Summa: diary (May 6-10, 2024)

Searching, expecting, wondering, hoping, and longing. Who, where, when, if, and how.

May 6 (Bank Holiday Monday). 3.30 am: I awoke to the sound of a helicopter traversing the sea, searching. 6.00 am: I awoke again to my heart and mind, searching. The American abstract painter Frank Stella (1936-2024) had died on the weekend. It was at art school, while studying as an undergraduate, that I was first introduced to hisso-called ‘black painting’ series, which he’d begun in 1958 (the year before I was born). They ‘sat well’ (as we used to say in the 1970s) with me. At the other end of his career, from the 1980s onward, Stella replaced the proto-minimalist, ‘ground-directed’ sensibility of his earlier work with an audacious maximalist approach, wherein his paintings ceased to hug the gallery wall and made incursions into the viewer’s space. My own Attic series (1993-95) of small-scale constructions (a title taken from a body of work by Robert Mangold (b. 1937)) was indebted to the possibilities of making painting that Stella had unlocked.

John Harvey, Attic IV (1993) acrylic on ply-board, 21 × 27 × 6 cm.

6.30 am: Writing, and a review of the week ahead. The agenda was dictated by my ambition to complete the penultimate mix of the (now) Affirmation album by the weekend. This phase of a project allows me to enjoy the fruit of my labour for the first time. 8.00 am: Studiology. My practice is always to deal with tracks in batches, according to type: comparing like with like, sonority with sonority, and apparent loudness with apparent loudness. Having acquired many years of experience in sound mixing, I’m dismayed by how long the process still takes. If I was one of my fine art students, my advice would be: ‘Stop faffing around. Commit!’ But (in my defence) it takes time for the ear (and, more importantly, the listening mind) to acclimatise to the acoustic character of the whole and the relationship of the individual tracks, and the elements that comprise those tracks, to that whole. Moreover, each element must be considered independently too. Slow calculation. Some ‘voices’ need to be tamed while others, advanced.

May 7 (Tuesday). 6.00 am: I dreamt that my late father presented me with the damp broken fragments of a white plaster funereal urn, as well as slices of pale raw mushroom. In the background, the song ‘Hey Look me Over’ played. 6.30 am: Writing. 8.00 am: Studiology. Having made a second phase mix-down of the eight statements, I returned to the first of the compositions: ‘Panel I: The Father (Creation)’. Presently, the mix is heard on wide-field studio monitors, to experience the full stereophonic separation and spread of the acoustic ‘image’. The third phase mix-down will be conducted on narrow-field monitors, and the fourth on various headphones.

10.00 am: On to ‘Panel II: The Son (Creation)’. 11.30 am: ‘Panel III: The Son (Nativity)’. 12.00 pm: ‘Panel IV: The Son (Crucifixion and Deposition)’. While attending to the totality of each track, its elements (individually, in pairs, and in triads) are adjusted, so that their contribution to the whole is both optimised and integrated. 2.00 pm: I returned to ‘Statement IV’, and made a significant alternation in the light of today’s work on ‘Panels I-IV’. No one part is finished until all are complete.

4.00 pm: An ambulation. After two days of lovely weather, a cold sea mist has crawled in on the breeze. It lingers for days, sometimes. The landscape was erased progressively.

May 8 (Wednesday). 7.00 am: Breakfast. 7.30 am: Writing. 8.00 am: Studiology. On with ‘Plate V: The Son (Resurrection, Ascension, and Glorification)’. Presently, I’m the only person (apart from God) in the whole universe who’s heard these compositions. It’s like being the first human-being to set foot on a distant planet and survey a landscape that no one else has seen. 9.00 am: ‘Plate VI: The Son (Return and Judgement)’ and ‘Plate VII: The Holy Spirit’. 10.30 am: ‘Plate VIII: The Church’. 11.00 am: I returned to ‘Plate I’, and listened to the mix on the near-field monitors and sub-woofer: a second-by-second review, subduing upper and lower frequencies. The sum of many small changes can be a substantial improvement overall, sometimes.

During this phase, I attend to each element’s: left/right balance; position within the sound field; clarity; presence; frequency range; envelop shape (attack and decay); speed; reverberation; volume; loudness; peak level; length; unwanted glitches and artefacts; and argument for continued inclusion in the composition. Sometimes, what was considered an extraneous element at an earlier phase is reinstated — although not necessarily in the same place. Afterwards, I listen to the silences in between sounds and the pace of the composition. As I’ve written elsewhere on a number of occasions, this approach is analogically like that I take when painting. Moreover, the process and phases of mixing is the last phase of composition, rather than merely post-production.

May 9 (Thursday. 5.30 am: Awoke. Listening to the sounds outdoors, filtered through the window panes; training my ears to hear, in preparation for the day’s work. 8.00 am: Studiology. I recorded the static and clicks heard on the lead-in track of several vinyl albums. The sample was run under the ‘Panel IV: The Son (Crucifixion and Deposition)’ composition. (I’d known something — some idea — was still missing.) I was operating on instinct, and on the following wise (as we used to say). Some time ago, I came across a reference to the Chronovisor. This is a mythic device, invented by a Benedictine monks called Pellegrino Ernetti and funded by the Vatican (in the Dan Brown tradition), that supposedly filmed biblical events — such as Christ’s passion and crucifixion — as though they were broadcasts. Through a TV screen, viewers could look back in time. The images were without sound. ‘What might an acoustic only recording of the crucifixion have sounded like?’, challenged the inner-tutor. This was the missing idea. I endeavoured to stir it into the mix through the introduction of the record’s surface noise.

In one sense, all biblical images are a portal through which to may see a remote past depicting scenes from the lives of the patriarchs, prophets saints, God, Christ, Mary, and Apostles. The photographer Fred Holland Day (1864–1933) made directorial images of himself portraying Christ during his Passion and death on the cross. These appeared so persuasive, that some of his audience believed they were photographs taken of the historical events taken at the time. This tradition of misconstrual continues to the present day. One Reddit inquirer asked: ‘Is there actual CCTV footage of Jesus’s death?’ What can one say?

Fred Holland Day, The Crucifixion (1898) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

May 10 (Friday). The third phase mix-down is also an opportunity to remove as much as the compositions can bear before they sound bare. If they’re even more resolved with less, then, they weren’t as resolved as I’d hoped with more. On, then, to the fourth phase mix-down, on headphones. The tracks are, in effect, put under the microscope. The scrutiny is very revealing. The monitor mix often sounds flatter in this context — lacking presence and clarity. Minor adjustments of the elements’ position within the stereo field and in depth (their relationship to foreground, middle distance and background) and tone have to be made. The fourth phase mix-down is a much slower and more detailed process. I used four pairs of headphones. No set is ever entirely neutral; they each colour the ears’ perception of sound in slightly different ways. One is more brittle; another warmer; another is high-resolution, richer, and more detailed; and yet another is of a lower resolution, rudimentary, but otherwise entirely acceptable.

The adjustments made on the headphone monitors are cross-checked against the studio monitors. Back and for, back and for between the two methods, until a qualitative equilibrium is established.

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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