Summa: diary (March 20-22, 2023)

The older I get, the more the past, present, and future seem to fold-in upon one another.

Spectral pitch and frequency rendering of my late-father’s voice saying two identical words in succession (June 13, 1989).

March 20 (Monday). On Friday and Saturday, to honour the anniversary of my father’s death, I re-engaged the ‘John!’ [working title] project. The source is a recording, made for my aural diary, of a telephone conversation that I had with him in 1989, less than two years before he died. (We called each other every week following my mother’s death, two years earlier.) Presently, I’m extracting sample phrases from the 3.20 minute exchange of his voice only. These are, then, analysed for their spectral pitch and frequency range. The display images are reminiscent of the so-called ‘howlaround’ video feedback effect, which was used in the original Doctor Who title sequence in 1963. The voice visualisations also evoke an impression of something (or someone, in this case) that’s otherwise intangible, fugitive, and faraway in time and place — passing through this world, momentarily.

The conversion of Dad’s telephonic-voice into on-screen electronic-image is apt given the circumstances surrounding the moment of his death. (See: Summa: diary (January 13-17, 2023), closing paragraph.) ‘The dramatisation of a ghost story that I was watching’ on March 17, 1991, so I’ve recently discovered, was entitled Do Not Disturb (1991). Appropriately, in the context of this project, the adjective ‘spectral’ relates to not only the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum but also an emanation from the spirit of a dead person.

I need, now, to re-immerse myself in the sound culture, fabric, and textures of Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP); that’s to say, purported audio recordings of the dead speaking. On the day before I was born, in June 1959, the Ukrainian-born painter, archeologist, and film director Friedrich Jürgenson was outdoors tape-recording birdsong. When he listened to the tape, a voice was heard to say: ‘Friedel [which had been his late-mother’s nickname for him], can you hear me? It’s Mammy’.

5.30 am: I awoke, remembering some of the fellow students and tutors from my undergraduate years at Newport, Gwent: Tony, Sian, Margaret, Ann, Rhiain, Roddy, Mike, Michael, Rob, Heather, Elaine, Claudia, John, Pete, Geraldine, Max, Mark, Mark (‘Woody’), Nigel (‘Sid’), Sally, Ernie, Ron, David, Jack, Keith, Roy, and John. (A drawing-in of breath.) ‘Where are we now? Where are we know?’, sang Bowie.

The third-year fine art (and graphic-art friends) final picnic, somewhere near Tintern, Monmouthshire, Wales (June 1981).

7.30 am: Ambulation. 8.00 am: I was the FIRST customer in M&S this morning. THE FIRST. 8.30 am: A review of the week ahead. 9.00 am: Studiology. (This is the day. Now is the moment.) I reviewed the weekend’s sampling for the ‘John!’ [working title] project and started to ‘play’ with the material.

7.00 am-5.00 pm.

March 21 (Tuesday). Yesterday, I took ‘John!’ by the scruff of the neck and shook ‘him’, while deploying some of my repertoire of editing, transforming, and modulating techniques to tease out ideas from the source and begin defining the project’s identity. By the close of the afternoon, things had begun to move on both fronts. Around and about, I listened to varieties of recordings purporting to capture EVPs, and successfully replicated their sound profile using Digital Audio Workspace software. I’m quite appalled by the credulity of those who’re too eager to believe, and by those who’re too willing to make a buck off their back by offering expensive pieces of electronic equipment that, it’s claimed, open-up a sonic portal to the beyond. Snake oil!

Today, I’m focussing on one of the most significant and controversial EVP merchandiser-mediums, Steve Huff . His most recent spirit-communication rig, ‘The Backward Box’, comprises those little metal boxes (effectors) with knobs and buttons beloved of electric guitarists and noise-music performers; an active speaker (that is, one with an internal amplifier); a wire filament (with which to earth his body (and spirit, I imagine)) to the equipment; and illuminated crystals. It has a New Age/techno vibe. The three handmade effectors are: a noise-gate pedal (which attenuates a signal that drops below a certain threshold); a reverse pedal (which inverts the signal passing through it in more-or-less real time); and a reverb pedal (which adds ambience and prolongs the sound’s decay).

Steve Huff, ‘The Backwards Box’ (2023), screen capture (with acknowledgement to Huff Paranormal).

Through the effectors, sound output of a computer file playing spoken content is passed. This gives the spirits material to manipulate and a ‘voice’ through which to speak, he contends. Normally, the output is rendered gobbledygook by the reverse modulation pedal. However, when the spirit talks through it, their ‘voice’ is miraculously unreversed and made intelligible, he contends. Fortuitously, Huff’s array is essentially the same as that which I’ve assembled to undertake the next ‘batch’ of compositions: computer-based sound source (voices) > effectors > amplifier/recorder. Somehow, though, I doubt whether the departed will use my gear for the purpose of utterance, similarly.

March 22 (Wednesday). There’d been too many too-early mornings, so I remained in bed until 7.15 am. 8.00 am: A communion. I thought of friends from my past who’d meant a great deal to me, whom I may never either correspond or with meet again. And, I remembered those of them who’d died too soon. 8.30 am: Writing.

9.00 am: Studiology. The recordings of EVPs that I’ve listened to (and they’re many) often portray the dead as melancholic in spirit — unsettled, and somewhat disorientated and desperate too at times. Some sound malevolent, almost demonic. Heaven, for its part, seems like a dark place, more akin to limbo or purgatory than a realm of eternal bliss in the presence of a loving God. Thus the conditions and community of the afterlife aren’t particularly inviting, in my opinion.

I reviewed the sound samples, and my transcript of Dad’s side of the telephone conversation, made since Monday. Having heard his voice so often now, he has become very ‘present’ to me. At times I’ve felt that we were collaborating. The telephone conversation was captured in Aberystwyth on a cassette-recorder with a contact microphone fixed to the receiver of an analogue handset. I took the call in my lounge, while standing. My Dad rang from Abertillery on a GPO-issue domestic telephone in his hall, and would’ve been sitting at the bottom of the staircase opposite. The original recorder is no longer in my world. But I’m not seeking technological authenticity. My objective is, rather, to acknowledge the ‘hiss’, ‘clicks’, ‘clunks’, and ‘brrrrr’ associated with tape-based devices available at the time the telephone conversation took place. The medium used to capture sound is never silent.

See also: Diary (September 15, 2018 – June 30, 2021); Diary (July 16, 2014 – September 4, 2018); John Harvey.

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