My Aural Diary

The first ‘entry’ in, what would become known as, the ‘aural diary’ began around 11.00 am on Friday May 10, 1985, in the clock tower of City Hall, Cardiff. At the time, I was employed by the city council on a temporary contract as a graphic designer. One of my colleagues and I had asked a security guard to grant us access to the tower, so that we could get close to the clock’s bell as it struck the first quarter, at 11.15 am. I doubt whether many employees, before or since, have had an opportunity to be ‘deafened’ by a volume so loud as to flatten the auto-level facility of my Sony Walkman WM-65. The next recording was made on the same device over two months later, at 7.00 pm+ on Wednesday, July 31, 1985, in Aberystwyth. It documented street preaching on the Promenade. I’d temporarily moved from Cardiff to the town in order to take up a part-time Summer job as a bookshop salesman.

View from the summit of clock tower, City Hall, Cardiff (11.30 am, May 10, 1985) & Journey to the summit of the clock tower, City Hall, Cardiff (11.00 am+, May 10, 1985).

From then until Sunday, December 17, 2006, the subjects of my field recording included: spoken prayers and Bible reading at church services; the sounds of car and boat journeys; discussions with friends and family; Christian broadcasts on American TV and radio; hushed voices at my mother’s funeral tea, the chatter and speeches at wedding receptions; the hubbub of diners, servers, and muzak played in restaurants and cafes; the buzz of theatre and concert audiences; the noise of festivals, fairgrounds, and parades; Buddhist hymn singing and chanted prayer in the rain, in Singapore; telephone conversations; shouts and speeches at political rallies; other people’s reminiscences; musicians playing or tuning-up; traffic and roadside sounds; my children learning to talk, sing, play musical instruments, and compose music; clocks chiming and church bells pealing; the clamour of New Year celebrations; the muted conversations of visitors at museums and galleries; conversations in public squares; the wind blowing through the long-grass on the Arael mountain, overlooking Abertillery; the bleep and whirr of hospital monitoring equipment; the ‘silence’ of library and museum interiors; the drawl of trains and buses, arriving and departing; and announcements at railway stations, airports, and on the London and New York underground.

Recording devices used between 1985 and 2006: Sony Walkman FM/AM Stereo Cassette-corder WM-F65 (1985); Walkman Professional cassette-recorder WM-D6C (1984); Sony Net MZ-N910 MiniDisc (2002).

I used what was, in 1985, the relatively new technology of a small, mobile, stereo cassette player-recorder, as I would a camera. The impetus was several fold. In part, it was a response to the perceived limitations of static photography and video. The former stilled life to a split-second that was imperceivable at the moment the photograph was taken. The latter offered too many images in quick succession, and relegated the accompanying audio track to a subservient role. Recordings of sound in isolation abstract reality. At the same time they vividly evoke the visual presence of the rendered person, place, or object in the mind — of the recordist, especially. The cassette tape-recording captured an essence of things that was otherwise easily overlooked or ignorable.

To my mind, sound recordings (especially when played over headphones) are more immersive than either photographs or videos. That said, sound recordings embody a sense of melancholy and grief (associated with the loss of that which they depict, perhaps) that’s shared with silent films and old black and white photographs. All my recordings have been digitised and, where necessary, corrected for stereo-field and tonal equalisation. The original cassette tapes now have the same status as negatives in photography. They are the progenitor of every copy (analogue or digital) made from them.

Cardiff, St David’s, New York, London (1985-2006).

Photographs freeze time and compress or flatten space. Sound recordings, by contrast, move in time and — by reproducing sonic reverberation and reflections off surfaces in the environment under ‘observation’ — are able to suggest a third dimension. (Sound is as sculptural as it is pictorial.) Like a camera, the sound recording device is democratic and mindless: it captures everything within its purview, indiscriminately. However, a sound cannot be cropped or composed like a visual scene, by the bounding edge of a view finder or screen. The sound recording is framed only by a start and a stop; a beginning and an end. However, further editing can take play after the fact, by either cutting and pasting (splicing) the cassette tape (thereby removing the unwanted sections), or transferring only the required content from the original tape to another. (This was the technique that I used.)

A further impetus for initiating the aural diary was an awareness that my life in 1985 was in transition. I was about to begin a new phase in my career and leave my current domicile and with it friends who were moving-on in their own lives too. In the next few years, close family members would die, and with them their stories. Incised upon every place and person that I’d known was the epitaph: ‘And this too will pass’. Sound recording enabled me to preserve a vestige of the temporal and, later, replay the past in order to relive the experience. (This is as close as I’ve ever come to time travel.) Through sound recording, the dead speak again, transport vehicles that had been assigned to the scrapheap long ago, grind their engines and toot their horns once more, and the now demolished or repurposed buildings in which recordings were made are restored to their former glory. In these ways, the recordings served as ‘resurrections’, memorials, and restorations.

Corridor at the Old Library, Cardiff, where I recorded the rumble of a thunderstorm in 1987 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

The vast majority of those made between 1985 and 2006 don’t refer to major events in the world. One notable exception is the radio news report of the ‘Big Storm’ (as it was referred to at the time) that hit the UK on October 15-16, 1987. (These days it’s known as the ‘Great Storm’. The passing of time amplifies significance.) Rather, the recordings are an account of the personal and familiar acoustic events — the evidence of my having been there, in earshot and the microphone’s compass of what would otherwise have gone unnoticed. In this respect, sound recording helped me to develop an attitude of active, attentive, and discerning listening. (As Pauline Oliveros taught, listening is as qualitively different to hearing as seeing is the looking.)

The aural dairy was maintained alongside a conventional text-based diary and a photographic record. (See: My Diaries.) These three modes of documentation explicated one another. Until recently, few of the sound recordings had been made public, other than in sound artworks, such as SG​:​03​.​5​-​15​.​88 (2012), The Chance Meeting in a Cathedral of a Vacuum Cleaner and a Pipe Organ (2013) and B-Lit-Z (2013). Today, a bespoke Aural Diary website provides access to a representative sample of recordings produced from 1987 to the present day. No doubt, they’ll garner a very meagre audience. But no audience — other than John Harvey, listening several decades later to his younger self’s life in sound — was ever intended. Unlike, say, my Instagram posts, sound files can’t be scrolled through swiftly and indifferently. (See: My Instagram.) The engagement demands a commitment of the audient’s time to the recording’s time.

John Harvey, aural diary (

The entries to aural diary ceased after 2006 and resumed, in a small way, after 2015. These additional recordings comprise birdsong, sounds associated with the School of Art (some of which were incorporated into Show Sounds (2016)) and its students, the chatter of conference attendees, electrical noises, eulogies, and building work in progress. Visual incidents of interest present themselves more often than audible ones, and its a challenge to keep looking and listening intelligently and simultaneously. One mode of perception and recording inevitably gives way to the another. After 2006, photography became my principal mode of documentation; while in 2009, my interest in sound was consolidated by a return to sonic composition.

It’s thirty eight years since I first pressed the red record button on my Walkman in the clock tower of City Hall. I’m confident that nothing like same length of time will again elapse between the recent sound recordings and their playback by my future self. By then, I’ll be either deaf, or demented, or dead. Today, sounds are recorded in and for the here and now, and often end up as sonic illustrations in the ‘Summa: diary’ posts. Thus, today, they’ve an audience and interact with the textual and visual account of my days — as they had done, privately, during the period from 1985 to 2006.

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