Traces of atrocity

Sacred Ground / They tore the earth and, like a scar, it swallowed them

In November 2014, two heavyweights of the ambient experimental music scene released albums addressing atrocities against indigenous peoples. The releases were products of two very different sets of circumstances: Stephan Mathieu’s “Sacred Ground” is a commissioned soundtrack for a film of the same name, whereas Robert Curgenven’s “They tore the earth and, like a scar, it swallowed them” issues from the artist’s deep and longstanding engagement with the history and struggles of indigenous peoples in Australia, the country of his birth. Both albums join the dots between music making and the lived daily practice of ethics and politics, and do so without so much as a nod towards the so-called ‘power ambient revival’ that has made waves on the fringes of the mainstream in the past year.

Mathieu was invited by a team of independent filmmakers to provide the soundtrack for a documentary film exploring the connections and contrasts between Wounded Knee, site of an 1890 massacre of Lakota indigenous people by the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment in South Dakota, and the ‘national memorial’ at Mount Rushmore just two hours’ drive away. The film alternates between these two different memorial landscapes and interviews with local residents and visitors. The contrast between the huge tourist revenues attracted by Mount Rushmore and the often dire poverty of the people living in and around the Wounded Knee area reflects the contrast between the national pride felt by European immigrants to the land they called America and the acts through which that land was seized and subdued.

Curgenven’s album attempts to reflect on the invasion and colonisation of Australia from the point of view of the invader, and to do so through musical means. The fantasy of “terra nullius” (“ground zero”, empty and unclaimed land) disintegrates into violence upon contact with the physical and political realities of the bush, not least the fact that it was not, as current Australian prime minister Tony Abbott recently claimed, “unsettled”. Curgenven spent several years working in indigenous communities in northern Australia, where he collected many of the field recordings that populate the sound world of “They tore the earth”. The album speaks not on behalf of the indigenous oppressed, but rather from a position of urgent and serious meditation on the past, present and future threads of colonial atrocity. This is evident from the relationship of the music in “They tore the earth” and “Sacred Ground” to time.

Although the themes addressed by these two albums find manifestation in specific historical events, the moments in which they partake should not be understood as belonging solely to the past. Curgenven’s extensive use of field recordings on “They tore the earth” makes this audible: the rumblings, cracklings, cawings, and so on are markers of a present in which listeners are located, here, now, as witnesses. As perpetrators? Perhaps. But this sense of being in the present is challenged, disrupted, folded in to a more complex perception of time. Thick layers of homogeneous tone, derived from instruments such as organ, guitar, and bass but often indiscernible as such, hang with all the heaviness of history like a sky black with cloud, while at the same time creating the menacing, lurching impression of a horror about to be revealed, a sense of dread.

Are these drones needed to give provide a historical backdrop to the field recordings? Or are the field recordings required to locate the drones within a history? Yet the field recordings themselves are often capable of communicating temporal blurring: the chirruping of birds heard at a distance imparts a sense of nostalgia, which in context tips over into a memory of grief. And the drones are so focused and intense that they are occasionally capable of inducing a stomach-twistingly physical lurch, bringing living bodies into the space and moment of the music even as dead ones are buried. Sudden shifts from quiet to loud, or from one texture to another, are the structural equivalents of this specific instability, this flitting-on-the-spot between past, present, and future. An intensity that dissolves all distance is nonetheless the album’s pervading character.

Sacred Ground, hazy black-and-white desert


“Sacred Ground” lacks field recordings and places less emphasis on the here and now, which is entirely appropriate given that Mathieu’s experience of the trace of atrocity that is the music’s subject is rather less direct than Curgenven’s. In contrast with the abrupt cuts of “They tore the earth”, Mathieu’s soundtrack uses the faint and gradual harmonic transitions of ambient music to create a sense of temporal and spatial distance, while at the same time eliciting a straining-to-hear that draws a historically distant event within the intimate sphere of reflection. Low pitch and dissonance are used to express violence, but they don’t cause physical symptoms to quite the same degree as on “They tore the earth”, retaining a more discernible tonal centre. Mathieu’s reflection is one that acknowledges the limitations of personal experience, describing the heavy unease of a history rarely confronted rather than the shock encounter with visceral horror.

Both these approaches are important, if only for the fact that atrocities occurring against indigenous peoples are not merely one more stain on humanity’s conscience among many others: they in fact encapsulate and integrate a wide range of injustices and stupidities, with vast repercussions for the present and future. European immigrants have destroyed and continue to destroy ways of inhabiting the land that protect and sustain its capacity for supporting life, something that European-derived ways of inhabiting have failed to work out how to do. The land they stole is now failing them as the climate and geography undergo changes induced by an inhabiting built on carbon emissions and relentless resource extraction. Current Australian immigration policy and tensions along the US/Mexico border are clearly symptoms of the anxiety caused by the repressed memory of Europeans’ own arrival as immigrants into someone else’s land. Images of violence accumulate, and begin to resemble one another.

To speak of Australia, or America, or indeed any other nation-myth, is to invoke a trace that has its historical inscriptions as well as present and future implications. Musical choices such as orchestration, tonality, and structural development reflect the different emphases placed by Mathieu and Curgenven on the traces assumed by their specific subject matter, which in turn relate to the specific set of circumstances that brought their music into being. Their approaches to time, while different, both emphasise the ‘liveness’ of an issue that some would like to pretend is merely a chapter in the history books. Hence, both albums have something powerful to convey about the experience of indigenous peoples under European occupation, for those with ears to listen (and eyes to see, for those lucky enough to catch the “Sacred Ground” film or the live audio-visual version of “They tore the earth”). Perhaps they can both play a role in moving us closer to a fairer settlement and towards less primitive and damaging ways of inhabiting the environments that make life possible. (Stephan Mathieu) (Robert Curgenven)

“Sacred Ground” image produced by Caro Mikalef / Cabina Haiku

Thanks to Kate Carr for her feedback on an earlier draft of this article

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