Robert Curgenven is an Australian composer and artist living in Cork, Ireland. His work uses sound as a physical field of perception to encourage us to consider our physical experience of sound through our bodies, the space they inhabit, and also the psychological shaping of time and duration by the auditory. For him sound is weather and his work entreats us to feel and hear air. His live performances, installations, and album releases span pipe organ through to feedback, immersive resonances via turntables and custom-made vinyl, as well as carefully detailed field recordings from remote areas in Australia, particularly the Northern Territory where he lived for many years.
is In Wild Air
Ligeti's "Harmonies” Study No. 1
Pipe organ music is coming back into fashion now – whether it is for the physical music or inferences of being the first synthesizer. While I still find Bach’s music enjoyable and cerebrally relaxing in a way that I can’t easily articulate (having played much of it in my early years as an organist) it is Ligeti’s “Harmonies” Studies No 1 that blows the canon apart for me.
It is a piece that, with small modification to the fundaments of the pipe organ, manages to do things that no synthesizer could ever achieve with the same ease of physics. The score - which itself is only half the story - calls for two to play the stops and one to play the 'notes' on the organ’s consoles. What gives the piece an almost mystical appeal is the addition of venting air from the organs, reducing pressure from the bellows and creating half formed overtones, floating formants, and whistling ghosts of melodies. The beautiful resolution at 5m00s by Zsigmond Szathmáry and his unnamed cohorts is what ultimately does it for me as a transformative reimagining of the pipe organ in practice.
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Who to mention from the 7+billion people alive now and the billions more from the past? The polymath who made multiple discoveries and inventions, each in a different field belying their imputed genius by their non-sequiteur progressions? The artist whose story was perhaps invented or at least edited to remove the less attractive details of their character? What does this say about the author and the notion of an authority? If the preservation of our collective historical memory for whole civilisations can’t cover 10,000 years let alone the minimum of 49,000 years of indigenous inhabitation of Australia, nor even know that the Pyramids were made just 3000 years ago – is there anything else left but stories in our current collective conscious? If it is this story-person we are to remember, why not then an old concept reinvented, new name, revised histories – a character - someone who definitely trod the path less traveled? In the process their actions and our memories of them cast light on the stories we tell of authors and also the power that being an authority can have.
Even in the face of evidence that Marcel Duchamp was not the author of his most famous work and even if we know this and they become “the woman that made the R.Mutt urinal”, one thing remains clear: ‘Armut’ means poverty in German, a potential insight into the pseudonym and in place of a name the story itself remains poor. Born Else Hildegarde Plötz, acquiring a title by marriage to become the intimidating name we know her by today: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Lorignhoven. Elsa lived a life like few others: regarded as the first Dadaist in the USA, a woman of great strength and a punk 60 years before her time, she moved across countries, made art that was beyond many with seemingly few restrictions but many life constraints. I choose her not for any influence she’s had on me, but as a person who shows the crenulations and inversions of stories and her-story as well as our constructions of history.
Ten years ago if I’d been asked about a special place it would have been something like this. But after a few years based in Cornwall and now living in Ireland, I was fortunate enough to be recently overwhelmed by the Beara Peninsula. I had been told about the west of this island many times, and seen pictures, but when I finally went out there, the coast of the Beara Peninsula in West Cork’s main consistency was its ability to constantly surprise with its exposed and contorted rock strata. Like an alien topology of uplifted razor sharp rocks one minute, the next it was as if every kind of coastal geography which was ever called “beautiful” had been combined judiciously to create some kind of breathtaking new kind of beauty, a gestalt which was more than the sum of its parts. Any description would be like a catalogue of adjectival cliché – majestic mountains, rolling coastline, sweeping younameit – stop. I still don’t have a camera and an amateur photo would barely do it justice. I am looking forward to going back as soon as possible, in fact working on talking people into going out this weekend.
I’m not really into stuff - I understand that things do exist and they can equally be useful, interesting, and beautiful - but often as a means to an end. I still struggle with the day-to-day cult of materialism. Most of my work is done with the simplest means available and I’ve never updated my phone since 2004 which some take as a “retro” statement in the contrary way that sometimes having a beard is simply a case of not shaving.
One idea which has a strong cultural manifestation and has made its way into my life as a “product”, partly because of its relative difficulty in finding it in shops as well as its seasonal and geographical variations, is Japanese Sencha, or specifically Gyokuro. It is a green tea which is shaded for the last three weeks before harvest. This adds to its price but crucially increases the levels of theanine which adds to its sweetness and umami while reducing its levels of catechin and astringency.
A great Gyokuro is beneficial for focus and can make you feel like you can see through time. Legend has it that Gyokuro was given to the Samurai before battle, both for its strong caffeine but also the calmative effects of theamine on the warriors. Drinking Gyokuro while working I find is like the “slow blade” in Frank Herbert’s Dune - or maybe it is the time-bending Spice of the Navigators.
Vinyl Cutting & Playback
Sometimes stuff can be seen as manifestation of an idea, and while my engagement with sound tries, for all its contradictions, to avoid commodity or format fetish, the LP is an impressive invention bordering on the unlikely for its commingling of extreme limitations and dynamic possibilities for audio playback. Think of the stylus as a type of moving contact microphone, the tone-arm and body designed not to resonate, but when they do that is part of the warmth that the turntable adds, especially when the lid is off in front of the speakers. It’s not just the simple amplification of the movement of a needle that impresses but more so the parameters in cutting the vinyl that makes me wonder how it was ever invented or achieved the sophistication we enjoy today.
The complexity of the groove shapes and the cutting choices for vinyl can be equally guided by a series of trade-offs against conflicting parameters, as covered in this discussion, from the concerns of volume, groove depth, bass, phase, and groove width as well as their proximity to the end of a side and the distance traveled by the stylus, especially at 33rpm vs 45rpm. In an inexperienced cutter’s hands, the wrong approach could see the stylus jump out of the groove during playback or the cutter could go through the surface completely. The notion that these considerations could in turn (almost invisibly) influence popular culture with something like track ordering is equally surprising. Could those terrible 80s ballads at the end of album sides be there to work with cutting considerations on bass and volume as much as filling up a record with enough disposable cheeriness or melancholy to keep the avid consumer-listener happy or nostalgic?
Indigenous Celestial & Land Maps
As mentioned before, we’ve lost cultural memory and forgotten the way in which the pyramids were constructed. Stories and characters are now what many use for digital, literary, and cinematic entertainment and a culturally derived agricultural technique could be seen as a commodity - a good that can be bought and sold rather than a method to be learnt, preserved, and shared. The codification of epochal epistemologies and cultural knowledge into stories ensures that important details are passed on for generations, even millennia.
While only a few hundred years ago European astronomers thought the world flat, the moon to be of no influence on tides, and the sun to orbit the earth, Indigenous systems of knowledge have for centuries shown: predictive methods for cycles of eclipses and also constantly adapted to the precession of the stars; evidence of standing-stone solar calendars which accompany agriculture practices over 11,000 years old, predates Mesopotamian artifacts; cosmological travel route maps; right through to a single land management strategy for the whole continent.
On days when we don’t know what phase the moon is in without looking at the sky or our smartphones, when our knowledge of our histories is little more than fuzzy stories that go back a generation or two, when colonial systems continue to go unchecked and our lives are expression of products and commodification - know then that forces far greater than the small cycles of our daily lives have been understood and negotiated by people who have borne witness to them far longer than the 250 years or so since the declaration of Australia as a colony and its being ‘terra nullius’. To quote an Ecclesiastical book popular with people on Sundays, ‘history merely repeats itself, there’s nothing new under the sun'.