Summa: diary (August 1-4, 2023)

‘Drink Harvey’s “Blue-Tonic”, and speed your way to the finishing line’ (Advertising slogan spoken in a dream (August 3, 2023)).

The final week of July was spent furthering ‘Hellhole’ [working title], ‘The Seventh Trumpet’, ‘O, Thou Disembodied Spirits’ and the Medial Music Practice: Seven Evocations EP. I also enjoyed conversations with several of my former students and hearing news of their recent successes.

Sunday afternoon, I attended a performance of The Gesualdo Six at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. The concert was broadcast live as part of the BBC Proms series. The group presented a selection of compositions representing five centuries of the madrigal. I was particularly enamoured with György Ligeti’s ‘The Alphabet’ (1988). The piece comprises only the sounds of the ABC. (I recalled Jasper Johns’ Alphabet (1959).) As Dennis Malfatti writes of this piece in his monograph on the composer’s Nonsense Madrigals:

‘From the outset of “The Alphabet,” Ligeti seems to be influenced by his own earlier music in ways other than just the text. This piece is very much in the style of Luxaeterna and Atmospheres in its slowly evolving sound mass’.

Dennis Malfatti, ‘An Analysis of György Ligeti’s Nonsense Madrigals’, PhD thesis, Louisiana State University (August 2004) 79.

My generation had been introduced to these earlier works through the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The madrigal was the 45-rpm single of its day: short, concise, and intense. The form appeals to my enthusiasm for compositional miniatures. (Some of my sound works are only 3-minutes’ duration.)

I was a member of a madrigal choir (rear row, centre) in Sixth Form at Nantyglo Comprehensive School, Monmouthshire. By then, I’d settled into a baritone voice (more or less). My sight-reading was poor; but once I’d grasped the melodic line, I could follow the contour of the score well enough. In this respect, I was like an 11th-century monastic chorister, tracing the rise and fall of notes in the system of notation called nuemes.

‘A Memento for the Madrigals’, The News (December 12, 1975).

The death of the Welsh wrestler Adrian Street was announced yesterday. I remember being mesmerised by his antics on Saturday afternoon TV — shaking his long, peroxide blonde hair before catapulting himself off the ropes, like a missile, and flooring the opponent. There was an elegant choreography to his performance (and a performance it certainly was). He’d a beautiful face that reminded me of a young Marlon Brando. Street was born and raised in Brynmawr, Breconshire, at the head of my valley. He grew up in a coal-mining community, where men were men, women were women, and Adrian was Adrian. No one baulked at his flamboyance and androgyny. But, then again, you’d hardly want to pick a fight with someone who could beat you to a pulp.

Adrian Street (1940-2023) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

August 1 (Tuesday). 7.45 am: Writing. This is my early-retirement birthday. I’m one year old today. The ambitions set out in ‘The Life to Come’ (which I’d drawn up in the year prior to retirement) either have been fulfilled or are underway. (No doubt, some of the objectives will preoccupy me for the remainder of my life.)

8.30 am: Studiology. ‘Hellhole’ [working title] had too many transitions. ‘Edit, condense, and intensify, John!’, my inner-tutor barked. Which meant removing hard won, and otherwise compelling, material for the sake of the whole. The making of art is not for the lilly-livered. It’s a wisdom to be most prized: to know what, when, where, and why a sacrifice must be made for the greater good.

The composition begins and ends with a short melodic line ‘sung’ in a manner that, fortuitously (given that the borehole was drilled in Siberia, supposedly), evokes a Russian Orthodox choir. The section is actually composed of words spoken by the narrator of the Evolution of the Oil Industry (1942) film. His speech has been stretched (and thereby slowed); a process that elongates syllables so that they sound like sustained sung notes. These are, in turn, juxtaposed, enveloped, and imbricated to form a tune.

Much of my work has included sounds that purport to be one thing, but are in fact something else entirely. For example: a ram’s-horn trumpet, derived from the sound of a metal plate being engraved (‘Image and Inscription’ from The Bible in Translation (2016)); the slow crunch of stiff paper, imitating the wheels of a horse and carriage in motion (‘What is Here’ from Noisome Spirits (2020)); and the impact of a stylus on a vinyl record’s surface, evoking the detonation of a H-bomb (‘Wisdom is Better than Weapons of War’ from The Biblical Record (2019)).

There’s a scene in Mark Pellington’s film The Mothman Prophecies (2002) that illustrates both this process of mimesis and the disparity between appearances and reality. John Klein (JK), a journalist and the story’s protagonist, has been receiving unsolicited phone calls from a malevolent entity who refers to himself as Indrid Cold. A recording of the calls is analysed by a sound technician (ST):

JK: This guy’s vocal range is much higher than ours.
ST: What makes you think it’s a man?

JK: What is it?

ST: Near I can tell it is … it’s an electrical impulse. Whoever it is, it’s not coming from human vocal chords.

11.00 am: A tea and conference at Dr Anna Wildig’s home. She has now returned to painting, having enjoyed a much-deserved break from the easel after completing her PhD Fine Art degree. For a vegetarian, she don’t ‘alf get her teeth stuck into a chicken drumstick.

August 2 (Wednesday). Portrait of David Dunglas Home:

David Dunglas Home, albumen carte-de-visite photograph, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, 1860s (National Portrait Gallery, London). Image file (RAW) to audio file (WAV) conversion.

I’d come across this photograph of Dunglas Home while exploring the visual culture of Spiritualism. My instinct was to compose a sound work that not only responded to but also was made from the image. The digital rendering of what was, at source, a albumen silver print was converted from JPEG to a RAW file. In so doing, the file was made readable by audio software. The sound of the image is often granular, spiky, loud, and shrill. By stretching and reducing the pitch, the output can be tamed and made useable. The RAW file was saved in a variety of bit, depth, and wave formats. A change in one parameter — say, from WAV to MP3 — alters the profile or palette of the sound, opening up other sonorities and rhythmic patterns.

August 3 (Thurday). 7.45 am: Ambulation. Unrest. (Before the rain.)

9.15 am: Studiology. I returned to ‘A Portrait of Daniel Dunglas Hume’. I’m in the territory of ‘Wounded Heart Ministries’ (from The Bible in Translation (2016)), which also deployed techniques of databending in the process of composition. Ensuring that I didn’t repeat the same process and arrive at, more or less, the same destination, was a matter of necessity rather than of mere desirability. The technique had to be extended far further than before. To do so required ruthlessness and recklessness. Unless I was willing to edge the composition towards destruction, my endeavour would be in vain. By noon, forward momentum had been achieved. At the close of the afternoon, I opened-up and listened again to some of the files for ‘Angel Clothed With Cloud’. These had been derived from my earlier circuit-bending explorations.

Digital-graphic representation of EVP-processed WAV (16bt) sound file for ‘A Portrait of Daniel Dunglas Home’.

These days, my evenings are taken up with either writing or reading or both. Last and this evening, I read my entries from the latter part of the diary for 2018. I’d be prompted to do so, having discovered that at least one visitor to the main John Harvey website had been leafing through that period of the blog. Goodness knows why? The days that they’d accessed weren’t particularly significant in any respect.

August 4 (Friday). 7.00 am: I awoke from an early-morning dream, feeling peeved. Therein, I’d been informed by a board of research-grant adjudicators that my forthcoming CD release was not worthy of funding, because: ‘there was little academic value in a 12-cm disc’. ‘So, the assessment is made on the basis of format, rather than content!’, I railed. (Clearly, this was still a touchy subject in the realms of my subconscious.)

8.45 am: An ambulation. I took-in an end-of-the-week treat, a little shopping, and the fading of vision of what was never going to be fully realised.

8.00-8.30 am.

8.45 am: Studiology and admin. A review of yesterday’s work. ‘Steam up!’ Today, I focussed on aspects of the Home portrait, and his signature in particular. This proved fruitful beyond expectation. Sometimes, one must go the second and third mile with circuit-bending to strike gold. My compositional activities were interspersed with domestic duties in preparation for the arrival of my younger son and his partner in the afternoon.

David Dunglas Home’s signature, albumen carte-de-visite photograph, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, 1860s (National Portrait Gallery, London). Image file (JPEG) to audio file (RAW to WAV) conversion.

A remembrance (with gratitude):

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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