Hardi Kurda: Radiola Springs

Navel-Gazers #55 is an interview with Hardi Kurda who is going to talk to us about Radiola Springs. In the world of music “on the record” there are various elements which may first catch the listener’s attention… sometimes it’s a cover image or a title, sometimes it’s knowing the artist personally or by reputation, or through their other work… occasionally - rarely for me - it’s the music itself which first crosses one’s ears. What drew my attention to ‘Radiola Springs’ was a paragraph of liner notes associated to the release, which describe radios searching for information, the caper of a stolen violin, and the artist having illegally immigrated to Europe from Iraqi Kurdistan. I’m reminded of the motivation behind Navel-Gazers: we often encounter artists through their work - an art object - but art appreciation is about looking behind the object to interrogate the real life context. ‘Radiola Springs’ does indeed convey that paragraph’s stories over four curiously-titled tracks, in a unique sonic language of Hardi’s own. But this is music, not literature… to really piece it together we need to speak to the artist. This is one of those in-person interviews I’ve done from time to time… we’re in the garden at a pub in Forest Hill, and the weather’s holding up. Let’s see what we can find out!

AC: Thanks for joining me on Navel-Gazers! We are primarily here to talk about ‘Radiola Springs’ but firstly could you tell us about your background?

Hardi Kurda: I started music in 1994, when I started playing violin, and even before that in 1991, after the revolution in the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I went to the first music school, the Institute For Fine Art in Slemani, playing Kurdish music, Western classical music, and I played in a band in the city doing pop music… so I had an experience of different genres, but I always liked to do something different.

I moved to Sweden in 2002, illegally which we’ll talk about later. In Sweden I studied at two music schools. Before university I studied electronic music composition at Gotland Composer House, and I was co-producer of one of the last annual music festivals they had in Gotland called Ljudvågor (Sound Wave). And, I am a member of the Society of Swedish Composers (FST).

AC: Gotland…is that the big island off the coast?

Hardi Kurda: Yes. So then I studied in Gothenburg University, and I had one year in Leipzig on the Erasmus Exchange, and during this time I also applied for a continuing study PHD at Goldsmiths here in London. I was studying to get more of my own musical language, especially the visual aspect with notation. And whenever I’d write, I’d feel that I was unfamiliar with what I was doing, because the language is not my language - the music notation was very limited for what I wanted to do. That’s why my PHD thesis is about exploring the found scores.

AC: Unusual combination of words.

Hardi Kurda: Yes, connecting to found sounds, found image…

One example is a Kurdish carpet. A Kurdish carpet is a found score. They’re different from other carpets. The carpets from surrounding countries - these are empires, so they make a big carpet with mostly symmetry design. The Kurdish carpet because we’ve been moved so much historically, is always a small carpet. And it’s not symmetry, it’s symbols. Describing different stories, elements from life… for me it was interesting the idea of working with a carpet to imagine the past and the present, but through sound. So I’d make an interactive sound carpet.

Until 2017 I worked with different institutions. My idea always was to establish some kind of continuing project, but for economic and political reasons you often cannot continue with the same project ongoing. So I decided to do it on my own, completely independent, and in 2017 I went out with my four speakers and did a public installation, with a video as well.

AC: You went rock n roll!

Hardi Kurda: Yes kind of! And the audience were interested. So I went further with that, collaborating with international artists from Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland… to find a different model to collaborate. And in 2019 through an old friend (Cedrik Fermont), he knew a festival close to me in Beirut, the Irtijal festival. So we connected with them and found there’s a link to our practice in the region, with our own program based in Slemani.

From there we built partnerships… Beirut, Cyprus, Sonorities Festival in Belfast, SONOSCOPIO in Portugal, LEGUESSWHO? Festival in the Netherlands, artists from India with Reproduce Artists… it drew attention in the region and internationally.

This year in April when we did the festival it was quite successful. It’s called SPACE21. 21 is quite a symbolic number in the Kurdish calendar, meaning new year, in which I want to create new things, new day coming. It’s a good way to relate to the audience that we also have new ideas of sound, listening and music.

AC: I wanted to ask you about SPACE21, as that’s not only the festival which you’re describing but is also listed as the label on which ‘Radiola Springs’ was released. Is it also a physical space?

Hardi Kurda: Well SPACE21 is conceptually very much about space and its relation to sound. But then there is also a space called the SPACE21 Sound Gallery, now we have a place in an old tobacco factory/culture factory in Slemani, not a permanent place. I have some friends and colleagues who look after it when I’m not there.

We had no regular programmes until now, it’s not easy without financial support. My idea to build a sustainable programme is to trust the community more instead of relying on international funding. It’s good to have the funding for some infrastructure, but not to rely on it.

This year we started building relations with one of the oldest churches in the city. It’s a Chaldean Catholic church. They’re very open - they are a church but more like a community centre, with workshops for language, for theatre… so they were happy to collaborate. We perform in the church, it’s fantastic. They also have a place where we can host artists.

So we are not just staying in one space. We’re trying to invite audiences to reconnect with the city, heritage spaces or spaces that are disconnected for many reasons. For example we also worked this year and in 2019 in one of our oldest public baths, a hammam. And a hammam for us is related to sonic memory - the acoustics are amazing. This hammam - it’s called the Mufti Hammam - it’s very welcoming, we rented it for one month and we did many sound exhibitions there.

AC: The festival, that’s where you just were a few weeks ago?

Hardi Kurda: Yes. And it’s the first time we sold tickets, and merchandise… people love to buy electronic music and noise music because now they are familiar with it. They are more open.

AC: I’d love to go sometime!

Hardi Kurda: Yes, you should!

AC: The liner notes for ‘Radiola Springs’ really caught my attention as something I’d have a lot of questions about. I’ll copy the description here:

"Hardi wanted to recreate the sound of his stolen violin, the violin immigrated to Baghdad at the beginning of the 70s from West Germany. In 2018, the violin was stolen in Gothenburg's most trusted string repairing shops. Hardi wants to connect the spectrum of the radio frequencies to the violated viola to search for the sound of his stolen violin. Something he want to connect the sound from the Radiola Springs to his listening experience when he illegally immigrated to Europe. He searched for information by listening to radio noises."

There’s so much to pick apart there I hardly know where to start!

Hardi Kurda: ‘Radiola Springs’ is a kind of two-story merge. “Radiola” - that’s “radio” and “viola”. But then I found, when I googled “radiola”, it was also the name of a French radio station, during the First World War. And then “springs”… because I have springs on the viola - not strings - and then, there’s a radio inside the viola.

AC: Oh is that what I’m hearing much of the time, on the first two tracks?

Hardi Kurda: Yes. But there actually was a whole story leading up to that.

My relation with the radio goes back to when I migrated to Europe. I was in a container for four days, with no food - this is in 2002 - in a shipping container from Turkey to Italy. This route does not exist anymore.

Sound Studio 80s
And I had a small radio, smuggled of course, you’re not able to have anything with you so I hid it. I had this idea, how do I navigate? How do I know this guy is not lying, sending us to a different place? So I could listen to the FM frequency to know where we were.

AC: You could tell?

Hardi Kurda: Yes. I was listening to the voices from the channels.

AC: So certain channels appear and others disappear, as you go.

Hardi Kurda: Exactly. Sometimes you would get white noise, or whispering, sometimes you’re just imagining because you’re not eating, you’re not drinking, you’re not sleeping, you’re hallucinating, it was August, it was hot… but I recognise Turkish, I recognise Greek (with a lot of “th” sounds), and I definitely recognise the sound of the Italian.

And also the music. We used to listen to Turkish music - despite all this political conflict, you know, we’re really quite multicultural in Kurdistan. Greece is close to our culture, and with even Italy we have a relation with their music and food.

AC: Four days…

Hardi Kurda: Yes, and this is why my PHD is also based around four chapters… “listening in a time of crisis”, the same way we all have experienced in the pandemic… what happens to your listening, when you are isolated, and using found score as a navigator.

So this is the story with the radio, but the story of the viola begins long before. I had a violin - I bought it in 1997 in Baghdad. In this time, the economy was completely destroyed. I was in my second year at the Institute For Fine Art, and I needed a good violin but it did not exist in the city so I went to Baghdad.

This violin - I didn’t know this, I learned it later - ten violins were made in West Germany, copies of Jacob Stainer violins built for the Iraqi symphony orchestra in 1973. I had one month staying in Baghdad until I bought this violin, so it was a long process as well.

I had this violin for 23 years. Many people approached me to buy it - always, no.

AC: Did you get it for cheap?

Hardi Kurda: No. I paid so much that at this time I could have bought land for this money. Everyone told me: you’re crazy, why would you spend that on a piece of wood? I was lucky because my brothers helped me to buy it - I didn’t have so much money.

As I mentioned I studied in Gothenburg, where one of my violin teachers told me to go to this shop, just behind the concert hall. I had a performance in two weeks, when we would arrive in London, and I needed a repair. It was late afternoon and the guy said something to me which I remember: he said that he was interested in the violin and asked me if I wanted to exchange it with another one. I said no and left it overnight.

5am in the morning, he calls me and says: my store’s been broken into, and just your violin has been stolen.

AC: ! So what did you think?

Hardi Kurda: I was crushed. But… how could I believe that? So I was angry. No one could believe this guy’s story… and so apparently - without getting all the way into the details on this - the thief would have had five minutes to find it, in a big shop with a lot of instruments. The shopkeeper later admitted that he had put my violin under the table, so someone would have had to know about it.

AC: Yeah and they didn’t take anything else.

Hardi Kurda: Exactly. Also, by law the shop is not allowed to be without a camera. This shop didn’t have a camera.

But the funny thing is, it went to court, and the judge suspected that I planned it, for insurance money! I was speechless.

I’m sure that if I had been Swedish, that wouldn’t have happened!

After three years, I found that I could not play violin at all.

AC: I guess you didn’t want to play another violin?

Hardi Kurda: Right. I didn’t. So that’s when I started, with my viola - which I’d also had for some time - to kind of “violate” it. First of all, I took out the strings and played with the body. And then, I took out the front completely. And people said: wow, why would you do that? Well, at least no one will steal it from me now.

AC: So before this, were you using the violin primarily?

Hardi Kurda: Yes. I do also have a violin now, but this one I’m not playing as a violin. This one I use to reflect my journey to different places. People from different countries, speaking different languages, the accent or the vocabulary changes… so my new idea of playing the violin is what if the violin changed the accent and the vocabulary like us?

For example when I was in Lebanon I put an oud string on the violin. In India, sitar strings…

AC: Is that the instrument sort of… surrendering to its surroundings?

Hardi Kurda: Yeah exactly. And using the radio inside the viola, is also to sort of lead the sound somewhere, or perhaps to “find” the sound of the viola.

AC: Yeah I guess the radio… searches. It’s a listening device.

Hardi Kurda: Exactly, exactly.

So, the two stories merge.

AC: …was the violin… in the shipping container?

Hardi Kurda: No, the violin came later, it was brought by one of my cousins. In the container, we were not allowed to have anything.

AC: Right.

I had another question about the radio. I’ve got this strange radio I bought at a car boot sale, which is motion powered. You turn this little wheel. There’s no batteries, no power. 

Hardi Kurda: Ah! Wow, interesting.

AC: Well it made me think, were there batteries in the radio, were you ever concerned they’d run out?

Hardi Kurda: There was a battery, but the radio was small, with a mono one-side headphone. It worked! I didn’t really think about the battery - on the one hand I was thinking about survival at the time of course, but also this small radio doesn’t use much energy.

…you must show me that radio!

AC: It’s very unusual!

Track 3 313 Beirut (The Conversation), despite being the one piece here attributed to a live take - recorded at Irtijal Festival - is a rather layered and spatialised recording relative to the more direct approach on the first two tracks. What can you tell us about the production and the different sounds we’re hearing?

Hardi Kurda: This track is a “serial” improvisation. That’s why it has a number and a place. 31st of March in Beirut, and the “conversation” is between me and my surroundings.

It’s all about engaging with the sound in this moment, this time, this period when I’m in this place. So I also have 104 Baghdad, 110 London and so on. I’m starting to have this idea in my improvisations that they’re based on listening to my surroundings, not based on my technique or my instrument or really anything very sound based.

I did a couple of field recordings in Beirut: raining, thunder, all this kind of stuff… I had two radios, a broken little horn… I processed some of the recordings through an iPad and the rest of the noises came through the Radiola Springs and also from the recording, a feedback loop.

I like to work with contrast: tune/ not tune, noise/ not noise… the thunder was so powerful on the recording, and it just happened in the improvisation that the thunder came at the end as a blast. So it was strange to me when that happened in Beirut, the big explosion.

AC: That was… after this right?

Hardi Kurda: A couple of years after, yes.

AC: There’s one particular sound on ‘313 Beirut’ which is so odd and striking. It first appears at the 6:14 mark and recurs throughout the duration of the piece. What is that?

Hardi Kurda: That’s for me something quite nostalgic. Because in Kurdistan we share a lot culturally with our neighbours… so that was actually just a field recording from Beirut, manipulated with different pitches… but something about that, perhaps it was another way to interpret memories from the past, and bring it to the present.

Then for example you hear the broken horn trying to blow.

AC: Is that you?

Hardi Kurda: Yeah. And it broke on the stage, in that set. It was not broken before.

For me it’s important to take all these mistakes as an opportunity. Also at around 20 minutes in, one of my radios fell under the table, and the radio was not a line out, it was from the microphone. So I needed to put it back on the table to get the sound from the microphone, but in the last five minutes, again it fell. So I said: ok, that’s your destiny, I will not pick you up again. Stay there.

AC: Do what you want.

Hardi Kurda: Do what you want. And in five minutes, I forget that this radio is under the table. I was finished, I closed everything. The audience was super silent for around 40 seconds. But I was hearing something… whispering, the local radio. Finally I told the audience: I’m finished, but the radio is under the table, I forgot all about it! And everyone laughed. It was a very good moment. The tension and the relief - again, it’s a contrast.

I enjoyed it just as they enjoyed it. This is one of my strategies in improvising.

AC: You are participating along with the audience.

Hardi Kurda: Exactly, exactly.

AC: The short final track Chra-Radio is wonderfully disorienting. The sounds have an organic quality but I don’t know where they’re coming from. Tell us all about that one.

Hardi Kurda: I’ve never talked about this piece before. It was my first concrète piece.

The very beginning of my listening experience with the radio was back during the revolution in 1991. Electricity was shut down in the city, there was only the radio to listen to. There were no electric lights on, so we had “chra” which is a gas lamp (Kurdish sorani). And the “ch” sound of the match, with the lantern.

In that time 1991 I was 9 years old and my brother had a radio repair shop. I would practice violin there, with a lot of radios around in the shop, with the smell, the noise, and he was opening radios for repair… and nowadays I’m using the same practice, I’m opening radios, circuit bending the wires, touching the circuitboard, acting as a sort of radio technician.

AC: I suppose that’s how concrète music first took off back in the 1940s, with those radio technicians who were not conventional musicians.

Hardi Kurda: Exactly!

So this was the first piece I made in Gotland, picking up some objects and making a piece of it. It’s actually from 2005. I had some small segments of radio, “searching” for things, before I moved to Sweden but this piece was done there. I put that with these other pieces very intentionally, because for me it means a lot when I start thinking about radio.

AC: I like the way the pieces all connect.

It was great to see you perform at Telegrafia a couple of months ago with Khabat Abas and Cedrik Fermont - that’s a great new venue here in London. What’s next for you, do you have any current or upcoming projects you’d like to mention, or final thoughts to share?

Hardi Kurda: Currently I prefer to engage the audience in my performances. With radio for example, I had a few performances where I invite audiences to interact with the radio antennas.

The one I am now building is an interactive sound archive (Archive Khanah) based on computer game strategy. My son is building the game, he’s 16, a game developer. On the website - which is called khanah.org - we’ve got this game which you play and it’s all based on the sound archive and sharing knowledge though the game. I’m mostly focusing on the sounds which were recorded in Kurdistan and Iraq from 1920 to 1970.

But I say the archive is not past - the archive is now. For example, there is a recording from 1932 that’s very experimental, very contemporary. So the new generation, no matter who they are, no matter what their nationality or background, they listen through the game.

All games have a story, so I built the story around the oldest human civilisation with science, medicine, culture, in Mesopotamia, before all the borders came in. Of course for me it’s very important what Kurdish music is, but don’t forget that we’re all inspired by each other. We all build the culture together - culture was before nations.

AC: Maybe being Kurdish you’re particularly attuned to that, because of the way Kurdistan cuts across contemporary borders.

Hardi Kurda: Thank you yes! Definitely. So for me it’s important not just to celebrate the legacy - no, not only, it’s important to get inspired by those stories, from the artists in their own time, that they had the same struggles like us, and that even in these hard times they found their way.

There’s one of them that I’m really fascinated by. It’s a guy called Kawes Agha who was so poor and he had a speech impediment, and he went to Baghdad to record a song. He goes to the recording studio, and when he couldn’t speak, they kicked him out. So he went to the tea house downstairs - he didn’t even have the money to go back to Slemani from Baghdad - so he just started to sing. And the director heard him, and came back down.

He sang “sympathy” Kurdish-style, which is called Lawik, it’s like a blues, about the stories of life of poor people and the injustice of life. And the musicians on the recording don’t know Kurdish music, so the oud player is just doing one note, repeating until the end with the guy singing up and down, up and down… exactly how we improvise.

I would tell students when I had workshops: don’t cover music from the past, that was what they made in their own time. Take the wisdom.

AC: That’s listening.

Hardi Kurda: Right.

I guess to end it, “listening to other senses” is what my research has been about. So in that container, it was dark, you barely could see the other people. Listening is having a found score to explore other senses: smell, touch, taste… and whatever background or experience or situation you have, listening is on top.

AC: Words to live by! Thanks for talking to me.

Hardi can be found at his website https://hardikurda.com/.


All images Hardi Kurda / uncredited except where indicated, as follows:
1) The Vibration Of Books / The Found Score Of Book - Gothenburg State Library (picture of the stolen violin)
2) Sounding Carpet at SPACE21 - Erbil Citadel Hammam 2018
3) Gothenburg "The Conversation" (picture of the stolen violin)
4) Searching for hidden noises
5) Corax-Radio Art Residency& 2020-03-11 (Marcus Andreas Mohr)
6) Radiola Springs
7) "Everything Is Illegal" Radio Art Residency - Halle (online during the pandemic, 2020)
8) SPACE21 Festival - Erbil Citadel 2019 (Gailan A.Ismail)
9) "Radiola Springs" sleeves
10) Sounding Carpet at SPACE21 - Erbil Citadel Hammam 2018
11) Radiola Springs
12) Interactive Radio Antenna at the archives of the National Museum in Gdansk (Bogna Kociumba)
13) Irtijal Festival 2019

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