Month: September 2014

September 6, 2014


Sheffield University’s Open Day. The outdoors ‘Ambassadors’ smiled in their translucent white rain capes, embarrassed that the heavens too had chose to open on this of all days. But one should never judge a university by its weather. We were toured in leaky buses from one accommodation complex to another, and introduced to scrubbed up kitchens and rooms by enthusiastic second year representative who could probably hack it as successful estate agents in their post-education afterlife. This was the ‘Universityland, Sheffield Experience’, and the current students were clearly thrilled by the ride. The academics, for their part, promoted degree schemes and options, research and teaching ratings, and student satisfaction and employment statistics with an evangelical zeal that bordered on desperation. (We are, now, all salespersons.) Nevertheless, the university appears to deliver on its promises:


There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about open-plan libraries with coffee shops on every level, glitzy Guild buildings with subterranean supermarkets, WIFI-saturated campuses, and whatever other accessories that are heaped upon students these days to help them feel ‘satisfied’. I, for one, was never a satisfied student. How could I have been? Education was a humbling encounter with the limitations of my prowess and the breadth and depth of a discipline that my intellect could accommodate in only the smallest part. Oh, the buildings, the teaching, and the curriculum (or what little there was) were more than adequate for the task, even if I wasn’t. But they were merely the shell. The pearl, about which I heard no mention today, was intangible, internal, immaterial, and enduring. In part, it was an appreciation of: the value of education as such; the transformative power of understanding; the necessity of rigour and integrity; and of the responsibility that I’d been given for the future custodianship of the knowledge handed down to me by my betters and elders. That same voracious dissatisfaction brought me to where I am today. In this respect, I hope the School of Art’s students will always be unsatisfied, educationally. I could wish them no better.


After the sales pitch, we visited the university’s Alfred Denny Museum – an ‘old world’ collection housed in a single room with large oak display cases full of articulated skeletons and forlorn pickled specimens identified by hand-written captions. Not a push-button display in sight. It was refreshingly out-of-keeping with the adjacent high-tech, polished chrome, white-tiled labs in which the boundaries of the discipline are challenged today.

We left the still drizzling Sheffield in the late afternoon, and enjoyed a trouble-free journey home.

On approaching Newtown railway station:  the memory of an Edward Hopper:


September 5, 2014

I took the 9.30 train from Aberystwyth en route for Sheffield. Having found a table and seat next to a mains socket that worked (there are number on Arriva Trains Wales that don’t; they are placebos), I prepared myself to transform my rather thin and staccato notes for the next Art/Sound lecture into coherent and cohesive thought:


I’ve never understood why one feels inordinately hungry so soon after breakfast and so soon before lunch when travelling. Does moving at speed accelerate the body clock or metabolism? Fellow travellers are apt to breakout their sandwiches and flasks anytime after 11.30 am or at Shrewsbury station … whichever comes first. A woman who was on her way to London sat down next to me. ‘I have a reservation. Is this coach B?’ she asked. ‘The one I just came through was coach A’. Stirred from my work, I informed her: ‘No. This is coach C’. Then the guard walked past. ‘Is that coach’ (she pointed) – the one before A, I mean — coach B?’ ‘That’s coach D, madam’, he replied. The challenge of finding one’s seat on an Arriva train is only marginally less demanding than cracking the Enigma code.



I enjoy the automated announcements on trains and at stations: the way in which the speaker’s inflexions and stresses land in all the wrong places. On the Shrewsbury to Manchester leg of my journey the list of principal stations includes ‘Crewe’, which is spoken in a tone of bemused surprise suggestive of the sentiment: ‘Who’d want to go there?’ (But this example is preferable to the rather testy, harrying, and barely audible voice that summons (orders) patients to their GPs’ rooms at my local surgery.) At Birmingham New Street station, the announcements used to comprise place names and advice collaged from up to three distinct voices. They sounded like messages that the Beat poet Williams S Burroughs could have put together.

Stockport, and lunch (at the proper time):


A Premier Inn in Sheffield:


Premier Inn makes a virtue of predictability (Diary, August 14, 2014). Although I was taken aback by the ubiquitous canvas print that hung over the bed. I’d not seen the like of it at any other branch. It was brown rather than the usual shades of purple, pink, and tangerine. And, strangely, I didn’t see it for the first four hours of my stay, even though it was reflected in the mirror over the desk where I worked for that duration. The art of concealment. Premier Inn seems to be a decent company to work for; the staff appear content and committed — as though they’re valued by the management. And, they behave impeccably. It’s a lesson that Universities UK could learn: If they want to adopt the commercial-business paradigm (shame on them), then the needs and aspirations of not only the ‘clients’ but also the employees must be catered for. Happy workers are hard workers.

I met my younger son off the early evening train from Manchester and escorted him to dinner.

September 4, 2014

8.30 am. I dealt with various website postings, ‘messaged’, and culled my inbox before digging in for the conclusion of the current Art/Sound lecture. Periodically, I installed various analogue effectors in Pedalboard III’s external loop provision to discern their effectiveness, and began processing files for Matt. 20.16 in the background:


By 11.00 am, the lecture was finished. Then it was straight on to the next one, dealing with Minimalism and Conceptualism in art and music. Over my lunch hour, I documented Pedalboard III and packed necessities for a trip to Sheffield tomorrow. This is the third rebuild of the pedalboard in a year:


2.00 pm. I made a prompt response to an inquiry from a very able PhD Fine Art student who’s experiencing one of those rites of passage that I think all scholars should go through at least once in their career:

Research, whether through fine art or in art history, will “do ya ‘ead in”. Reckon upon that as being an axiom woven into the fabric of the universe. One of my undergraduate teachers was the conceptualist and photographer Keith Arnatt. I went up to him on one occasion and, in a barely concealed panic, said: ‘Keith, I have a crisis’. He looked at me — with an expression that recalled the face of a scolded bloodhound — and replied: ‘It’s when you don’t have a crisis … that’s when you should be worried’. Cold comfort at the time but, in my experience subsequently, absolutely true. You’ve a crisis. You’re sensing that either a decision needs to be made, or you’re at a crossroads, or suddenly the road ahead has vanished into the mist. And so with all the limited empathy that I can muster, I say to you: you’re in the best place that an artist can be. I really believe that. The crisis demonstrates that your mind is probing its own boundary, and realising that it needs to extend beyond it. 

Your self-diagnosis is very mature. (No. I’m not just saying that.) In essence, your asking one important question: Do I need to know what are my intentions and subject matter before I pursue a process of investigation?  In my opinion, no. Possibly, in relation to any other PhD discipline, that answer would be very wide of the mark. But in fine art, it’s valid. Research is a search. This implies that something in the domain of your interests and curiosity is either undiscovered or lost. Your job is to uncover and retrieve it. And you can do so only responsively — in and through the process of investigation. The subject plays hide and seek. The subject is not what you think. The subject is more nuanced and surprising, and it will find you. Your task, in the meantime, is to attend to the certainties and, thereafter, believe that what is unknown will become manifest in due course. Trust your (and this isn’t a word common to the discourse of art these days) imagination — in that full-orbed sense defined by nineteenth century Romantic painters and poets.

After lunch, I collected together images, videos, and sound files for the lecture, put away equipment, and generally made ready the studio for the next project. To clean the studio is to clear my mind:


I accidently closed my PowerPoint program without saving the working file, and erased an afternoon’s work. At least it was images and not text that vanished. Oftentimes, repeating a task, out of either choice or necessity, changes the outcome for the better. And, sometimes, in retracing our steps other and greater mistakes, of which we were oblivious, are uncovered. Therefore, I’ve learned not to remonstrate against misfortunes such as this.

By the close of the afternoon session, I’d retrieved my losses and gained new ground. After an early evening dinner and further packing, I carried on with media file-sourcing for the lecture. By the close of the session, I’d processed, mixed down, and launched Matt. 20.16.

9.40 pm Practise session 2. In ‘the night watch’, I cleared departmental admin. and mixed down another track.

September 3, 2014


9.00 am. My MPhil Art History student and I met again to further review photographs of Welsh chapels by John Thomas (Diary, August 26, 2014). His visual repertoire is astonishing. By experiencing the images on a large scale, one can more readily enter into them. The peripheral details of the print (which were often edited out in the final crop) are made visible, and become an engaging distraction from the ostensible subject of the photograph. We saw the bowler hats of the deacons, elders, and minister lined up on the window ledge while they sit for a group portrait against an outside wall of a chapel; the chairs, drapes, and other props of studio photography stacked on the boundary of the composition waiting to be finally excised from view. The images reveal the artifice, the conventions, and the process of the genre.

Back at home, I pressed on with the Art/Sound lecture while processing sound files in the background, stopping occasionally to ponder the final resolution to Pedalboard III.

I’ve now conceived four sound works that, together, will form a suite based on Psalms that refer to stringed musical instruments:

Psalm 33: ‘New Song’ (Loud Noise’)
Psalm 92: ‘New Song’ (Solemn Sound)
Psalm 49: ‘New Song’ (‘Dark Speech’)
Psalm 150: ‘New Song’ (‘High Sounding’)

The titles are quotes from the Psalms, and also provide indicators regarding either the mood or tenor or dynamics of the compositions’ execution. The technical apparatus for realizing the works will be the new Pedalboard III, while the compositional process will involve the method of introducing sustained notes incrementally, explored in TestDrones 1-4 (August 30, 2014).

Over my lunch hour, I returned to the studio. ‘On the bench today’ (to quote Roland Lumby, amp repairer extraordinaire) we have Pedalboard III, awaiting a final test and strapping and trussing — now with an external loop switch attached to accommodate external effectors in the Synth Engines’ own loop paths, should they be needed:


After lunch, I continued with the lecture. I would love to give the fine art undergraduates a graphic score by John Cage or Toshi Ichiyanagi and ask them to make something from it. What would they do? And, more interestingly, perhaps … How would the art history undergraduates respond? Would they write about it, or begin to draw, or take up a musical instrument? And could they do so as art historians, as opposed to art historians who are also fine artists? In other words, can art-historical practice assume forms other than the strictly textual?

5.00 pm. Matt. 20.15 had been fully processed, mixed down, and launched. Only 11 more tracks to complete. After dinner, I absconded from guitar practice in order to finalise the test on Pedalboard III and complete the Art/Sound lecture within 500 words of its finale. (I prefer to sleep on a conclusion before committing myself to it.) Thereafter, I trussed and bound the board as tight as a Christmas turkey:



My current book at bedtime is Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We lose and Find Ourselves (2013).

September 2, 2014

8.30 am. I watched a video recording, made at Elstree Studios this year, of a triple-drum solo by the latest incarnation of King Crimson. Robert Fripp (the leader and only member of the group who has played in every line up since its inception in 1969) has placed the drummers in the front-line. In so doing he has reversed the usual order, in which the principal instrumentalists are situated at the front of the ensemble and the percussion section (as they are in a western orchestra, and have been in the tradition of jazz and rock n’ roll bands) at the back. Now, the drummers are positioned in the manner of percussionists in a gamelan orchestra, and are perceived to be co-equals with, rather than an accompaniment to, the guitarists and saxophonist. And, its good to see grown men of my age and older still having a bash.

The new Pedalboard III is looking good. But one shouldn’t be beguiled by appearances. A pedalboard is only as good as it sounds. All other considerations — ergonomics, weight, the quality and cost of components, their order, and the visual aesthetic — are secondary. I ‘look’ at it, first, with my ears, then with my feet, and finally with my eyes:


A piece of advice to an earnest, sparky, and up-and-coming young scholar of my acquaintance:

A lesson that I’ve learned: never compare yourself with anyone. Our particular blend of gifting and limitation — never the one without the other —  is the making of us (email, 02 08 14).

I began processing sound files for Matt. 20.15 in the background. At last, an end to the project is in sight:


Over lunchtime, I made a number of minor adjustments to Pedalboard 3. I decided to introduce, temporarily, a bit-crusher into the effects loop of the Synth Engines. But its texture was out-of-keeping with the sonorities of the other effectors. The Art/Sound  lecture preoccupied me throughout the afternoon session.

4.30 pm. I saw Magritte through the skylight:


Following practise session 1, I suspended my principle of working for no more than two sessions of a day on the same project, and returned to the Art/Sound lecture, with the Pedalboard III trials in tandem, during the evening. (Sound files continued to be stretched in the background.) Using a combination of Audacity and Sunflower, I’m now able to capture any sound that passes through my computer.  This is a significant time saver.

9.40 pm. Practise session 2.

September 1, 2014


Having dismantled Pedalboard III on Sunday, today I began to ‘remantle’ only those pedals that are crucial to the production of a modulated glissando and an extended delay effect. Economy = efficiency = efficacy. During the first hour of the working week (which often sets the tone for the remainder), emails were dispatched, plans considered, and further sound files for the Matt. 20.14 track processed in the background:


Thereafter, I began the next Art/Sound lecture. How does one sum up art and music in the USA during the 1960s and 70s in less than 300 words? Inadequately, at best. Late morning, I went to the School to tutor a student who’s completing their MA Fine Art degree. In negotiating the end of a scheme of study, a student is presented with a very different set of challenges to those encountered at the beginning. They must, now, act with the understanding that while the conclusion is always provisional it must, nevertheless, be sufficiently decisive to realise the intent that they’d declared at the outset of the final module. Ideally, this finale should be the apogee of their achievement too. However, it’s not always possible ‘to go out on a high’. Some students peak too soon. And none of us has any control over when we peak. After all, this is art and not a conjugal climax:


The feathers of my colleagues were ruffled by an email from the ‘Management’ requesting that tweets relevant to either the department or the institute should be forwarded to the latter, bi-lingually (!). This means that a good-for-nothing monoglot such as me would need to forward tweets to the translation unit (which is already straining under a heavy workload) before publication. (I suspect that they’d be able to rush the job through in about three months.) So, bang goes spontaneity. In this scenario, a tweet would consist of no more than 70 characters of English and 70 characters of Welsh … which rather frustrates the construction of communicable sense.

After practise session 1, I continued to tease, plug, and reorder the latest incarnation of Pedalboard III in readiness for tomorrow’s trials:


The Art/Sound lecture and sound processing demanded my attention in the evening session. Practice session 2, then a ‘night watch’ dedicated to mixing down the Matt. 20.14 track and marking undergraduate resit submissions:


To bed.