Summa: dairy (December 1-5, 2022)

‘Have you ever got to that point in your life, John, when … ?’

December 1. 9.00 am: ‘I’m walking on sunshine, whooa!’ (as Katrina and the Waves sang, nearly forty years ago) en route to the next village, to enjoy a celebratory coffee and conversation matinee with one of my former postgraduate students.

Towards Llanbadarn Fawr; paintbrushes are the new flowers

12.00 pm: Emailification and filing. 1.45 pm: The beginning of a steep learning curve, as I get to grips with new hardware and software. These powerful devices have an astonishing potential to be modified, and are future proof (for now). These days, I refuse to buy anything that isn’t. The Line6 Helix FX will serve as a programmable, all-in-one, box of tricks that can either be used as a stand-alone unit or inserted into my existing guitar effector rig. In 2013, the company became a subsidiary of Yamaha, whose R&D expertise is exemplary. I bought my first digital processing unit in 2009, when I returned to making sound after a thirty-two year hiatus. It was a Line6 Pocket Pod (the ‘broad bean’, as it was known affectionately) — which the company still manufactures, and remains a design classic (in my opinion). Sadly, the device looked far better than it sounded back then. The hardware of today’s version is identical to that of the original; but the processing software has been enlarged, updated, and improved out of all recognition.

Line6 HX Effects (2021); Line6 Pocket Pod (2009)

December 2. 7.15 am: A communion. 8.00 am: Michel Chion, in his book entitled Film, A Sound Art (2009), draws attention to Orson Welles’s (1915-85) belief that ‘his cinema is constructed from speech’. By that, Welles implied that the sound of voices — which, in the era of monophonic films, emerged from a single loudspeaker placed centrally behind the screen — represented a fixed and immobile point in his work, around which the images of people, objects, places, spaces, and perspectives moved.

His statement struck me as an encapsulation to my own endeavours over the past twenty-three years, but in a very different sense. My work is constructed from the word. The printed and written word is fundamental to The Pictorial Bible series, while the spoken word is the engine that drives The Aural Bible series. This has always been obvious to me. But I’ve never before been able to state the observation so straightforwardly. There is still so much to be done.

Tom Phillips (1937-2022) died a few days ago. I first encountered his work on the cover and gatefold of King Crimson’s album Starless & Bible Black (1974). On the back of the cover, there’s a small altered text-extract from his artist’s-book A Humument, which he began 1965. It reads: ‘this night wounds time’. The phrase — its dislocation and consequent enigma — stayed with me. I suspect that the album’s artwork lit the fire of my own preoccupation with the idea of both word-based images and integrating text, image, and sound.

Pages from: Tom Phillips, The Humument: a treated Victorian novel, 1st rev. ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980).

9.00 am: Out Christmas tree hunting at our out-of-town shopping precinct. 10.00 am: Why aren’t all updater softwares immediately compatible with both Microsoft and Apple operating systems, still? And why isn’t the manufacturer recognized by Apple, so that the updater utility isn’t perceived as a threat? Why is this happening to me? (Big sigh!) What’s a ‘kinky Boost’ effect, for goodness sake? And will it do me any good? Compact, menu-based digital systems require patience, perseverance, and a good memory for terminology and procedure. As do the accompanying manuals, which are rarely fit for purpose. 2.00 pm: After three hours of readying the device and myself, I’ve still yet to hear it in action.

9.00 am -5.00 pm

December 3. 10.00 am: Townage, shopping. There’s a famine of unbleached muslin. (I was brought-up to pronounce ‘muslin’ like ‘Muslim’, rather than as ‘muzlin’ (which, I imagine, is the preferred articulation these days.) Next on the purchase list: chocolate (for the weekend film-binge), large eggs, Dymo tape for my equipment labeller, and an eraser. (‘Rubber’ — which had been a perfectly acceptable description in my childhood — is now a euphemism.)

10.00-10.45 am.

1.30 pm: Good to receive a little radio play, a few week’s back, on the Sound Projector Music Magazine and Radio Show (55.33). It played ‘Prayer 3: Touch My Life’ from the Seven Prayers for Stephen Chilton: Requiem (2021) album. Hearing my work on public broadcasting objectifies it. I encounter composition as though it had been made by someone else.

2.00 pm: DIY. I needed to construct a bracket and handle unit to hold one of my digital recorders (of which the eraser is an essential component). Too often, the movements of my body communicate themselves through my hand to the recorder and onto the capture as audible bumps and shuffles The finished version reminds me of a Type 1 phaser from the original Star Trek series. 3.00 pm: For the remainder of the afternoon, I explored the distortion effects in the Line6 HX Effects library.

2.00-4.5.00 pm

December 5. 6.45 am: I awoke from an apparently long dream in which the ‘Creed’ [working title] recordings were being imported into my sampler device very slowly, one by one. Thus, in anticipating one of this week’s tasks, I was tired in the doing of it even before the work had begun. Morningtide:

7.15 am

8.30 am: First, I took the measure of this week’s work and family commitments and their ‘desirable outcomes’. One must determine to be determined. The next few days would be dedicated to ‘professional development’: skill acquisition, primarily. Secondly, I sat down with a two and a half hour tutorial course on a complex and sophisticated piece of sound-production software with which I’m entirely unfamiliar. Notebook at my elbow. ‘Sit up straight, John!’ Were it not for retirement, I doubt whether there’d be time to commit either to this lesson or learning anything new that posed a significant challenge. I’m a firm believer in expanding one’s skill-base in order to either facilitate new possibilities or else execute an existing procedure more efficiently. When I was in art school, the philosophy was that you acquired only those skills that were required to realise an idea. I disagreed. The acquisition of skill can itself open the door upon new ideas that you’d not otherwise have conceived. Which it why, at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, we teach ways of not only thinking but also doing. The two are interdependent. This conviction has always been central to music education. Learn notes, scales, chords, arpeggios, sight-reading, composition theory, music history, and your instrument to a measurably high standard, then … do what you like. To be free, creatively speaking, you must develop an authority over your means.

Most sound software offers more facilities that I could ever use. Therefore, I don’t need to be proficient in every aspect of its functionality. (Ars long vita brevis.) The wisdom is to know what the programme can do and what I want to do with it, with respect to the project at hand. The software is a tool, and not a tyrant.

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