The Cork Midsummer Festival has been a staple of the city’s art scene for the past decade. Though primarily focused on theatre and literary events, the festival often throws up some musical surprises. This year the undoubted musical highlight of the festival looks to be the new piece by Australian sound artist and Cork resident Robert Curgenven. He presents ‘Sculpting Air – The Sound Of The Sky’ on Thursday 22nd of June in the environs of the National Sculpture Factory, a performance that promises to be one of the most interesting musical experiences of the year.
‘Sculpting Air – The Sound Of The Sky’ is a surround sound experience, based on Curgenven’s most recent album, 2016’s Climata. This was an album of field recordings made in James Turrell’s Skyspaces, which are “specifically proportioned chamber(s) with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky.” Curgenven made two hundred recordings in fifteen Skyspaces around the world, moving air through the aperture in each Skyspace using two oscillators.
The album was then made up of layers of these recordings, cut into six almost twenty minute tracks split over two CDs to be played in any order and even simultaneously if the listener desires. It’s a cerebral listen and one that lends itself well to live performance, as evinced by Curgenven’s set supporting ambient titans Stars of the Lid in Cork’s Triskel Christchurch in October 2016. This was a pummelling performance with deep bass frequencies and disorienting switches between each layer of recording, making for a headspinning listen for the audience member and one that is surely to be built upon during ‘Sculpting Air’, given the greater resources available for this performance.
Climata itself follows on from Curgenven’s previous work, Sirene, an album of pipe organ recordings. Some of these recordings were made using similar techniques to those used on Climata and were recorded on site in various churches around Cornwall. The site of the recordings has personal significance for Curgenven, given that his ancestors originated in Cornwall before moving to Australia in the 1870s.
Also significant is the use of the pipe organ, the first instrument that Curgenven learned. The five pipe organs used were located in rural churches around Cornwall and Curgenven was able to record these in splendid isolation, sometimes working at night as to avoid picking up any extraneous sounds. Microphones placed within the pipes of the organs at vary heights allowed Curgenven to pick up pure tones with little outside interference and it is these unprocessed recordings that are at the heart of the album. The title Sirene continues the link to Cornwall, referencing the myth of Ulysses and that the Sirens who called to him were supposedly located on the Isles of Scilly, just off the southern tip of Cornwall.
Sirene is an engaging work, with its four tracks spread over two sides of vinyl drawing the listener in with microtonal intervals of sound. It’s a rich and varied work and one that is newly available on vinyl, given that the first pressing of the record sold out some years ago. The new pressing comes on transparent green vinyl and is a recommended listen for those interested in Curgenven’s works and also for those unable to make it to his Midsummer show.
‘Sculpting Air – The Sound Of The Sky’ has the potential to be one of the most thought-provoking and visceral experiences at the Midsummer Festival. As previously mentioned, those who don’t make it to the show can dip into Curgenven’s discography, most notably the re-released Sirene, which, along with Climata, is one of the most interesting recent entries within the ambient music sphere. They are works that require the listener to think more about the music that they’re hearing and the processes by which this came about, an intellectual exercise that isn’t often required during the casual listening experience.
Photo credit: Lihuen Galli