June 16, 2015

8.15 am. My Outlook email etc. is still dead. I’m relying on the webmail version of the same for the time being. I read over my materials for the morning’s PhD viva voce before setting out. On arrival, the room for inquisition was prepared:


Ann Gow (University of Glasgow) arrived at 9.30 am. We had the traditional External/Internal Examiners’ debate for an hour, before the candidate and one of their supervisors were ushered in for the viva proper. We discussed the thesis and its implication for over an hour. A fascinating and engaging insight; one which left us all with much to ponder. A good outcome on many levels. Once the examiners’ reports were written, we said our goodbyes. 1.30 pm. Lunch was provided; this gave me an opportunity to catch up with emails before heading out for the Llanbadarn Campus to view a PhD practice-based research project, staged by one of my tutees:


The only sure way to test an idea is to test an idea. A practical implementation requires commitment, confidence, and shear hard work:


But the returns, for so doing, are tangible: the idea made manifest discloses yet other ideas, together with connections, rationales, encouragements, and interpretations that would otherwise be either unknowable or inaccessible.

3.15 pm. Back at the School, for the remainder of the afternoon, I held an MA art history tutorial followed by an MA Fine Art tutorial. There are occasions, and today is one, when I feel as though much the same conversation was had with both students. 5.25 pm. Homeward.

7.30 pm. I followed the instructions received from our Information Services department regarding the the migration malfunction on my home computers. Fixed. 8.45 pm. Back into the sound studio to explore possible ways of widening the sound field of several monaural tracks.

June 15, 2015

8.30 am. I’m endeavouring to reassert my usual working regime. I begin the week not on top form but with more reserves and fewer physical incumbrances than I possessed last week. Be grateful, John! Pace is of the essence. To begin: the familiar round of administrative vacuuming and a review of the stocktaking project. Then, on with final preparations for a PhD viva, which I’m attending tomorrow morning:


Presently, the stocktaking is responsive to the following set of interrogations. Which projects:

  1. represent the leading edge of my achievements?
  2. have attracted the most attention or acclaim?
  3. must be left behind in order for me to go forward?
  4. have I found the most satisfying to undertake?
  5. have I found the most satisfying in retrospect?
  6. do I most wish to undertake in the immediate future?

Question 1: seeks to identify those projects which represent the most original, qualitative, and pioneering contribution to their field;

Question 2: seeks to identify those projects which have attracted the most scholarly and public attention and plaudit;

Question 3: seeks to identify those projects which are either completed, or no longer relevant to my present interests, or presently impractical to implement, or of insufficient vision, originality, cohesion, significance, and potential;

Question 4: seeks to identify projects which have had the most subjective significance for me, personally (practically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually) in the doing of them.

Question 5: seeks to identify projects which have had the most subjective significance on their completion and subsequently.

Question 6: is informed by the answers given in response to questions 1 to 5. However, the response also takes into account of a broader context of: a) departmental research imperatives; b) the likelihood of securing funds for any given undertaken; and c) the contribution of other practitioners in fields of study relevant to the project.

Of course, what you end up with is a set of paradoxes, the resolution of which isn’t even worth thinking about. For example: one’s most original project may not be the most lauded, either publicly or academically; or one’s most original and lauded project may have been entirely unsatisfying to produce and, thereafter, a dread to behold (personally). Such is life.

1.30 pm. The morning’s itinerary completed, I returned to the sound studio and processed the Welsh translation of the Second Commandment through Handboard 1, several more times:


During the waiting game (the twenty minutes it takes for the sound to pass through the filters) a reviewed two PhD essays. The first pass sounds like the output of a tinny, tiny analogue radio with a loose wire; the second, like a stomach rumbling (heard from the inside). Others followed. I’m getting close to repeating myself. This implies that an end is in sight. 4.45 pm Modulations complete; essays reviewed; email access disappears following my account’s migration to the university’s Office 365 provision. 5.00 pm. I processed some of the afternoon’s recordings and inserted them into the Image & Inscription session file.

7.30 pm. Evening:


I continued in the same vein until all were installed and tested. The overall mood of the sound is one of threat, aggression, and anxiety. This now needs to be tamed. But before I can go any further, the Welsh and English readings of the text, which will be recorded next Monday, must be incorporated.

At the close of the day, I purchased a refurbished Revox A77 Mk IV tape recorder. Manufactured in 1977 (the year I started at art school), it remains a marvel of mechanical and electronic engineering. Simply the best reel-to-reel ever made:


9.45 pm. Practice session 2.

June 12, 2015

Determination no. 1: an attitude of gratitude.

9.00 am. I dreamt that I’d initiated a punishing Exocet missile attack on the National Library of Wales. (Clearly, I have unresolved ‘issues’ with that institution.) A dismal night’s sleep otherwise. The high pollen count isn’t helping. The first waking hour of every day this week has been the most challenging. Spot check: blood pressure and heart beat are normal, arms and legs still ache and tingle, mild nausea and focal headaches persist, lassitude and tender glands are diminishing, sinuses a-filling, ears still a-ringing, and eyes now a-burning:


On with a little more postgraduate research monitoring admin at a limping snail’s pace. Having undertaken an initial consideration of the industrial soundscape project, and inquired about relevant sound sources, I’ve put it aside. An idea needs time to ferment. My forthcoming return to the valleys will help bring some aspects of it into focus. And, there are more pressing matters at hand; things that must be either concluded or consolidated. Before lunch —  more stocktaking towards developing a taxonomy of interests and achievements.

2.00 pm. Back into the sound studio to review the recordings that I’d made last week for the Image & Inscription composition. While waiting for 14.5 GB of files to transfer to and from a memory stick, I reviewed my stock of artwork slides covering pieces made during my BA and MA studies, and in the period between degrees:


I inserted modulations, derived from Handboards 1 and 2, of the English translation of the Second Commandment into the track mix and aligned them with the source recording:

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Already, potential is audible. But there’s no indication as to how the composition might proceed. That is how it should be. This stage is merely the underpainting. Periodically, during the afternoon, I’ve noticed an odour in the study that I associate with my grandfather’s house when he was a miner: distinctive and consoling — that of coal dust, which he and his son would bring home on their clothes. A nasal hallucination, perhaps.

7.30 pm. I mirco-aligned the afternoon’s tracks and proceeded to equalize their volumes and limit their reach to below 0dB. Then, I added the Welsh translation of the biblical text and the modulations of it produced using Handboard 2.

June 11, 2015

8.30 am. A moderately better experience of rising. Today, I did not feel as though I’d left my head on the pillow. 9.15 am. There were a number of admin responsibilities that needed to be pushed towards the finishing line: references, appraisals, responses to queries, and such like. Things get done; they just take longer. I’m punctuating my efforts with only minor dozes this morning.

11.45 am. I reviewed my first engagement with industrial landscape: two small drawings on perspex which had been variously incised, drilled, cut into with a circular saw, heated, painted upon, and collaged. They were made at the outset of my first year BA Fine Art studies:




I didn’t return to the subject until the end of my third year. Thereafter, my commitment surfaced only once and during the year following my graduation, in response to a commission by the soon to be opened Big Pit National Coal Museum, Blaenavon. I made a drawing of the pit in situ and in the open air (I had no camera) intermittently over several weeks (due to the rather unfavourable weather conditions):


The commissioners wanted a topographical representation of the pit as it might have looked when it was operational. I complied (much against my better judgement). But the project paid the bills. Thereafter, my interests in the South Wales’ coal industry were expressed only art historically, through the topic of my PhD thesis, second book Image of the Visible, and exhibition Miner Artists, which dealt with colliers who had taken up drawing, painting, sculpture, and modelling making. I’d written about the valleys in the pre-industrial period and its paranormal history in The Appearance of Evil. I last dealt with the post-industrial era fifteen years ago in a set three collagist drawings:


2.00 pm. I dealt with flurry of emails concerning a forthcoming viva before investigating how I could establish an analogue/digital connection between my cassette deck and a MacBook. Unfortunately, the line out from the hifi doesn’t link to the deck. Think again. I fixed a direct line connection between the earphone socket of the deck and the mic input of the MacBook, and recorded on 96000 Hz and 32-bit (float). The quality of the recording is better than that of the original playback. I’ll need to consider what I’m hearing this evening, while sourcing sound archives for recordings related to the South Wales coal industry.

7.30 pm. Listening. The discussion takes place in a communal area of the hospital against the crass banality of an insistent TV commentary. Few patients, as I recall, paid any attention to it. I asked my grandfather questions to which I already knew the answers; he’d told me these stories years before on numerous occasions. I wanted to hear them again, for the record. Rarely does he answer without being overwhelmed with emotion. His speech is shallow and choked. As a younger man, Pop’s voice carried against the wind from his backdoor steps to the top of the tip, when he called me down to ‘dinner’. In looks, he reminded me of Robert de Niro playing an American-Italian mobster:


I suspect that the recording has little potential for development. It’s the disjunction between the broadcast and my grand father’s narrative that is most striking. But this isn’t what I’m looking for. And I won’t know what I’m looking for until I hear it.

In parallel, I sourced the National Museum Wales, British Library, and other public institutions with sound archives. A number are cutting back on staff during this period of austerity.

June 10, 2015

8.45 am. I’m waking feeling more tired than when I went to bed. The lassitude, tingling, and aching persist. Concentration is sporadic. These are familiar symptoms (old adversaries). One must just get on with it. The spirit is still willing. 9.30 am. Back at the bedroom workstation, under the sky, I ruminated further on the concept of a sonorous industrial landscape:


My Loose Leaf File notes:

Significant concepts arising from yesterday’s reflection: the ruins of sounds; sonic archaeology / an impulse to make something, again, about/from/for South Wales / taking account of the current political and social context / what makes this the right time? / what makes me the right person? / the relationship of the industrial landscape to religion and the supernatural (?) / the ghosts of sound / apparitional sounds / can sounds haunt? / stone tape theory / to extract a sound from an old photograph / how could one re-present the memory of a sound? / c/w thoughtography / to hear once more, after the fact / audible memories / sonic resurrection / the use of extant sound recordings made in SW as the fabric of a reconstruction / a restoration without fragments / the sound of the post-industrial landscape / historic visual representations of SW industry – a noisy subject rendered silent / only textual descriptions at the time could record the clamour / recording the present (those things which are taking place at the moment of recording) / recording the past (those things which have preceded the act of recording) / recording the past as though it was the present / recording the present as though it was the past / reconsider the significance of my aural diary /

1.30 pm. In the course of looking for digital traces of my old school friends, I discovered one who had recently passed away – Lyndon Budd. (Doubtless, a number of others no longer walk the earth.) His father, Martin, was a music teacher at my secondary school, and someone to whom I owe a great deal. He instilled in some of us a love of classical music, and allowed me to join the school orchestra, even though I was, for all practical intents and purposes, a non-musician. Martin valued a student’s enthusiasm and aspiration above that of their ability and experience. Lyndon wasn’t a close friend; but to those for whom he was, the sense of his absence will be acute. In the middle years of life, one’s peers fall from the tree like ripe apples:

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Lyndon Budd, Abertillery Grammar Technical School 1971

After lunch, I continued note making until the waters ran dry. Extracts:

to what extent is my memory of industrial sounds idiosyncratic? / what can other people bring to and take from this experience? / the human desire to return to the past; to hear again / sounds recall kindred sounds /sounds summon associations with objects, places, events, feelings, and states of mind (sound and memory) / vestigial sounds / a broken or incomplete sound / recording the silence where once there was sound / subterranean sounds / supernatural noises associated with coalmining (18th-early 20th century) before mechanisation (noisy machines) / sound as a descriptor of place, space, position, action / sounds of industry recorded in TV and radio documentaries on SW mining / oral history interviews with miners.

7.30 pm. On the 5 February 1989, I interviewed my grandfather, Oliver Rees, while he was a patient at Nantyglo Hospital (where I’d been born). We discussed his life as a collier. This source may be as good as any with which begin a practical engagement with the concept. The cassette recording needs, first, to be converted into an uncompressed digital sound file. Mercifully, I have held onto my Denon D-100 cassette deck for this purpose. The certainly don’t make them like this anymore, if they make them at all, that is.

June 9, 2015

9.30 am. Pulled myself out of bed, limb by limb, tingling and aching from top to toe. 10.15 am. I’ve determined that this will be a productive convalescence. With a Belmont Loose Leaf File on my lap, I sat in my armchair by the bedroom window, looking out over the neighbouring gardens (As a matter of principle, one ought to take time to watch the passage of clouds and the progress of shadows.) More than reasonable ideas often occur to me when I’m poorly. Perhaps things appear clearer the closer one approaches delirium. (This is not a hypothesis I wish to test.)

Recently, the vague notion of a soundscape based upon the industry and landscape of South Wales has drawn my attention. My commitment to the study of these subjects has been dormant for a number of years. Therefore, the insistence of this idea has surprised me. I’ve not sought it; it has found me. And, I’ve learned to always answer a knock on the door. So …

In between bouts of dosing, I set my mind to consider sounds that I associate with my boyhood in Blaina. During the school holidays in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I spent Tuesday and Thursday of every week there at my grandparents’ home. My grandfather, Oliver Rees (centre, below), was Overman at Beynon’s Colliery, situated close by:


He was my passport to most every area of the pit, including the canary aviary, the pony paddock, and, best of all, the electricians’ workshop. It smelt of scorched grease, copper, and sweat, and was filled with heavy rubber insulated cables that sprawled like sleeping anacondas across the floor, spring-loaded push buttons the size of a man’s palm, and large, oily ball bearings stacked like doughnuts. In the afternoon, I’d play on the grassed-over tips that overlooked the colliery, while listening very deliberately to its sonorities:


In my Loose Leaf File notes, I recalled:

for me, the significance of landscape is principally that of a place where I’ve either live or come from (the sense of home) / returning to and representing the SW industrial landscape in sound only — a sonic painting (?) / remember the noises of the pit: high-pressure steam escaping; deep-toned hooters; whistles with an unwavering pitch; the clank of a train of coal trucks as it were pulled taut and out of the colliery by a steam engine; a hammer beating on a metal sheet (always far off); the vibration of coal-laden lorries on the main road; the crank of a changing gear; the squawk of crows and the chatter of starlings / quiet landscapes elsewhere were barren of event — incomplete / how have these sounds been recorded in the literature of the SW coal industry? / do sounds have their ruins? / is a sonic archaeology possible? / what sounds from that period have been recorded? (the audiographic photograph) / how does one capture what can no longer be heard? / an aural history (listened to), rather than an oral history (spoken about).

1.40 pm. After lunch and following bed rest, I digitized, excised, enlarged, and enhanced sections of the far and near distance of family photographs depicting the tips on which I’d sat and listened as a boy. The source is several B-size prints of ‘snaps’ taken of my mother and her friends in Blaina, on ‘the moss’ — a grassed-over tip above my grandparents’ house — in 1947. To me, these fragments are as extraordinary as any deep-space image of a distant galaxy; in some respects, the reality that gave rise to them is just as remote and unreachable. These incidentals are, here, converted into the primary content of the image:


They are aspects of the landscape that were included in the photograph only because they were there:


Doubtless, the photographer was oblivious to them at the moment the shutter opened:


A section of the thin parched grass at my mother’s feet, just as I would experience it twenty years later and remember it today:


7.30 pm. Rest and reckoning.


June 8, 2015

8.30 am. A little admin to begin. I often start Monday mornings by engaging a particularly irksome task, on principle. It helps to get me into first gear immediately. 9.00 am. The beginning of preparations for the Abstraction: Practice, Theory and History, 1913 to the Present,  which will be delivered in the new academic year. First: the PowerPoint template is conceived (to the strains of Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double Strings (1938-9). Once the module’s visual identity is established, its conceptual content follows more readily:

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10.15 am. To the School …


… where I’d received a postcard (apposite in the light of this morning’s work) from Lucia Cherata, a former student:


10.30 am. I composed a feedback email to a PhD Fine Art student, to follow up a phone tutorial we’d had last week. Sometimes, better ideas for discussion occur to both the tutee and the tutor later and on reflection. A momentary period of dizziness had me speeding for homebase. My blood pressure is borderline normal to low (which is very low by my standards), my respiration is impaired, head and limbs aches, ears are ringing, eyes are bleary, and energy levels, dismal. It feels like a viral onslaught. But, then again, so do my recurrent bouts of ME and allergic responses. Time will tell. To bed, until lunchtime.

After lunch and more bed (sleep was evasive), I sat in front of my computer … dazed and blank. Nothing was going to happen. I’ve only small bouts of concentration to spend at present; and these were better invested in reading, making notes, and dozing in my rocking chair, under the Velux, in the sunlight:

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7.30 pm. An evening of physical repose and spiritual exercise.

June 6, 2015

9.30 am. A fruitless foray to the Farmers’ Market, where no eggs or cross-boar kidneys were (again):


10.30 pm. A day in the studio, working with the recording of the engraving made from the Welsh translation of the Second Commandment. On this occasion it was filtered through Handboard 2:


Many sounds are possible, but few are appropriate. The source text is the most important filter by far. It constrains or disciplines the output of the electronic filters. I find myself searching for dark and unsettling sonorities, in keeping with the spirit and context of Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20; Deuteronomy 5). In respect to the latter, along with the noise of thunder and the voice of God enunciating the commandments, the text also records ‘the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud’ which ‘sounded long, and waxed louder and louder’ (Exodus 19.19). These sonic elements belong to the source’s intrinsic soundscape and, therefore, must be honoured in my interpretation.

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1.20 pm. I’m planning to visit to my hometown of Abertillery in the summer. I’ve not returned in over four years. I go whenever a season for personal reappraisal beckons, to touch the ground of my ancestry and social, cultural, and spiritual roots :


2.15 pm. An apparently failed line cable (subsequently revealed to be a plug that had been part pulled out of its socket) and a broken power cable held up proceeding for the first part of the afternoon. He who lives by technology, dies by it. 3.00 pm. The train begins to move again. Low frequency, thunderous rumbles, as I push the Welsh translation through the repaired Handboard 1 with low-pass filters at full. One further fly past, with resonance and at a higher pitch, and it’s quits for the day. 4.45 pm. Dinner duties call.

6.20 pm. An evening with the family.

June 4, 2015

9.00 am. A little postgraduate admin and, then, a lurch towards the studio for a day of sound manipulations while connecting my ailing Apogee Duet A/D interface to my study’s iMac. The ‘send’ MacBook in the studio presented a output failure for no apparent reason that, as mysteriously, self rectified. I’ve no idea why this happended, either way. This is unsatisfactory. A problem that can’t be understood, can’t be resolved. I began working with Handboard 1 and the sound of the engraving derived from the Authorised Version of the Second Commandment. 10.30 am. The production menu: to create sonic modulations that are, variously:

  1. gritty, dirty, lo-fi, fractured, barely holding together, nasty, and unpleasant to the ear;
  2. heavily punctuated, with vocal timbre, phased, and reminiscent of morse code, expressive speech, and the noise of a 12-inch file on hard metal;
  3. low pitched, dark, resonant, a little unnerving, fluctuating like the flutter of a candle flame blown by the wind, with distant somewhat musical but almost inaudible sounds;
  4. low pitched, very resonant, and muffled (as though heard from underwater);
  5. ringing, scratchy, anxious, and with few bass frequencies.


While the tracks (each of 20 minutes duration) were being processed, I reflected upon one of the roots of my interest in sound art — the aural diary. This is ‘a document of experience, sensation, place, and people made using audio recording’ which I’ve kept intermittently since 1985. I used a cassette-tape recorder (and, latterly, a digital recorder) like a camera to make field recordings of my own life:

Street sounds, Chinatown, Grant Ave., San Francisco (1.25 pm, Thurs. 4 July 2013)

The motivation was threefold. To:

  1. acknowledge and tokenly preserve some of the transient phenomena associated with living: the voices of family and friends, sad and celebratory occasions, the ambient sounds of a place and travel, and mundane conversations and events;
  2. explore the potential of sound to evoke recollection and the mental image of the thing recorded;
  3. create, over time, a body of material that might form the basis of artworks in the future.


1.30 pm. After lunch, I completed the fifth modulation.


The same source sound was, then, filtered through Handboard 1. This board produces mellower and more organic sonorities than Handboard 1, due to the analogue nature of the Moog filters. A further four modulations were captured. There might be something from today’ work that is useable. I simply don’t/can’t know. Moreover, I’ve still no idea what shape the overall composition will take, or of what elements it’ll be comprised. And that is a best place to be for the moment — without presupposition.

7.30 pm. I returned to ‘stocktaking’ after dinner. I’m try to understand a strand of related concerns that have emerged in both my art practice and art historical writing since the late 1990s:




June 3, 2015

9.00 am. I began with research admin — arranging a studio booking at the National Screen & Sound Archive of Wales to record the Welsh and English readings of the Second Commandment for the Image & Inscription project. I listened to Ed Pinsent‘s review of the R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A album. I take his point … In the CD blurb, I emphasise the process governing the composition of the pieces, which is what academics have to do in order to justify the practice as research. So, how does the author address, critique, and otherwise objectify the ‘passion’ and ‘humanity’, which Pinsent hears in the recording, within a scholarly context? I’m challenged by this.

10.45 am. The Special Cases Committee met to discuss the sometimes appalling struggles students face while undertaking their degree. The return of fine weather is welcome:


12.10 pm. I got back to homebase to continue where I’d left off. My spiffy new HD USB cable has arrived. Sound recording can begin in earnest tomorrow:


1.45 pm. More Postgraduate Research formation.

2.40 pm:

‘Going to School’, A Ladybird Learning to Read Book (London: Willis & Hepworth, 1959)

An image from a more innocent age for children. Or, perhaps, an age of innocence that masked a darkness that is only now being revealed.

At the School. 3.00 pm (7.00 am Vancouver time). The first of two PhD Fine Art phone-tutorials (tele-tuties) for the afternoon. Writing about one’s subjective experience of one’s own subjectivity and the work that arises from it, and in a manner that’s accessible to scrutiny, is a toughy. 4.15 pm (4.15 pm Birmingham time). The second call. Maintaining a full-time teaching job and undertaking a part-time PhD Fine Art degree is a toughy too. 5.20 pm. ‘We go out of school’.

6.20 pm. Practice session 1. 7.30 pm. I reversed the send and receive pathway between the two MacBooks in the studio. Now, the playback of the engraving sound is routed via the RME analogue/delay unit through the two handboards to the mixer and, from there, to the recording MacBook via the new USB cable. Test. Test. Test.  Adequacy has been transcended. On, then, to refining the tracking weight of the record deck’s cartridge:

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9. 45 pm. And, finally, as the evening closes: