Robert Curgenven - They tore the earth and like a scar it swallowed t [Recorded Fields Editions - 2014]My previous experience with Curgenven's work was 2010's Oltre, a work that in some quarters was rather lazily described as carrying a Lynchian tone. No doubt this was due to the radical use of turntables and vinyl surface as a key constituent of the music, echoing Lynch's flirtation with the eerie material quality of that medium at various points in his career (see the opening sequences to Inland Empire for instance). But I felt that this comparison rather obscured a more interesting perspective whereby the use of the medium was designed to amplify and reflect various unique qualities of the environment in which they were recorded and played back. Such an mistake cannot be made with this recent record which explicitly locates itself in a specific set of environments, inviting us to think differently about time, place and history.
The ambitious scope of the record is announced on the reverse of the LP sleeve: Forged from the historical dynamics of the settler colonial trope, this album plays out across four scenes, through the eyes not of the invaded but of the invaders to a harsh, remote land. Although much of the inspiration comes from the colonial history of Curgenven's own Australia the record's dedication to first peoples throughout the world, and to their struggles, emphasises the broader political and internationalist trajectory. The sources he draws upon; live recordings in Basel, Dubplates recorded in Berlin and London, Pipe organs from all around Cornwall, not to mention the wide variety of field recordings from remote areas of his home country testify to the very well travelled nature of the compositions.
Scattered to the wind, the fortunate begins with a slow building reversed piano note before plunging into a series of quickly cutting atmospheres and field records. One could be an almost domestic scene, another a windblown desert. Then there's a hint of the sort of sonorities Curgenven may have collected from the pipe organs. While each cut brings in new elements there is an almost circular motion to the progression where a louder more dense recording is followed by a quieter one that may utilise more feedback dynamics. The focus on spaces and the auditory amplification of their unique qualities is still a core element in the mix. There are familiar sounds as well, insects, mechanical hums, faithful friends to the travelling field recordist. It's not entirely easy to tell where Scene 2: only the dogs and fires on the horizon starts but I assume it's at the point where the long complex tones of the pipe organs begin to take a more forward role. This scene is more pastoral with fewer dramatic cuts, the image of windswept deserts replaced by a greener environment, rustling foliage, birds. A low undulating bass tone imparts a semblance of rhythm while the ever present combination of feedback dynamics and organ dislocate the listener at every turn. Perhaps unsurprisingly the scene finishes with the crackle of fire and dog barks in the distance.
Side B opens with scene 3 the heat at their necks. We are immediately back in an arid landscape with the blazing sun hissing on the parched earth. The narrative suggested by Curgenven involves the progress of the colonialists into the interior of the country, encountering ever more harsh environments. The composition reflects this in a turn towards more abstraction, less familiar soundscapes; fewer birds, more flies; less harmony, more dissonance. This kind of katabasis, this march inland, is a more common theme in western culture than is generally known. And where it occurs it often features common elements. The strange abstraction and blurring of representations felt by Marlow as he travels upriver to confront Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is mirrored in the diary entries of the early Antarctic explorers. Background and foreground, good and evil, begin to lose their distinctions. Curgenven's final scene and when the storm came, they were the storm hints at the possible consequences of such colonial adventures. The sound is oppressive, the drones and the insects forming a bedrock of bass under which an almost agonised organ struggles to free itself. The insects blur into mechanical loops just as the sound of shovels in the dry soil give way to static and hiss. As the record sleeve spells out; The settler colonialists' blind enactment of will and violence against and into an unforgiving, arid interior plays out in this drama, a physical negotiation of territories voided by history. The record succeeds in capturing this idea perfectly, and as the record fades out to the sound of feedback from an overdriven guitar we are returned to the 20th century, to the land that John Pilger in his documentary on the injustices perpetrated against Australia's first peoples ironically called utopia.
It is a rare thing to find a genuinely political work within the field of sound art or field recording. Luc Ferrari's Musique Promenade might have used material from political marches but the composition carried no direct message. While Basinski's Disintegration loops has in a sentimentalist move been tacked on after the fact to the events of September the 11th 2001. Perhaps it's the constant battle against abstraction on the one hand and documentary reportage on the other which makes such works so infrequent. But whatever the cause Curgenven has produced a work of singular vision and execution which while drawing together disparate materials maintains a unified form, resulting in something quite groundbreaking in the field.Duncan Simpson