Month: June 2015

June 30, 2015

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

(Isaac Watts (1674-1748))

Today is the 28th anniversary of my mother’s death. She’s buried along with her mother and father in Blaina Cemetery:

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Her funeral took place on a sunny day too. On the surrounding gravestones, I read family names that were familiar in my youth: Coburn, Gore, Legge, Jelley, and Dimmick. They were tradespeople and friends of my grandparents and uncles:

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I suspect that my mortal remains may be put to rest here one day. No other place beckons, either emotionally or logically. In any case, it would be appropriate to be buried beneath the shadow of the mountain under which I’d lived for so long. This is ancestral ground. I sense that my periodic visits here are as much a preparation for death as they are a commemoration of the dead.

The place has a haunting ambience, one that’s created as much by sonority and as by the appearance of place. The Arael serves as a sounding board which reflects sounds back upon the cemetery. The almost constant muffled engine thrust of airplanes passing high above (the valley is directly beneath the flight path between the UK and the USA and Canada), the muted-drone of transport in the middle distance, and the brittle-breeze passing through the trees, combine consolingly.

11.30 pm. I took a short bus ride to Blaina’s town centre, which consists of one street only, at the top of which my grandparents lived. Blaina was my second home, as young boy. The town has two buildings that struck me then, and still, as remarkable: the Post Office and Salem Baptist Chapel. They’re situated directly opposite one another. The former is reminiscent of a Roman-villa style:

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The latter, one of the finest examples of classical-style chapel in Wales:

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At the top of the street, I discovered the remains of a monumental mason’s shop. It appears to have been abandoned, with headstones and plinths — either in preparation or under repair — strewn about the yard, and unclaimed:

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I’m also photographing those parts of the town that have travelled through time with me. Like, for example, the wall at the top of the High Street’s rise, along which I’d run my hand as I ran towards my grandfather’s arms on the days that I visited:

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It’s difficult to find enough to see and do for more than an hour in Blaina. 1.30 pm. I returned to Marenghi’s Café, Abertillery, for a late lunch. Today, I savoured the delights of their bacon and egg toastie. This is certainly one that I’ll add to be own culinary repertoire:

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2.30 pm. I took a bus to Crumlin (once spanned by the great viaduct ) and from there to Croespenmaen to visit two of the few members of my family that I’ve left in South Wales. In this part of the world, older female relatives greet you with a kiss … on the lips. Outsiders find this ritual a little shocking. But it’s a very sincere, and an intimate expression of committed familial affection. Her husband collects flowering cacti and small-gauge model railway stock, about which he can talk with considerable knowledge and enthusiasm for a very long time:

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On this occasion we were joined by their two grandchildren, who they were babysitting with the patience and energy of parents. The children were sparky, socially-able, respectful, and intelligent. The little girl took a shine to me. Well …

Back at Newport, I treated myself to a late dinner: one of the best and hottest lamb curries that I’ve ever had. It’s true, eating hot food makes you sweat, and sweating makes you cooler. An early night.

Observations for today from ‘The Black Notebook’ (March 15, 2015- ), 26-7:

I’ve seen a generation pass / one day, with time, this valley, too, will disappear, and the world perish like a burning coal / in the old Blaina cemetery, during the early 1970s, one of the headstones began to glow / two women sit on a steps of a family vault, smoking / ‘change and decay in all around I see’ / this is why the concepts of eternity and immutability are so important / these thing are, in part, what the Arael signifies



June 29, 2015

8.45 am. One needs to look above the shop level to perceive those features of the town that look the same now as they did when I was younger. I walked over the Town Bridge to Clarence Place — the site of my first art school:

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Behind the school there was, at the time, a café where you could buy the egg and chips and mug of strong tea for a song. Both staff and students patronised the establishment; it was a great social leveller. Ernie Zobole, John Selway, Jack Crabtree, and Ron Carlson (the painting and South Walian tutors) frequented the place, but Keith Arnatt, Keith Richardson-Jones, and Roy Ascott (the conceptualists, constructivists, and cyberneticists, and English tutors) did not, in my experience. Today, the café is hollow:

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At the end of Church Road, are the external remains of an art deco cinema. ‘In my day’, it was one of Newport’s many privately owned cinemas (all of which were either converted or pulled down in the 1980s):

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9.47 am.  I took the X15 bus to Abertillery. After a dreary and circuitous journey around roundabouts and by-passes, I eyed the familiar elbow formations of mountain tops that have, over time, stamped themselves onto my visual psyche. On arrival, I alighted from the bus, like a Terminator rising from its time-displacement sphere, scrutinising the people and the townscape before making my first ‘kill’. 11.00 am. A cup of tea at Marenghi’s Café in the Arcade. The à la carte menu includes:

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‘Why can’t I have a Chip Roll and Gravy and Curry and Beans and Cheese in a Cone?’ And, ‘Why do you capitalise Food names?’ In Abertillery, such banter is understood as coming from a good place. (It would meet with an entirely different reaction in Aberystwyth.) I listen to conversations, to an accent that isn’t my own (nor was it ever, for some reason), and to homely phrases such as: ‘Where you to, innit?’, ‘Orite?’, and ‘Come byuh’. In Abertillery, I’m every woman’s ‘love’ … even the police women’s.

Each time I return home, the same track is followed … as one would on a pilgrimage. In many respects this is a sacred journey, undertaken in order to reaffirm its spiritual significance and my inner resolve. The first station: my home for the first eighteen years of this life:

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While living there, I discovered everything that has remained important for me. Afterwards I climbed the precipitous Portland Street, like I’d done twice every Sunday to attend Blaenau Gwent Baptist Church:

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The old buildings were demolished after I left for art school.

On the left side of the valley is the Arael Mountain — a tall curtain of green pine, oak, and beech trees:

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It exerts an almost supernatural presence, watching over the town — its inhabitants’ entrances and departures from this world — with silent indifference. Unlike the rest of the area, its rate of change is imperceivably slow, such that it appears to exist outside of time. My journey took me to the boundary of Cwmtillery, down roads that I’d often walk alone in the late evening, half-praying, half-remonstrating with myself, pondering my life ahead, turning over questions, and forging my values. (None of us should know what the future will demand of us. ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’.) Today, every object that my eyes alight upon summons a particular and intense memory. At times, the experience is overwhelming.

1.00 pm. Back at the centre, and time for lunch at the most upmarket eatery in town: Wetherspoons, which occupies the old Pontlottyn store (rebuilt in 1897):

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1.30 pm. On, then, towards the park, down Carlyle Street and Glandwr Street, and passed a still-operational garage where my father worked as a bus engineer after he was demobbed:

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The Park, with the exception of primary and grammar school-sports days (dreadful memories), is not a place that I associate with games. Again, it was, in my teens, an arena for thoughtful perambulation, whenever circumstances threw-in a hand grenade from behind the door of my life:

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3.00 pm. Then … a moment of illumination; a small epiphany that did ‘flame out, like shining from shook foil’, reminding me that I’m still in good hands:

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As I left the park, someone with a camera (far more impressive than mine) was walking towards me. We acknowledged one another … knowingly. It’s rare to see people taking photographs using a proper camera, rather than with their smartphones or iPads. When I’m photographing in Abertillery, people come out of their houses and ask me what I’m doing. I’d be less conspicuous walking around with a sawn-off shotgun.

4.30 pm. The journey back to Newport. Observations for the day from ‘The Black Notebook’ (March 10, 2015-), 20-23:

Buses used to arrive into Newport down Stow Hill and Charles Street / many of the bus route numbers are still the same / I experience the valleys with one foot always in the past / vision and memory coalesce / if I brought someone to Abertillery, they’d see little of what I can ‘see’ / I observe many young and middle-aged men with a limp and a stick (?) / young men pushing buggies / the weight of memory / I still don’t understand the Arael’s full significance / if you concentrate on the dereliction … that’s all you see / there are so few people about, outside the town centre / I don’t recognise them, nor they me  / if I’d not left the town, what would I be doing or like today? / gratitude for the opportunity to leave, education, marriage, family, and career / here, it’s not only the Arael that limits the inhabitants’ horizons



June 28, 2015

10.00 am. The start of a four-day retreat to Abertillery  — the well-spring of my family, culture, history, and beliefs. The 10.00 am train to Shrewsbury was cancelled. (Woe betide anyone who journeys on a Sunday.) I waited out the delay at the town’s Starbucks; (my first patronage). But what the heck! Today, I’ve neither an agenda nor deadlines. My only imperative is to settle in the moment, live deliberately, and listen to the internal ruminations of the spirit. Abertillery, my hometown and centre of the known universe, has been the place to which I’ve always returned and found, if not answers, then more appropriate questions.

En route, I played, on an old 5th generation iPod, music that I associate with my undergraduate days at Newport, Gwent (my journey’s end, today, and accommodation), as well as more recent enthusiasms (Scott walker and Henry Purcell), and reflected upon the discontinuous thoughts and recollections that the music invoked:

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Observations for the day from ‘The Black Notebook’ (March 10, 2015-), 18:

I shall not die / prophecy: my guitar work will feature later in the compositional output, so I must continue to prepare / be responsible to myself / composition is the redirection of what already exists / music is the soul’s breath / a copy of the ER CD for CW / buy the boys a selection of those albums that had meaning for me when I was growing into music / Strength in guitar playing is the ability to ally beauty and danger / if life consisted only of music, it would still be thoroughly worthwhile / what is the significance of ecstasy?

The trains stops at Abergavenny, under whose skies my mother died at Neville Hall Hospital:

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I arrived at Newport station at 3.20 pm. Having unpacked at the hotel in a most orderly and economic fashion (the Travel Lodge provides only one small shelf for all one’s belongings), I walked onto the thoroughfare (such as it is). The police presence is much in evidence; this is, now, an edgy city. I’ve felt safer in New York. Inebriation and beggary are on every street; whole rows of shops are either boarded up, hollowed out, or secured fortress-like. (So much for city status.):

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The older the landmark, the more likely it is to have survived. For example, opposite where the Wimpy restaurant was situated at Austin Friars in the 1970s (and where hamburgers and chips were served by a waitress, and the ketchup was dispensed from a squishy, plastic tomato-shaped bottle) the subterranean lavatories remain intact. I found that oddly consoling:

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One day, there’ll be insufficient material continuity with my past in relation to this place to enable me to make an imaginative reconstruction.

5.30 pm. Wetherspoonery:

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6.30 pm. I caught up with news and events. On this day in 1960, 45 miners lost their lives in the disaster at the Six Bells Colliery, Abertillery:

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With acknowledgement to the BBC Wales History website

The underground explosion was believed to have been caused by the ignition of firedamp (a flammable gas). When, in 2000, I was preparing the exhibition Miner Artists: The Art of Welsh Coalworkers, I interviewed John ‘Chopper’ Davies, who’d worked at the colliery. He shared an experience he’d had of drawing the colliery, from his imagination, on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy

at precisely the time the explosion took place. He recounts that, first, his arm went dead; then he lost control of his drawing hand to someone or something else. Once the limb had returned , he realised that there was now at the centre of the drawing a figure of a miner he had no recollection of having drawn … The ghost in the picture, Davies suggests, represents the spirits of the dead miners. 



June 27, 2015

8.30 pm. A night of fractious thoughts and intermittent sleep. In the periods of more productive wakefulness, I reconciled my focal ambitions and commitments in sound art with my shopping list of forthcoming equipment purchases. (When money is tight, spending priorities need to be clearly defined.)  In principle, buy items that:

  • are of the best quality I can afford;
  • I don’t have in any shape or form;
  • are needed in the immediate future;
  • will facilitate either the composition or recording or performance or promotion of my endeavours.

Another idea, this time related to the current sound composition, emerged during the night season. 9.00 am. I acted upon it, inserting a drone derived from an abandoned track. The addition changed the character of the whole considerably. Which is what it required. A creative output that almost works (as in this instance), may as well not work at all. So, there’s nothing lost by undoing it. The insertion provides what, I now perceive, was lacking in the composition yesterday: an energy and sense of urgency.

2.00 pm. An afternoon of outstanding tasks, beginning with a minor paint job:

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Then, a dismantling of Pedalboard III in readiness for a new build:

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6.00 pm. I attended the opening of Knowing Place at the Gas Gallery, Aberystwyth. This is getting to be quite the place for artists to be seen:

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I doubt there was a room in Aberystwyth this evening so full of imagination and committed people.

6.45 pm. Closure.



June 26, 2015

7.50 am. A number of emergency admin tasks were undertaken. 9.00 am. Variously, back to yesterday’s sound work and to further ruminations on the new theme for the conference. When confronted with a compositional impasse (as indeed I am), the following 10-point strategy is deployed:

  1. Sleep on it; (only so much can be achieved in one session).
  2. Remove one element; (either temporarily or permanently).
  3. Remove another; (either temporarily or permanently).
  4. Make one element more prominent.
  5. Make the remaining elements do more.
  6. Insert either a new element or one that was excised early-on in the compositional process.
  7. Compress the composition; (keep it as short as necessary).
  8. Interrogate the composition’s rational; (all of one’s decisions are questionable).
  9. Eradicate the predictable; (formulistic approaches can be a manifestation of laziness).
  10. Listen to a very different type of composition by another artist; (attend to the production values, in particular).

11.10 am. I served as a tour guide to our piano tuner, Mr Backhouse. After he’d tweaked our domestic ivories, I escorted him to the two other loci of my life: Holy Trinity Church and the School of Art, to do business with their respective baby-grands:

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More generally and habitually, in the process of sound composition I:

  1. review the original samples to determine whether they’ve been over-processed. Ideally, the original recordings should remain as true to their source as possible, sonically. (This is a lesson which I’ve learned by example from Pierre Schaeffer‘s principles for musique concrète);
  2. work on the beginning and on the end of the composition alternately, in order to ensure that the logic of the one mirrors that of the other;
  3. divide the whole composition into 20 second sections, and develop each of them in turn and in isolation, and, afterwards, as a continuity;
  4. isolate a track and work as though the whole composition depended upon it;
  5. pay attention to the position of each track within the stereo field.

4.00 pm. The composition is taking shape, but lacks something — like unsalted food. Sometimes, there’s simply not enough ‘air’ between the layers of sound:

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4.30 pm. I can no longer hear ‘the wind for the breeze’. I must do something else, and return to the work tomorrow. Reading:

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7.30 pm. Sourcing equipment purchases.



June 25, 2015

8.05 am. As I was preparing breakfast, the theme of the next sound conference arrived in my head. Such things come, like the biblical ‘thief in the night’, at a time you least expect. 8.30 am. I received an email from a PhD student at venerable Scottish university asking whether I’d review a sample of their writing on theology and one of the visual arts. Having written on and practiced the subject, and been an external examiner for, and supervisor of, theses in this interdisciplinary field, I know how hard it is to develop more than competence in that area that lies beyond one’s native training and expertise. I wrote:

What a fascinating project. You’re boldly going where few have gone before. And, no doubt, having undertaken the project, you now understand why. Studying theology in an interdisciplinary context inevitably means that you (and your supervisor) will have one foot on thin ice.

8.50 am. At the School, I posted off the postgraduate monitoring forms. My collection of sci-fi desk toys is now graced by a model Tardis:

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9.30 am. On the walk home (ambulation is a great lubricant for the mind), and following the lead presented by my ‘revelation’ at breakfast, one word pressed itself upon me. I measured its definitional dimensions with my magnum Compact Oxford English Dictionary:

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The word perfectly encapsulates all four parameters of the new theme. A gift! My only uncertainty is whether to use its noun or adjectival form.

10.30 am. I returned to the sound studio to continue mastering the new album’s tracks:

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Afterwards, I picked up a sample that I’d previously rejected for inclusion on the album. I’m giving it one last chance before consigning it to the Studium site. The recording captures the close of a long and evidently exhausting service of Christian demonic deliverance involving children and adults. In the (vaguely post-coital) aftermath, two girls offer a prayer of thanksgiving, one in English and the other in what may be tongues. Their quiet adoration is set against the distant and ubiquitous presence of ‘worship music’, here abstracted to a plaintive motif. I’m attempting to resolve the composition counterintuitively by superimposing, what I would otherwise consider to be, irreconcilable sound sources.

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7.30 pm. Something is opening up. I’m playing a sample of  the two girls’ voices in a loop against an adult male voice reading a litany of different medical ailments. The contrast between relative stasis and movement, repetition and variation, works well. Noises made by the tape recorder on which the original recordings were added to the composition, along with isolated fragments from samples that recall voices embedded in EVPs.



June 24, 2015

I experienced, what was for me, a vivid and reasonably coherent dream last night. It took place in a large, well-lit modernist cafeteria in Berlin. A few people only were eating. I was giving a lecture on post-war art in Germany to a group of students. The crux of my discussion was a comparison between socially-critical paintings by Edward Hopper (who in the context of the dream was a German artist) and photorealist images by one Robert Anson Hans [?], which celebrated his country’s economic rise. The latter’s work looked something like this: a mélange of paintings by Gerhard Richter and Ted Serios’ thoughtographs:

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8.30 am. I returned to The Pictorial Bible III and The Aural Bible II series booklet, which will be included on the forthcoming The Bible in Translation sound CD. The text is more or less in the bag. I now need to insert it into the design framework, and photograph the recent visual work for inclusion also.

9.45 am. A dental check-up. The wait …

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10.30 am. At the School, I caught up with admin and undertook minor tasks. 11.30 pm. A PhD Fine Art tutorial with Eileen Harrisson:

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Eileen’s activities traverse image-making (in stitch), sound-collaging, and writing poetry. We explored concepts such as: procedural and methodological analogues between image and sound superimposition; improving poor quality sound recordings; and ‘performing’ poetry using pre-existing voice samples.

1.00 pm. A sound research collaboration meeting with Dr Roberts at our usual watering hole. Sometimes, a good idea comes at the wrong time. This is the case with respect to the proposed theme for the next sound conference. Consequently, we needed to stand further back from our original plan in order to perceive the broader landscape of possibilities. I’m confident that a more appropriate governing principle will emerge, and in due season. And, moreover, the idea that we’re shelving (or the essence of such) will find its place in the new scheme of things, later on. Our responsibility, in the interim, is to keep talking, think intelligently, consult with others, ‘hear’ our hearts, and await the moment of realisation.

3.15 pm. Homebase. I finalised the postgraduate monitoring admin. (Hoorah!), sent off Monday’s recordings to the vinyl pressing company, and addressed incoming emails. 4.15 pm. On, then, with articulating our lunchtime thoughts and further modifying The Bible in Translation catalogue text.

7.30 pm. A letter to write and tracks for the new CD to remaster. I’m still able to tweak them to betterment, and will continue to do so until they peak. I’m applying every ounce of the hard-won knowledge and experience that I gained while mastering the first CD. Evening ends:

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June 23, 2015

Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am (Ps. 39.4).

8.00 am. A review of, and response to, my inbox. 8.40 am. Off to the School …

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… for a 9.00 am PhD tutorial with Veronica. To begin a PhD in Fine Art one must, first, not so much pose a question as determine a problem. The question will arise out of the problem, later in the research:

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10.30 am. Back at homebase, I reviewed emails and tweaked several sound files before returning to the last lap of postgraduate research monitoring, while reviewing tracks for possible inclusion on The Aural Bible II: The Bible in Translation sound CD.

1.40 pm. Into the sound studio to listen to this morning’s tweaking on close-field monitors. One edges the track towards the tipping point of betterment, whereafter it begins to deteriorate in quality. 3.30 pm. A request from the editor of a book  — to which I’m contributing a chapter — asking for higher resolution versions of several illustrations that I’d submitted. Fair enough! Better quality is always worth striving after. 5.15 pm. Dun’em!

7.30 pm. I acted upon that principal in relation to a composition entitled ‘Amen Amen’. Discontent with the sound clarity, I extracted the centre channel of the recording’s stereo field. With some moderate equalisation of the same, the overlaid elements of the piece were separated more distinctly and enhanced considerably. I have my back against the wall with this one. The source was recorded, at a distance, on a poor micro-cassette device in the early 80s. One cannot restore what was never encoded. The sound quality ‘is what it is’ (as is too often said). A recorder captures not only what it’s hearing but also itself: variously, the sensitivity of its microphone and medium, tonal bias, the quality of the drivers, preamps, and sound card, and the intrinsic noise of the device. 8.30 pm. A final review of yesterday’s recordings before their dispatch to the vinyl manufacturer. In the accumulation of small adjustments one can improve the overall effect considerably. I’ve great difficulty judging the comparative loudness of a female voice and male voice when heard together.

9.10 pm. Finally … onto the turntables:

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June 22, 2015

8.15 am. I wrote emails, related to several undertakings this week, and aimed at keeping collaborators and facilitators in the loop. 8.45 am. After a little postgraduate admin and further shameless self-promotion on Twitter, I headed for the sound studio to test the equipment that I’ll be using this afternoon to record. My other task this morning was to remix the three circuit bending tracks, collectively titled Open (which I’d composed in 2014), and commute them from my Studium site to the ‘John Harvey’ Sound domain:

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I did the same with the TestDrones series, while fielding more postgraduate admin and overdue responses to research correspondence. 12.30 pm. An early lunch.

1.30 pm. A Research Committee, sub-committee meeting to confirm the research postgraduate report forms. Fiddly bits remain. 2.20 pm. Off to the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales to set up my recording equipment in their sound-proof booth:

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Mr Timothy Cutts read the Second Commandment from the King James Version of the Bible, and Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, from the William Morgan version. The recordings took only a short time to complete. The booth holds several technological curiosities from the history of sound recording:

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4.15 pm. Home and dry. Now, I need to ensure that the recordings are up to scratch, and also to equalise and compress the capture in readiness for its transfer to vinyl. One of the two recordings needed to be stretched, temporally, in order to be exactly the same length as the other. Thereafter, both recordings were synchronously looped and their stereo field, widened:

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6.20 pm. Practise session 1. 7.30 pm. The finalisation of three tracks for transfer: synchronous loop, Welsh voice loop, and English voice loop. 8.00 pm. The schematic for the toggle-switches and potentiometers for the Custom RF Stealth Custom arrived from Crimson Guitars this afternoon …

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… and so did the Revox A77 Mk IV:

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There’s much to learn. When I was 17 years old, manipulating a device like this was second nature to me. Now, I look at it quizzically. It’s as much a piece of engineering as it is of electronics. And, all that tape to spin, spew, and tangle. It’ll be Joe 90 all over again.



June 20, 2015

9.45 am. Emails checked, recent equipment sourcing reviewed, and I was back into the sound studio to re-educate myself in the ways of filters. Mercifully, I have a mind that is well-adapted to learning the functions and logic of electronic equipment. It’s also well adapted to forget the same. So I write down a digest of my learning:

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12.00 pm. Korg KP3 mastered, I move on to the Korg Quad. Easy. 2.00 pm. I attached my array of Eventide modulators, first, after and, secondly, before the sampler/looper for a comparative test:

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The effectors aren’t sufficiently controllable as hands-on devices, and their ‘effectiveness’, in terms of a distinct and deep modulation of sound, is disappointing. Moreover, the inclusion of the Eventide modulators over complicates the system in toto, as well as duplicates some of the other effectors’ functions. Only one device is necessary: a one-shot sampler set before the sampler/looper devices.

4.30 pm. A little preparation for the recording of the Welsh and Authorised versions of the Second Commandment at the National Screen and Sound Archive on Monday. 5.15 pm. Close. 7.30 pm. Practise session 2.



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