The Road to Penallta Colliery 1: Genesis

Their faces are darker than coal (Lamentations 4.8).

‘The Road to Penallta Colliery’ is an occasional series of blogs that provides an insight into my current sound-art project as it unfolds. It’s directed at the general public, funders, and collaborating intuitions, as well as practitioners, theorists, and historians committed to the study of sound. My aim is to open a widow on processes of conceptualisation, compositional strategies, technologies, and methodologies that, together, contribute to the development of the work over time.

John Harvey, Industrial Landscape No. 2 (1979) mixed media, 17.8 x 10.2 cm.

Ever since I was an undergraduate student, South Wales’s industrial landscape has informed my drawing and painting, art historical writing, curatorial projects and, latterly, sound artworks. Coalmining, along with religion and art, have been enduring bedfellows in the context of my work and life. At the outset of this latest project, which seeks to engage the sounds, history, and significance of one colliery in particular, I want to revisit several salient personal memories associated with my childhood experience of coalmining.

From my paternal grandparents’ front-room window in Bournville I could see a procession of buckets filled with waste material travelling from Rose Heyworth Colliery in Abertillery, set against the west side of the Arael Mountain. They were strung aloft upon supporting towers like gondolas on the cable transport at a ski resort. Each in turn would silently drop its contents upon the coal tips underneath. These grey-black cones grew upon of the ground like the primordial mound in the Egyptian creation narrative, which some scholars believe the pyramids symbolised. (Bournville is situated at the extremities of Abertillery and Blaina. It’s an in-between place that, in one sense, belongs to both towns and neither. I’ve never discovered why it took its name from the village in Birmingham.)

The rear of my maternal grandparents’ house on the High Street in Blaina looked onto a tall retaining wall demarcating the ‘Moss’. This was a century’s old grassed-over slag heap, on top of which my cousins and I would play during the school holidays. From the summit, you could look down upon Beynon’s Colliery, where my grandfather (‘Pop’) was the Overman and his sons, Owen and Idwal, were the chief electrician and fireman, respectively. As grandson of the ‘head honcho’, I was given the freedom of the pit. I drank tea in the miners’ canteen, counted the canaries (waiting to be sacrificed at pit bottom as methane detectors), and fed sugar cubes to the pit ponies. The heady blend of sweat, flux, oil, grease, and coal-dust filled my nostrils. I could taste it in my mouth. Intoxicating. The sounds of the cage and its cargo of miners ascending and descending the pit shaft, the winding wheels in motion, the hooter that announced the beginning and end of shifts, the electricity generators’ terrifying 50Hz hum, the crack and spark of switches being turned on and off, and the clank of iron-on-iron as the coal trucks were shunted, made an enduring impression on my acoustic memory. If it were possible for me to travel back in time and revisit that colliery having only one sense, then, I would choose my hearing.

Some of those sounds are summoned in a recurring dream about my childhood visits to Blaina. It always takes place at night. I’m standing at the foot of the ‘Moss’ looking westward towards the railway line, down which coal trucks travelled from the pit’s washery to Newport and Cardiff docks. I can see only an impenetrable darkness punctuated by the glow of many low-wattage bulbs — strung like Christmas tree lights — that illuminate the windows and doors of the colliery buildings. But I hear everything.

Within my own oeuvre as a sound composer, the concept of envisioning a landscape of sound (as distinct from a soundscape), and of representing a landscape through sound, was first developed in ‘Fourth Piece: Braver Notes‘ from the R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A  (2015) album. The track, I wrote:

summons sounds associated with an industrial environment. It took me sometime to realise where precisely my mind was being drawn during the process of composition. I could hear, as it were, steam under pressure, the drone of turbines in motion, the push and pull of cylinders, metallic noises (clanking and hammering), shovelling, and the sombre tone of a horn being blown.

R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A /E V A N R O B E R T S (accessed: November 12, 2021)

‘Image and Inscription’, from The Bible in Translation (2016) album, evokes abstractly the mountainous landscape of the Sinai desert (where the Israelites sojourned after their Exodus from Egypt) and the attendant supernaturally-effected natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and thunder. Noisome Spirits (2021), for its part, represents the landscape of 18th-century rural Wales — one that’s inhabited with the sounds of demons, angels, and revenant spirits. The present project allies the industrial landscape of early-20th century South Wales with the socio-political, religious, and biblical traditions of working class communities in South Wales. These are preoccupations that I first explored at the beginning of my university employment, in Image of the Invisible: The Visualization of Religion in the Welsh Nonconformist Tradition (1999) and Miner-Artists: The Art of Welsh Coalworkers (2000). Thus, it’s fortuitously appropriate that I should return to them at the close of my employment.

Mining and the Bible were interwoven in South Walian culture and society during the 19th and early-20th centuries. In Image of the Invisible I’d written about the coalminers’ self-identification with the Israelites during their Egyptian captivity, as described in the Book of Exodus. Coalminers (and iron workers before them) were, during the period of exploitative private ownership of the mines, referred to as ‘white slaves’. Gioachino Rossini’s opera (1792–1868) Mosè in Egitto [Moses in Egypt] — which was transcribed for brass and silver bands and played by miners in competitions throughout the coalfields — underscored that correspondence.

While not a musician himself, Pop was librarian for the Blaina Town Band; he maintained the players’ sheet music. In my pre-teens, he dragged me to brass band concerts ‘for my own good’. (Generational inculturation was often imposed forcibly in the Valleys.) The concerts were performed at local market halls and workmen’s institutes, and attended by every man from the coalface who could lift a pint (or so it seemed), as well as a few wives. The repertoire introduced me to live classical music, astonishing musicianship, and tight ensemble playing by some of the best bands in the country — long before I managed to ingratiate myself into the school orchestra as an enthusiastic incompetent. However, it was the euphonic melancholy of the instrumentation and arrangements that most impressed me. I can still hear it in the low-toned drones of my own sound compositions.

In Pop’s book cabinets were leather-bound volumes about the engineering and mechanics associated with the process of coal extraction. They were illustrated with astonishing photogravures and meticulous and exacting line drawings of machine parts about which I knew nothing and over which I’d pour with disbelief, while listening to Uncle Owen’s 78-rpm recordings of the guitarist Les Paul. I suspect that my passion for visual art (as well as for jazz and guitar playing) were nurtured by this encounter.

Thus, coalmining — its workers, environs, hardware, odours, noises, and musical and visual culture — was, and remains, a beautiful thing to me. It has been an invaluable resource without which I could’ve achieved little of personal relevance, creatively speaking.

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