Deniz Kurtel's Music Watching Over Me, an ambitious foray into deep house, provides yet another creative outlet for this New York-based light sculptor and producer.
House warms to Renaissance woman's debut album
The image of the electronic musician as a music nerd wrapped up in crate-digging esoterica and synth fetishes to the exclusion of all else is no mere stereotype. At the other end of the spectrum there is Deniz Kurtel. Her debut album, Music Watching Over Me - just released on Damian Lazarus's Crosstown Rebels imprint - is an impressive deep house collection in its own right, and her story reveals Kurtel to be a quintessential polymath.
Hailing from the Turkish port city of Izmir, Kurtel relocated to Washington DC for college, where she studied economics and sociology, and then to New York for graduate school. So far, so unlikely for a future star of club music. It was here, though, that her focus, as she puts it, "completely switched".
Having befriended Zev Eisenberg and Gadi Mizrahi - the duo behind the Wolf + Lamb parties and label which, like Kurtel, has also enjoyed a breakthrough to a wider audience over the past year - she found herself in possession of a collection of unused LED lights left over from one of the label's party nights.
Kurtel began to make art out of this electronic detritus, using the LEDs to create light installations. These distinctive sculptures would later be commissioned by galleries, hotels, festivals, churches and boutiques worldwide.
With her name gaining currency in the art world, Kurtel was nonetheless moved to add another string to her bow in 2009. As a child, her musical background had been confined to piano lessons, but hanging around the burgeoning New York deep house revival scene rubbed off.
"Just like the LEDs, music is another outlet for my creativity," she shrugs. "I was seeing it all around me, with my friends who DJed and produced. I became very familiar with the process, so it wasn't so hard to get into. It came naturally - once I opened up to the idea of it, it was kind of an obvious channel."
Both her LEDs and her music production started as casual whims. Yet Kurtel is the opposite of a hobbyist. Her aesthetic as sculptor and producer is bold, thoughtful, ambitious in both scale and design, and utterly singular.
Music Watching Over Me contains the level of detail and immaculate sound design one might expect from someone who has been honing her craft for rather more than two years. Perhaps even more impressively, in a singles-driven genre where full-length albums often wind up sounding rather anonymous, Kurtel's music has enough character to draw you back to it.
The title track sets the tone: an ominous synth melody underpins it, while snatches of dramatic beats gradually resolve into a 4x4 beat. It's intimate in a self-contained way, a feeling that persists throughout the album. As the album progresses, Kurtel unveils more and more of a deceptively varied toolbox, choosing her moments with pinpoint accuracy. The crunching guitars that underpin Vagabond are gradually joined by a storming synth riff that bends into all sorts of shapes. In Trust, just when you think the track has shown its entire hand with its shuffling bass and hypnotic high-end, Kurtel injects even more life into it with magisterial, processional horns.
Kurtel is at her best when she gives in to emotion rather than skirting around it. The anthemic Best Of and The L Word find her heading straight for the centre of the dance floor. The vocal samples she sprinkles liberally throughout the album come into their own on both, with disembodied house divas issuing deeply felt declarations of devotion. "Your love is true and unconventional - only your love can ease my mind," sings Jada on The L Word, and a gorgeous fluttering melody midway through the track responds in kind. On My Heart, Kurtel moves the action away from the club, reducing a vocal loop to its essence of pure feeling over a stately cello; the track acts as a soulful flip side to the unashamed physicality of the album's earlier moments.
It's tempting to draw parallels between Kurtel's sculpture and music - and, indeed, her work in the two disciplines has intertwined. For her debut tour last year, she built an LED installation to accompany her live set - perhaps a natural connection to make, given the importance of the role played by lighting in clubs, but Kurtel took the idea a step further. "It was hooked up to my computer and it responded to my sound," she reveals. "After I figured that technique out, I started using it for other [LED] pieces too - not with my music but responding to viewers' voices. And then with a very similar method, I started working on motion-sensitive stuff."
If anything links Kurtel's multidisciplinary activities aesthetically, it is a certain hypnotic quality running throughout them all. Music Watching Over Me is an album in which mood is tremendously important. Kurtel seems to fixate on specific feelings, and over the course of each track excavates them thoroughly, as though to get the core of them - whether joy, isolation or even just equilibrium. Similarly, she says of her light installations: "Most of my pieces are meant to just draw people in to stare at them, and they come out pretty trippy."
But perhaps it is the separation between her two fields of work that is more interesting than this relatively superficial similarity. When probed, Kurtel says that her inspiration for each comes from very different sources, with her visual art a response to external stimuli and the audio side an expression of the internal. "With sculptures, it's usually things I see in nature - when I see something that I just want to stare at for hours. The music is more inspired by my mood, how I'm feeling on that day."
What is striking is the ease with which Kurtel has taken to her various pursuits. She's still well-versed enough in the social sciences to wax lyrical about the ways in which Nietzschean philosophy has influenced her art ("What I'm trying to trigger is something really primal, almost like a mediation moment when you really isolate yourself from the world and link with your inner self"). Her sculptures are both sui generis in concept and startlingly beautiful in execution. Her music pulls off the neat trick of both capturing the current deep house zeitgeist and making it personal and distinct. And she's not done yet: as we talk, she muses about the possibilities of getting into video-editing or songwriting - though being in demand means that she is somewhat stymied by lack of time at the moment. This, though, may be the key to Kurtel, a modern-day Renaissance woman who seems to excel at everything she tries her hand at. "That's actually one of my biggest interests, to pick something up and figure it out," she says. "That's the most fun part of it for me."
Alex MacPherson is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian and New Statesman.