Robert Curgenven: Recording one note at a time – across 9 countries and 15 locations

September 19, 2016

Robert Curgenven is an Ireland-based Australian composer using sound as a physical field of perception. His work encourages the listeners to consider their physical experience of sound. For instance for his latest project ‘Climata‘, which was released as an album on Dragon’s Eye Recordings, he recorded what could be called the audible movement of the air –  he made site-specific recordings across 9 countries in 15 of James Turrell’s Skyspaces, which resulted in an archive over 200 individual recordings. After completing this tremendous work, we thought it was time to talk to Robert about these mysterious Skyspaces and his experiences all over the world.

Robert Curgenven

Robert Curgenven

Let’s start in the very beginning! Many of us might have no idea what a ‘Skyspace’ is. Could you explain it to us?

A Skyspace is an architectural light installation by American artist James Turrell, but that doesn’t really convey a few important dimensions of what it is and in the context of ‘Climata’ and how the project frames them. It’s easiest to begin by mentioning that quite apart from the Skyspaces themselves, what I set out to do with this project was to record what could be simply called the audible movement of the air (which it’s fair to say is not the original intention of a light installation). Since a sound or vibration is needed to make the air move and the process would need quite a few of these iterations of sound to draw out the concept in a way that’s palpable for a listener, I realised that I was also essentially going to be recording a piece of music one note at a time – which then happened across 9 countries and 15 locations. These locations were very important to how the air moved and what a listener would hear when it moves. So one aspect in the context of ‘Climata’ is that it’s equally where the Skyspaces are that’s as important as what they are.

How do you get the air move? How does it become audible?

A special technique to make the air’s movements audible is to make air oscillate in and out of an opening. In the same way that blowing across the top of a bottle gives a “note” – it’s the sound of the air moving in and out of the neck of the bottle that we actually hear. But if we were inside the bottle we’d actually hear this movement of the air in addition to this “note”. To make the air audible in this way I could have used any kind of architecture that had an opening which set up an adjacent space – something with a threshold between inside and outside through which the air would audibly move. This architecture could have been inside railway arches, open windows or doors in particular types of architecture, but picking and choosing these would feel and sound quite arbitrary. There needed to be a justifiable link between them to make it worth doing and obvious enough to the listener. In 2013 I made an installation in a derelict battalion on the Laguna in Venice comprising seven consecutive archways, ‘Seven Small Movements in Defence of a Humid Island, which was effectively a kind of prototype for Climata. This installation was part of a 30 city tour across Europe in 2013 which had started in Cornwall/UK where I’d lived near a Skyspace with very unique acoustics and I’d gotten to know the owner there and the particularities of the space. On free days off on the 2013 tour I managed to visit a number of other Skyspaces in Europe and Australia, so the idea for a recording and installation project in Turrell’s Skyspaces had its start back then.

So having put all that about the project into context about the why and the where, Turrell’s definition of what a Skyspace is: “a specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky and outside world. The Skyspaces can be autonomous structures or integrated into existing architecture. The aperture can be round, ovular or square”. The critical aspects for me were that they were open to the outside and let in sound, not just light, so they effectively were open to an ocean of air which itself was in movement and reflected a great deal of our world. In total there’s 87 of Turrell’s Skyspaces in the world and he also views them all as one connected work, which was ideal for the connected, rhizomatic concept that I wanted to present with my project, especially expressed by the name Climata and the relations that that has to ancient ways of connecting and dividing the world.

What made you attracted to these peculiar structures?

The attraction for me, in terms of sound, is not only the very reflective (and sometimes domed structures) that have very bright, resonant acoustics that come from the polished concrete, marble, stone and fibreglass used to construct the Skyspaces but also that the volume of air in the Skyspace can easily be made to oscillate in and out of the aperture by playing very specific tones inside the spaces. This movement also causes the air inside to interact with the sound outside the Skyspace while also making the Skyspace act as a microtonal instrument and a filter of its inner and outer spaces. The resonant acoustics of the Skyspaces colour the tones and give them each very different qualities not only in each location as the weather changes during the recordings but also across the 15 locations generally as each location and Skyspace further colours the sound. Conceptually, rather than structurally or by a direct comparison, imagine if Eliane Radigue recorded Koume (the last of the Trilogie de la Mort) one note at a time, each in a different architectural space and how this would influence the sound of the music and its colour.

At the crux of the project was devising a way to combine my approach to field recording and my approach to depth of field that I’ve worked on over the last 20 years as well as out how to translate into an album release the physical movement of air that I usually manage at concerts. This physical movement of the air is the swooshing/fluttering sound that moves between your legs, in and out of your mouth and nose, that makes your shirt move – that also makes the sound appear to come from everywhere, with no definable source. That sound – caused by heavy phasing – or even the feeling it creates have been a slight obsession with sound for me over the last few years as well as the physicality of subsonics. But rather than relying on high volume and big speakers, I wanted to be able to do this album quietly, to emphasise subtlety. So this was the process that led me to use the acoustics of the Skyspaces, as they seemed the best way to articulate this idea combined with the way that the Skyspaces were spread out around the planet. I consulted with James Turrell on this and stressed that I wasn’t looking to translate his ideas into sound but instead to use the archetypes behind the Skyspaces’ architecture to cast them in a new light completely.

How did you select the 15 different Skyspaces?

As mentioned earlier I lived near a Skyspace in West Cornwall in 2013 and got to know the owner. He helped facilitate the process of making contact with Turrell. The acoustics there were particularly notable for not just the very non-linear reflections due to its elliptical shape but also the domed ceiling. The gardens had been hand-planted by the owner over 15 years with a range of subtropical plants – the large leaved flora framed the location with a very particular sound in addition being at the most south westerly point in the UK – within sight of the English Channel and only few miles from the Atlantic coast.

Starting from these gardens and the Skyspaces I had seen previously I felt that 15 sites would give a good variation of topologies and weather that would frame the range of Skyspace architectures. From the 87 possible sites around the world, I approached Skyspace owners in 9 countries –- from cities across Europe and Australia to rural and regional areas, from the Alps to Scandanavia. Working out the logistics for recording took a while and I was able to drive to 12 of these Skyspaces over a short period of time. A quick flight was possible to Norway and Sweden from my home in Ireland. The Australian Skyspace at the National Gallery in Canberra was the subject of a longer engagement  as part of a visit to Australia and also saw an installation in the Skyspace

Could you tell us a bit about the techniques you’ve used during the recording?

The technique was designed to be as simple as possible as it needed to be portable not need mains power, as a few Skyspaces were off the electrical grid and a long way from transport which meant a bit of a walk. Drawing on the residency in Venice in the battalion archways, I used just two custom-made oscillators, a portable battery-powered speaker and two studio condenser microphones which recorded straight to laptop. The owners of the Skyspaces – which ranged from museums of modern art, private collections, national galleries and contemporary art centres – gave me access to the Skyspaces when they were closed to the public which meant that it was frequently quite quiet and I could work uninterrupted

I made a series of recordings in each Skyspace, each recording had the oscillators tuned to a different resonant frequency of the Skyspace, played through the portable speaker. The two oscillators’ tones were very close together but enough to give a small beating frequency – it was this difference between the two tones (Tartini tones or heterodyning) relative to the resonance of the Skyspace that would make the air move audibly in and out of the ceiling aperture, like a “springy mass”, as with a Helmholtz resonator such as the neck of a bottle. The net effect is the air from outside was drawn in, the air from inside was drawn outside – so the Skyspace effectively changed how the location outside sounded from inside and vice versa. This was audible as a fluttering or “swooshing” sound: a phase disturbance. This heavy phasing also meant that it became impossible to tell where any sound was coming from, that is where the speaker was and what was happening inside or outside the Skyspace, effectively a bit disorienting .The two tones were also relatively quiet – about as loud as the sound outside the Skyspace and also about as loud as the phasing sound from the audible movement of the air. The recordings typically took a few hours to a day, some went for a few days depending on access.

What were the biggest challenges while being on the road and recording all the time?

It was actually easier than touring because there wasn’t the added pressure of doing a performance each night. Finding a schedule that would work for the arts organisations who were the Skyspace owners  was quite complex as was finding a suitable route and the associated logistics. I was very lucky with the weather and the owners were very amenable to the undertaking, allowing me in on days that they were closed to the public and some giving private tours of their collections which is a whole story in itself.

In the Skyspaces the challenge was finding the best combinations of tones that would bring the air inside and outside the Skyspaces into movement against each other. This was all done “by ear” – listening to the space and guessing the best tunings. Another issue was how loud the tones could be for the speaker relative to the general sound outside the Skyspace in order to achieve this phasing / fluttering sound which itself was the main aspect of the project. Add to this that I was frequently working with only 2 hours battery life so there was a lot to respond to in each location. Working quickly wasn’t the aim, but to quietly and calmly find the best sound as the weather and local conditions changed – storms approached, bells tolled quarterly hourly, children had breaks from school. That was the biggest challenge: to be present and decisive in creating the recordings as there was frequently only one chance without easily returning to the site.

SKYSPACES by JAMES TURRELL

These 15 Skyspaces you visited must have been quite different from each other. Was there any of them that was for some reason more special than the others? Why?

Because there aren’t many photos of the Skyspaces, the unique and rewarding aspects of each location became apparent when I arrived at each Skyspace. Some of these ‘unique’ aspects included sites like the thousand acre estate with its calm weather and rural silence accompanied by its own herd of white deer roaming the grounds and 2 km driveway; the waterfowl living under the Skyspace in the middle of a lake in Belgium which emerged out of curiosity immediately after a strong storm; the Skyspace 200 metres from the snowline in the Swiss Alps; sheep roaming the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; the destructive power of the wind at the final Skyspace in Sweden that brought down tree limbs and also shaped the final track on Disc A; to the cathedral bells surrounding the Salzburg Skyspace high on a hill, as discussed in the album liner notes.

Each of these surprises were all a kind of cherry on the cake – the way that the range of unique location sounds from outside the Skyspaces would combine to give specific regional and international spectrum to the final combined pieces was as important as how the shape and architectural resonance of each skyspace would colour the tones which brought each Skyspace’s individual internal sound to life.

There’s an interesting parallel between what Turrell wanted to achieve with the Skyspaces and what you wanted to explore with your sound: to transmit something about these spaces where sound occurs without – translating light into sound – to make sense within these spaces for the listeners.

The Skyspaces & Turrell’s work transmit something physical about the place in which light occurs, I work with the way in which sound transmits something physical about the location where sound occurs and particularly the context in which that occurs. While these concepts overlap at times, they are not identical and completely different physical concepts with sound exist in the same physical space in which light might inhabit. Light doesn’t need a medium to travel through, sound can only travel through a medium – be it rock, water or in this case, air. For Turrell, light itself is the revelation, with my work air, as the medium of sound, is the revelation and sound is what moves it. The air achieves a sculptural quality through the phasing – a physical sculpture which changes shape and moves around the room over a duration. Its this movement of the air that tells us in very physical terms about those spaces in which it occurred, their context and their surrounding location. In this case, the sound I created in the Skyspaces activated the sound in the Skyspaces, relative to their architecture but also the weather and shifts outside over a given duration, making apparent something that always already existed (in Derrida, Heidegger, Baudrillard’s terms).

I wanted to realise this project because I’m fascinated by these combinations of tones that make the air audibly move, disturbing and revealing the space around you. Mixing sounds this way – two tones/frequencies in the one physical, local, architectural space – even at this very simple level is very different to mixing light – you mix different colours of light and you get white, mixing different tones and you get different kinds of microtonal intervals and chords which move against each other. This shows a very specific aspect of sound as a thing-in-itself a material (sound) within a medium (air) – this is in a completely different way that light can act as a material. Our bodies need air to survive and using air as a sculptural medium shows the very specific context in which we are hearing it: the sound and the air is an intrinsic part of the location in which it occurs for the duration in which we experience it through our bodies. The air, the sound and the location in this way can’t really be separated and experienced as separate things. You can’t record in a vacuum, listen to sound in a vacuum nor live in a vacuum. Similarly, these Skyspaces don’t exist in a social, cultural or geographical vacuum, the recording project delves sonically into the local forces that constituted them, which helped shape them to be there.

So basically if you would revisit these places and make new recordings in the very same spots, we would hear a totally different result…

The devil would be in the detail, yes. The architecture remains the same, so the amount of movement of the volume of the air in and out of the Skyspaces through the hole in the ceiling would still be the main feature. But how it moves and the amount of air would change depending on the activity outside the Skyspace ranging from people, animals to the weather – the pressure, humidity, temperature –  and over what kind of duration these things all change. A map usually only shows you where something is, not the qualities of what it’s like there and their relationship to each other. Imagine it like a lived experience of geological time, happening at a rate we can appreciate: the album advances the idea of a map where any subtle shift in the territory is going to give a change in the map. Like any document it’s true at the time of its recording, writing or drawing but like geology is always changing at rates and ways we can’t always readily see or hear. Creating a map that covers 15 locations across 9 countries and both Hemispheres of the planet is designed to produce something that works towards a kind of gestalt and aims to give a good reflection of those territories. At the same time Climata presents the ultimate escapism – in this case you escape into the world – from where you listen, it takes you from that point where you are sitting or standing now and projects you out into a simultaneous combination of all those locations in the recording. A planetarium usually projects the stars onto the ceiling, but imagine instead if the layered projections of the world were up on that ceiling and you could be in them at all once. That’s what Climata is under the best listening circumstances and one of the reasons to play both albums together: to experience the differences in those layers and combinations physically as a world you can escape into, an augmentation of what constitutes your present physical reality and what it is to inhabit that space.

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