Interview: Robert Curgenven

Having listened to Curgenven’s last few releases intensely over the past weeks, I’ve become particularly captivated by his documentation and conveyance of air pressure: the organ tones wafting into open space on SIRÈNE, the resonances rippling through heat on They Tore The Earth, the flutter of air around and inside the structures on Climata. Even the most graceful sounds are presented as visceral energies, carving channels of vibration through the natural currents of air flow. Curgenven is as much an orchestrator of physical forces as a sculptor of abstraction.

For Climata, he made recordings inside 15 of James Turrell’s Skyspaces (architectural structures with apertures opening out into the sky), using sustained tones to accentuate the contrast between the air flow inside and outside the space. While Turrell’s work is predominantly appreciated for its handling of space and light, Curgenven’s album illustrates the sonic phenomena that arise when one inhabits one of the Skyspaces — most notably, a strange fluttering, phasing effect that becomes particularly prominent at various points throughout the record. As a listener I seem to be positioned both inside the space and outside it, both inhabiting the structural cocoon and perceiving its distinct shape as an onlooker. On October 8th 2016 he’ll be recreating Climata live in support of Stars Of The Lid at Triskel Arts Centre in Cork, Ireland. Below, Curgenven and I discuss the process of  recording inside these Skyspaces, the elasticity of space and the sensation of dwelling within Nietzsche’s “eternal return”.

Why did you initially become interested in Turrell’s work?

Something about Australia’s relative cultural isolation prompted me to go to art galleries and contemporary art centres whenever possible as well as working in them as a way of seeing what else was going on in the world. Part of that is an interest in opportunities to see work that’s known for only really “working” in person – like Rothko, a lot of Western Desert Indigenous Australian art like Dorothy Napangardi, land art and earthworks pieces. I’d known of Turrell’s work for a while from books and galleries, but it’s specifically the acoustics of the Skyspaces that got my interest when I encountered them in person.

The first time I saw something of his was a show of at Gagosian gallery while I was living in London in 2010 which had a ganzfeld. I saw the ganzfeld as a piece of architecture with musical possibilities, the way it mixed light and adjacent spaces. It struck me that the kind of music this process of adjacent space resonated with, like that of Eliane Radigue, the way in which sound could be layered suggested that more layers of sound could be mixed with a clear outcome than the number of colours which could be mixed directly. If many layers of colours were mixed or overlaid in the same way as adjacent sounds then they’d  just make white – so this difference reinforced for me the differing kinds of complexity in perception and physicality that separates the two media.  

After London I lived near a Skyspace in Cornwall in 2013 and got to know the owner as I was particularly struck by the acoustics as well as the setting – a sculpture garden the owner had hand-planted himself over 15 years. This melding of public art and the environmental context was very strong in the garden in Cornwall, the way that interiority and exteriority weren’t just adjacent but were deeply intermingled within one other.

Most discussion on Turrell’s work fixates on the relationship between the Skyspaces and light/space. Sound is seldom mentioned. Do you have any thoughts on why this may have been so consistently overlooked?

While the light-related aspects of the Skyspaces produce a kind of narrowing of the viewable field from inside with regard to outside the Skyspace, with regards to sound the Skyspaces’ bright acoustics actually amplify, filter and in some ways expand the audible field from inside with regard to outside the Skyspace and also vice versa. Most people don’t notice the particularity of the sound in the Skyspaces but in some ways you need to be aware that there is something to listen out for. In most cases people aren’t listening for the anomalies in the day-to-day whereas the ‘visual world’ of the everyday is navigated far more in this way for identifying and almost rewarding anomalies you see as intriguing places to go if you’re so inclined. But as it stands, people approach the Skyspace as a light art installation, that’s what they’re told, so they look for the way in the architecture frames the sky and the light, rather than how it parses sound. 

Could you describe the experience of entering and inhabiting a Skyspace?

They’re bright and resonant, but the function of the aperture, which characterises the Skyspaces, is an architectural feature that I’ve worked with before on different projects. The air in the aperture can be made to vibrate in such a way that that air oscillates in and out of the ceiling aperture, creating a very audible sound – like a fluttering. This sound is also intrinsic to the acoustic resonance of the space inside as well as the air outside. This literally sets up a movement across a threshold – making a kind of ambiguity where inside and outside are mixed – the architecture becomes an envelope or filter which can be played and used to play the surrounding area via the air in a very physical way. 

HOTEL CASTEL ZUOZ

SKYSPACE AT HOTEL CASTEL ZUOZ, SWITZERLAND

Throughout 2015, you made 200 recordings in 15 Skyspaces across the UK, Europe and Australia. Did you have a sense of what you wanted Climata to be when you started making these recordings, or did the objective of the project materialise/transform as you went?

The entire focus was on this movement of the air across the aperture of each of the 15 individual Skyspaces. The tonal aspect was actually secondary – it’s just the motor that drives in the air in that way. As far as where to record, I reckoned that across 15 locations the types of topology and range of geography from urban to rural geographies would give enough of a range of tonal and textural combinations to broadly address this central focus around phase as well as the additional aspects of consonance/dissonance and (by also default) harmony. From those individual characters and the locational context surrounding the 15 sites, the aim was to form a relational structure, like a matrix, which would inform the overall structure and also the individual pieces on the double album.

In the middle of recording the main run of driving 4000kms to the first 10 Skyspaces, I tested some combinations of recordings one morning in a hotel’s kitchen to check the progress and see if the concept was bearing out properly. Even using a small speaker I couldn’t tell where the sounds I was playing in the kitchen were coming from, which was a nice confirmation that the idea was working. The combinations of recordings that morning had an interesting microtonal character plus the location sounds – like birds, cows, wind etc – all spoke to each in a way that made sense across the combined recordings. And most importantly the fluttering sound was very clearly audible even in a room without windows. I was pretty happy then to get back in the car and drive onto the next locations to record knowing the process was worth putting the effort into and that the very specific intentions were making their way onto tape.

How did you approach the recording process of each Skyspace, and to what extent did this approach vary depending on the qualities of each individual space?

The spaces themselves were different shapes – square, round or elliptical – sometimes the ceiling was domed; the materials used to make them varied – wood, concrete, marble, different kinds of stone – so these all changed the internal sound. In terms of the movement of the air, listening to the weather was very important, how it changed and influenced the air outside and the air inside – how each air-mass conducted sound, from shifts in barometric pressure, temperature and humidity. Finally, the sounds outside from the location – anything from chainsaws, a clocktower and cathedral bells to school kids, birds, deer, cows, sheep and the movement of foliage on plants and trees – they all were factors to be worked with or around. A louder environment outside could suggest using a slightly faster or more active set of beating frequencies from the oscillators in order to demonstrate how the oscillating air in the aperture of the Skyspace was changing and “processing” this busy air from outside against the stiller air inside the Skyspace.

Tones were played into the space as you recorded. I’m struck by how vividly these tones generate the complex acoustic structure of the Skyspaces. The tones themselves seem to illuminate the internal shape of the Skyspace, while I can distinctly feel the external soundscape being “funnelled” into the space through the opening. What did you use to generate these tones, and when did it become apparent that a tone was apt for the particular space?

That’s a pretty accurate description of what I was looking to make. I’m originally an organist from an early age, so finding the right combination of tones draws on elements of that training and tuning. The process of making the tones and recording was incredibly simple because it needed to be very portable because the Skyspaces were often a fair way from transport – the furthest being a mile from the road  – and often had no mains power, so I needed to work with battery power only. I just used a portable speaker and two custom-made tone generators. Everything was tuned by ear and done fairly intuitively and decisive, especially given the battery time was quite limited and the long travel between locations made the time in the spaces quite precious. That was all complemented by two condenser mics recording straight to laptop which also provided the power to the mics. I generally had two hours of battery for the recording, so I was either working quite quickly, even though each recording was quite long, or I needed to return to somewhere I could recharge. The relative lack of gear and its simplicity meant I setup fast and got to work, resulting in less worry about the equipment and instead allow me to focus on the space and location. Positioning the gear was all part of listening to the movement of the air and where I was. The added amusement was that each time I was recording and found myself working in this process throughout the project I’d look up and see a different hole in the ceiling – “oh yeah, this again” – the setting that makes the Skyspaces what they are. The particularity of their seats, floor and the aperture in the ceiling, were the theme that I was kind of riffing on throughout each of the recordings. An interesting sense of Nietzsche’s “eternal return” or a locationally and durationally shifted feeling of déjà vu.

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You also point out the “whooshing” sound, which is formed in the contrast between the air movement outside and inside the space. Is this effect as prominent in real life – i.e. when occupying the Skyspaces – as it is on the recordings?

Very clearly. I haven’t done any effects or tricks to increase it or place it in the recordings artificially. The whole album is based around capturing and composing primarily around this very concrete and audible sound. Basically, each track “rides” this phasing and moves it gently, even if the tones appear to change, or even not change for you. The phasing is always moving but the aim was not to make it jump suddenly, to give continuity. The album has just a bit of EQ, with no compression or studio effects used. Apart from that its pretty much all raw recordings. The tones themselves are just a kind of by-product — they are what makes the air move, so I tried to make the tones as quiet as possible while still audible, making the fluttering sound itself audible.

You met Turrell in summer last year, and together you listened to the recordings that you’d made in his Skyspaces. What were his thoughts on your project and the recordings?

He said he’d heard similar effects with people’s voices in the Skyspaces; this fluttering effect. While we talked I realised he was mostly interested in quizzing me about specific weather phenomena – tangible things. While light is physical in his work, and the architecture that contains it is very tangible. In some ways I’m more fascinated by things which operate outside property and the tangible, anomalies especially — but these have a physical character too, so perhaps that’s where there’s a meeting in the middle.

I’ve tried listening to Climata over both headphones and speakers. Headphones seemed to provide me with the most potent experience, as the “shape” of the Skyspace felt much sharper. Also, it generated the sensation that the sounds of the Skyspace itself – those tones circulating the internal air – were coming from inside my skull, whereas the external soundscape was situated outside it. Do you have a preferred listening format?

I like the way playing the pieces loudly, on nice speakers set back on the other side of the room, acts to “condition” the air in the room. Particularly the pieces on Disc B (which has all the pieces with bass on it) when one of the pieces starts there’s a palpable difference in the air, this conditioning begins – the air seems to move differently, in a way that is physically perceivable – whether that’s to the body or the ear that’s up to you. Opening the window sets up a further conditioning of the air in the room relative to the air outside the room and extends this dialogue. 

I understand that you encourage the listener to play both Climata discs simultaneously, ordering the tracks how they please. The amassment of tones become incredibly disorientating when the tracks are overlain like this. What are your own experiences with experimenting with this playback method?

I quite like this sense of disorientation. It makes space generally, or the architecture of the specific location, feel elastic. The movement of the air is very particular to “where you are” – like weather. So the disorientation comes, in part, from a displacement of that innate perception of place and the movement of the space around you via microclimates of the air moving. You move from that place “where you are” and your perception of that feeling is different elsewhere, a new constellation to the experience. 

What does the immediate future hold for you and your work?

I’ve just had an exhibition of a three channel video version of They tore the earth… back in Australia where the sound from the LP released in 2014 has been rearranged and extended by three screens that enclose the viewer, like an extended horizon, the footage was all shot out in the desert in Australia. That will be exhibited again next year in Ireland. This weekend I’m opening for Stars of the Lid here in Cork, Ireland as part of their first European tour in years. I’ll also be doing the concert version of Climata in a deconsecrated 12th Century church. There’s a more of these concerts coming up around Europe and further afield including Palazzo Grassi Teatrino in Venice in a few weeks. I’ve also got an exhibition in Poland around architecture and more projects there in coming months too as well as some collaborative work and a few new surprises.

Climata online – recordedfields.net/records/rfe_03
Climata on BandCamp – robertcurgenven.bandcamp.com/album/climata
Climata on SoundCloud – soundcloud.com/recorded_fields/climata-extract