April 16, 2016

Record Store Day!:

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It was a joy to see Andy’s Records choc-o-bloc with punters rediscovering the virtues of vinyl:

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Today, 33-rpm records cost five times more than they did when I last bought one. In the mid-1970s, I used to save up a month’s pocket money and take a bus from Abertillery to Newport, often with friends (album buying was a social activity, back then), to spend a good hour leafing through the racks in each of the town’s several retailers. Record shops were our libraries. On leaving Andy’s Records, an idea pressed itself upon me: ‘Stylophonics’. Just that word, and a ‘vision’ of a live performance in the confines of the shop. What do you do when strong impressions come at you out of the blue like that?

The Stylophone was my first instrument. So, perhaps the idea is an invitation to return to my origins as a sound maker:

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The Stylophone (invented in 1967) was first promoted by a now unmentionable antipodean, but its chief claim to fame was as one of the instruments played by David Bowie on his Space Oddity (1969). It had a rather nasty, brassy, and frustratingly limited sound produced by a single voltage-controlled oscillator. During the period from 1972 to 1976, I played the original Stylophone and its successor, the larger 350s, through a fuzz-wah effects pedal and an analogue reel-to-reel tape recorder, while circuit-bending the devices to create ‘illicit’ and, potentially, more productive sounds (that were sometimes far from controllable):

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Today, it’s one of the main instruments played by the Russian rock group ГРОМЫКА

During the morning, the Aural Diary migration and cataloguing was completed. I’ll be adding fresh material to this collection, once my digital, hand-held recorder arrives. I returned to my study of musicology and a paper on Handel’s Messiah (1741), a piece of music with which I’ve had a run-in before, for other reasons.

After lunch, I composed a shortlist of terms used in music criticism to provide a framework of reference for a more formal interrogation of my composition:

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I can see why Clement Greenberg was so enamoured with music criticism as a possible paradigm for art criticism. Music criticism deals with formality foremost. Because music is fundamentally abstract.

I returned to the other tracks that’ll be included in the new double CD, to review the mastering that I’d completed at the end of September last year. The mastering sounded, now, too brittle to my ears. A moderate mellowing was in order. In part, the problem is created at source. A number of the found sounds were recorded on whatever I had to hand at the time: a Walkman Cassette-corder, cameras, and digital dictaphone. Other recordings were captured, live, directly to computer using a portable interface. The quality of the sound is the quality of the sound. One has to work with it.

 



April 15, 2016

I listened to several recordings of religious radio broadcasts that I’d made in Colorado Springs in 1999 for the Aural Diary. These have, in part, inspired the sound projects that I’m presently engaged with, some fifteen years later. Nothing is ever either wasted or meaningless. But sometimes ideas are seeded long before their fruition. Before putting Image and Inscription ‘in the can’, as it were, and pushing on with the analysis, I returned, for one last time, to the opening section of the composition. My insecurity wasn’t founded upon any objectifiable dissatisfaction with the piece. It felt vulnerable, because this was the first section that I’d evolved (one which has been, nevertheless, redressed several times already in the light of the subsequent sections). I just needed to check, for peace of mind. Now, I’m satisfied. Finally, I tweaked the bass response of the low drones at the beginning of section two, before closing. (This will make my auditor’s ears rumble.) The adjustment restored an idea that had been lost. (In the creative endeavour, good stuff sometimes gets pushed out by other good stuff, as Homer Simpson might say.)

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On, then, with the analysis and description. At this point, I’m facing the same challenges as our PhD Fine Art students: to distance myself sufficiently from the creative process and artefact to interrelate, describe, explain, critique, and evaluate both. In parallel, I remastered the completed mixes of the composition for mp3 compression (which removes an alarming 90% of the original sonic material).

In what ways can the sound composition be considered a hermeneutical inquiry? In what sense does it provide either an understanding or an interpretation of the source text? What contribution can the methods of musicology make to this discussion? And, are these appropriate questions in the first place?:

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A will read a cross-section of music criticism on biblical oratorios. Although, I suspect that I already know what I’m likely to discover.

In the evening, I pressed on with the Aural Diary migration and cataloguing, closing at 2001. There’s a little more to do, but the recordings made beyond that year were produced digitally, and are already entered into the system:

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Much happy remembrance of family holidays, the children when they were learning to talk and developing personalities, and the ambient sounds associated with settings for contemplation.

After work, I watched a documentary on the composer Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016). He came from a working-class background in Salford, Lancashire, and went on to produce some of the most demanding music of the twentieth century. The cultural limitations and social deprivations of our upbringing should never excuse us from aspiring. Indeed, they may be the blesséd goad to such. Your background is not your foreground.

 



April 14, 2016

A very full day of second year fine art tutorials, art history lectures, and pastoral engagements. On such an occasion I must, at the outset, catch the wave of energy that’s heading for the shore. Without it, the day will be a grind. Absenteeism is guaranteed to wrong-foot my determination in this respect.

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Some principles and observations derived from today’s encounters and reflections:

  • The wise learn from their folly.
  • Hard work doesn’t guarantee achievement; achievement doesn’t guarantee recognition; and recognition doesn’t guarantee fulfilment.
  • Good teaching derives not from what the teacher knows, but from what they’ve understood through experience.
  • Punctuality is a small sign that’s indicative of large attitudes, such as earnestness, self-discipline, forethought, and courtesy.
  • It should be the tutee and not the tutor who drives the tutorial.
  • It’s possible to have a good idea either for the wrong artwork or at the wrong time.
  • A small change can effect a huge difference.
  • Tutorials should be an occasion for reflection leading to understanding, and not merely for instruction and criticism. It’s not enough to do well; one must also comprehend better what one has done.
  • Art history is also your history in relation to art.
  • The question: Do I really want to be an artist?, may yet be unresolved. This is not a cause for concern. It reflects a crisis of identity rather than of commitment. And, the question may occur again and again, long after you’ve become an artist.
  • Sometimes the finished artwork exceeds our intent, because our intent was insufficiently ambitious.
  • What don’t I know? What needn’t I know? What shouldn’t I know?

‘When I rise to worlds unknown’ (Augustus Toplady):

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A representative from the ‘Tell Us Now’ team ‘hit’ the British Landscape class at 11.10 am, and were due to make a show at Art in Wales for 2.10 pm … but didn’t.

After lunch, I’d time to catch up on module admin (uploads, registers, and correspondence), advise a provisional registree, dispatch replies to postgraduate applications, and attend to several one-off tutorials. By chance, towards the close of the day, I bumped into Beth Fletcher and her fiancee, who were exploring the Handel Evans exhibition. I’d not seen her since 2004, when she completed her MA Fine Art degree with us. Beth is a formidable, lyrical landscape painter:

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In the evening, I reviewed part of a dissertation submission, caught up with emails, set the cassette-tape migration machine in motion, and worked on the Aural Diary catalogue entries. I’ve got as far as 1999, and my trip to Colorado Springs, USA:

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April 12, 2016

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A morning of tutorials, some with students who are under my charge, and others with those that need only one encounter with someone other than their regular tutor. I wish more students would follow suit. It’s possible to grow too accustomed to the same voice and values. And its good, too, for the tutor to teach those outside their fold on occasion. Some principles and observations derived from today’s encounters and reflections:

  • Both fame and obscurity are ephemeral. But infamy can outlast a lifetime.
  • The brightest light casts the darkest shadow.
  • I would no more wish to know the outcome of the artwork than I would how my life will end.
  • A student with vision is never lazy.
  • Rarely do we give up on others the way that, too often, we give up on ourselves.
  • A student’s self-confidence, ambition, commitment, and ardour for the subject can be enhanced immeasurably by the success of only one work.
  • Abstraction is neither a style, method, nor technique, principally but, rather, a way of thinking and being.
  • Root out distractions; determine to concentrate; and aim at single-mindedness. The work demands more than you can presently give, even if it has your full attention.

I messaged one of our recent alumni: ‘Show-fever has begun. Anticipation is in the air. Best time of the year’. Indeed.

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Following lunch: an impromptu advisory session on creating visual analogues for sonic experiences. Thereafter, an afternoon of module and postgraduate admissions admin, thesis submission review, and forward planning for the same. At the close of day, the School opened an exhibition by Paul Newland (one of our former external examiners), and saleable works by the late Handel Evans. It was good to see Dr Pierse in the building again:

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In the evening, I completed the material for tomorrow’s staff workshop, finalised a number of tracks for the Aural Diary archive, and prepared the Image and Inscription mixdown for a former student who has a good ear and sense of judgement. They’ll be the first person to hear and comment upon the whole composition. (This is not an enviable privilege.)

 



April 11, 2016

The beginning of Term 3. My new, old Denon DR-M24HX cassette deck had arrived. The device was made between 1987 and 1988, and is still in very good nick. (Denon were one of the finest manufacturers of this type of audio equipment ‘back in the day’.) I purchased it for only £30, courtesy of ebay. Having cleaned the play and record heads and capstans (Ah! The smell of isopropyl alcohol), I connected the deck to both my analogue/digital interface and iMac in order to migrate the content from my Aural Diary cassettes, digitally:

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The transfer took place in the background to the day’s other activities. Some teacherly housekeeping to begin the morning: setting up individual tutorial appointments, notifying students of the recommencement of modules, arranging assessments for postgraduates, dealing with postgraduate application inquiries, and carving out spaces for administrative duties and research in between.

The new School of Art Instagram account was launched today:

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On, then, to undertake a final review of an undergraduate dissertation, prior to its submission next week. In the background, sounds from 1985 to 1986 dribbled into my iMac: clocks bells and fog horns in Cardiff, conversations, preaching, and my first efforts as a teacher. There’s an endearing sample of a roll-call at the start of an art class for hairdressers at Pontypool College (a tertiary education centre in the South Wales valleys). I taught three groups of twelve students (each comprising eleven girls and one boy), none of whom could understand why they should be learning art. They had my sympathy in that respect. On other recordings, I heard the voices of those who have flown this world. Audio captures the kinetic presence of the departed — the residual anima of their vocal signature through which character, temperament, and responses were expressed. Press ‘play’ and they are conditionally and temporarily resurrected. Audio recordings, like photographs, are not so much the ‘ghosts’ as the stains of the dead.

Throughout the afternoon I pushed on with a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to the dissertation, currently under scrutiny:

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June 12, 1986: the sound of chicks in a bird box that my father had made, recorded at my childhood home in Abertillery. July 30, 1986: Me, preaching assertively through a megaphone in an open-air service held on the promenade, Aberystwyth. It sounds like my voice had been driven through both a fuzz box and a high-gain pedal. (A preachily form of death metal.) The loud, aggressive, and distorted tone robbed the message of any compassion and consolation. It was, for me, an uncomfortable audition. Nevertheless, there may be the seed of an idea here.

The Aural Diary permit me to travel back in time, acoustically. The audio recording evokes the sense of lived experience far more intensely than a photograph does. Perhaps, this is because the former captures time in motion, rather than as a fixed moment (which is an entirely artificial construction in relation to lived experience). Recorded sound summons mental images, but photographic images don’t likewise evoke sonic memories, in my experience. Perhaps, this is because one cannot imagine, let alone recall, a frozen split-second of sound.

I’m grateful to myself that I had both the presence of mind and the courage to capture samples of my life’s sonic fabric between 1985 and 1987. Towards the end of that period, much was lost, much changed, irrevocably:

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Platform 4, Shrewsbury station (4.04 pm, 16 May 1987)

In the evening, I began making notes for my contribution to a staff seminar, to be held on Wednesday morning, dealing with the principles of and practices of internal examining at postgraduate level.



April 8, 2016

The sections for Image & Inscription were composed in order, from one to ten, following the arrangement and progression of the biblical narrative (Exodus 19.1-34.29). Having completed the final section, I worked my way backwards, making small adjustments as I proceeded, towards the first section. (This is the manner in which I proofread my written work.) Again, it’s a method of defamiliarising oneself with the work … like turning a picture upside down in order to be either surprised or shocked by it, once again.

A work is finished only when its ends, and ends only when it’s finished. This isn’t a tautology. As I approached the conclusion of the post-production process, an entirely new and additional section suggested itself. That’s an underestimation; it came upon me forcibly, in the manner of an external compulsion. The new section is a coda, marking Moses’ return to the people, and their observation that the skin of his face shone (Exodus 34.35):

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Gustave Doré, ‘Moses Coming Down from Mount Sinai’, The Doré Bible Gallery (1891)

Originally, this phenomenon was alluded to at the finale of the (formerly) concluding section, which evoked Moses’ forty days and nights on the mount. The new section better articulates a sense of fearful, luminous stasis. The seed of the compositional idea was the trichord at the close of the tenth section. At this stage in the game, all solutions and initiatives arise from within the established composition:

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Image and Inscription embodies two contrasting dynamics acting in unison: the biblical and the technological (digital processes and the sound of machinery). In principle and prospect, each will find its offspring in the pair of sound projects that will be furthered once my present commitment is submitted for publication. The one, ‘Talking Bible’ [working title], will address the first audio recording of the whole bible; the other, ‘Steelworks’ [working Title], will respond to the 2,000 or more glass-plates slide of the industry, recently deposited at the National Library of Wales. The latter, I suspect, will, like Image and Inscription, take the form of a series of sonic landscapes, of sorts:

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Port Talbot steelworks (background) (1960s) (Courtesy of BBC Wales)

 

 



April 7, 2016

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A final morning on essay marking, at least until my British Landscape consignment comes in on 12 April. I know that an essay has hit the mark when I engage it as ‘a good read’. It’s not the only or the most important criterion. But, in that moment, the writer has converted me from an examiner into an audience, No mean feat. Missing commas and dates, syntactical breakdowns, unresolved and overlong sentences, odd capitalisations, and awkward phrases are among the most conspicuous flaws in this and every batch.

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In the background, I played the sections of Image & Inscription, listening to them as I would a work made by someone else.  (If this composition was a film, it would be given an ’18’ certificate, I’m sure. Terrifying!) Hearing the same piece in a new environment is like looking at a picture in a room other than its habitual context. You experience it afresh … either for better or for worse. Always confront, and exorcise from a work, those elements that make you wince. The pain of excluding them now cannot be compared to the pain of enduring them once the work is published.

Therefore … an afternoon and evening of tweaking and further, hair-splitting post production. On the last-run (and this is how I knew it was the last-run), old ideas were reinstated, mediocre passages axed (mercilessly), timid samples ennobled, and everything assumed a more defiant attitude. But such changes could not have been executed any earlier. One must honour the the often slow process of maturation … in the work, and in oneself.

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April 6, 2016

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A morning of undergraduate dissertation reviews and essay marking. I’m still not convinced of Turnitin’s (the on-line marking programme) expedience. Any system that mitigates against one’s instinctive mode of mark-up is to be mistrusted. For one thing, it’s not possible to review my comments without opening up each comment box, one by one. Thus, composing the summation of commentary is a feat of memory, as much as anything.

Students are never more at sea than when it comes to essay writing. In part, the problem derives from not reading academic material either sufficiently or deeply. For, we absorb the principles of construction, argument, persuasion, illustration, and citation, etc., more by osmosis than by instruction.

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Writing is difficult. And, like anything that’s worth doing well, it remains difficult no matter how good you get at it. Of course, its not writing that’s the root problem; its thinking. Think clearly, and the sentences will be congruent with your thoughts (give or take a little fumbling with, and stumbling over, grammar and syntax). Which doesn’t mean that ideas necessarily precede words. On the contrary, they often occur at the same time. So, if you can’t think what to write, then write what to think. Just start joining together words on the page, and thoughts will emerge like improvised melodic phrases blown from the horn of a saxophone.

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Evening. A new mixdown of the sections  was produced. This will form the basis for the final mastering. At that stage, I’ll attend to the overall tonal distribution of each section, and ensure that the volume and perceptible loudness is equalised across the whole composition. In many ways, sound production has more in common with printmaking and photography than painting, insomuch as the ‘image’ is developed in a phased and sequential manner.

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April 5, 2016

Soon, undergraduate dissertations and essays will flood my desktop screens. Thus, the imperative, during the next few days, is to finalise production of Image & Inscription in readiness for the sound engineers at the record company, and to begin assembling material for a public lecture-cum-article on the project. But to begin, I needed to remedy the sound file insertion/manipulation impasse that I encountered yesterday. The solution: turn the sound clip editor back on. I must have switched it off accidentally while flailing around with my cursor.

The first part of the morning was devoted to establishing past precedents for musical, or otherwise sonic, interpretations Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto (1818) doesn’t deal with the Exodus narrative beyond the parting of the Red Sea. Cecile B. De Mille’s original The Ten Commandments (1923) is a silent film, without a definite musical score (it would appear). Visually, De Mille’s conception of the events on the mount is sometimes magisterial and, at others, absurd:

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The director’s remake, in 1956, features a dramatic orchestral accompaniment by Elmer Bernstein. Unbeknown to me, the jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck wrote an oratorio entitled The Commandments (2005). Beside Jewish cantillation of the text (which is reminiscent of plain song) — and to which I should return, for reasons besides — there’s also a musical based on the Ten Commandments, first staged in 2006, starring Val Kilmer. (I cannot bring myself to listen to it.)

After lunch, I returned to the sound studio with my observations/auditions on the ten sections. I perceived a slight imbalance towards the left-hand channel of the stereo field. (To me, this sounds like a titling picture looks.) Perhaps our ears have a natural proclivity towards one side or the other:

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By the close of the evening, and my fifth pass over the set (which makes me sound like the angel of death), I’d arrived at a resolution. During the final edit, I managed to restore dynamic emphases that had been lost in the process of levelling. It remains for me to master the tonal profile of the final mixdown before closing the book of this part of the project:

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April 4, 2016

Greed, duplicity, hypocrisy, and callousness have typified the attitudes of many politicians, businessmen, and sports celebrities during this decade. When achievement and gain are idolised, then ‘success at any cost’ becomes an inevitable and acceptable conviction. But it’s better to fail honourably than to triumph unjustly. Better to be poor with good conscience than be wealthy with guilt. Better to confess one’s sins than hide them for others to unveil.

The week began with module administration; the new term commences next Monday. Over the past fortnight, I’d begun to digitise my analogue back-catalogue of Aural Diary sound recordings:

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To this end, I’m presently sourcing a cassette-player. (My old devices died years ago.) Professional and portable versions of the hardware are no longer manufactured. So, I’ve resorted to ebay and obtained a relatively inexpensive period-piece.

The final section of Image & Inscription required a summative list. The source text covers two chapters and a great deal of ground. Distilling the essence was a challenge. Once completed, all the sections were revised a third time in order to make their terminology and syntax consistent.

A little intellectual sustenance was required:

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The revision took all afternoon to complete. This wasn’t entirely surprising. I’d not undertaken anything like this before, so I trod more cautiously than I would otherwise. In the background, emails were variously discussed, dumped, or distributed. In the sound studio, I made the one necessary and outstanding adjustment to sections 8 and 9, removing a ‘descent’ motif from the close of the former and inserting it at the opening of the latter. Easy-peasy … or not, as it turned out. The software refused to accept the insertion of the new file and locked the ‘spline curve’ feature (by which a sound sample’s volume may be controlled).

 

 



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