Month: July 2015

July 4, 2015

10.00 am. I returned from Farmers’ Marketeering with the fruit of the land and life’s essentials:


10.30 am.  Having received notification of a sound art residency on ‘playing the rural landscape’, my thoughts returned to earlier ruminations on the post-industrial and pre-industrial landscapes of South Wales. The former bears the remnants of over two centuries of metal and coal mining, industries which are, now, barely visible in the imprint of buildings, partial and rudely hewn walls suffocated by dandelions and ferns, and grassed-over coal tips. The latter, in the view of the Edmund Jones (1702-93), the Calvinistic Methodist minister and author, manifested the vestiges of the past too, only in this case — phantoms of the dead and myriad and very present evil entities. The question I ask myself is: Could these two worlds that bookend the industrial revolution be evoked, interpreted, ‘observed’, and represented sonically? One would be dealing with the landscape’s now invisible (for the most part), no longer inaudible, and irretrievable aspects — summoning up the ‘ghosts’ of history, as did the witch of Endor the spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28.3-25).

11.15 am. I made several minor but, collectively, significant changes to the current sound composition. My anticipation is that it’s approaching optimum resolution. I can see more clearly what needs to be added and subtracted. Henceforth, I proceed slowly:


1.30 pm. After lunch, I balanced the amplitudes of the tracks comprising the piece before taking second look at the new sampler device — which I now need to learn how to operate. For the purpose of the auto-tutorial, I sampled tracks from a BBC recording released after World War II. It consists of the spoken word (clearly annunciated and in period style), field recordings, and a good deal of useable static and clicks:


It’s almost an axiom among users of electronic equipment that the clever bods who design the equipment are not so when it comes to explaining its functionality in instruction books. YouTube tutorials are, by far, a better means of learning — ‘show and tell’, as it were:

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 15.51.02

Most devices are capable of performing far more functions than I require. Thus, having mastered the basics, I withdraw until I need to know more. 4.30 pm. A final review for the day of the composition, and of the sound material stock from which the composition is derived. From this I gathered further, useable sound samples. 5.40 pm. An appropriate juncture at which to pause.

July 3, 2015

9.00 am. The first of several MA and PhD Fine Art tutorials this morning. There are always three types of creative work in prospect: that which one would enjoy doing, that which one could do, and that which one must do. The last option is to be prefered, always. And, ideally, what we must try to do that which only we can do. In committing ourselves to any one thing, we sacrifice the possibility of doing many others; we have neither the time, nor the resources, nor the energy to exercise all of our gifts and facilities. But the one thing can be sufficient — if we grasp the enormity of its potential for development and the demands that it’ll make upon us. 10.00 am. A double tutorial (a single tutorial for two students) on the joys of digital sound manipulation. I set up a mini desktop studio space in a seminar room in order to demonstrate the principles and practice of sonic enhancement and the virtues of acoustic mixing. (You can’t mix on headphones alone.)

2.00 pm. Task: Assemble the new sound equipment stand which arrived sans manual: ‘He shall die for lack of instruction; and in the greatness of his folly he shall go astray. (Proverbs 5.23):


I’ve an identical stand already (which must have come with instructions) to serve as a model. So, I live to fight another day. 3.00 pm. Task: Assemble, and link to the mixer, the modulation units, including the new hand sampler device:


In the background, I picked away at the current composition and tried out several new combinations of sound samples. A radical restructuring is called for.

6.00 pm. Task: respond to a few outstanding editorial queries regarding the forthcoming Courtauld Institute chapter on the wax cylinder project. Task: Make an initial test of the new deck, mixer, and modulator array. Even when I do possess an instruction book for a piece of equipment, rarely does it deal the type of set-up that I use. In the end, I resort to instinct, intuition, and pushing any button that seemed remotely appropriate. Success!

7.30 pm. Task: Further test the magnetic and piezo pickup combinations on the RF Stealth Custom:


The active pickup enables the player to move the guitar’s output into overdrive on the amp’s clean channel. This instrument really does have ‘balls’, now. The possible combinations of four distinct pickup types are bewildering.  8.30 pm. Task: Write a letter to the family. Task: return to pushing and pulling, amplifying and muting, tracks comprising the composition. There are times when I make what appear be a good decision, but it turns out to be a really bad one. I’ve had the opposite experience too. At least in art, unlike in life, one’s mistakes can be easily undone.

9.15 pm. An end. The sky is unsettled: ‘There’s a storm coming!’:






July 2, 2015

8.30 pm. For the last few days, I’ve looked to the present from the past. Today, I look to the future from the present. Preparations. Following a review of incoming mail, I returned to outstanding business in the sound studio. Over the next couple of days, my tasks are to: integrate two further sound filters into the record deck array; thoroughly test the modified RF Stealth Custom guitar; clean and make fit for purpose the new (old) Revox tape recorder; and review the new composition.

9.30 pm. To begin, a putting away of things:


Every pedal, cable type, and power connector has an allocated box from which it comes and is returned. A studio should be regulated like a well-ordered palette. 12.00 pm. I pressed on with the new composition. I’m vacillating between two approaches, neither of which is sufficient unto itself. Either fusion or selection or wholesale rejection is the answer.

2.00 pm. I put the new modifications on the RF Stealth Custom guitar to the test. The active pickup (one which is powered by a preamp that boosts the signal and provides a more subtle adjustment to its tone) has considerable punch. I need this capacity to push the signal through the chain of synthesiser filters more effectively:


7.00 pm. I made a tentative remix of the new composition, exploring transitions from one sonic idea to another. I’m not convinced either way. I’m importing sound samples that were conceived for an earlier and entirely different approach to the source material. When ideas are conceived independently of one another and brought together, they don’t coalesce, naturally. But all things are possible. Sometimes, disparate forms dovetail fortuitously:



July 1, 2015

A solid night’s sleep; the first in a week. My final day in South Wales. 9.00 am. Mercifully, the sky was overcast and kept the ambient temperature within tolerable limits. A Starbrukfast:


Afterwards, I visited Newport’s  covered market:


In an age of globalized companies, the persistence of these small scale, specialized, and family run businesses is both remarkable and praise worthy. After a cheapo haircut, I visited the the Newport Museum & Art Gallery. There, I perused the industrial collection, and caught up with the continuing efforts that are being made to conserve and restore the remains of a medieval boat, which had been buried and preserved under the mud silt of the River Wye at Newport:


The gallery still exhibits works that I saw there when I was an undergraduate, including one of Jack Crabtree’s monumental portraits of coalminers, a lyrical landscape with figures by John Selway (the only other contemporary artist to emerge from Abertillery), and works by the British surrealist Evan Charlton and Tom Rathmell (a former head of my old art school). Paintings have a conditional immutability: the artist ages; they age not:


Tom Rathmell, The Dresser

Proof of presence:


11.30 am. I spent the remainder of the morning in the reference library, which is in the same building as the museum and gallery:


I’ve not read here since 1981-2, the years between my BA and MA degrees, when I studied everything in their collection on art in Wales. I used the time, today, to catch up on my diary and review emails from family and work. 1.30 pm. I took a late lunch at a café in the market – a delicious slice of homemade corned beef pie:


2.15 pm. A further hour of diarism before returning to the hotel to retrieve my suitcase and a walk to the railway station. Armed with bottles of cold water, I took the 5.31 pm train to Shrewsbury. Homeward! An easy journey.

June 30, 2015

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

(Isaac Watts (1674-1748))

Today is the 28th anniversary of my mother’s death. She’s buried along with her mother and father in Blaina Cemetery:


Her funeral took place on a sunny day too. On the surrounding gravestones, I read family names that were familiar in my youth: Coburn, Gore, Legge, Jelley, and Dimmick. They were tradespeople and friends of my grandparents and uncles:


I suspect that my mortal remains will be put to rest here one day. No other place beckons, either emotionally or logically. In any case, it would be appropriate to be buried beneath the shadow of the mountain under which I had lived for so long. This is ancestral ground. I sense that my periodic visits here are as much a preparation for death as they are a commemoration of the dead.

The place has a haunting ambience, one that’s created as much by sonority and as by the appearance of place. The Arael serves as a sounding board which reflects sounds back upon the cemetery. The almost constant muffled engine thrust of airplanes passing high above (the valley is directly beneath the flight path between the UK and the USA and Canada); the muted drone of transport in the middle distance, and brittle breeze through the trees, combine consolingly.

11.30 pm. I took a short bus ride to Blaina town centre, which consists of one street only, at the top of which my grandparents lived. Blaina was my second home, as young boy. The town has two buildings that struck me then, and still, as remarkable: the Post Office and Salem Baptist Chapel. They’re situated directly opposite one another. The former is reminiscent of a Roman villa style:


The latter, one of the finest examples of classical-style chapel in Wales:


At the top of the street I discovered the remains of a monumental mason’s shop. It appears to have been abandoned, with headstones and plinths — either in preparation or under repair — strewn about the yard and unreclaimed:


I’m also photographing those parts of the town that have travelled through time with me. like, for example, the wall at the top of the High Street’s rise, along which I’d run my hand as I ran towards my grandfather’s arms on the days I visited:


It’s difficult to find enough to see and do for more than an hour in Blaina. 1.30 pm. I returned to Marenghi’s Café, Abertillery, for a late lunch. Today, I savoured the delights of their bacon and egg toastie. This is certainly one that I’ll add to be own culinary repertoire:


2.30 pm. I took a bus to Crumlin (once spanned by the great viaduct ) and from there to Croespenmaen to visit two of the few members of my family that I’ve left in South Wales. In this part of the world, older female relatives greet you with a kiss … on the lips. Outsiders find this ritual a little shocking. But it’s a very sincere and an intimate expression of committed familial affection. Her husband collects flowering cacti and small-gauge model railway stock, about which he can talk with considerable knowledge and enthusiasm for a very long time:


On this occasion we were joined by their two grandchildren, who they were babysitting with the patience and energy of parents. The children were sparky, socially able, respectful, and intelligent. The little girl took a shine to me. Well …

Back at Newport, I treated myself to a late dinner: one of the best and hottest lamb curries that I’ve ever had. It’s true, eating hot food makes you sweat, and sweating makes you cooler. An early night.

Observations for today from ‘The Black Notebook’ (March 15, 2015- ), 26-7:

I’ve seen a generation pass / one day, with time, this valley, too, will disappear, and the world perish like a burning coal / in the old Blaina cemetery, during the early 1970s, one of the headstones began to glow / two women sit on a steps of a family vault, smoking / ‘change and decay in all around I see’ / this is why the concepts of eternity and immutability are so important / these thing are, in part, is what the Arael signifies

June 29, 2015

8.45 am. One needs to look above the shop level to perceive those features of the town that look the same now as they did when I was younger. I walked over the Town Bridge to Clarence Place, the site of my first art school:


Behind the school there was, at the time, a cafe where you could buy the egg and chips and mug of strong tea for a song. Both staff and students patronised the establishment; it was a great social leveller. Ernie Zobole, John Selway, Jack Crabtree, and Ron Carlson (the painting and South Walian tutors) frequented the place, but Keith Arnatt, Keith Richardson-Jones, and Roy Ascott (the conceptualists, constructivists, and cyberneticists, and English tutors) did not, in my experience. Today, the cafe is hollow:


At the end of Church Road, are the external remains of an art deco cinema. ‘In my day’, it was one of Newport’s many privately owned cinemas (all of which were either converted or pulled down in the 1980s):


9.47 am.  I took the X15 bus to Abertillery. After a dreary and circuitous journey around roundabouts and by-passes, I eyed the familiar elbow formations of mountain tops that have, over time, stamped themselves onto my visual psyche. On arrival, I alighted from the bus, like a Terminator rising from its time-displacement sphere, scrutinising the people and the townscape before making my first ‘kill’. 11.00 am. A cup of tea at Marenghi’s Cafe in the Arcade. The à la carte menu includes:


‘Why can’t I have a Chip Roll and Gravy and Curry and Beans and Cheese in a Cone?’ And, ‘Why do you capitalise Food names?’ In Abertillery, such banter is understood as coming from a good place. (It would meet with an entirely different reaction in Aberystwyth.) I listen to conversations, to an accent that isn’t my own (nor was it ever, for some reason), and to homely phrases such as: ‘Where you to, innit?’, ‘Orite?’, and ‘Come byuh’. In Abertillery, I’m every woman’s ‘love’ … even the police women.

Each time I return home, the same track is followed … as one would on a pilgrimage. In many respects this is a sacred journey, undertaken in order to reaffirm spiritual significance and inner resolve. The first station: my home for the first eighteen years of this life:


While living there, I discovered everything that has remained significant for me. Afterwards, I climbed the precipitous Portland Street like I’d done twice every Sunday to attend Blaenau Gwent Baptist Church:


The old buildings were demolished after I left for art school.

On the left side of the valley is the Arael Mountain — a tall curtain of green pine, oak, and beech trees:


It exerts an almost supernatural presence, watching over the town — our entrance and departure from this world — with silent indifference. Unlike the rest of the area, its rate of change is imperceivably slow, such that it appears to exist outside of time. My journey took me to the boundary of Cwmtillery, down roads that I’d often walk alone in the late evening, half praying, half remonstrating with myself, pondering my life ahead, turning over questions, and forging my values. (None of us should know what the future will demand of us. ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’.) Today, every object that my eyes alight upon summons a particular and intense memory. At times, the experience is overwhelming.

1.00 pm. Back at the centre, and time for lunch at the most upmarket eatery in town: Wetherspoons, which occupies the old Pontlottyn store (rebuilt in 1897):


1.30 pm. On, then, towards the park, down Carlyle Street and Glandwr Street, and passed a still operational garage where my father worked as a bus engineer after he was demobbed:


The park, with the exception of primary and grammar school-sports days (dreadful memories), is not a place that I associate with games. Again, it was, in my teens, an arena for thoughtful preambulation whenever circumstances threw in a hand grenade from behind the door of my life:


3.00 pm. Then … a moment of illumination; a small epiphany that did ‘flame out, like shining from shook foil’, reminding me that I’m still in good hands:


As I left the park, someone with a camera (far more impressive than mine) was walking towards me. We acknowledged one another … knowingly. It’s rare to see people taking photographs using a proper camera, rather than with their smartphones or iPads. When I’m photographing in Abertillery, people come out of their houses and ask me what I’m doing. I’d be less conspicuous walking around with a sawn-off shotgun.

4.30 pm. The journey back to Newport. Observations for the day from ‘The Black Notebook’ (March 10, 2015-), 20-23:

Buses used to arrive into Newport down Stow Hill and Charles Street / many of the bus route numbers are still the same / I experience the valleys with one foot always in the past / vision and memory coalesce / if I brought someone to Abertillery, they’d see little of what I can ‘see’ / I observe many young and middle-aged men with a limp and a stick (?) / young men pushing buggies / the weight of memory / I still don’t understand the Arael’s full significance / if you concentrate on the dereliction … that’s all you see / there are so few people about, outside the town centre / I don’t recognise them, nor they me  / if I’d not left the town, what would I be doing or like today? / gratitude for the opportunity to leave, education, marriage, family, and career / here, it’s not only the Arael that limits the inhabitants’ horizons

June 28, 2015

10.00 am. The start of a four-day retreat to Abertillery  — the well-spring of my family, culture, history, and beliefs. The 10.00 am train to Shrewsbury was cancelled. (Woe betide anyone who journeys on a Sunday.) I waited out the delay at the town’s Starbucks; (my first patronage). But what the heck! Today, I’ve neither an agenda nor deadlines. My only imperative is to settle in the moment, live deliberately, and listen to the internal ruminations of the spirit. Abertillery, my hometown and centre of the known universe, has been the place to which I’ve always returned and found, if not answers, then more appropriate questions.

En route, I played, on an old 5th generation iPod, music that I associate with my undergraduate days at Newport, Gwent (my journey’s end, today, and accommodation), as well as more recent enthusiasms (Scott walker and Henry Purcell), and reflected upon the discontinuous thoughts and recollections that the music invoked:


Observations for the day from ‘The Black Notebook’ (March 10, 2015-), 18:

I shall not die / prophecy: my guitar work will feature later in the compositional output, so I must continue to prepare / be responsible to myself / composition is the redirection of what already exists / music is the soul’s breath / a copy of the ER CD for CW / buy the boys a selection of those albums that had meaning for me when I was growing into music / Strength in guitar playing is the ability to ally beauty and danger / if life consisted only of music, it would still be thoroughly worthwhile / what is the significance of ecstasy?

The trains stops at Abergavenny, under whose skies my mother died at Neville Hall Hospital:


I arrived at Newport station at 3.20 pm. Having unpacked at the hotel in a most orderly and economic fashion (the Travel Lodge provides only one small shelf for all one’s belongings), I walked onto the thoroughfare (such as it is). The police presence is much in evidence; this is, now, an edgy city. I’ve felt safer in New York. Inebriation and beggary are on every street; whole rows of shops are either boarded up, hollowed out, or secured fortress like. (So much for city status.):


The older the landmark, the more likely it is to have survived. For example, opposite where the Wimpy restaurant was situated at Austin Friars in the 1970s (and where hamburgers and chips were served by a waitress and ketchup was dispensed from a squishy, plastic tomato-shaped bottle) the subterranean lavatories remain intact. I found that oddly consoling:


One day, there’ll be insufficient material continuity with my past in relation to this place to enable me to make an imaginative reconstruction.

5.30 pm. Wetherspoonery:


6.30 pm. I caught up with news and events. On this day in 1960, 45 miners lost their lives in the disaster at the Six Bells Colliery, Abertillery:


With acknowledgement to the BBC Wales History website

The underground explosion was believed to have been caused by the ignition of firedamp (a flammable gas). When, in 2000, I was preparing the exhibition Miner Artists: The Art of Welsh Coalworkers, I interviewed John ‘Chopper’ Davies, who had worked at the colliery. He shared an experience he’d had of drawing the colliery, from his imagination, on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy

at precisely the time the explosion took place. He recounts that, first, his arm went dead; then he lost control of his drawing hand to someone or something else. Once the limb had returned , he realised that there was now at the centre of the drawing a figure of a miner he had no recollection of having drawn … The ghost in the picture, Davies suggests, represents the spirits of the dead miners.