affect very localised changes, almost like a microclimate, how it affects changes around us and our own physicality.

We later had a Hammond organ at home, which is basically about shaping overtones. In my late teens I stopped playing keyboard instruments but always had something lying around with a keyboard on it. I became more interested in not so much just intonation but the specificity of frequencies – the notes between the notes and harmonics. It felt like there are very obvious combinations and permutations that are possible with Western tuning and I was increasingly interested in possibilities outside that.

How did you get to play the organ at such a young age?

It happened partly because it can be put on headphones so not everybody has to listen to it. My father used to play a lot of jazz when I was young and he had these amazing quadraphonic test records. They presented a different way of hearing things and, generally, given Australia’s relative cultural hegemony, I mostly was interested in anything that was unusual in terms of music and engaged with that.

You mentioned the organ and the fact that you were playing through headphones as a child. Has that had an impact on how you perceive sound?

Not so much, I try to avoid the headphones nowadays. I’d say the shift towards more spatial, contextual and delicate concepts came from using some recording equipment on a few projects at university. Through them, I noticed that what was going on outside was as important as what I was recording. I ended up getting a Tascam DAT recorder and the microphones that I’ve been using for the last 20+ years and noticed that because of their sensitivity you really perceive what’s going on everywhere around you. As opposed to a camera, where you are focused on what’s going on in the frame, the microphones tend to pick up this framelessness, a field around you. A year after I finished university I ended up living in a relatively remote area on the other side of Australia so the surrounds became more important.

What were you doing there?

Getting away from the impending Sydney Olympics, which had a huge impact on the gentrification of the city, as well as being more interested in the areas outside the metropolitan zones of the east coast. In Australia, 80% of people live on the coast and I was interested in what happened further across the country and inland.

So this notion of space is also something that comes from those days?

Absolutely. You can see 16km to the horizon. If you make a recording or if you’re standing in a completely empty, flat area – for instance in the desert outside Coober Pedy – across that distance you’re effectively listening to a very wide geographical and topological context: how weather moves, how landforms shift, the small changes in sound as they heat and cool. And that’s going to influence how sound moves. It’s inherently contextual.

Technically, how do you create these soundscapes?

I did a lot of field recordings for a long period of time. Back then I was just doing radio. I’ve done radio since I was about 19, I learned to mix from that. There were two turntables, two CD players, two tape players, three Revox, a DAT player, a VHS player and whatever else was in the studio. Sometimes, there would be a group of us and we would be mixing live on air. There were no EQs on the studio console, so you’d just be getting a feel for the tactility of using faders. The field recordings happened when I was living in more distant areas and I made them for myself.

My time in remote areas was very instructive because I learned how sound behaves and that there’s a whole bunch of variant behaviours in any given situation. If you’re largely focused on areas where there are very few people – even though the land was shaped by 60,000 years of indigenous land management – you’re going to notice a certain way that things settle and move around. When you also consider that a 2Hz wave is about 75m long, if you’ve got a couple of kilometres between the nearest land forms, you have the potential for unimpeded, very large, very low frequencies to move around which you’ll subtly apprehend with your body. It puts a different spin on how you can hear out there.

So, regarding technicalities, mixing stuff by hand, working with different recordings on CDs and mixing them together or working with feedback that would build up chords – which again applies to how overtones overlay each other on a Hammond organ – working with the architecture of where you are, so you’re going to get room tones, or if you’re going to play outside you’re going to get very different sounds: its not an exercise in awareness, but all of this matters. Trying to draw things together into some sort of coherent approach that has a strong emphasis on audio has been fairly primary to what I’m doing. Sound pressure is also pretty interesting. And, along with context, you’ve also got duration within any given location: how long you play is going to also shape how the audience responds to that. I used to listen to a lot of grindcore, a lot of extreme music that I still quite enjoy, but after 20 minutes of grindcore I feel less engaged with it these days. Effectively, putting some “gears” on the music, some dynamics that shift about, tends to make it into a slightly more interesting and relatable experience.

We discussed the physicality of sound and its technical properties, but what about its emotional side?

I don’t use the recordings as much as I used to because, even though I have hours of them, at a certain point you’ve just exhausted the possibilities of combinations. Why would you combine a sound from a shopping mall in Japan with the middle of nowhere or a desert, what kind of point are you making without it being pastiche? People ascribe emotional qualities to water: it’s happy water, it’s playful, it’s sad-sounding… I did a piece for Cedric Peyronnet’s La Rivière project for his label Kaon where he made recordings along the 100kms of the Taurion River in France, which passes through the Limousin. I thought it was interesting to cut out all the other parts of the recordings that weren’t just white noise, essentially only when the water is really quite turbulent.

I was trying to make a piece with variants of white noise. I was trying to get around the idea of ascribing emotional qualities to something in an anthropomorphic/anthropocentric way. That was interesting because it ends up having a particular quality that maybe is a little bit full on all the time, but I think there’s a certain sense of an emergent dramaturgy. When events happen quickly, you might ascribe a certain emotional context to them. It’s often the tonal aspects that might give away a lot of that, so sometimes applying a heavy low frequency onto something creates a sinister quality, although the recording itself might not be sinister.

But it’s not premeditated. You don’t plan a certain emotional effect on the listener.

I think it’s an emergent phenomenon for people and it’s also relating to their life experience and where exactly they might be sitting in relation to the sound at the time they hear it. Sometimes, withholding certain sensory information, like if someone is at a concert and it’s dark or they are at a concert and all the lights are very strong, that also shapes the way people receive things emotionally. If there hasn’t been a lot going on for a long period and then suddenly something happens, then people are also going to ascribe an emotional arc to that. I guess a lot of what I do may have a strong emotional element to it and that might also have something to do with the way that I’m interested in frequencies moving.

I guess emotionally I’m interested in how, with music, you can have a whole variety of different feelings happening at the same time and that’s basically how life is. You might feel happy about something that’s about to happen, sad that something has ended, optimistic that it’s going to go somewhere else but anxious at the same time. It’s fascinating to have these strong mixes of emotions where you can’t identify the defining emotion. I think this reflects and represents an ontological state. I’m mostly OK with a certain degree of ambiguity and fuzziness. I’m quite fascinated by phase anomalies in sound and that they can produce a certain sensation where the sound appears to be coming from various sources around you. Equally, with phase there is a point where one thing becomes another and points in between when it can be both.

Nature also plays an important role in your work.

I have spent a lot of time outside, though now that I’m living in the Northern Hemisphere, architecture and the great indoors have become fairly driving forces. I noticed that I had some really nice recordings of wind in thunderstorms, wind moving through trees, to which you’d also ascribe a certain emotional arc because it feels like something’s building up. It’s really similar to how a lot of DJs or producers might use hissy frequencies in techno. I’ve noticed that if I was using a recording of wind out in the desert within a performance and I was also using turntables which have a great deal of hiss through them, that if I ramped-up the hiss it not only created a phase anomaly that felt as if the room was full of sound, but it also had a certain degree of emotional release, like a build-up in techno.

I also realised in recent years that I’m quite interested in air. In the tropics, when it’s super humid, it’s like the air is coated onto you, the clouds are also quite fascinating to watch. They are all about subtle movements of air and shifts in pressure. Watching, listening, and understanding how these changes in nature happen and that, after all, we are animals and we live in a very rarefied version of nature largely of our own construction, but we are not outside of it.

Do you think sound artists working with environmental recordings can improve or contribute to the environment?

Both yes and no. I think there’s a tendency to fetishise sounds. There are a lot of studies about sound in cities and, equally, there’s a lot of fascination of urbanists with this ineffability of nature. This is almost harking back to some sort of colonialist and imperialist idea of nature itself representing some sort of purist state, or to a nativist approach which has very problematic overtones to it. Engaging with the subtleties of what constitutes the specificities of a location and its context, and equally talking about a phase shift where one geographical or ecosystem shifts into another: where a savannah shifts into woodland and then gradually shifts into a rainforest or an Alpine area – being aware of how these things move around, you’re are becoming aware of how you exist in the world and where you are, your own ontological state.

The subtleties of focusing on any aspect of sound that isn’t primarily trying to manipulate people’s feelings into selling records or participating within the contemporary capitalist context can yield results. But I think that equally, with the technological means of delivery, be they just through computer speakers and MP3s or concert systems, there are going to be limits to the intelligibility of that message. I never really regarded myself as a field recordist, it was just one of the approaches I used at some points. In the last 10 or 15 years, it’s become a lot more of a ‘thing’.

There are also historical links to the work of Chris Watson, to the BBC’s work, wire recordings done in the ‘60s, nature programmes, when the equipment was a lot less portable. Some people want to go out and capture things and keep them and it ends up being like the Horniman Museum in London where you have a room full of these rare objects, conquests, as opposed to offering the opportunity to spend some time in these places. The early field recordings that I made were while I was living in the tropical areas and that was a small revelation. After the thunderstorms you’d get a 10 degree drop in temperature and you could literally hear the cool air moving around through the warmer air, or the warmer air dissipating and resulting in cooler patches, and the insects and various other fauna would respond to that. This ‘aha’ moment when I could hear the air move, and when I could hear where I was, was very instructive about understanding, not so much the limits of perception but how far that can extend. You can hear around corners, much further than you can see.

And what about your record label, Recorded Fields?

The name is largely a play on the term ‘field recording’ but I’m more particularly interested in these ‘fields’. That relates to something like an electrical field or a magnetic field, where one field interacts with another field. I guess with subsonics it’s quite fascinating because as bass propagates, it can suddenly certainly appear stronger in one spot than in the spot next to it because they move in a wave kind of form, but equally create a kind of field.

Out of the installations and the projects that you’ve done do you have a favourite?

The recording project in 15 of James Turell’s skyspaces was interesting because it gave me an opportunity to travel a lot in a short period of time. The recordings used two oscillators in a simple technique, which makes the air move in and out of the roof of these chambers that have an aperture in their ceilings. I was interested in this notion of the exchange of air between the inside and the outside. A lot of what I do is a kind of field recording, because I don’t really record in the studio very much. It equally relates to what I’ve been doing with pipe organs. In the last few years, I’ve been more focused on large-scale projects, creating fairly macro performances that are quite physical (e.g. a piece for a 32ft pipe organ). After not playing in public for over 20 years, performing on a Cathedral pipe organ was exciting, but equally daunting. The Agenesis piece I’m touring now is focused quite heavily on phase anomalies, and, combined with lights, has the potential to make people feel quite disoriented. Different projects express different things that I’m fascinated with.

You are based in Cork, Ireland. Could you perhaps talk about the Irish electronic/sound arts scene?

I’ve lived in a bunch of major cities, though I often don’t play where I’m living. The first time I came to Ireland I was impressed that people were really ‘up for it’. There was this raw willingness to engage. That said, there’ve been a number of venues shut down in the last few years here. There’ve been in-excess of 300 artist studios lost in Cork alone in the last couple of years, one building with 200 artist studios was levelled by a large development corporation so it could be turned into a hotel. As with the Celtic Tiger and the lead up to the crash in 2008, there’s a lot of speculative engagement that benefits maybe a few, over a general cultural engagement that could benefit the many.

There’s a real diversity of things going on, and there isn’t this compartmentalisation like in the UK. In terms of a scene, I’m probably less in the know, but there is a great festival called Open Ear which is held on an island in the south west. They only have Irish acts and it covers a whole spectrum, from techno, dance music, to more improvised approaches. There’s a strong emphasis on electronic music as well as site-specific projects across the island. This willingness to experiment characterizes a lot of the Irish engagement. The political, religious/sociocultural environment does have an impact on how people engage with things outside of a didactic hegemonic mainstream.

By Lucia Udvardyova

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