Summa: diary (June 17-23, 2023)

‘Listening to you, I get the music / Gazing at you, I get the heat’ (The Who, ‘We’re Not Going to Take it’ (1969)).

June 17 (Saturday). Recently, I’ve taken to deliberately doing some things for no other reason than they bring me pleasure. It can be as simple and spontaneous as taking hot chocolate and Welsh cakes in a quiet cafe on an early morning. The memory of which will be placed in my ‘Treasury of Contentments’, which I draw upon in uncertain times.

June 18 (Father’s Day). I’ve been asked on several occasions, and usually by women and men who’re searching for someone to share their lives with: ‘What did you look for in a lifelong partner?’ My criteria for compatibility was as simple as it was exacting. They needed to share my religious, political, and humanitarian commitments and values, ethical framework, approach to solving life’s problems, artistic sensibility, enthusiasm for learning, and curiosity about life. (‘Someone who is just like you’, as Petula Clark sang in ‘Downtown’ (1964).) And, someone who was not only sufficiently different to make the relationship challenging but also capable of putting-up with my foibles. (There aren’t many in this life who can.)

12.00 pm: Bidding farewell to our younger son at Machynlleth station (because the train from Aberystwyth had been cancelled, again), shortly before the downpour.

July 19 (Monday). 6.30 am: Wake. 7.00 am: Exercises. 7.30 am: A communion. 8.00 am: Writing. 9.00 am: Studiology. I reviewed and adjusted last week’s work on ‘The Singing in the Air’ suite. One of the compositions sounds too much like another, earlier, and better piece. Three reasons to dismantle and push the work towards the realms of the unknown and untried.

You sometimes ‘sow in tears’. There may be times when no one wants to either buy or promote your work, you’ve a very small audience, and few if any show a critical interest in it. Moreover, you feel little imperative to produce, and no fulfilment in the production: the work seems monotonous, repetitious, predictable, and disconnected from your heart and mind. Such times pass and are (ironically) often very fruitful, creatively speaking. Like politics, art can be uncomfortable; but it’s essential to life.

4.00 pm: The MPs debate of the ‘Partygate’ report in Parliament was riveting. The opposition parties made many commendable speeches, as did those Conservatives who could see beyond party politics and a misguided loyalty to Johnson. This was a watershed moment in British democracy. Rishi Sunak’s (the present Prime minister) absence from the chamber was interpreted as a spinelessness dereliction of duty.

June 20 (Tuesday). 8.20 am: A morning revising ‘How to Be Saved (If You are Not)’ — the ‘failed’ composition. It needed to be pushed to destruction. By noon, the work had begun to inch towards another less familiar place.

6.00 pm: A long-overdue School of Art get-together, held at the home of Alison Pierse and Dr Simon Pierse, to mark a water-shed in its life. We raised a glass to those who had retired in recent years (Dr Christopher Webster can Tonder, Dr June Forster, and myself); those who’d joined the staff (Dr Julian Ruddock, Charlotte Brisland, Dr Arturo Soto, and Eleanor West); and those who were about to either retire or otherwise depart (Professor Robert Meyrick, Miranda Whall, Dr Harry Heuser, Neil Holland, and Andrew Baldwin).

Chris (who we’d not seen for several years) remarked that, on entering the room in which the party began, he felt as though he’d passed-over to the other side, where all those he’d known and loved were already there waiting for him. Short speeches were made. Mine is below:

Tony Benn was once asked why he’d retired from the Government in 2001. He answered: ‘In order to pursue politics’. Many of us have planned our departure from university on the same wise, I suspect: so that we can follow those passions that our job prevented us from engaging single-mindedly.

There’s only one aspect of retirement that I hadn’t anticipated: how quickly the job is forgotten. The wounds made by dispiriting routine, relentless work and monitoring, competing priorities that were impossible to fulfil, and students’ unrealistic expectations, heal quickly.

But I can’t forget (and miss dearly) my colleagues — those who lightened that burden, held up my flagging arms, offered words of wisdom and support in season, and inspired me by their professionalism in teaching, research, and that other thing (which I can no longer remember). To such, I’ll be forever grateful.

Professor Catrin Webster will assume the position of Head of School, beginning in September. She was once of my PhD Fine Art students. some years ago. ‘A safe pair of hands’, as we say. But that is to damn her with faint praise. Catrin is a formidable painter and interested in ideas and processes as much as in her medium and its history. She believes in the discipline of the discipline, and has a vision for the School that will ensure its survival for years to come.

June 21 (Summer Solstice). 5.15 am: Awake. 6.30 am: A walk.

7.15 am: A communion, followed by breakfast. 8.00 am: Writing. 9.00 am: I made adjustments to ‘How to Be Saved (If You are Not)’, which has now begun to ‘sing’, trimming the ‘canvas’ of perceived excess. Compress; compact; clarify. Make a space for silence. I was ruthless. (Time out. I played a few tracks from late Scott Walker albums to clear my ears and remind myself of a high-bar for succinct composition, arrangement, and production.) The sum of many minor adjustments is a major change. By noon, I’d reduced the length of the composition by a third. (Begone superfluity!)

9.30 am: I plugged a guitar into studio computer’s interface in preparation for a technical workout focussed on the ‘Always the Same Guitar’ composition, based on the Honoré Daumier’s illustration of a musical seance, with that title. In tandem, I began leafing through Allan Kardec’s Heaven and Hell (1865) (See: Summa: diary (May 13-19. 2023).)

2.00 pm: The initial improvisation worked reasonably well. I’m conscious that there’s a risk of over-cooking the piece. Too many attempts may dilute energy and spontaneity, with each iteration becoming a paler and paler echo of the original attempt. I’m giving myself until the close of Friday to get something in the ‘can’. I don’t know where I’m going but, paradoxically, I do know how to get there. A criteria for assessing the work’s worth will emerge in the making of it. I’m now in — what is for me — unchartered territory.

June 22 (Thursday). 7.30 am: Exercises. 8.00 am: A communion. And I read:

Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons.

Psalm 107.10

And I thought of the desperate crew of the Titan submersible, buried beneath the deep black waters, confined in that catastrophic metal pod, unaware of the efforts being made to retrieve them. And I recalled Nicholas Evan’s painting entitled Entombed — Jesus in the Midst (1974), which provided the pivot for my PhD Art History research (1986-90) and subsequent book. It depicts a group of coalminers, trapped underground by a roof fall. Standing over them is Christ, who has appeared miraculously (as he had done to his disciples, likewise in a locked room (John 20.19)) in the metaphorical guise of the miner-rescuer.

8.30 am: Admin. 9.00 am: Writing. 10.00: Studiology. A morning on guitar exploring the relationship between what and how I play and the character of the output, once it has been sliced-up and rearranged randomly by algorithms. Insomuch as the process is out of my hands, it substitutes for the action of invisible spirit hands that were said to play instruments such as a guitar, accordion, violin, and percussion in 19th-century seances.

Self-playing guitar and violin demonstrated at a seance held by the Davenport brothers (1869) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

June 23 (Friday). 7.30 am: Walking under grey skies. 9.00 am: Studiology: A review of yesterday’s recordings. The stereo balance and field were adjusted, compression and volume optimised, and the peak-level regularised. The piece will be submitted for consideration and inclusion in the second of a series of volumes showcasing improvisation in Wales.

Guitar improvisations were among my last endeavours in sound composition prior to commencing art college in 1977. Recordings of such ‘were recovered [in 2009] from what I had assumed was the ‘empty’ section of an old open-reel tape. I had not heard the tracks in over thirty years. Indeed, I could scarcely recall having lain them down. They (and several other pieces, now irrecoverably lost) were recorded when I was 17 years of age.’ The tracks are publicly accessible on the The last Things (2012) EP.

With the exception of two collaborations with my former PhD Fine Art student, the artist Maria Hayes — undertaken in the course of her research — I’ve had neither a pretext nor the justification for continuing this line of enquiry … until now.

Maria Hayes and John Harvey, ‘In Concert: To Do Something in Cooperation with Another’ & ‘Energy Gift Exchange Day’, School of Art Gallery, Aberystwyth University, Wales (March 3, 2010 & November 17, 2011).

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

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