Summa: diary (July 8-14, 2023)

July 8 (Saturday).

8.00-9.30 am.

July 10 (Monday). 8.00 am: Communion. 8.30 am: Admin and a review of the week ahead. 9.00 am: Studiology. I’d left the composition desk on Saturday anticipating my return today with relish. Thus, today’s agenda was determined already. New ideas suggests themselves with increasing rapidity. This phenomenon often accompanies what I call a project’s ‘peak yield’. From hereon, themes and concepts will begin to solidify and the album, close its borders to other possibilities.

On the screen today: ‘Always the Same Guitar’; ‘Musical Instruments Played All the Old Familiar Tunes’; and ‘Rapping‘ [working title]. The latter refers not to the performance of rap music but, rather, to the audible blows made on a hard surface by disincarnate spirits, supposedly. ‘Knock, knock.’ ‘Who’s there?’ (Quite literally.)

I’d alighted upon an American 19th-century parlour ditty (of negligible merit) dedicated to ‘Spirit Rappings’. It was published just five years after the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, claimed to have received spirit communication by this means.

T. E. Garrett and W. W. Rossington, ‘Spirit Rappings’ [cover page of song sheet] Boston; St. Louis, Massachusetts; Missouri: Oliver Ditson & Co.; John Gass, 1853 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Rap-tap-tap lost friends are near you; / Rap-tap-tap they see and hear you; / In their mystic converse crappy; / They declare good Spirits happy; / They declare good Spirits happy.

7.15 pm: I walked a few streets to visit an old friend who’s currently in the local hospital. We’ve known each other since they were an undergraduate student at the School of Art. Our conversation covered: the strategies artists use to promote and sell their work; AI and art; and how to beat a phone-app at chess. I was conscious of their heartbeat monitor throughout my visit and, therefore, avoided topics over which we might disagree passionately.

July 11 (Tuesday). 8.00 am: A communion. 8.30 am: Studiology. A review of yesterday’s work, and the revision of ‘Always the Same Guitar’. Then, it was back to an explorative piece (initiated yesterday) that allies an electric guitar solo with the percussive rhythm of a wax cylinder rotating. The composition is still finding its feet, and fighting to justify its existence and my time and attention. How rudimentary can something be before it’s not enough?

2.00 pm: A welcome visit from Dr Anastasia Wildig (one of my former PhD Fine Art tutees). I took up a conversation that I’d left-off yesterday evening. On this occasion, we focussed on the use of Instagram to promote visual artwork. Many younger artists sell their wares on this platform, rather than via a bespoke website. Clearly, they know something that I don’t, and I’m still searching for ‘old-world’ solutions.

July 12 (Wednesday). 6.00 am: Awake. 7.00 am: Writing and admin. When I trawl through my social-media feeds, what am I looking for: answers to questions that I’ve not even posed; a prurient peek into people’s unseemly lives; the incessant noise of those who’re ill-informed, prejudicial, unthinking, and untrustworthy; more venom, spite, and callous disrespect for others than a soul can bear to read; a distraction from the work at hand; or a rare opportunity to be genuinely enlightened, intellectually challenged, and cross paths with of those with kindred values and convictions.

9.00 am: Studiology. It’s something of a commonplace to realise that how we make influences the look or sound of what we make. I listened again to yesterday’s adjustments and commencements. Today, I made changes to the commencements and furthered the composition about rapping. From its sound source — which claims to capture this phenomenon — I extracted four sequential knocks, and looped them for the duration of one minute. The output was afterwards processed using an algorithm that I’ve been using throughout the project that divides and reorganises samples randomly. The resultant new rhythms sounded more like jazz drumming than spirit rapping. Thus, my mind gravitated to the 17th-century account of the drummer of Tedworth. I’d first encountered it when conducting research on acoustic poltergeists for my The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of the Spirits in Wales (2003). The spirit sounds mentioned in this story include a self-playing military drum, rapping (or ‘knocking’), loud thuds, and animal-like scratching, in and around a house at Tedworth (now, Tidworth), Wiltshire.

‘The drummer of Tedworth’, frontispiece illustration from Joseph Glanville’s Saducismus Triumphatus (1700).

July 13 (Thursday). 6.30 am: Awake. 7.30 am: Writing. 8.30 am: Studiology. From my studio window, I can hear the toot of the steam engine on the Rheidol Railway, as it departs and returns, and the rhythm of the wheels on the Transport for Wales trains, as they travel between this town and Birmingham International (if there’s a fair wind blowing).

I continued with what was the ‘Rapping’ [working title] and is now ‘The Drummer of Tedworth’ [working title] composition. The reconfigured variations of the original knocking sample were arranged in such a way as to evolve from an (apparently) uncoordinated sequence of raps into an evidently composed drum solo. Percussive rhythms have been a staple of my work since the first album in The Aural Bible series: R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A (2015). Here, the beat patterns are derived from the clicks, static, scratches, and churnings on the surface of a worn wax cylinder. I used to play percussion (poorly) in my secondary-school orchestra. As with many endeavours in my life back then, I had far more enthusiasm than ability to perform them. But, possibly and partly, this was where I first nurtured an instinct for drumming.

I’ve never used digital drum machines and samplers. In my experience, the manual superimposition and juxtaposition of fragments of percussive sound throws-up possibilities that I couldn’t preconceive. Moreover, the method preserves a human and idiosyncratic quality that quantised arrangement disallows.

Digital Audio Workstation graphic representation of ‘The Drummer of Tedworth’ [working title].

Mid afternoon, I organised the album’s folder files and engaged ‘Hellhole‘ [working title] for the first time. The subject of this composition is an urban myth. Supposedly, in 1989, Russian scientists in Siberia drilled a borehole 14.5 kilometres into the Earth’s crust. The drill broke through into a cavern, wherein the temperature was about 1,100°C.  It had penetrated hell. A microphone was dropped into the hole, and captured 17 seconds of the tormented damned’s horrifying screams. The report has been propagated, in various forms, by Christian Fundamentalist publications and broadcasts ever since. Likewise, the recording (and its critical commentaries) have been circulating the Internet widely.

Several years ago, Dr Julian Ruddock asked me to design a soundtrack

to accompany the HD film installation entitled ‘2A’. His work is made up of a sequence of hundreds of high-resolution photographs of earth cores extracted from a site in southern Ethiopia. The photographs were combined into one twenty-four hour film that takes the viewer into the distant past, some 500,000 years ago. The layers are sedimentary records of Lake Chew Bahir [The Ocean of Salt] in the Rift Valley. These layers accumulated over time as the lake fluctuated between wet and dry environmental conditions.

My response was 2A: Earth Core (2017). Several recordings of the core drilling in progress provided the raw sonic material for the artefacts. Three versions of the accompaniment were made, and one chosen by the artist. The two others were considered too dark and unsettling for his purpose. That was a good call. Either of these remnants could serve as a fruitful starting point for my own recording of the bottomless pit.

Julian Ruddock (video), John Harvey (sound), ‘2A’, HD digital projection, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales, 2017.

July 14 (Friday). 5.30 am: I could sleep no more. 6.30 am: A communion. 7.00 am: Writing. 8.00 am: Studiology. I took up the explorative piece that I’d begun on Tuesday (which is now called ‘O! Thou Disembodied Spirits’ [working title]) and resolved the elements it comprises. The composition has now passed over the quality threshold.

There’s one theme still outstanding: the sound of aerial trumpets. These, it’s claimed, were heard in skies over a number of countries around 2012 to 2017. Religionists have interpreted them as a presage of Christ’s Second Coming and the Apocalypse. The sounds are like, variously, either a long breathy note, or a sustained drone, or low-pitched siren. But nothing that remotely resembles a trumpet blast.

The approach that I’ll take is to use my own speech — reading passages from the Book of Revelation — as the basis for constructing the sonorities of celestial trumpets. In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, the word for ‘sound’ in conjunction with the trumpet is the same as that used to denote the human ‘voice’.

Seven angels with trumpets, Queen Mary Apocalypse (early 14th century), British Library, London (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

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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