Summa: diary (March 16-30, 2022)

Run toward, rather than away from, the problem.

March 16. Wednesdays are dedicated to my PhD Fine Art tutees, and any others who manage to infiltrate the day’s teaching diary. The last of my charge has begun to install their doctoral exhibition. It represents the apogee of their achievement and, in this instance, a very small portion of what they’ve produced over the course of their studies. Completing a project, even very successfully, can be a deeply dispiriting experience. I’ve found this to be true for both my postgraduate students and myself. It’s explained, in part, by the profound tiredness that breaks upon us after we’ve given our all. In part, too, the finale represents the end of a relationship between the artist and a body of work. As with all breakups — either inevitable or volunteered — grief, insecurity, and a loss of direction ensue. However, after a period of rest and time away from the finished article, a sober spirit and a modicum of enthusiasm may prevail.

March 17. Ideally, one ought to consider the next project before the current one comes to a close. Otherwise an unwanted and unwarranted hiatus may descend, and linger for some time. The man below may be one of my forthcoming preoccupations. On this day 140 years ago, Harry Grindall Matthews was born. He was an English inventor who claimed to have conceived the ‘Aerophone’, which was a device for transmitting signals from the ground to an aeroplane from a distance of 2 miles; a ‘Death Ray’, that could shoot down aeroplanes and zeppelins; a ‘Sky Projector’, able to project images onto clouds; a ‘Luminaphone’, which could turn light into music and sound into colour; and to have pioneered the first talking-pictures, in 1921. He certainly didn’t. None of his inventions either bore scrutiny or worked successfully when demonstrated. Matthews was either deceptive or delusional or both. In 1934, he and his wife (a Polish opera singer) made their home in Wales at Tor Clawdd, Swansea, where he constructed a laboratory and airfield.

Harry Grindall Matthews (1800-1941) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For sometime I’ve wanted to make a sonic response to a historical character, again. My first engagement was with the charismatic Welsh revivalist Evan Roberts (1878-1951). The album entitled R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A, is derived from a restored wax cylinder recording, made in 1905, on which you can hear him preaching, accompanied by a small male-voice choir. All my work, acoustic, visual, and art historical has, since 1999, dealt with history: be that, for example, the remote past of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, 18th-century texts about the supernatural, and accounts of the religious awakening in Wales in 1904. I’m an artist who requires an object of inquiry with which to collaborate in the process of exploration, interpretation, and transformation. Matthews’s preoccupations with the technologies of sound and visual transmission, and sound and image conversion — as well as his connection to Wales — chime with some of my own historic interests.

Thirty-one years ago today my father died unexpectedly in the late evening, as he was watching TV with his girlfriend. He was 60 years old. (My mother (his wife) had passed away three years earlier, at the same age.) My annual grief-ritual is to read my diary’s account of the help that my neighbour’s son had rendered him. Richard’s phone call to me, breaking the news: how difficult that must have been for him to make. (He’d lost his own father (my Uncle Alf ) — a former coalminer — to pneumoconiosis, a few years earlier.) Dad lived in Abertillery and I, 86 miles away, in Aberystwyth. Although, in that moment, we were far further apart than we’d ever been before.

March 19. Great gratitude. There’re times when I’m almost overwhelmed: ‘The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places’ (Psalm 16.6). There’s a joy I experience that’s not exuberant or showy; rather, it simmers below the surface — like water in a saucepan, just before it reaches boiling point. I remembered: those I knew who’d passed away at a half, third, and quarter of my age (and numbered my days); those who had an abundance of natural facility, but either no opportunity or little determination to invest it (and reckoned upon God’s grace to me); those who’d neither given love nor received love (and counted my blessings); those that’d passed through my life briefly — bringing with them balm and respite — whom I’m unlikely ever to meet again in this life (and interceded for them); and those who’ve helped me thaw and break-up the fallow ground (and considered that debt unrepayable).

March 20. Borth beach; waterworks:

March 21. Geekdom. I’ve concluded the initial compositional phase of Penallta Colliery: Sound Pictures. There are 14 tracks; roughly 50 minutes of recording. I’ve reached the penultimate phase of mixing. This is not a process of adding either spit and polish or varnish to the final outcome of the creative endeavour. Rather, mixing is (to my mind) integral to the process of conception and composition. Each component of the whole is adjusted for tone, colouration, space, balance, volume, apparent loudness, position in the stereo field (breadth and depth), and relation to its neighbours and that whole. This is the first occasion when I review the tracks over headphones. My aim to to experience the sound as both the majority of audients, as well as audiophiles, would. Therefore, I use four types of headphone: three are open-back and one is closed-back. They vary in price and quality.

Sennheiser PX 100-II (bottom right)
Sony Professional MDR-7506 (top right)
Grado SR125 (top left)
Audeze LCD-X (bottom left)

Each composition undergoes the same process, in turn and in order. The tracks will be passed-over a two further times before their potential is fully realised and they’re ready for CD production and streaming.

I’m planning to visit my home town of Abertillery in May, during the penultimate month of teaching. I’ve not returned since 2018, when the world was rather different to what it is today. I first set sail from that town in 1977, as I embarked upon a career in art at the Foundation Studies department, Emlyn Street, Newport. The town was 18 miles away by road, but much further away culturally speaking. My conviction has been that I should always touch base with my spiritual home when a significant milestone in life has been reached, and meet with some of those who’ve accompanied on stretches of that journey. Several ‘old’ bandmates from my schooldays are still cranking out music on the pubs and clubs circuit in the district.

Blind Man’s Bluff, Doll’s House, Abertillery, 2022

March 22. The first of my two days of paid employment. Since 9.30 pm on Wednesdays (when my employment for the week ends) admin emails have been gathering in my Inbox. I’ve disciplined myself to not even open them until 9.00 am today. The most galling, dispiriting, and vacuous are dealt with immediately. Thereafter, I attend to those matters that are within my purview as Postgraduate Co-ordinator: examination arrangements, MA and PhD applications, candidature review, and divers notifications. Thereafter, I schedule PhD tutorials for next week. Thereafter, I read thesis texts in preparation for forthcoming tutorials. Mid afternoon, Dr Ruddock and I conducted an online, three-way tutorial with one of the PhD Fine Art. The dynamic is entirely different to one-to-one discussions. With a top-draw student, like we engaged today, the good fruit falls from the tree like ripe apples in a gale.

March 23. 8.30 am: I took up postgraduate admin, once again. While I waited to bits ‘n bobs of text to arrive from the PhD students, I attended to early-retirement and pension matters, and to the text and PowerPoint for my talk for the Tŷ Cerdd: Off-Grid event on April 5. Lunchtime. A treat: a Farley’s Rusk (original) for dunking. This is, for me, what a tea-dipped madeleine cake was for Proust: a taste that serves as a trigger of nostalgia and an access point into some of my earliest childhood memories.

Two years ago today the first Covid-19 lockdown began, proper. The British public had been officially ordered to ‘stay at home’, except when undertaking essential tasks (such as buying food and obtaining medication) and taking a constitutional for no more than half-an-hour. All non-essential high streets businesses were closed. In the months that followed, we rediscovered nature; listened, like we’d never done before, to the sound of birds (which was now audible in the absence of traffic sounds); and watched the grass grow tall. The Municipal Cemetery became my stomping ground. I revisit it most Sundays at 12.15 pm, en route to Plas Crug Avenue. A more or less daily routine of walking two miles has been maintained ever since.

March 26. 8.00 am: ‘The Saturday Morning Ambulation’. Habit and routine are the mainsprings of my life. They help me get things done. And, I like to know what’s coming next and when. On my way to the Promenade, I noticed notices taped to doors and in windows, artlessly written with a ‘Sharpy’ on A4 paper. One was addressed to the postman, and said: ‘Please knock. I’m never out. I’m housebound’. Which is as succinct an encapsulation of a whole way of life and its challenges as you could ever wish for. Another read: ‘Bottom doorbell for Hinchliffe only’. It sounded like a title to a 70s free-jazz composition. ‘Hinchcliffe’ is a surname that derives from the place of that name in West Yorkshire. The phrase’s ambiguity is delightful. I assume it was written by an exasperated Hinchcliffe on the ground floor who was tired of answering the door for visitors to the flat(s) above. Or, perhaps, it means that the bottom doorbell is to be rung by Hinchcliffe only.

The sea was relatively quiet and still this morning. My disposition followed suit. I didn’t meet the man with his three white poodles walking in the opposite direction to me, today. Stop. Think. Drink. Stroll. Stop. Think. Drink. Stroll … .

March 29. 8.15 am: The pathway drawn into the shingle narrowed and faded as it arced towards the vanishing point (in more senses than one). The topography was partially erased. What I knew in my mind and experience to be there, was no longer. Solidity gave way to vacuity; fact, to faith. And there was, too, the consoling quiet. Fog seems to dampen and flatten sound. The moist air was still, cold, and close — touching the skin. Walking forward ‘was just another metaphor’.

March 30. Last weekend I began as rigorous a self-appraisal of my personality, morality, spirituality, and intellect as I’ve ever before mounted. It aims (as far as one can be objective to oneself) to determine, diagnosis, and (where possible) remedy those corruptions of the ‘disc-drive’ that compromise, impair, sully, dispirit, and negatively impact upon the lives of others (to my shame). Auto-fault finding can be destructive and lead to despondency unless it’s accompanied by grace, hope, forgiveness, and progressive restoration.

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