Summa: diary (March 1-10, 2022)

March 1. I was three years old when the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 16-28, 1962) threatened to plunge the Soviet Union and USA into World War III, and the world into the abyss of almost certain nuclear annihilation. At the time I was, of course, oblivious to the stand-off and its implications. Putin’s nuclear muscle-flex isn’t of the same order of magnitude … at the moment. Khrushchev was brazen, but he saw sense and heeded his advisors. The current President has the makings of an unhinged megalomaniac Bond villain who would rather torch the whole world than suffer defeat.

It’s been heart-breaking to see a brave, proud, resourceful, and determined people face the Goliath of an otherwise lack-lustre Russian army. The Ukrainians have already won the moral high ground; and no amount of force will ever topple them from that position. Poland’s openheartedness and generosity towards the refugees has been an example to the world. It’s often the case that those have suffered much in their history render the more in return. The UK Government’s response to the victims of this war has been nothing short of shameful in comparison. But as we discovered when the pandemic began, a crisis brings out the worst in the worst. It also brings out the best in the best, as President Zelensky’s calm and collected resolve, unflagging optimism, and steely determination to stand alongside his people in the midst of their troubles has shown.

March 4. It’s been difficult for both students and staff to maintain their focus upon the business at hand. Education, art, creativity, and culture are important. However, their significance is, presently, far outshone by the more pressing concerns of human suffering and the wanton destruction of the Ukrainians’ freedom, hopes, country, and future. These are a people to whom we barely gave a thought several weeks ago. Now they’re rarely out of our thoughts. On Monday, I revised my ‘Ways of Working in Sound’ PowerPoint in readiness for its final contribution to the Postraduate research training programme. In order to acknowledge what was taking place outside the class bubble, I included a sound sample extracted from Frederic Mullally’s vinyl record entitled The Sounds of Our Times 1934-1949. The album (which had been passed down to me through the family) captures, for the most part, speeches made by prominent politicians and writers during World War II. I chose a section describes the London blitzkrieg. It includes the testimony of one Cockney about another, following a raid.* It’s the detail describing ‘a woman singing’ that struck me most forcibly. Her attitude, along with that of the taxi driver who told her story, recalls that ‘cheerful irrepressible’ Ukrainian spirit that has been so event in news broadcasts and tweeted videos over the past week.

11.00 am: I attended a filmed introduction and poetry reading given by Eileen Harrisson at her A Sorrowful Healing: Reflections in stitch, sound and word on the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the peace gained, PhD Fine Art exhibition. It was never envisaged that the work would be seen against the backdrop of the present war in Europe. The comments in the Visitors’ Book were an eloquent testimony to the exhibition’s ability to not only connect with an audience but also to provide a focus for sympathy with the victims of conflict everywhere.

March 7. A number of my professional acquaintances who are either sound or music makers have, over the past week, confessed to experiencing an anxiety brought about by two years of pandemic and, now, a global threat of an incomparably greater magnitude. People can live with uncertainty for only so long before cracks begin to appear in their confidence in themselves and those abilities that they would otherwise have taken for granted. Art, like the world, is a fragile thing. However, in these perilous times its incumbent upon all of us who engage in it to hold fast to our profession, adapt to change, and trust in the significance of what we do. Art not only provides an articulation of our humanity but actively maintains it. Ordinarily, one cannot make art and kill. When asked by the theorist T J Clark how important he believed art to be, the critic Clement Greenberg replied: ‘At least as important as politics’. Politicians will let us down; we will let politics and art down; but art will will never let us down.

Making music and playing an instrument are two activities over which we may maintain complete control, even as the world appears the spin off its axis. Mastery is first and foremost an attitude of mind, heart, and soul. Our righteous anger towards, and exasperation regarding, those who ought, but fail, to take responsibility for some of the other aspects of our life may be fuel to the fire of our endeavours.

March 9. 7.28 am. I took the train for ‘Brum’ (via a coach journey between Newtown and Shrewsbury) to conduct research and feast on exhibitions. I’ve been famished. There’s no substitute for encountering work in a gallery. Reproductions in books and on the internet are merely images — a simulacrum of the epidermis of an art object. Against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine and the flight of refugees, the pleasures of art are taken somewhat guiltily. However, I remind myself that the freedom and right of self-determination for which the Ukrainians are fighting fearlessly and optimistically are the necessary conditions for art to flourish. Thus, it’s incumbent on those who’re presently blessed with those liberties to exercise them, by making, seeing, talking and writing about, and being changed by, art. Far fewer people are wearing face masks on the trains today than when I travelled in November 2021. Me, I’m a stickler for the common sense approach. Mercifully, there were few passengers on the transport this morning. An unmasked passenger coughed; the unmasked around them were visibly unnerved.

I follow Yoko Ono’s Twitter feed. In her opinion, the marked solidarity shown by the international community — both politicians and the polis — signals a sea change in global peace-consciousness. (John would’ve approved.) Quite possibly. We are living through three historical moments of significance: the pandemic, the war, and the threat of ecological disaster. (Which are quite enough for one lifetime.) You can feel the gravitas in you’re bones; the unease in the pit of your stomach; and the chill shadow of uncertainty that’s now cast across the future. Nevertheless, I sense that a vague vision of a better world is now being made manifest.

The Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky exhibition at the Ikon Gallery was a curatorial failure, in my opinion. Not least because a declaration about its overarching intent was entirely absent. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see the artist’s works hung upon the austere walls of a white space, rather than against red flock wallpaper, and with a great deal of uninterrupted space between them.

On my return to the hotel following dinner at a quiet Lebanese restaurant,  I heard bells ringing loudly and close-by me — as though they were emanating from an upper-storey window of the building to my right on Temple Street. (I was reminded of William Blake’s vision of angels in a tree at Peckham Rye Park, London.) Mine was an acoustic apparition: a ‘heavenly’ and an entrancing sound where there ought to have been none. I turned around and noticed a narrow and deep gap between two buildings directly opposite. This was channelling and focussing (like the lens of a camera obscura) the clamour of the peal at St Philip’s Cathedral (to which I’d been otherwise oblivious), some distance away, and bouncing it off the window’s panes. (Glass is an excellent reflector of sound waves. Which is why you should never record in a greenhouse.)

March 10. It takes about ten minutes to travel by train from Birmingham New Street to University, and further 10 minutes to walk from the latter station to the the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The last time I was here was on the occasion of the ‘Painting & the Bible’ conference in 2007, which Professor Martin O’Kane (Department of Theology, Religion, and Biblical Studies, Lampeter University (as was)) and I convened as part of our The Bible and Visual Culture series. Today, I’d come to see a very small exhibition called Beyond Representation.

In essence, the curatorial concept was: ‘Let’s think about how the pandemic has reshaped our perception of the world and ourselves in the light of historic artists’ responses to previous crises in culture.’ Personally, I think that it’s far too early to address such a question, and too trendy to ask it now. Certainly, we know we have been changed by COVID-19, but not how, or to what extent, or whether irreversibly. The university campus was spirited and humane, and the students appeared serious and determined.

Visual sound

*I incorporated several samples from the record in my sound work entitled B-Lit-Z (2013).

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