Summa: diary (February 20-24, 2023)

February 20 (Monday). 8.00 am: Back to the conference paper and on with secondary source bibliographical research. Over the years, has emailed me links with innumerable suggestions about academic papers that might be relevant. A few days back, I received the first that genuinely fitted the bill.

February 21 (Shrove Tuesday). 5.30 am: A dismal night’s sleep, and my stomach is complaining. What had I eaten? 8.15 am: Into the studio to the sound of scaffolders clanging poles and blaring their radio outside my window. There’d be no work done inside my window until their task was complete. Therefore, I decamped to the study, and surveyed references to angelic singing in Victorian hymns. A fruitful morning amid dreadful literature. After lunch, I shifted gear and perspective and read about sound and film further. 3.30 pm: A walk, as a matter of necessity. (I’d been too much and too long in my head.) Greyness has hung over the day like the stultifying inertia of grief in its aftermath.

February 22 (Ash Wednesday). 7.30 am: A communion. 8.30 am: I made notes on the hymns collected yesterday. In the background: György Ligeti. The avant-garde work that he composed after emigrating from communist Hungary in 1956, because of its restrictions on musical style, has been my solace and inspiration for many years. His choral and orchestral piece Requiem (1963-66), and the ‘Kyrie’ especially, is as close an approximation to what I’d expect angelic singing to sound like: sublime, in the fullest sense of that idea. At the heart of the sublime, Edmund Burke (1729-97) argued, is terror. To my mind, their song would be overwhelming: like a beautiful nightmare. In contrast, late-nineteenth century hymnists ‘heard’ only loveliness and consolation:

‘Tis a chorus full of sweetness.

Robert Lowry, in Biglow and Main’s Christmas Annual No. 8 (New York: Biglow and Main, 1877).

Palm-ash mark; John Harvey, Sindebt (Cheirographon) (2014) (Col. 2.4) carbon toner on paper, 80 × 80 cm (King James Version).

February 23 (Thursday). I suffer from a mild to moderate tinnitus. The symptoms followed an undiagnosed and untreated sinus infection that lasted several years. The consequences have been hearing impairment and the intrusion of white noise + sine-wave frequency oscillations into my acoustic background. The deficit is unilateral, being located in the left ear predominantly. However, medical science is moving towards the determination that tinnitus is a cognitive anomaly rather than ear malfunction: a listening rather than a hearing deficit, in other words. This provides grounds for hope. Some doctors suggest that the brain can be retrained to pay less attention to it. The degree of interference isn’t constant, in terms of either volume or tone. There’re days when I’m hardly aware of it. And, one day, I may not suffer from it at all.

Some forms of tinnitus account for a phenomenon called variously Musical ear syndrome and musical hallucinations. (Other ailments besides can give rise to the same effect.). Could this be one possible explanation for auditory experiences of angels singing?:

Musical ear syndrome (MES) is when someone hears music that has no external source. Some people hear a single instrument playing a simple melody; others hear several instruments playing a complex piece of music; and still others hear a voice singing, with or without accompaniment. The most common melodies, however, are hymns, Christmas carols, and patriotic music.

My Tinnitus Has a Melody — Is That Possible?

The hearing deficit is quite another matter. As men age, their upper-frequency acuity is blunted. As someone who works with a very broad band of frequencies, I’m uncommonly aware of what has been compromised. Mind you, my vision (sans spectacles) has been far worse than my hearing for over half a century. Presently, I’m practising listening, intently and deliberately, to high-pitched sounds within the range of my impairment. I’ll not be able to restore my hearing fully, because the ear has been damaged and I’m not getting any younger. But I can encourage my brain to try harder.

Back on the hymn trail to track down emergent theologies of singing angels. I came across the following. It was, in all likelihood, written by a soldier serving in a black platoon for the Union army during the American Civil War (1861-5). In the field of battle, the assumed presence and protection of the angelic host in the face of Confederacy bullets would have been a source of consolation (as it was for British soldiers at the Battle of Mons, Belgium, in 1914). :

I think I hear the angels sing,
I think I hear the angels sing,
I think I hear the angels sing,
The angels now are on the wing.
I feel, I feel, I feel,
That’s what my mother said,
The angels pouring ‘lasses down,
Upon this nigger’s head.

February 24 (Friday). Recently, I was sent a reproduction of this engraving. I’d never seen it before:

Albrccht Dürer, Pillow Studies (1493) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I’d made drawings of unmade beds in 1980 as a prelude to engaging with the landscape. What intrigues me about Dürer’s image is his use of seriality. I recalled the works of modernists, like Sol Le Witt and Josef Albers, whose practice was based on the repetition and variation of a standard unit. The principle of variation is not a necessary co-requisite of this modus operandi. Andy Warhol‘s series of Campbell Soup cans screenprints is a case in point. At the time of writing, builders are re-tiling one of my roofs. They’re working to a grid formed of rafters and purlins. Each identical tile is set in place upon that structure, one at a time and in strict order. There’s no other way to do it. The builders submit to a predetermined plan of action in order to achieve the anticipated outcome.

It was through serialist work, under the direction of my tutor, the constructivist Keith Richardson-Jones, that I was introduced, in 1978, to the idea of art as the product of a systematically predetermined process and set of determining regulations. These rules took precedence over the artist’s ego and desire for self-expression and, even, the execution of the work itself. The system was the boss, as Keith explained:

There’s this coming together of what it wants to do and what I want to do and you have to respect the outcome of the system . . . It has to be what comes out.

Michael Harrison, ‘Keith Richardson-Jones‘ [obituary] Independent online (April 25, 2005).

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