History and resonance at Cork's St Fin Barre's Cathedral

In 2018, composer Robert Curgenven took the 32-foot pipe organ in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral and lined it into a full-on dub soundsystem. The result was  ‘Bronze Lands’  and as a recording of the event finally surfaces, Curgenven talks to Mike McGrath-Bryan about the project.
History and resonance at Cork's St Fin Barre's Cathedral

Robert Curgenven created Bronze Lands at Cork Midsummer Festival in 2018. Photo: Jed Niezgoda

Many of us, if we’re lucky, can dream of basic command of a piano, or keyboard, and the ability to make something of the same, be it party pieces, classical recital or composition. And then there are people like Australian-born and Cork-based composer Robert Curgenven, whose preoccupation with the physicality of music and the spaces it occupies led him to working in the medium of pipe organ. The big lads, in the churches.

Of course, his involvement in Cork’s electronic scene, including Cork Sound Fair, has indulged the other side of that preoccupation, immersing him in a small but tight-knit community in and around local sound-system culture, including the Rise Up Sound-system, which could be found regularly at the Poor Relation, pre-pandemic. Putting big speaker rigs into different places to see what happens? You can see where this is going.

For 2018’s Cork Midsummer Festival, Curgenven decided to introduce the unstoppable force to the immovable object - and the result was ‘Tailte Cré-Umha’ - ‘Bronze Lands’, a commissioned piece designed to be experienced live. 

The Composition

Composer Robert Curgenven.
Composer Robert Curgenven.

Curgenven talks about the composition and concept of the piece - and how such an endeavour comes together.

“Principally, there's the technical aspect, and then there's the score. The technical aspect was how to get the sound that was coming out of the sound system to work, that wasn't in the same tune as the pipe organ that I was playing. 

It's not supposed to work, so it took quite a while to work out a composition, or playing strategy, that would combine the two of them together in a way that it didn't sound awful, or arbitrary.

"I focused on harmonics. In the end, I realised that playing more notes, like holding down up to 12-note chords, produced the overtones that worked best with what was coming out of the PA.

“Then the score is the second aspect of how to make the piece. Like, why fill 15 minutes with sound? What's the structure? How is it going to unfurl? What's going to make sense, and what's going to make it an interesting, enjoyable and compelling listen?”

It had to have been a completely different experience, then, to sit down to the organ at St. Fin Barre’s, with all the history and richness of sound it brings, and then work with a sound-system custom-built for bass music and resonance.

The Performance

 Tailte Cre-Umha / Bronze Lands by Robert Curgenven in St. Fin Barre's Cathedral.
Tailte Cre-Umha / Bronze Lands by Robert Curgenven in St. Fin Barre's Cathedral.

Taking the idea from concept to execution was a reckoning with his own perception of how music and physicality intersected - not least because he was technically experiencing most of the sound from behind.

“I spent most nights there, after the cathedral closed, for about two months, so the piece was all made in situ. I had a small monitoring situation (by the organ’s keys), with small speakers, so I could hear what was going to be coming from the speakers, and then work with the pipe organ.

So I was often in there, with most of the lights off in this huge room, and you forget you're in there until you stop, and hear the reverb go on for like five, or seven seconds afterwards.

“The day before was the only time that we managed to install the speaker stacks beforehand. Keep in mind that the audience are sitting twenty metres away from where I am, so I never actually heard what they heard, and I had a lot of time in there.

“I'd hold down notes, and then walk around the cathedral and see where sweet spots were, and see how different tones would interact.

“Rather than having the sound system in a straight stereo, we had one stack on the altar, and one at the back of the room, so that the sound was moving from front to back. And then there's also pipes at the front of the room and at the back of the room, so we were creating standing waves in the room. And, y’know, it can take a little while for sound to reach somewhere. So people sitting ten metres apart would actually have quite a physically different experience."

The Recording

Robert Curgenven - Tailte Cré-Umha (Bronze Lands), live at Cork Midsummer Festival 2018.
Robert Curgenven - Tailte Cré-Umha (Bronze Lands), live at Cork Midsummer Festival 2018.

It’s been three years since the performance itself immersed people in the possibilities (and possible outer limits) of both St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral and the Rise Up Soundsystem.

In that time, aside from his other undertakings, Curgenven’s next reckoning was with what he’d created in recording the entire affair - collating recordings from nearly a dozen microphones placed all over the cathedral, each picking things up in a different manner.

Bringing all those sources together, editing, mixing and mastering - talk about your challenging post-production jobs.

“So what one microphone hears is completely different to what a microphone thirty metres away is hearing, whether that's something that already happened, or something that's travelled in a completely different direction with a completely different reverb or a completely different part of the cathedral.

“So I ended up doing it all manually, the alignments, I would zoom down to the wavelength and decided to align (recordings) by the bass, because there was quite a large bass in the room, and then staggered everything from that. So that took some weeks. But it had to be done.

“Once that decision was made, it was about trying to clean up the character of the recording, so it actually sounded like something that you could listen to. So a lot of equalisation, a lot of cleaning the character of each microphone, so everything was uniform.

Half of the concert was ideal for release. And I spent maybe six or eight months working with a mastering engineer, we were in close communication. I had remixed it several times, so that we could get the best result out of it.

With the recording finally in the can and out in the world, and with a whole lockdown to ponder the matter, the question of where else in Cork could benefit from an installation comes up.

However, it’s all incumbent on how he and others can interact and experiment with such spaces.

“I've always been very interested in how sound is connected to our mode of being in the world. So you can have, y’know, a large audience of people sitting shoulder to shoulder, and they're each going to hear something completely different.

“This emphasis on a live sound system at the front (in venues) has limitations to how we hear sound, because it concentrates on diffusing sound into architectural or non-architectural spaces in a very specific way. Working with multi-channel diffusion systems is something I've been very interested in, there may well be something in that vein in the future, and that is something that would work very well in Cork.

“The previous year at the Cork Midsummer Festival, at the National Sculpture Factory, we used the Rise Up Sound-system as a four-channel sound-system. So we did a diffusion, but it was again, quite focused on a concentrated space in the middle.

“So something to get past the limitations and parameters that you mentioned, is having something where it's quite diffused, and every area is a different, very spatialized sound. There's a lot of possibility for this in the future. Things like this are quite slow to set up and require sort of close collaboration with the venue or the organisers.”

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