The Bible in Translation: Image and Inscription


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The sound artwork Image and Inscription is part of The Aural Bible series and The Bible in Translation project. The series aims to deal with the Judaeo-Christian scriptures (together with their cultural situations) as not only a written and printed word but also a spoken and heard word. It also seeks to explore Protestant Christianity’s emphasis on aurality, expressed through preaching, prayer, and singing. The project focuses upon transforming biblical texts into sonic analogues and also setting them within a musical framework.

The texts on which the sound artwork is based are derived from the principal clause of the Second Commandment, forbidding the making of graven images (Exodus 20.4). One of the texts is a translation taken from Bishop William Morgan’s (1545-1604) Welsh Bible of 1588:

Na wnait ddelw gerfiedic, na llun dim a’r [a sydd] yn y nefoedd oddi vchod, nac a’r y [sydd] yn y ddaiar oddi isod: nac a’r [y sydd] yn y dwfr odditann y ddaiar.

The other is taken from the Authorised Version of the bible of 1611:

 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’.

The term ‘graven’ is an approximation of the Hebrew word pesel, which means ‘to cut or ‘to hew into shape’. The English translation ‘graven’, as the translators of the Authorised Version understood it, is a fairly anodyne term that means ‘engraved’. This is the rendering that I have followed.

A commercial plaque maker mechanically engraved the texts upon a metal matrix. The English translation was incised and recorded in 2010; the Welsh translation, on a different engraver, in 2015. Two languages, two machines running at different speeds and making entirely dissimilar sounds, recorded five years apart. The earlier engraver produced an aggressive, rasping sound, and a deep cut in the plate:

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The later machine’s sound is muted, soft, and organic, and its cut, in turn, more delicate:

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Both source recordings were slowed down by nearly 400%, thereby enlarging the original length of each to exactly twenty minutes duration. Here, the number 20 is symbolic, representing 2 x 10 (being, according to some traditions, the number of Commandments inscribed by the finger of God on each of the two tables of the law (Exodus 31.18)). The stretched versions of the source were then modified through a network of synthesizer filters in order to generate tonal characteristics appropriate to the general mood of the text and its context – which is one of threat, awe, and gloom.

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The texts were also spoken: in Welsh, by a woman and in English, by a man. A recording was made of both, at the National Screen & Sound Archive of Wales, and subsequently transferred to two copies of a 33-rpm vinyl disc. These was produced, following the traditional mode of manufacture, by an intaglio process of incising a groove — within which the sonic information is embedded — into acetate, in the first instance. By this means, the spoken texts, too, are converted into engravings:

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In the context of the open-studio event, the discs will be manipulated by hand on two DJ record player decks operating in parallel. Then, the resultant sound will be filtered through a series of samplers and digital and analogue filters, so that fragments of speech can be repeated, overlaid, and otherwise combined in ways that are not native to the recording, and their tonal qualities and volume, altered:

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The process of conversion and composition governing the sound artwork takes place, in situ, at the Drwm, the National Library of Wales. The identity of the venue is not incidental. On 23 April 2013, the Library’s extension was damaged by fire. Fire and smoke are associated with the receiving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19.18-20.) Moreover, the Drwm is situated at a geographical centre for the Library’s main collections, which deal with texts, images, and sounds, respectively. Likewise, the sound work is a site of interchange, associating images (in absentia and under prohibition) with texts (the source of the sound artwork) and with sounds (of the texts in sonic translation).

Mount Sinai was a noisy place when Moses made his several ascents. Thunder rumbled, and there was also ‘the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud [that] … sounded long, and waxed louder and louder’ (Exodus 19.16-19). God permitted the people of Israel to ‘listen in’ on his dialogue with Moses, and to overhear His voice (which also must have been at a fearful volume) as he pronounced the words of the Decalogue (Exodus 19.9; 20.1-19). Thus, the Ten Commandments were, first, sounded out – as an ephemeral speech act — prior to becoming a text, that would, in turn, become a permanent image inscribed on two stone tablets (Exodus 24.12). On the occasion of receiving the tablets, Moses remained on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the number 40 is associated with, among other things, times of trial, testing, and judgement (Genesis 7.12, Matthew 4.2).

In returning one of the Ten Commandments to the condition of sound (noise and speech), I am reversing the process by which it first came into being. In making a loud noise during the act of the composition, the acoustic character of the context of the Decalogue’s original reception is evoked. Furthermore, by holding the open-studio event in a public institution, visitors are able to ‘listen in’ both on that act and (like the Israelites at Sinai) the words of God sounding forth. My decision to create the composition over twenty-four consecutive hours was in order to honour the idea of a personal and demanding trial, which Moses endured.

The outcome of Image & Inscription will be transferred to vinyl and CD and deposited in the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, at the Library.

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2 Responses to The Bible in Translation: Image and Inscription

  1. Alan Jefferies says:

    Hello John
    Unfortunately I was not able to attend your open studio event at The National Library of Wales Aberystwyth
    Do you plan to run another session.If so could you keep me posted
    Regards Alan Jefferies

    • johnscriptorium says:

      I’m in discussion with the National Screen & Sound Archive regarding a performance of a piece based upon the material generated during the open-studio event.

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