Summa: diary (March 7-13, 2024)

More earthquakes? … I have fashioned it already (John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13)).
What does the impossible sound like?

March 7 (Thursday). 7.45 am: I made sure no one was coming toward me and continued to walk along Plasgrug Avenue while looking up at the still bare branches of the trees, now raked with sunlight. Une petite extase. Returning via the municipal cemetery, I was, once again, struck by the differential in the ages at which people’s lives closed. At one extreme, John Painter died on the day he was born and, at the other, Elizabeth Beryl Hughes endured to the age of 100.

8.30 am: A preparation of heart and mind. 9.00 am: Studiology. I fabricated further earthquakes before attempting to sculpt the sound of a distant hammer falling, such as might have been heard at Golgotha as Christ was nailed to the cross. And I have only words as my clay, and one word of one syllable at that. Three alternatives were completed by early afternoon.

Albrecht Dürer, The Small Passion: Christ Being Nailed to the Cross (c. 1509) engraving, Cleveland Museum of Art (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

‘And what might darkness sound like, John?’, teased the inner-tutor. A trick question. (He’s like that.) For darkness is not a single sound but, rather, a mood summoned by the combination of sounds acting together. For the remainder of the afternoon I worked up a stretched and sustained choral note to provide a continuous backdrop against which the composition will develop. Often a drone (such as this) will serve as a scaffold, and be removed once the building is erected.

March 8 (Friday). 7.30 am: Housebound, waiting for the telephone engineers to arrive and soup-up the broadband connection. I’d received an automated call from the company yesterday to say how much they were ‘looking forward’ to making the new installation. So, I won’t expect to greet two late and grouchy men (usually) moaning about how difficult the house was to find, complaining about the lack of car parking space, expecting a cuppa (with two sugars) even before they begin work, and sighing because the router is right at the top of the house. ‘Please take off your boots!!’

On International Women’s Day I honour my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Annie Rees (1905–1973).

In her youth, she was considered the most beautiful woman in Blaina, Monmouthshire. Lizzy (as she was known) cleaned at a local mine owner’s ‘big house’ until she married a miner, who’d left school at the age of nine and rose through the ranks to become a colliery Overman. They and three children lived in a three-storey house not 50 yards below the pit that my grandfather supervised — Beynon’s Colliery. At the end of each week, she would stand at the backdoor and take from her husband and two sons their pay packets, from which she’d hand them a weekly allowance. Gran was the matriarch of the family, a position that no one dared usurp.

She and my grandfather were renowned for their Christmas parties. They’d throw open the doors of their home to family and friends, and provide a ready supply of booze and home-made music and pastries (with which she’d fill the bath). I used to stay with her for two days a week during the school holidays. My grandmother was loving and formidable; a no nonsense woman of the old school, yet eager to spoil me with chocolates, pop (soda), and supplementary pocket money (much my Mam’s disapproval). Gran was also notable for having had a heart attack when under general anesthetic at the dentist. This was before she’d given birth to my mother. Had they not been able to revive her, then, you wouldn’t be reading this.

During the morning, domestic ‘facilitators’ (a house painter, the cleaner, and the gardener) fell fast upon the heels of the broadband engineer — who was on time, young, cheery, parked in the drive, and asked for one sugar only, but didn’t remove his boots. Interspersed greetings, consultations, and farewells, I processed the samples that I’d manufactured yesterday afternoon further.

12.00 pm: Egg and cut key procurement. The locksmith was of Polish origin, and has a shop in the Market Hall. He showed me a pair of old safe keys. The ‘cuts’, as they’re referred to, reminded me of both a maze and a character on a Chinese seal. It costs over £400 to copy each one. 2.00pm: Composition proper began. 7.30 pm: I reviewed the visual practice archive online for the first time, and sent feedback to the web developer. It’s on the way.

March 9 (Saturday). A forbidding chill wind and neutral sky. 8.15 am: On my walk I saw in an antique shop a painted plaster cast of a small boy and his dog. The artefact set off a chain of remembrances, beginning at my maternal grandparents’ upper lounge. When I was young, there was a similar example by the fireplace. My strongest memory is tactile: the cold, smooth, and hard surface of the dog’s hind, the inflexibility of its ears, and impenetrability of the facial orifices.

9.15 am: A morning of planning and making preparations for a journey. The endless making of lists, which are themselves endless.

March 10 (Mother’s Day). 9.30 am: I followed familiar paths around the municipal cemetery before taking the ‘green mile’ up and down Plascrug Avenue. I came across an unusual flower holder that seemed to convey the sentiment: ‘Gone but not forgotten’. The inscription read like the signature on an office greetings card, wishing the deceased ‘Best wishes on your retirement [from life]’. The full stop underscored a sense of finality.

Remembrance, with thanksgiving: I see Mam in my own and sons’ faces, especially when they smile. Those Iberian features: thick, wavy, jet black hair, pronounced eyebrows; lively, dark hazel eyes (that must have floored many a man); and broad nose.

March 11 (Monday). 7.00 am: A communion. 7.30 pm: A review of what will be a busy and bitty week ahead, and correspondence. 8.30 am: Studiology. A review of last week’s work. ‘Try a radical alteration, John. Listen to the sound that’s in your head, rather than the one that’s in your ears. Listen with your heart’, chastened the inner-tutor. Much rearranging of the furniture ensued. ‘Compress and intensify’, he barked. The challenge of the day was to create a sonic representation of Christ’s cry of dereliction:

And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew 27.46

Today’s debacle over the Princess of Wales’ Mother’s Day photograph (a compound of possessives there) has brought into focus several issues related to truth and representation. While — and I say this hedged about with too many caveats to count — the camera never lies (in part because it has neither guile nor motive), the photograph produced thereby may be — in the hands of a skilled technician (and Catherine Middleton isn’t one, clearly) — made to ‘falsify’.

It has always been understood by analogue photographers that the negative (for which there’s no equivalent in digital photography) is only the starting point for the print. While holidaying Yosemite National Park, Arizona, in 2013, the curator of The Ansel Adams Gallery showed me some of the photographer’s original glass-plate negatives and contact prints. The latter were a pale reflection of Adams’ magnificent final prints. To achieve them, he painstakingly cropped, enlarged, dodged and burned, enhanced the contrast, and adjusted the brightness of the developing image. The outcome is not so much a record of what the camera saw as a re-presentation of what he’d experienced before the scene.

The Ansel Adams Gallery, Yosemite National Park & Ansel Adams, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona (1942) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

5.00 pm: I put down the composition, confident that my struggles had elevated its quality considerably. 7.30 pm: An evening of preparations.

March 12 (Tuesday). 7.30 am: A communion. Wind, rain, and crow caw. 8.15 am: Writing, and a review of how best to organise many small tasks around several large ones. ‘Treat each day like a composition, John’, the inner-tutor aphorised (unhelpfully). 9.00 am: Studiology. Not satisfied with yesterday’s realisation of the cry of dereliction, I effected a further transformation of what began as one word, using the tabletop rig. 10.15 am: A far better outcome resulted. The representation of real-world sounds, such as a cry or hammer’s fall, need to be indicative and evocative rather than literal. In short, they must be converted into the ‘language’ of the composition’s sound world. This requires a measure of abstraction.

10.30 am: A jaunt into town for a haircut and provisions. 12.00 pm: Once the cry had been inserted, I returned to the sound of earthquakes and began considering how the tearing of the Temple veil might be conceived, sonically. This would be the last significant component to be constructed before the deposition section (which is prepared already) is added at the close of the piece. The sound of the rent is based on the word ‘suffered’.

March 13 (Wednesday). 7.45 am: A communion. 8.15 am: Writing, and correspondence catch-up with too-distant friends. 9.30 am: A little preparation, leading to much preparation.

3.30 pm: Dispatches. I returned from town returning via the Promenade. Today the Irish Sea recalled L S Lowry’s painting of The North Sea. (1966). It’s a sublimely becalmed representation in which stillness and movement, emptiness and fullness, are held in tension.

I’ve left off work on the composition at a juncture that will permit me to move forward, knowing what has to be done and how the piece will be finished, on my return from the Easter vacation. This is preferable to sitting again in front of my computer without a clue about where to go next.


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

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