Month: August 2014

August 19, 2014


I attended to financial matters arising from yesterday’s discussions with Martin before embarking on the spirit and technology lecture for the Art/Sound module. ‘The beginning is a very delicate time’ (David Lynch, Dune (1981)).

You can’t purchase a copy of The Portsmouth Sinfonia’s first studio album, released in 1970, for either love or money. I have the original pressing on a now scratched and static-laden vinyl record. (It was played to death.) Unfortunately, the YouTube releases are taken from a source that’s in a similarly desultory condition. The recording deserves to be remastered as a CD. The orchestra was formed by a group of students at Portsmouth School of Art under the oversight of the English composer Gavin Bryars. He selected not the most competent musicians but anyone — regardless of talent, instrumental ability, or experience — who had the requisite enthusiasm. They endeavoured to play as well as they could, which was often very badly. The orchestra included Brian Eno:


I took lunch at Figaro’s with my colleague Dafydd Roberts. He, too, suffers from an addiction to expensive metal boxes bedecked with little lights, knobs, and switches, and (like me) has a long-suffering wife. I invited him home to ‘play’. Dafydd once had his sonic endeavours aired on the John Peel Show:


I know of no one else who shares my enthusiasm for feedback, harsh noise, and the intrinsic beauty of a square wave signal. You do need at least one person in this world who’s confident that you aren’t one connection short of a circuit (in this respect, at least).

Having introduced Dafydd to my ‘toys’ and let him loose on them, I returned to financial matters and the spirit and technology lecture, and began assembling relevant slides from my conference papers on this topic:


The construction of the new bathroom is developing apace. The walls tiles will be brought in from the cold and scrutinized tomorrow:



At evening, after practise session 1, in the studio,  I had a final twiddle of my Jomox T-Resonator before it is dispatched to a new home. Then I returned to Pedalboard I. I’m unconvinced about the bit-crusher’s place on the board. The most acceptable distortion that I can coax out of it sounds like I’m playing the guitar through an off-station, short-wave transistor radio. The effector will have to make a very persuasive case in order to stay there.  9.45 pm. My final hour of practise:


August 18, 2014

A new week; a new day. I enjoy waking to the rain splattering like pebbledash against the Velux windows. The sound is strangely consoling; it transforms a house into a shelter:


To begin, I cleared the backlog of emails requiring my immediate attention, reviewed my tutorial schedule for the next fortnight, responded to a draft dissertation submission, and resolved conflicting medical appointments due over the next two weeks, by telephone. If Vivaldi could have received a royalty every time The Four Seasons is played while the caller is left on-hold, he wouldn’t have died impoverished. I dislike hearing music that ends as abruptly as it begins, in one ear only, and through a device with an exceedingly narrow-band frequency range. What’s wrong with silence? Or, better: Why doesn’t a sound artist compose ‘on-hold music’ that constructively responds to these limitations?:


Then, on to the meat of the day’s work: the next two Art/Sound lectures — one on spirit and technology and the other on jazz and abstraction. It’s an excuse, if one were needed, for a week of ambient listening to terrifying Electronic Voice Phenomena and albums by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman.

At 11.00 am, I was called to the School for an impromptu MA Fine Art interview with an applicant who had arrived on time but a day early. After lunch, I visited Martin at the Old College to discuss the prospective value of the university pension scheme. The local part of his email address is ‘MAD’. ‘Mad Martin’ was the epithet given to the English Romantic painter John Martin due to the extravagance of his vision.  The unquestionably sane Martin’s prophecies about the future of pensions are no less apocalyptic:


In the afternoon, I inserted illustration tags into, and completed the PowerPoint for, last week’s lecture text and began mapping out the spirit and technology lecture in readiness for tomorrow morning.

After dinner and an hour’s guitar practise, I moved to the studio. A cable had been misplaced on Pedalboard IV. Consequently, the sound of silence from a 100-watt amplifier — when there should be a glorious chiming chord  — was enough to enfeeble even the burliest Swedish Death Metal player:


I made several modifications to Pedalboard IV, removing the RAT distortion effector and replacing it with the MoogerFooger Drive unit and expression pedal:


During the final part of the evening, I set up Pedalboard I with a view to exploring the individual and collective potential of the effectors systematically over the next few days. Monday ends, as does every weekday, with a further hour’s guitar practise. I’m in C Major for the next week. The nights are drawing-in:


August 16, 2014

At 9.00 am, we took the number 125 bus from Old Street to Marylebone Station (I can’t remember how many squares it would take to make this move on a Monopoly board) to begin our journey home. (In view of the railway repairs forecast for our usual route from Euston, this was the best option):


At the station, we bought M&S food to fortify ourselves on the crowded train to Birmingham Moore Street Station. There weren’t any tables in the carriages, so in order to work we balanced our respective laptops on our laps – an arrangement that the device (in spite of the nomenclature) clearly isn’t designed to accommodate satisfactorily. I returned to and completed the Art/Sound lecture:


We arrived at Birmingham Moore Street station just after 12.00 pm and headed across the city to Birmingham New Street station, running over the feet, or else bumping the legs, of elderly people with my trolley as we gathered pace. (Sorry!) We arrived with 4 minutes to spare before the Aberystwyth train arrived and promptly departed. (This is too close a call for my personality type.) Ah! A table to work on. Come back Arriva Trains Wales, some things are forgiven.

The train was held up at Newtown due to a ‘on-going trespass incident’ on the line ahead:


As it turned out, someone had threatened to throw themselves off a bridge and onto the road, rather than the line. We were advised that ‘Control’ (whoever they are) were endeavouring to hail buses to transport all 180 passengers to Machynlleth. Unfortunately, there were too few vehicles available for hire. Apparently, the train company had encountered a similar scenario two weeks ago. Evidently, lessons had not been learned. There was still no plan B to hand. Arriva Trains Wales! — I take back my words. We arrived in Aberystwyth at 5.35 pm, over two hours late. A refund is in order.

An evening with the family.

August 15, 2014

We were on the road again by 9.00 am and anticipating the Matisse: The Cut-Outs and Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art exhibitions at the Tate Modern:



My appreciation for the gallery is growing. Nevertheless, the interior still looks as though it could be Darth Vader’s larger bathroom:


Responses (from ‘The Black Notebook’ (Jan. 2, 2008 – , 168-9 )):


  • M interpreted Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 using 5 colours.
  • The cuts outs have been dealt a serious disservice by the calendar and greetings card industry. They have repeatedly over-exposed a select few images of the work, and thereby made them disproportionately important in the public imagination.
  • M composed the cut-outs from back to front; from ground to figure. I never realized that before. But one can see it.
  • Things that I particularly like: The Bees (1948), Venus (1952), and Chinese Fish (1951). The latter anticipates the work of the British Pop artist Anthony Donaldson.
  • Some of the cuts-outs from the 1950s are reminiscent of Stuart Davis’s paintings in the 1940s. [Davis was exposed to the work of M in 1913.] A case of reciprocal influence, perhaps.
  • I’m drawn to the pinholes in the paper, where M secured the cut-outs to the support.
  • The Snail (1953) has never looked so good. It could’ve been made yesterday. In my opinion, it’s the best work in show. Coincidentally (?), it’s the most abstract. I’m always impressed by the way M positioned the black rectangle in the top half of the painting. The shape threatens to decentre the picture but is kept firmly in-check, like a moon caught within the gravitational field of the green, oblong earth beneath it.


  • Things that I particularly like: Cow and Violin (1913) for its rather cack-handed synthesis of Cubism and realism, Black Quadrilateral (n.d.), Black Square (1915), Red Square (1915), Black Square (1929), the Alpha (1923) architekton, Woman with Rake (1930-2). (Diebenkorn must have seen this; the background colours and geometric proportions anticipate those of his own landscapes), Suprematist Cross (1923).
  • Exhibition board: ‘Malevich dated the Black Square to 1913, though it was almost certainly painted in June 1915. The discrepancy was due to his belief that the date should be for the original idea for the painting rather than its creation’. This notion anticipates Sol Le Witt’s own prioritization and positioning of idea over and before making by half a century.
  • BS (1913) was not exhibited until the 1980s. Extraordinary! But I saw photographs of it in the late 1970s.
  • M: ‘The artist can be a creator only when the forms of the picture have nothing to do with nature’ (1915). What would Malevich have thought of Matisse’s cut-outs, I wonder, with all their references to natural forms? (The Snail partially excepted, of course.)
  • Matysukin: theories on the relationship of sound and colour.
  • M’s White on White is notable by its absence. Was it destroyed?

Malevich had to return to figuration during the Stalinist era when abstraction was branded elitist. The research ethos in British universities is a more benign form of the same totalitarian censorship. Today, the discourse is couched in terms of public accessibility and impact, rather than of the Communist dictum ‘art for the masses’.

We walked along the Embankment towards London Bridge via the back alleys around the old London Prison, and took lunch in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral where Shakespeare’s brother is buried. I lit a candle there:


Borough Market (which I discovered last year), situated opposite the Cathedral, offers the finest range of good quality, regionally-produced food that I’ve ever encountered. The market is crossed and flanked by railway bridges; the enclosed area resonates with the rumble of trains (like constant thunder) passing overhead:


We returned to the hotel in order to recompose ourselves and put in an hour’s work.

Late afternoon, we visited Covent Garden and ate dinner at the covered market. Then, onto Whitehall and the Trafalgar Studios (splendidly converted from a cinema) to see Richard III, with Martin Freeman (Dr Watson in Sherlock) in the lead role. Freeman had incorporated some of Hitler’s traits and ticks into his realization of this psychotic and despotic ‘little man’. The play was set in 1970s Britain during the ‘Winter of discontent’, as it was aptly called, of Thatcher’s ‘la Terreur’:


The performance was electric in every sense of that word. The influence of David Lynch’s design for the Red Room in Twin Peaks, and his metaphors for paranormal presence, were evident influences upon the set design:


Bed beckoned.

August 14, 2014

The morning began with a flurry activity of the non-hectic kind, in preparation for a two-day trip to London and a cultural binge with my wife. Low, smoky grey clouds of vapour and a curtain of rain erased the mountain tops between Borth and Machynlleth:


We took a somewhat circuitous journey on a long and rather unstable train, via Wolverhampton and Stafford on this occasion. It got us to the capitol half an hour earlier than usual. En route, I pushed on with the Art/Sound lecture, stopping only for my mandatory, over priced, but otherwise acceptable, cardboard cup of tea from the trolley:


After arriving at Old Street tube station, we walked the first section of City Road, lost the route, and shuffled around several blocks in the pouring rain before discovering the Premier Inn. It’s reassuringly like every other hotel under that banner, with cheery and helpful staff (no irony intended), and a room that always looks like the last one you occupied, and as though no one has ever before slept in it:


There was, too, the same vacuous print hung over the desk, in an entirely arbitrary diptych formation, which, once seen, you never notice again for the remainder of your stay. It’s a fascinating phenomenon: peripheral art:


After a brief respite, we travelled to Oxford Circus before making a pilgrimage to Denmark Street (England’s Tin-Pan Alley in the halcyon 1960s) to eye, forlornly, shop after shop of contemporary and vintage electric guitars. One day … :

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 15.33.50

It poured with rain again as we emerged onto Charing Cross Road; so my wife and I headed for the family’s habitual Chinese eatery on Gerrard Street. Afterwards, we took in a film, Lilting, at the Curzon, Shaftesbury Avenue:


It’s a necessarily slow-burning narrative that deals with a variety of interrelated portraits about acceptance and reconciliation, loss and grief, and estrangement and isolation:


August 13, 2014

8.45 am, and a visit to the chemists to process prescriptions. A grey, dank day brings out the worst in the town. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther believed that demons occupied the ‘thick black clouds … and poisonous air’. Towards the end of his life, John Ruskin associated the dark skies and torporous climate in the North of England with an evil malaise. Perhaps we project upon the weather our state of mind:


I mixed down the files for Matt. 20.10 and uploaded the track for public access. Only another 16 to go:

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 09.54.14

Onward with the present Art/Sound lecture. I must complete 4,000 words of text by the end of the week, and a further 4,000 words every week until the beginning of term.

We had a lovely lunch (made from locally produced tortilla and cut meats) with our friends Alan and Pat Davey and an honoured guest, Mrs Eluned Thomas — one of the most gracious and wise women that I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I’d not seen her in many years. Had she lived in biblical times, Mrs ‘T.’ would probably have been considered a prophetess in the mould of Anna (Luke 2.36-8). During the 1980s, she ran a house in Cardiff for single female students. Understandably, Auntie Eluned (as she was called by ‘her girls’) drew to her door a succession of male callers on a regular basis … myself included:


Back to the Art/Sound lecture and a search for examples of Musique Concrète, beginning with Walter Ruttman’s seminal and engagingly silly Wochenende (1930).

In the evening I returned to the search, and tutored my younger son as he set off on his first foray into the world of analogue/digital recording and multi-tracking. It can be a rather steep learning at first. Fatherly advice: ‘Record as loudly as possible, without clipping; deploy the metronome; accept the prospect that days may pass before you lay down a track that’s even barely adequate; and always make one more attempt beyond what you consider to be your best effort’.


August 12, 2014

A morning of fine art and art history tutorials interspersed with an appointment with the doctor. Lessons to myself: 1. Confrontation is not always avoidable; sometimes it’s the necessary and best remedy. Whenever possible, it must to be engaged with grace and in good faith on both sides, and end with positive reconciliation and an agreed course of action for the future. 2. What to the tutor is a perfectly reasonable and productive idea may not appear so within the student’s sphere of thought. There’s always a degree of miscomprehension on both sides. My doctor’s surgery feels like the departure lounge of a small, under-used American airport. Today, take-off was delayed by over half an hour:

After lunch, I returned to the Art/Sound lecture while processing sound files for Matt. 20.10 in the background. There are several ancillary questions arising from my study that cannot be explored in the context of a fifty-minute lecture. Nevertheless, they’re worth addressing and may form the basis of essay questions for the module:

The death of the actor/comedian Robin Williams today recalls the truism: just because your funny, doesn’t mean your happy. Meanwhile thousands of anonymous civilians fleeing genocide are trapped in Northern Iraq without life-saving assistance. This is the greater tragedy. I continued with the lecture in the evening. Having written about magnetic tape recorders, I’m now pining for one … a Revox A77 Mk III: the king of the reels and a design classic, technically, sonically, and visually. Oh! The organic warmth of analogue:

It’s rather unnerving to be discussing the paintings of Claude Lorrain in one sentence and vintage condenser microphones in the next. But it makes sense:

I completed processing Matt. 10.20 sound files in readiness for the mix down tomorrow morning.

August 11, 2014

I bought this book from Amazon last year for about £40. Obviously, it has proved to be a worthy investment. I’ll hang onto it for a more few years, then sell it, and buy another house with the proceedings. It’s a very good book, but not that good:


For the first hour of the morning, I established my timetable of appointments for the week, my agenda for the day, and dispatched emails. On, then, with the Art/Sound module lectures (with J S Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Keith Jarrett’s Hymns and Spheres playing in the background). This week I’m focusing on the development of Musique Concrète in relation to Synthetic Cubism. I’ve not dealt with the latter, other than in passing, since I wrote my undergraduate art history dissertation in 1981. (Few things we do are so self-contained as to exert no influence on other things we do later.) That dissertation remains the most painful and effortful piece of research that I’ve ever undertaken. But it has also among my most rewarding endeavours — developing my skills as a writer, passion for art history, and mental agility:

In tandem with lecture writing, I began processing files for Matt. 20.10 of ‘The Floating Bible: Miracle of the Risen Word (Recto)‘ sound piece:

During my lunch hour, I prepared photographs of pedals and other devices, now surplus to requirement, for sale on eBay:

I returned to the Art/Sound lecture in the afternoon, fielding emails and processing sound files along the way. Every topic I touch upon yields more directions and connections than I can possibly accommodate within a lecture. This is a rich vein. But I can’t afford to spend too long on any one thing. Perhaps I shall revisit these ideas in the context of an authored book in the near future:

An evening eBaying. It’s the only occasion on which I countenance plagiarism. I’m more than happy to lift the copywrite that companies flaunt to sell their little boxes with knobs on. Which is not to say that their text doesn’t require a little copyediting in order to make it grammatical, syntactical, and clear.

At last, we have a door and frame to our new bathroom:

August 9, 2014

First thing, I released This [Orchestra] Practise This – a track based upon a sonic phenomenon recognised and recorded by my younger son while on a school trip to Osaka this year. It’s a genuinely collaborative piece. The sample was too complete in itself to require any further development beyond a sonic scrub and a broadening of the stereo field. The father of Musique Concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, believed that one should preserve the character of the found sound as far as possible. After all, that is what drew one to it in the first place:


The holiday over, I return to my inbox and worked my way through: requests for references, tutorials, and meetings; exchanges between my colleagues about e-submission of course work; notifications about chapters, dissertations, and PhD proposals submitted for me to read and comment upon.  As a matter of principle, I always deal with the most urgent and irksome correspondence first.

After lunch, I returned to the Art/Sound: Practice, Theory & History 1800-2010 module, inserting slide markers into the lecture’s text:


The module’s lectures are written in full. This has been my practice every since I began teaching. It enables me to keep to time, and to think through and articulate complex ideas in advance of their delivery. I’m not bound to the script, however, and usually extemporize around the text.

I fitted the new reverb effector to Handboard 1 and tested the system:


An evening with the family.

August 8, 2014

I checked the pedalboard’s operations one last time. This, now, will be Pedalboard IV. Like Pedalboard III, it’s temporary and mutable – able to adapt to the requirements of a particular sound project. Pedalboards I and II are, in contrast, fixed for the foreseeable future:

Pedalboard  I (2013): Distortion


Pedalboard II (2014): Modulation


Pedalboard III (2014)


It’s incumbent upon the sound artist to have knowledge of and authority over not only the aesthetic, theory, conceptualization, and craft of their practice, but also the technology of such. As far as possible, one must learn to be one’s own technician.

The main task of the day was to draw up a plan for a more structured self-education in music theory and practice. In principle, it needs to be realistic, challenging, varied, comprehensive, and fulfilling for head, hands, and heart (operating together). Ideally, it should also be, in part, something which I can carry around in the mind throughout the day:


By the end of the afternoon, I had in place an intelligent and progressive regime for practising that can be incorporated into the background of my professional life. I also committed myself to the following sensible and enabling maxims:

  • Remember: the practise is the practice
  • Avoid mindless repetition and unfocussed noodling
  • Attend first to what you cannot do
  • Cultivate attentive listening
  • Study on a daily basis
  • Test yourself
  • Discern underlying principles
  • Practice and theory are like your hands on the guitar; they must operate together, always
  • Be aware of your posture
  • Be suspicious of your strengths
  • Know your ignorance
  • Love the task

In the evening, I returned to the sound sample of the Japanese high-school orchestra that my younger son had procured for me, finalised the mixdown, and composed the cover and artwork notes in readiness for tomorrow’s launch: