Summa: diary (August 19-31, 2022)

Calamity upon calamity … woe upon woe, disaster upon disaster (Ezekiel 7.26).

Recently, a former student of mine asked: ‘What do you regret about your teaching?’ Apart from those occassions when I was concious either of casting my pearls before swine or my seed falling among thorns (which is the common lot of educators), there’s one thing about which I still berate myself. There were times when, in the context of a one-to-one fine art tutorial, I would jump-in too soon with a solution to a student’s problem. In so doing, I not only short-changed them but also short-circuited a process of meandering, losing the way, falling into a ditch, working out how to climb out, and discovering their own answer thereby, that’s essential to learning.

My initial scope of the Old and New Testament gave me a clear idea of where sound descriptors are most prevalent. Isaiah is undoubtedly the ‘noisiest’ of the prophets; his titular book contains more examples, and a greater variety, of acoustic references than any other in the Bible. Presently, this text is the prime candidate for a notional The Aural Bible VII composition. I’ll re-read the scriptures a second time to ensure that no examples of sonic identifiers, similes, and metaphors have been overlooked. (Or is that ‘overheard’?)

Over the years, I’ve built quite a number of guitar pedalboards. Each presented a, now, predictable set of challenges: resolving incompatabilities of capacitance and resistance; ensuring consistency of tonality and volume from the first to the last pedal; establishing a collective optimum sonic and ergonomic arrangement; providing each with adequate voltage and wattage; and maintaining the integrity of cables and connections, while listening for the presence of a dispiriting 50 MHz hum in the system. Function determines form. Confronting these challenges requires perseverance and a diagnostic frame of mind.

Having completed and road-tested the distortion pedalboard (above), I remade my existing modulation pedalboard on a smaller scale. The flanger, phase, and echo effectors were removed, since they were rarely used. They’d also cast upon the processed sounds a retro-resonance that I associate with 1970s rock and popular music. This overlay has never been appropriate to the requirements of the composition. Thereafter, I installed several devices that would allow the pedalboards and individual effectors (sustain, pitch-shift, and looper) to be punched in and out of the signal chain by way of the device’s send and return function.

In another part of the studio I assembled a rig centred around a short-wave radio, which has its ‘guts’ exposed for the purpose of circuit bending. This is a method of noise production that I’d first trialled in 1974 (when I was 15 years old), and again in 1977. On those occasions, I rerouted the circuits of a cassette-tape recorder and radio. Thirty-eight years later, I demonstrated this reckless approach to producing screeches, whines, groans, and rasps (the sounds of a robot in its death throes) in the context of a university open day. The adapted devices sometimes burn out due to the introduction of voltage levels that the circuit was never designed to receive. Louis and Bebe Barron’s soundtrack to the Forbidden Planet (1956) made a virtue of this inevitability. The ‘music’ comprises a collage sounds produced by oscillators designed to give up the ghost in the process of generating some of the most disturbing, unearthly, and compelling sounds in cinema history. Thus circuit bending, too, has a retrospective ring to it. However, for the purposes of the Harry Grindall Matthews project, this evocation is entirely apposit. For example, his design for the ‘Death Ray’ (a technology which, he claimed, could — among other things — disable enemy aircraft) looked for all the world like a futuristic prop from a 1940-50s sci-fi B movie.

Circuit-bending appartus (2022); Harry Grindell Matthews, ‘Death Ray’ (1925) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Presently, I’m not committed to the development of any of these projects. Rather, they serve as loci for an open-ended exploration of ideas, trajectories, methodologies, and technologies. In relinguishing my grasp upon definable objectives, outcomes, and deadlines I’m better able to be led by the nose into unchartered territory while, at the same time, being constrained and inspired by the possibilities inherent in the projects’ source material. I’ve never been able to pursue purposeless ‘play’.

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