8.00 am: A communion. 9.00 am: On with sermon number four – the last one. In the background, the vinyl recordings of the Psalms continued to be transferred digitally. The sermons were delivered in 1979, three years before I arrived in Aberystwyth to commence my MA Visual Art degree. I recall meeting the Rev’d J. Douglas MacMillan, the preacher, in the mid 1980s. He’d been a Scottish Highland shepherd prior to his call to the ministry, and drew upon that experience to illuminate his interpretation of Psalm 23. MacMillan died at the age of 57 – a preacher of his time, to his time. The theatricality and artifice of the delivery, seem to my ears, now (as it did then), archaic and nostalgic – reaching back to a ‘golden age’ when preachers were required to be both actors and poets. The sermons are full of personal anecdotes, as well as discursions into doctrine, biblical commentary, and other passages of Scripture. Yet, he holds it all together by dint of his personality and earnestness.
Pulpit and painted wall decoration, Tre’r Ddol chapel,
Ceredigion, Wales (1984)
When I moved in Nonconformist circles, I’d listened to sermons like his often. While holding to many of the fundamental tenets that underlay the preaching, I was uncomfortable about their assault upon the emotions principally. Of course, faith must be a matter for the heart if it’s to mean anything. But emotionalism is dangerous. An appeal to feelings, however well meant, is not persuasive in the long run. The intellect must be convinced.
The vocal glissandos that MacMillan achieved when he was ‘in his stride’ (as the old Nonconformists used to say) reminded me of the ecstasies summoned by the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane in his later recordings. Coltrane endeavoured to fuse jazz with a religious sensibility: a heady synthesis. I suspect that he, in turn, was inspired by the rapturous excursions of so-called ‘black preaching’ – which he’d have heard when a child in his parents’ Baptist church. Afro-American preachers can move from speech to a kind of plain-song-chant-cum-rapping and back again, effortlessly and spontaneously. Wonderful!
I’m not a stranger to emotional religious experiences. But they’ve been very rare in my life and, therefore, memorable and significant. One took place on Mynnydd Arael (Arael Mountain), which overlooks the the Ebbw Vach valley, where spent my childhood:
The Arael is a Twin Peaks sort of place. In the eighteenth century, travellers testified to encounters with malevolent spirits, who’d transmigrate them from the mountain to somewhere else in South Wales in an instant. (Anyone interested in these accounts should read my The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales.) The Arael was my Mount Sinai – the place on top of which I’d sit and talk to God:
On one notable occasion, which took place during the Summer of 1981, a conversation (which had been staid and business like in tone), on the topic of my still uncertain future, was suddenly transformed into what I can only describe as an ‘encounter’. I saw and heard nothing, but felt everything. Moreover, at no point did I become unconscious of either where I was or the passing of time. The experience began with a sensation in my loins that coursed, like the slow discharge of a mild electric current, upwards through my torso and into my head and arms, and downwards through my legs and to my toes. I clung tightly to the grass fearing that, if I didn’t, I’d be drawn heavenward with great force. In my head, I prayed: ‘Stop! Too much!’ Had someone described this experience to me, I’d have sceptically dismissed it as manifestation of a self-induced, subjective, and cathartic reconciliation with anxiety. However my impression, both during and after, was of being seized by a force outside of myself. In the ‘after-glow’, I was overwhelmed by a sense of confidence (but not in myself), of being known and cherished, and of something having irrevocably changed. (I knew not what.)
12.30 pm: A trip to town, via Holy Trinity Church, where I deposited sheets for tomorrow’s services:
The fourth recording had a fair bit of ‘drop-out’ and electrical crackling – the ‘memory’ of a loose connection. The loss of the left- and the right-hand outputs, the absolute (rather than relative) silence on occasion, and signal distortion, are as much characteristics of the recording as the spoken content. I’ll need to make a response to these features in the composition. Even the post-recording voice-over instructing ‘Please turn the tape over’ will be considered. By noon, I’d completed the extractions from the final sermon.
2.00 pm: Now, I was in a position to begin composition – to make ready samples that could be launched in a live performance context. As is my custom, every sample is worked over, clarified, and optimised in order to fit rightly together. But that’s the craft and technique only. The art is in turning it all into something that transcends the original context and intent while, at the same time, speaking a truth that’s hidden beneath the surface.
5.00 pm: An end of it! 6.30 pm: An evening with my family.