A Quietus Review: They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them by Robert Curgenven (November 4th, 2014)

This album, London-based Australian artist Robert Curgenven’s second in the space of a few months, is centred on themes of colonisation: of land, of peoples, of the environment. As the title suggests, Curgenven obviously takes a dim view of how the privileged and powerful (white colonial powers in the 18th-century, land-grabbing mega-corporations and so on) have gone about achieving their supremacy over the planet and those of its inhabitants less able or inclined to snatch and burn; and even suggests that payback is imminent, and bound to be messy for those involved. Of course, as with the musings on the seascapes surrounding Cornwall (where his ancestors hail from) that formed the basis for previous opus Sirène, these concepts are ambiguous and abstract, refracted through the myriad details and clever compositions that make up the music on They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them.

On his website, Curgenven provides links to numerous studies, interviews and reports that flesh out the ideas I mentioned above and extend his ruminations beyond the experience of Australia, notably its beleaguered and oppressed indigenous peoples, into reflections on colonialism and racism as global issues. An interview with Achille Mbembe on the Eurozine website provides intellectual background to the ways in which colonial attitudes, supposedly driven by humanism and universalism, became vehicles for violence, war and ecological disaster. Mbembe posits “post-colonial theory” as a means to move beyond the hangover from Europe’s darkest legacy after the Second World War, and reading his articulate arguments becomes more and more affecting when we consider tragedies like the Rwandan genocide and the ongoing wars in (amongst others) Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all direct fall-outs from colonial abuse. Returning back to Australia, there are clear cases where the country’s imperialist past have continued to filter into public attitudes, to the point that the current Prime Minister Tony Abbott even insouciantly claimed that Australia “unsettled” before the British showed up. Niall Ferguson may praise British Imperialism as much as he likes, but, from the plight of Australian indigenous peoples to the anti-gay laws countries such as Uganda and Jamaica inherited from their former colonial powers, the negative effects of European dominion over other lands has rippled through history to the present day. Achille Mbembe’s “post-colonial theory” is as vital as it has ever been, and so therefore is They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them.

Amongst the various recommendations, some of which I mentioned above, is Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 masterpiece Walkabout, in which two rich English children find themselves abandoned in the Australian desert and are rescued by an Aboriginal youth who stumbles across them whilst on a rite of passage involving spending several months isolated in the desert. To assemble the various parts of what became They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them, Curgenven, over ten years, embarked on his own walkabout, after a fashion, amassing a series of field recordings from remote parts of his home country, and these form the backbone of the album’s two tracks. Anyone who heard Sirène will already be familiar with the Australian’s deft touch at mixing, and here the sounds of buzzing flies, gusts of wind and bird calls are gently intermingled with manipulated pipe organ drones, amorphous guitar feedback and a mixture of dubplates, turntables and oscillators. The pieces evolve organically, each detail emerging from the mix to paint a vivid mind’s-eye picture of a landscape both familiar and unsettlingly fractured, as if Curgenven has unearthed a dark underbelly under the desert’s sands or the pavements of a city. The album’s glacial pace lends a weightiness to the music, forcing concentration even as the composer refuses to coalesce his music into something overt or demonstrative. Just like Walkabout, there is as much to be learned from what isn’t clear on They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them than from what is.

Given the grim subject matter of this album, it’s no surprise that They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them is a taut, even gruelling listen, its angry undertones reminiscent of another great work of field recording-based musique concrète from earlier this year, Valerio Tricoli’s Miseri Lares. But in the more peaceful moments, when the crumbling textures recede into shimmering suspended tones, there’s also a peacefulness, as if Curgenven, perhaps inspired by Achille Mbembe and the prospect of formerly colonised people shaking off the yoke of history and the plunder of their natural resources, can see new signposts towards how we can reverse trends once seen as inevitable. First and foremost, this is the second beautiful and beguiling work of art Robert Curgenven has treated the world to in 2014, and maybe such small mercies are worth treasuring in such troubled times.

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