– An Appreciation
As the drone grows louder, piling on pressure, it spreads sonic glue, solidifying the audio scene to the consistency of a dark treacle, a black balloon suffocating the sky. Suddenly the lower thickness of the drone falls away to uncover higher, more transparent frequencies - David Toop
East-London, 30 October 2011. Upstairs at Apiary Studios, a once derelict building now functioning as a gallery-space, Robert Curgenven finishes setting up his equipment in preparation for the final concert of his air+electricity UK-tour with overhead-projection artist Katrin Bethge. The noises of the city filtering through the windows are soon forced to retreat, washed away by a deep wave of bass frequencies. The venue is fitted with rows of old and worn-out cinema chairs so the audience can comfortably focus on the dark drones and ghostly field recordings, while morphing projections crystallise on the crumbling walls. As the air thickens up, an intense pulsating plasma imperceptibly wafts into the room and immerses the listeners into the vivid expanse of dense sonic fields. Curgenven will later recall this particular moment with an acute awareness: “at the very beginning tonight, I started with this low frequency, right at the threshold of perception. I wanted to sustain it until it instilled a distinct awareness of the physicality of such a small event and its possible volatility, that it could become something much bigger and louder at any time.”
In its most recent incarnation, Curgenven’s work could be associated with a movement of neo-minimal drone music that has re-emerged in the last 15 years. Incidentally, his music shares some important conceptual and procedural similarities with the work of artists such as Toshimaru Nakamura, Sachiko M, Oren Ambarchi or Stephan Mathieu who are all key players within this elusive scene. Their music is essentially process-based and relies very minimally on ‘traditional’ instruments and more on a ‘non-classical’ utilisation of machines, like the no-input mixer of Toshimaru Nakamura or the empty sampler of Sachiko M.2 Curgenven has developed a very particular utilisation of acoustic feedback which he sculpts in the context of improvised performances. His music heavily features large bass and undulating infra-bass sustained sounds whose overtones are shaped and juxtaposed alongside hissy textures and transient field recordings meticulously chosen for their timbral, structural and moreover physical qualities. Curgenven’s work can sound quite austere when listened to from a distance or in the comfort of one’s living room. But experienced within an adequate concert space it acquires a very seductive physicality. By immersing his audience into a warm plasma of inter-modulated bass frequencies, Curgenven’s music turns the concert room into an alien resonant instrument from which sound and space coalesce into new forms.
Robert Curgenven has been involved with music in one way or another for over 30 years, from his beginnings as a classically trained organist. At the age of 19, he started working in radio and as a graphic designer for music magazines, including writing and editing. For 10 years he lived and worked in remote areas of his native Australia, particularly the Northern Territory. During this time he began to make field recordings in an attempt to capture these vast spaces, accumulating an abundant collection later used as sound sources on albums such as the Alice Springs Sound Atlas and Silent Landscapes. He visited Europe in 2004/2005, spending much of that time in Berlin almost by accident, re-encountering the active improvised music scene he had left behind years before for the desert. His first works in this new environment were with piano overtones and field recordings. When he relocated to Europe, at first in Berlin, in 2008 he advanced this work by furthering a unique approach towards sound shaping using the audio feedback generated from guitars, turntables and custom dubplates: “From a continued interest in resonance and feedback, thoughts that gestated during the previous years in Australia, I was fortunate to meet someone who cuts vinyl, so was able to practically test some ideas about how turntables, in much the same way as guitars, can feed back. This was during a time of heavy touring in Europe so I was able to develop these techniques in a range of different concert spaces and volumes, both through solo and collaborative performances.”
Curgenven’s main performative setup consists of three turntables, a 12 channel mixing desk and a couple of microphones gated with ventilators. Curgenven frequently plays custom dubplates: “these work with the resonant potential of the turntable and act much like a patch for a synthesizer. One side-effect of their use, which at times doubles as a feature, is that the dubplates erode quickly, so as the turntable plunders and recontextualises the vinyl, the dubplates in turn transform the turntable into a resonating instrument.” So the spectral content of the recorded material is always changing, rendering the material formless and fluid – new sonic artifacts become more and more prominent upon repeated utilisations. This double act of cannibalism, where the turntable’s stylus consumes both the content and the medium, is often a fascinating and intricate exploration of surface noise and is best demonstrated on Curgenven’s album Oltre (LINE, 2010).
From a distance, Curgenven’s working method could easily be mistaken for what a ‘traditional’ DJ would do with records and turntables. Whilst this kind of turntablism is more related to mainstream forms of music, his process completely transcends the traditional practice in favour of a radically different aesthetic. In a lecture in 1937, John Cage foresaw the use of turntables as instruments3, and he composed his first piece for turntables, Imaginary Landscape No 1, two years later. In some ways, Cage’s legacy has since then co-existed with a lesser-known form of avant-garde sonic explorations with turntables, sometimes used with vinyl and sometimes even without4. For the last thirty years in particular, musicians like Christian Marclay, Philip Jeck, Martin Ng or Otomo Yoshihide have all taken Cage’s vision to completely new territories. Robert Curgenven’s practice with turntable feedback furthers this artistic arc in a very unique way and his work is probably one of the most interesting reincarnations of the turntable as an instrument.
Utilising acoustic feedback in music is not new and can be traced back to the 1960s, where a rich history finds its roots across numerous genres and artistic practices. Acoustic feedback occurs under certain conditions when there is a sound loop between a speaker and a pickup system, like a microphone, a guitar or, in the case of Curgenven’s music, a turntable stylus. In 1966, John Cale of the Velvet Underground used guitar feedback as main sound source in the making of the track ‘Loop’ to produce a dense mesh of throbbing and pulsating drones. This guitar feedback, soon adopted by countless musicians, had a strong impact on Curgenven in his formative years “I’d always listened to guitar music, enjoyed a lot of feedback and also its tonal/timbral qualities which were so multi-faceted and simultaneously so elusive. Early on I’d wonder how people got that sound, notice how it could propel a piece, sustain tension, introduce or finish a song.” Eddie Shaw (bass player of The Monks) recalls how his band discovered audio feedback by accident when a guitar, still turned on, was left in close proximity to an amplifier: “the sound began to gather force, as if it had an intelligence of its own. It began to roar and there were many overtones, as if a chord had gotten out of control [...] It was not the kind of sound we had ever heard before. It was as if the genie of the demons had entered our instruments, working without human help. We didn’t have to do anything. It was there. It was the invention of the automatic atomic ear blaster – a very valuable discovery for civilization as we knew it.”
Working with feedback as a sound source is thus a fine balance between unleashing a “genie” and controlling seemingly unruly “demons”. Unlike the traditional practice of ‘normal’ instruments, through the process of shaping acoustic feedback into tangible forms, musicians play their ‘instrument’ as much as they’re played by it and have to re-invent how they can embody sound in radical new ways.
For Curgenven, utilising feedback as sound source is an act of “surrender as much as giving into the incidental, but also about not giving into the technique over content approach. Live, usually more than half of the channels of my mixer are running different kinds of feedback - be it from turntables, guitars or microphones on the fans – so all these channels influence each other changing the overall sound. One turntable’s feedback might ‘get inside’ the bass from a fan, modulate it, which, rather than making the setup unstable, effectively propels the performance as the interaction between the tones constantly changes.”
Using turntables instead of guitar or microphones to generate feedback is a way of coaxing new timbres out of a relatively old concept. Shaw’s description of guitar feedback is well appropriate to describe Curgenven’s work with turntable feedback. The remarkable body of research undertaken by Curgenven since 2007 has thus allowed him to leverage this autonomous intelligence that Shaw talks about to create not so much of an “automatic atomic ear blaster” but more a sort of primal sonic magma from which he can draw a seemingly infinite pool of frequencies. And the idiosyncrasies of his performative and compositional sound/space system, its inherent latencies, the frequency response characteristics of the room in which he plays, are all essential in shaping up the timbre/tone of his music.
Whilst Curgenven’s background is in playing the pipe organ, his work with audio feedback is not unrelated to those roots. For him, organ and feedback “are both focused on the production of harmonics and they both are formed as a product of space, natural resonance as well as operating within a threshold.” So working with organs or working with turntable feedback are both a way to access a very particular sound/timbre quality that embodies the specificities of the physical space. Looking at Curgenven’s music through a frequency analyser is a strangely deceptive experience and would suggest that only a few static tones make the bulk of the overall sound. Upon focused listening though, the music feels full-bodied and in a state of constant motion: closer examination of Curgenven’s compositions shows an always careful choice of frequencies, a solid bass foundation, some repetitive elements to give unity to the sonic edifice – for example the lock-out at the end of a record, a few lines of flights in the forms of distant field recordings or intermodulations of tones and an overall sense of density. In the way he constructs his music, Curgenven is indeed focused on “not overloading the frequency range and also using particular feedback tones that create the right difference frequencies – like architecture where the parts interlock to create a stronger and fuller whole through sparseness.”
In coaxing acoustic feedback out of his set-up and sculpting the corresponding overtones, he can transcend the ‘traditional’ tuning system: “most instruments work on even-temperament and I was more and more interested in just-intonation, which became this way of working with harmonics. Composers like Messiaen and Debussy did things that moved beyond the notes, they were more about mood, timbre, tone and complex harmonies.” In his work with harmonics, Curgenven creates an abstract field in which he makes the concert room fully present to the audience. Each of his performances is therefore site-specific and through the medium of sound he can then explore the physical space around him and the listener – the variable dimensions of the venue and its reflective qualities, amongst many other factors, are key to the frequencies, harmonics and timbres he generates whilst building up his music. Often, listening to Curgenven’s music feels like inhabiting the inside of a resonant chamber, where raw sound can unfold and expand as if it was carving out a space whilst continuously reshaping it. Using feedback as sound source is thus a way to sublimate the physical space into sound.
Since 2003, he has regularly exposed his work in the context of sound installations in Europe, Australia and the USA. Curgenven sees a clear and important distinction between his recorded and performative work on one side and his site-specific installations on the other side. If his performances usually aim at transporting his audience inside a sonic field, it’s really with sound installations that he can expand on the idea of immersion: “Installations can address aspects which are temporal or durational, include sculptural or spatial aspects which aren’t as easy to convey in a recorded work or performance. Multiple speakers or multiple projections can allow or create a more immersive or totalising field within an installation but often don’t translate as well outside that frame.”
Compared to numerous drone artists and field recordists, Curgenven hasn’t released an overwhelming number of records since his 2005 debut album, but in the mean time he has played his music on more than 150 occasions throughout Australia, Japan, and Europe. Each of Curgenven’s releases is a careful work of tactility that demands thorough engagement into the material to fully appreciate its intricacy, delicacy and impact. The field recording albums Alice Springs Sound Atlas (2007), Royal Botanic Gardens (2008) and Silent Landscapes (2008) released on Curgenven’s own label Recorded Fields, are all wonderful records, but someone new to his music should perhaps begin with the excellent Oltre which is full of immersive bass tones and intriguing crackling textures. Oltre incorporates a range of field recordings collected throughout Australia and beyond, some to be found in his earlier environmental projects, as well as providing the first complete documentation on CD of his work with dubplates and feedback that was honed during a period living in Italy. Following the shift to releasing his music after years improvising with the radio studio as an immediate instrument, Curgenven’s work has been featured on numerous concept compilations, like the intriguing Locked Groove/Flip Book (Tape Projects, 2008) whose sixty-two 10-second pieces all end with a short locked groove. In March 2012, Curgenven and London sound-artist Will Montgomery released an impressive split LP (Winds Measure, 2012) whose two contrasting 20-min tracks form a cohesive whole of encrypted and translocated spaces. His most recent album Built Through (LINE, 2012) is a monumental collaborative work with American reductionist Richard Chartier, and is perhaps Curgenven’s most compelling release to date.
The field recordings that were prominent in Curgenven’s early work have diminished in recent years, supplanted by textured, abstract and immersive drones drawing on the physical presence of sustained bass tones. “The field recording CDs were just a period centred on purity of tone and were a strong interest in space and duration, as recordings always have a fixed duration as does music in general which was an important inter-relationship. Now, as I live in the Northern hemisphere and spend considerably more time indoors, I’m pursuing sounds that recall the ideas underlying the field recordings - their texture, movement – and how complex tones can create environments on CD or in a concert which is more densely experienced and evocative of a less literal space.”
It was Curgenven’s relocation to Europe in 2008 that allowed the development of two very interesting duos which are really worth seeking out. In the aforementioned audiovisual air+electricity project with Hamburg-based overhead-projection artist Katrin Bethge, Curgenven plays music in a similar vein to his Oltre album whilst an ever-changing and organic tableaux is projected before him – with the interplay between the audio and visual counterparts being nothing less than mesmerising. Curgenven also collaborates as ‘TSU’ with German guitarist Jörg-Maria Zeger, whose work can be heard in the track Largo Capriccioso.6 In this collaboration, the tone, mood and atmosphere of the music take a rather dark and ghostly turn, building intensity in a raw and menacing manner, and thus giving oblique new insights into Curgenven’s own music. In a typical setup, Zeger generates disembodied haunted melodies and spectral harmonies through an complex array of guitar pedals to which Curgenven responds with vinyl crackles, field recordings and haunted room tones projected into the concert space as overwhelming bass sustained layers and corresponding overtones are generated through turntable feedback. Whilst TSU is in the process of finishing a full-length album, seeing these projects live is really the best way to apprehend their respective emotional and physical impact.
Presence in Curgenven’s music is more than the side-effect of a particular performative process. It often facilitates talking to an audience in purely sensuous way through the prominence of immersive bass tones: “I’m interested in a sound that brings about a physical response. Sometimes so much is analysed and so much is filtered through mental processes, like apprehending the world in “bricks” we can deal with. Whereas when it’s physical, it affects you. It’s this idea of percept and affect, the Deuleuzian idea that if you receive something directly, physically in some ways it bypasses something before you start comparing and analysing. Through tension and through using sound as a physical medium, you can maintain engagement even when it becomes almost silent. So it’s about trying to create something that is compelling for people.”
Through maintaining engagement via music, Curgenven brings his audience to the cusp of awareness of an alternate world of sound and thus reveals this elusive threshold of perception he mentioned after his performance at the Apiary Studios. This idea is not new and has been present for a long time in Curgenven’s artistic preoccupations, like in his 2008 environmental project Silent Landscapes. In this album, he combines numerous field recordings captured in various deserts, open plains and volcanic fields in remote Australia into a coherent whole, so “somewhere between beauty and brutality, the restrained fury of this landscape becomes quietly perceptible upon the threshold of silence, gathering volume to create an intense exploration of uncharted territories at the edge of human experience.”7 Turning the concept of silence on its Cagean head, Curgenven records ‘empty’ landscapes and recombines them into imaginary fields to reveal that deserts are all but quiet and silence is anything but vacuous. In focusing on the remote and the alien, Curgenven creates and maintains the engagement of his audience into sound to examine expanding soundscapes pitched at the limit of human perception. Reflecting on the effect his music could produce, Curgenven reckoned that what he does “is like suggesting possibilities, delineating limits, or creating a surface like the edge of a field that people come up against.” If his music has somehow become more abstract with time, those root principles are ever so manifest in his present work and can be all found in his most recent collaborative album Built Through. The bare landscapes of earlier projects have now morphed into enclosed spaces whilst the acoustic ecology of the ‘silent’ is now coaxed out of resonating room tones or pipe organs.8 Yet the organic and the abstract still work beautifully together and in the process are often turned into transcendental sonic fields, revealed from the inside to an audience placed in a state of sustained immersion.
Oxford, 3 March 2012. Robert Curgenven plays the last performance of the Audiograft festival with Mancunian sound-artist Lee Patterson in the small downstairs concert room of the Modern Art Museum Oxford. The music is intimately delicate and once again immersing the audience inside a vivid sonic field. Curgenven’s contribution is unusually quiet but nonetheless always enveloping and perfectly responding to Patterson’s sound work: “I was very focused on creating space within the cavernous room – a space (or kind of ‘ecology’) which Lee’s sounds could inhabit. The bass was there too but the frequencies were very low rather than loud, often below 25Hz, so it gave different definitions to the space and interactions with the acoustic specificity of the high frequencies.” Through the sound pressure of the very low end, Curgenven could thus condense this intimate venue into a nearly inaudible warm sonic plasma directly reminiscent of the space itself, the seductive beauty of his music again lying at the threshold of perception.
Within the concert space or throughout his recorded work, Curgenven always demonstrates a intense preoccupation with sound and space: how they can generate each other, how they can co-exist together and how their interaction can create new fields that either other musicians or a focused audience can negotiate despite their constant mutability. By maintaining engagement with sound, Curgenven renders space fully present to the listener. It’s through the physical ubiquity of bass frequencies that Curgenven can intertwine sound and space together, so they resonate as a singular entity and transcend each other, often projecting their elusive shadow on the surface of music.