Summa: Changes (November 2021)

I am, now, my own student.

The transition from Summer to Autumn used to proceed at a stately pace. But during these last few years, the shift has been abrupt. Strong winds and gales, sullen and troubling skies, and punishing rain, come down upon us suddenly like the proverbial wolf-like Assyrians ‘on the fold’. They descend with an accusatory tone too. Nature out of kilter. (Or is it we who are so?) These conditions brought to mind Salvator Rosa’s (1615-73) turbulent landscapes: ever still yet unsettled and unsettling. Weather changing from good to bad, or so it would seem: a gathering storm; a grey light and sullied sun; figures that ought to be either making peace with these forces or else finding shelter before they break upon them. They are us, then. Or (better) we are them, now.

October 31 (Aberystwyth Arts Centre). I enjoy seeing the School of Art’s former students’ success. It can take many forms: nailing a subject; making it their own; finding a voice, so that others will listen and comprehend; and growing an audience thereby. Karen Pearce has done all those things. That is no mean feat. When you can make qualitative work that emerges from and returns to the soil that has nurtured you, and to which you remain committed, the pejoratives overtones of the epithet ‘local artist’ are silenced. It requires a gift to be relevant; an ear to the ground and an eye on the horizon.

November 2 (All Souls Day and the beginning of Men’s Mental Health Month). The fifth project in The Aural Bible series was released by Wales’ Screen and Sound Archive. This has been my ‘label’ for the past six years. Having a national institution as a backer has been a boon. Particularly, when the work attracts such a small audience and often isn’t easy on the ear. Seven Prayers for Stephen Chilton: Requiem fell into place more quickly than I’d anticipated. That was because the intent had been coming into focus for some time. However, the conceptualisation of the themes and the determination of the method of composition were resolved within a month. Which is a record for me (in more ways than one). And for that, I’m grateful. One ought not to relive past grief for too long.

That day, I’d attended the local hospital for a hearing-aid fitting. I suspect that my left-ear impairment is the consequence of a mechanical problem caused by a chronic sinus infection. The results of a recent MRI scan may substantiate that conjecture, and suggest a remedy. Meanwhile, the NHS are treating my less-than-perfect-audition as a cause for intervention. I’m grateful for the concern and the free device, but not for what I can now hear through it. It was rather like perceiving the world through a mobile telephone earpiece. The sounds were tinny and brittle, compressed, and emphasised peripheral sounds — such as the slap of my shoes on the pavement when walking, trees rustling in the wind, shrill bird song, and the grind of traffic — in an alarming manner. The input bore no relationship to either the present reality or my recollection of how I’d experienced these sonorities when my hearing was intact. ‘In time your brain will learn to filter out those peripheral noises’, the audiologist reassured me. I remained mute, knowing that in the course of my sound-art work I actively train my brain to pay attention to small noises on the margin of the audio field.

November 5. With Seven Prayers completed, PitWorks [working title] came into my centre of vision. The funding required to move forward with the composition, and hold an ‘impact event’ in July 2022, was almost in the bag. (My efforts at representing my cause to those who held the purse strings appeared not to have been in vain.) As COP26 plays out in Glasgow, my consideration of the project’s underlying themes, and their weighty implications, is changing dramatically. In ‘resurrecting’ and reconfiguring sounds recorded at Penallta Colliery in 1930, I shall be bringing into the here and now not only one of the principal fuellers of the late Industrial Revolution but also the greatest culprit with respect to the present planetary crisis:

Coal is the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. The burning of coal is responsible for 465 of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and accounts for 72% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the electricity sector … This means that the age of coal must soon come to an end.

‘Climate Change’, End Coal (accessed: November 5, 2021).

Thus, it will not be possible to approach this project with any romantic attachment to Wales’ industrial heritage. Granted, the pit, along with Protestant Nonconformity, were the bedrock upon which South Walian culture and society was founded, and the glue that held it together. I and my family, going back many generations, would not be who we were and are (may not have been at all) were it not for coal extraction. My respect for those men, women, and children who, quite literally, worked themselves to death so that others could enjoy warmth, locomotion, the products of manufactories, and (latterly) electricity, runs deep. Nevertheless, a large ‘HOWEVER’ now hangs over the history of coalmining like a fierce and condemnatory biblical text painted above the chapel pulpit. I must confront this ambivalence through the process of conceiving and composing the work.

Penallta Colliery, Ystrad Mynach, Mid Glamorgan, Wales (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

New electricity-driven technology (analogue and digital) has had to be constructed, and will need to be learned, before I can begin transforming the found sound of the British Movietone newsreel about Penallta Colliery. Pedalboard V, for example, is designed to provide any output that passes through it with infinite sustain, pitch-shifting capabilities, and organic warmth and depth.

Prior to embarking upon a major new project I always touch base with my earliest attempts at making sound and music, which began when I was 15 years old. It’s not that I’m either precious about this material or wish it ever to be in the public domain. Rather, it reveals certain preoccupations and sensibilities that are of the essence of how I work still. (An outline of my life in music and, as importantly, of music in my life, as a teenager is provided in the blog entitled My Music (1961–2010).) All of my band members from that period are still making music in one way or another. Last night, I watched an interview with the playwright Arthur Miller (1915–2005). Alan Yentob asked him how much of his past experience was relevant to his present life. ‘As much as 99%’, he replied. It’s a truth that becomes more certain the older one gets: we are what we were, to a great extent. My past — its music, visual art, friendships, loves, places, joys, sorrows, gains, and losses — is one of my most treasured and vital resources. For this reason I preserve and curate it, lovingly and gratefully. Moreover my endeavours (good and bad) are places to which I can return for solace and example, as well as the traces of my life (good and bad). ‘I was here! See! These are these are my footprints’.

Hunter, Hunter (1973-74); Hunter, Undulate (1974); Orange, Orange Revelation (1976); Catherine Philips and John Harvey, Sacred Songs & Solos: Combined (1977-78)

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