Name: Robert Curgenven
Occupation: composer, performer, sound installation artist
Nationality: Australian / Irish
Current release: Beyond Enclosures (comprising Bardo, SPECTRES and Bronze Lands (Tailte Cré-Umha) Live at Sydney Festival) is out now on Recorded Fields Editions
If you enjoyed this interview with Robert Curgenven, you can listen to and buy his music at www.recordedfields.net. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started around 7 with a Hammond organ that had a Leslie speaker, it had a very tactile sound which was impressively big for its size. I had music lessons – exams which included an improvisation section, I was drawn to this more than sight-reading, but mostly more interested in Bach over the other musical material that was required learning. I wrote simple pieces – naïve children’s ideas. The Hammond in particular offered a lot of great harmonics, the drawbars shaped the size and depth of the sound, the Leslie speaker added its own specific colour and the bass from the pedals and its physicality made a big impression on me at a young age – how it could be heard and felt rooms away. It was possibly even then that I was interested in ‘the notes between the notes’. In some ways not so much has changed in the last thirty years. I also did radio from my late teens onwards, for the first 5 years it was in old radio studio with multiple CD players, tape decks, turntables and a couple of Revoxes – which was where I learnt how to mix and use a console and the studio as an instrument to build more complex sounds.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
When playing the Hammond I was interested in how its sound is rich in overtones – like the large extended chords in some of Bach’s work – an interest in sound that is both overwhelming and delicate in its details at the same time. Outside the Hammond and years later, it took some time to find a way to create this sound I was interested in, radio was a good way for some time – working with layers and multiple elements.
Later, working in large open spaces, like Australia’s Northern Territory where I lived on and off for 10 years, which included working in the arts, culture, health and radio with and alongside Indigenous people with radically different approaches from what I’d known – this changed the way I listened and slowly brought out new ways of hearing this kind of sound, suggesting new possibilities to create it. From making field recordings, which was essentially working only with what was around me, hearing these interactions in the environment, specific bands of frequencies, to later finding these ‘notes between the notes’ and using feedback via the mixing desk, microphones, turntables, dubplates, guitars and eventually back to pipe organ, this gradually coalesced into a sound I felt comfortable within and could explore as my own.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
One challenge perhaps is I didn’t really start as a composer – I learnt music, moved away from the orthodoxy of these approaches, had a great teacher at university in Richard Vella when I did his revolutionary pilot course (which went on to become an important textbook), I made music and worked with sound in a variety of contexts, but perhaps important to ‘being a composer’ I also didn’t attend the conservatorium. I’ve always been interested in a lot of different music – baroque, jazz, grindcore, ‘classical music’, 20th century composition, noise, a fairly wide range – but combining or the combination of these creative interests possibly present their own challenges to the process of proceeding to ‘become’ a composer.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
If I’m lucky enough to have a studio – if I’m in a house with enough rooms or a city that hasn’t completely removed opportunities for artists like space for studios – I tend to keep a studio room fairly empty, the sparseness helps me think. The setup is usually pretty simple – speakers properly placed in the room, table for computer, mixer etc. I also prefer there to be no one around to hear what I’m doing as I don’t want to inconvenience anyone or be a competing noise in the lives of others. A window, often between the speakers is ideal as a frame to allow those thoughts to project outside of the room too so things don’t become too hermetic – like the conversation between Cage’s ‘opening the window’ and Feldman’s closed harmonic environments. Having always rented – and the financial, social and economic vicissitudes that go with that and foster the precarity of the rental market – has meant some changes in circumstances, so houses in the country with a room for a studio are different to an office/studio outside the house when living in the city (if they are at all available) – the same applies when working on a residency, as I am now up in northern Norway in the Arctic for a few months where I’m fortunate to have space in a fairly remote environment.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
There’s no real routine or schedule. There’s always a lot of admin and I try to avoid compartmentalisation, so things happen as they do. When things are really working or gathering momentum – like for an album, installation, commission when the form has taken shape – then it can be day and night working at it till it’s done. More recently living again in some remote and semi-remote places, and for other obvious reasons lately, walks have been important to ventilate the process, refresh thinking and keep considering all the angles. I lived on a small island off the west coast of Ireland for most of the pandemic, part of an archipelago, and 5kms around the small lochs and bogs in the centre of the island has been useful on a bunch of levels – also giving a chance to listen to the wind (an ever-present force) and see the topologies change through the seasons, giving a new lens on the work too which is often interlinked to the surrounding location – its all part of the context.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
There’s a lot of layers to that question – particularly with regard to “being creative” (the “process”) and then the question of what it is that is created (the “thing”) or how the object of the creativity functions. Regarding the former, is being creative playing with existing materials, is it problem solving, is it giving a voice to or finding a way to ‘say’ something? These questions bring to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s framing of philosophy as “creating concepts - not communicating, reflecting or contemplating”.
Then the latter, adjacent to that frame of philosophy as a creative inquiry, is the praxis of “being creative” – that is, the thing that is created – like Sartre’s positing of three modes of being: the being-in-itself, the being-for-itself or the being-for-others – what is this “creating”? Does this creation exist for- in- and of-itself (bordering on ‘art for art’s sake’), or exist in-itself, or does it exist for-others? These are all in-themselves pretty loaded concepts, but I’d prefer to address something particularly evident within both these Deleuzian and Sartrean frames is the privilege within which the creativity or creation itself is made – if someone is freed from the economic, worldly, class-based, gendered necessities underlying contemporary life then the state of mind for being creative, that which supports this state of mind, are entirely different from someone entirely bound within these financial, social, cultural and personal power structures. Can the process of being free of these structures be found through art, are they linked to creation, can creation even be realised independently of them? I’m careful to answer a question with a question, but the privilege and context within which creativity is realised, received and assessed is quite connected to that which it realises – it exists in-the-world, as does the artist which creates.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Asking questions of the idea, defining the idea, applying rigour to it, researching about its context and learning about it, finding what is at its core – what it is, what drives it – and then combining the parts into a whole, often regardless of how slow or onerous the process of creating the assemblage of these parts might be, which includes mixing it, clarifying it and polishing it until it is done – the clearest version of that idea that I can realise with the resources, tools and context within which I’m working.
I’m not going to ‘play favourites’, but to use an example where clarity of execution and concept were important: for Climata it was asking “what does the Skyspace let in?” and then following through in making 200 recordings in 15 Skyspaces across 9 countries to fully realise the concept broadly, then combing these recordings until the double album best presented the harmonic, spatial and contextual answer to that and other questions. Similarly for SPECTRES, part of the new triple album ‘Beyond Enclosures’, a similar process played out in defining and enacting that concept across 9 post-Communist architectures in Poland and Hungary.