Ange ou Sirène,
Qu’importe, si tu rends, — fée aux yeux de velours,
Charles Baudelaire, Hymne à la Beauté
By the time I was ready to write about Robert Curgenven’s remarkable Sirène: Selected Pipe Organ Works 1983-2014, a look at his web site made it clear that many already had; more to the point, some wrote about the artist, his oeuvre, and Sirène in particular quite incisively and at length. I have elected from time to time to pass on adding my own impressions on a work I consider well-covered; in this instance I would suggest you refer to Curgenven’s site and follow a few of the links, reading the pieces that frame this four part, forty minute composition in terms of Curgenven’s ancestral roots in Cornwall, as well as some of the analysis of the section titles of the work – Ressuscitant de l’étreinte de la Sirène / Cornubia / Turner’s Tempest / Imperial Horizon (for Caliban). Many reviewers have privileged these two aspects of Sirène, and understandably so – some of Curgenven’s intentions in this piece are no doubt richly informed by his return to ancestral ground, and conveyed via his evocative section titles.
However, the longer I immersed myself within Sirène’s radiant, disquieting architecture, the clearer it became to me that what Curgenven has effected is quite paradoxical, both narratively and sonically; as with Eiane Radigue’s work, circa Adnos I-III, there is a stunning surface beauty of improbably rich droneage. Coterminous with threads of brilliant, chromatic feedback, there are striations of unnerving, even bruising sturm und thrum, troubled waters, sonic ambiguity. Generally when these sorts of elements co-exist in a piece of abstract music, they are distinct, dualistic – in Sirène, they are formidably interlaced, building with intense pressure and force, at times loosing into a serene still-point, at others, roiling and restive, seemingly without end. My hunch is that were Sirène subjected to the sort of spectral analysis the composer Charles Johnson conducted with Radigue’s L’île re-sonante, using Fast Furier Transform software to analyze this stasis/flux, dark/light phenomena, the result would be, as Johnson described in Radigue’s work …elements that become discernible, if not recognizable…, Johnson eventually concluding that the overall flux and transformations within the piece elude such analysis.
What is amazing about Curgenven’s wielding of sound pressure, feedback, pipe organs and micro-tonal turntables, is that Sirène embodies, like few other things I hear outside of, say, Radigue, or some of Toshimaru Nakamura’s work, the fusion of a ubiquitous narrative, an adamantine spine throughout the piece, and an immense disquiet and instability. Framed as Sirène is (see the section titles and the attendant commentary on Curgenven’s site) with meta-narratives of self-aggrandizing landscape painters lashing themselves to ship masts to experience nautical sturm und drang, or Odysseus’ less than voluntary bondage-at-sea when wracked by the song of the angels/sirens of shipwreck, there is also a pervasive sense of imminent – what? – voluntary capsizing? surrender to the tempest? Whether, as Baudelaire says, it is angel or siren, you’ll want to give your ears, and your entire body, to Sirène . As is the case with Radigue and Nakamura’s work , heard with the proper playback volume and system, Curgenven creates music of embodiment; you can experience his pieces bypassing the brain and entering the thorax, particularly when Curgenven infiltrates passages of Sirène with sub-bass resonances sourced from 16 foot pipe organs and the self-erasure of his dub plates. You’re crushed, shining from shook foil – this is the sort of density from the sort of depths experienced with Mohammad’s music.
That’s enough about certain phenomena of sound – what is the paradox of narrative? This goes to my opening remarks about finding in the reviews I surveyed on Sirène a fascination with Curgenven’s returning to Cornwall to plunder pipe organ sounds from five churches in the region (Curgenven has been something of an itinerant, living and working in numerous places around the globe); much descriptive writing on the coasts of the region, Curgenven’s familial roots, like that. While that personal biography is interesting, what I find most fascinating is that Curgenven transforms sounds sourced from the local/ancestral into sounds so undifferentiated and archetypal that any listener can enter his massive composition and imbue it with their own narrative. Every listener bears, however humbling or embarrassing its actual scope, their own sturm und drang, their own shaggy dog odyssey. On the concluding piece, Imperial Horizon, Curgenven buries a fragment of Beethoven’s Eroica in murky feedback, its great emotional depths subsumed by Sirène. Intended or not, Curgenven effects a sort of alchemy, transforming this place and these materials into a massive sound mandala with its own siren call This quality makes Sirène a music owning an immense generosity, and an invitation. Listen – is Sirène angel or siren?
This is the one song everyone would like to hear…
The song that forces men
To leap overboard…
Even though they see bleached skulls.
Sirène: Selected Pipe Organ Works 1983-2014
Recorded Fields Editions | 2014
Baudelaire, from Fleuers du mal (William Aggeler, trans.)
…shining from shook foil, G.M. Hopkins, God’s Grandeur
Painting, Victor Mottez, Ulysses & the Sea
This is the one song…, Margaret Atwood, Siren Song