Month: December 2016

December 9, 2016

7.00 am: To London. The comforting smell of the early morning’s new bread was drawn out of the bakeries by the cool air and onto the streets of the town. On departure, the train carriage was punctuated by only a few still sleepy travellers. I had an Advent talk, and a list of next week’s ‘to dos’, to prepare:

At Newtown, a bevy of shoppers bound for Shrewsbury boarded. Track problems around Wolverhampton delayed my arrival at Birmingham New Street by ten minutes. Mercifully, the London Euston train was on the next platform. I had a reservation at a table around which three middle-aged men talked about pubs, booze, football, tribute bands, and their children’s drunken escapades and wedding plans.

I arrived five minutes before schedule and took-in a Christmas lunch sandwich at Pret A Manger. A treat. A young man at my table on the concourse remonstrated with a credit card provider on his mobile phone. So much of life is lived so publicly these days. The recorded voice at Euston station, when announcing a departure, clearly says ’’tis ready to leave’. She has done for many years. Very Shakespearean. 12.50 pm: I took the tube train to Green Park, where I’d meet my elder son (who’s now a Londoner):

Once my we’d found one another, he and I headed off for Tate Britain to see the Paul Nash exhibition. I wondered why the Tate had decided to hold this now. The flocks of birds in the pre-First World War drawings (many of which could have passed for prints) were curiously prophetic of the squadrons of German fighters and bombers that would loom above Britain in the Second World War. Nash, in my estimation, was always at his best when he had some cause other than art only to prosecute. Which is why the war work was his greatest achievement.

There was a party of very competent school children sitting in front of works and making drawings from them. The exercise enabled them to understand the processes by which Nash had composed, constructed, and delineated objects. You see more in someone else’s work when you remake it for yourself. The natural eye is very lazy. You can look; but to see (genuinely and rich), the eyes must be trained. It’s rather like treating another artist’s work as though it was a musical score, and playing it on your own instrument.

We took time to look around the general collection afterwards, giggling like schoolgirls at its absurdities:

I was drawn to one of Robyn Denny’s hard edged paintings, which I’d first come across in a catalogue of his work, back in 1978. It had a significant impact on the first canvases that I produced, when undertaking my Foundation Studies.

Like pilgrims, we paid our dues at Denmark Street – one of the centres of my cultural cosmological multiverse. I tantalised myself with a 1958 Gibson ES335 guitar (coming in at £35k) and a Gibson Les Paul Recording guitar (a snip at £1,400). Oh hum! On, then, via a Chinese supermarket in Chinatown, to a Singaporean restaurant at Swiss Cottage. Excellent and authentic food, served astonishingly quickly. Stuffed!:

Our journey’s final leg was to my son’s accommodation, further up the Jubilee Line. A rich day in so many directions at once.

December 8, 2016

8.15 am: Off to School to crank up the amps in readiness for the 9.00 am Art/Sound turn on. 9.00 am: After a brief introduction, I turned on my banks of oscillators, noisy devices, and muscular amplifiers and let-rip with Marcel Duchamp’s Sculpture Musicale (1913). Sound filled the space like a gas; it changed one’s apprehension of the architecture: you could now hear it, even before you saw it. The students were quick and eager to engage with the knobs and switches on the sound devices. Hideous, but otherwise glorious, screeches and groans filled the staircase. We’d summoned up the ‘ghost’ of the art school … and it was noisome and unsettling:

9.30 am: Having moved to the Project Room, we recreated LaMont Young’s Poem for Chairs (1960). Metal, plastic and metal, and wooden chairs and stools were pushed gleefully around the room, like dodgem cars. It took time for the students to yield themselves to the fun of doing — an important principle in the Fluxus manifesto:

In the second period of today’s Art/Sound ‘doubler’, we looked at relationship between contemporary music and the visual arts since the 1960s. (One of the group served us well with some mean guitar chords and howling feedback.) The universification of art schools has improved the teaching of Fine Art considerably. (Although, I’m by no means dissatisfied by the formless, curriculumless education that I received at the hands of lecturers who had formidable artistic integrity.) However, something has been lost with the respect to the art students’ learning experience, these days. They’re tempted to become too dependent. I remember having to be self-reliant and able to set and solve my own problems. I was also healthily indifferent to marks and under pressure to push beyond boundaries, by default.

11.10 am: Becky Backshall (one of our alumni) assisted on the studio floor as part of her teaching development practice. After lunch, I took on the third year painters until 4.45 pm, when I climbed the hill to the Physical Sciences building. I found the main entrance via a rather unnerving back passage. Very film noire:

There, I was effectively a call-centre assistant on a chat line, answering questions from potential applicants to our degree schemes, as part of the university’s Virtual Open Day. The Canadians were keen to engage. Pizza in abundance was provided. It was fun for the first hour. But not thereafter. Dreary. This is no way to earn a living. Most of the questions could be answered with reference to the School’s webpage. But maybe they want it straight out of the horse’s mouth. It was good to work alongside staff that I’d never before met. A good team spirit and a clear sense of a common enterprise was evident:

8.00 pm: Homeward, and an evening of preparations for tomorrow.

December 7, 2016

8.30 am: Off to the Old College’s West Classroom. The sky was dark and sullen — wearying; clouds traversed the sky, swiftly. It was as though the morning had got up late. I’d arrived at the promenade with ten minutes to spare, and time to walk around the perimeter of the building. Around the corner, at the Cambrian:


The Old College discloses her elegances very slowly. After all these years of walking the building’s corridors, I can still be startled:


9.00 am: The first of the morning’s four MA Fine Art tutorials at the West Classroom. Now this is just showing off:


The group, both here and back at the mothership, are moving forward. It takes time for each student to acclimatise and establish a degree of traction. Some are discovering answers, others are better defining the question to which answers will come later, and still others casting off answers in order to formulate new questions. And so this process will go on, long after they’ve completed the MA.

11.00 am: I hurtled back to the School in time for a rapidly-downed cup of tea before climbing the staircase to my Wednesday morning tutorials with the second-year painters. I’m struck by how, in some ways, teaching undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students requires more or less the same attitude of mind and approach on my part. Hardly surprising. At each level, it’s merely two human beings puzzling over possibilities and asking one another for directions.

2.00 pm: After lunch, we held a Staff Management Committee meeting. 3.30 pm: I Skyped a prospective PhD Fine Art applicant in Canada. Towards the close of the afternoon, I schlepped amplifiers and sound producing devices up and down stairs, fitting them together, in preparation for tomorrow morning’s ‘festival of sound’. 5.20 pm: Homeward:


7.00 pm: Back at the School, to power up and program each of the sound devices in readiness for activation after 9.00 am:


8.00 pm: There was much to catch-up on.

December 6, 2016

8.30 am. A milder, still air. The uncertain outcome that will ensue an uncertain Brexit (Does this word really need to be capitalised?) casts a shadow over my conversations with European students regarding their possible future at the School. We value their presence among us; they enrich the culture and community of our family considerably. 9.00 am: A consultation with one such student was followed by a period of admin. 10.00 am: On with the first of the morning’s MA Fine Art tutorials. Sometimes tutorials are a context for discussing things other than the artwork at hand. Our thoughts touch upon values, psychologies, attitudes, aspirations, and expectations that reach towards the very boundaries of our lives.

11.10 am: Vocational Practice, where we examined the principles and pitfalls of assessment. This group has conspicuous common sense. 1.15 pm: Over lunch, and until mid afternoon, I continued with the MA Fine Art tutorials. We are all pushing forward against the gravity of accumulated tiredness, life’s complexities, and various impediments. The effort in palpable, on both sides of classroom. 2.00 pm: The final MA Fine Art tutorial of the day.

3.00 pm: After a half hour’s postgraduate admin, I held a PhD Fine Art tutorial with one of our ‘distance’ students. (They’d set off from home for their tutorial at 4.00 am in the morning. Now that’s commitment!) There’re times in a tutorial when ideas rise above both the tutee and the tutor and blossom like an exploding firework. This was one. 4.45 pm: A final Art/Sound advisory session.

6.45 pm: Practise session 1. 7.30 pm: Further administrations, of the bitty kind. Some progress is being made on gaining access to Port Talbot Steel Works, in order to photograph and record the plant in operation. There’s, too, some hope now that the steel works may remain open. This is good news for both the plant and the locality. Perhaps my sound composition will have a happy ending after all.

I began gathering together equipment (oscillators, sound devices, cables, and adapters) in readiness for the Art/Sound module’s biennial hour of outrageous noise on Thursday at 9.00 am.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s encounters:

  • Who you are and what you do are related, but not the same. On occasions we need to stop doing in order to concentrate on being.
  • A great deal of the art of the past is extant; in this sense at least, it’s still contemporary.
  • Great ideas don’t date.
  • Before all else, be yourself.
  • When making art, forget art.

December 5, 2016

8.30 am: Off to School at the beginning of what promises to be a gruelling, week-long slog. I reviewed  a draft submission of work and conducted an emergency Personal Tutorial before bombing off to the Old College for to hold a pair of PhD Fine Art tutorials. On arrival, Tom Ellis MP was placing a star on top of the Christmas tree. What good timing:


12.10 pm: Back through the streets and avenues of Aberystwyth to the mothership, to take a working lunch and ready myself for the additional Art/Sound lecture at 1.10 pm. I played them, as part of the sound content, Steve Reich’s Come Out (1966). I first heard this in an art history lecture in 1978, at Newport College of Art. The guest lecturer played a recording of the composition on a mono record player. I was utterly captivated; this would (eventually) change the course of my artistic direction significantly. Perhaps, then, I was the only person in that lecture theatre to connect with Reich’s piece. Perhaps, today, there was another.

2.10 pm: I began an afternoon Art/Sound HelpDesk for anyone who needed concluding advice on their presentation submission. In between appointments, I dealt a deathblow to dull and irksome admin responses:


5.00 pm: A brief tour of the studio, to mop-up a few outstanding tutorials and lay the ground for meetings on Thursday. It’s all go. I can’t remember the last time a day dragged.

6.30 pm: Practise session 1. 7.30 pm: I undertook small-time admin (I think of this like delousing), booked some special tickets for a special concert with my elder son, for next year, and then returned to my conspectus.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • Often, we don’t proceed with our work on the basis of knowing what we’re doing. On the contrary, we proceed in order to know.
  • When we discover the answer we’ll, simultaneously, determine the question that we were asking all along.
  • Don’t move on with our work too soon. Consider, rather, moving outwards and inwards with it. In short, aim to discover the wider contexts and the deeper implications of what you are doing.
  • Don’t force the work; let it work find its own way out of you.
  • Sometimes you have to proceed on the basis of only the vaguest sense of something. Trust that instinct.

December 3, 2016

8.45 am: I’m already behind on my schedule for the day. These days, Saturdays are just another working day. ‘More tea, please!’:


On with the SteelWork conspectus. I’m aware that the type of sound work I produce is classified as ‘academic art music’, in that it’s both produced within the academic context of a university and is driven by a research agenda. The work is also an ‘intellectual art’, so called. The term has nothing to do with its level of cleverness or challenge (if such there is). Rather, it implies that ideation (as opposed to feeling or instinct) is the machine that mobilises the compositions. The term also suggests (in my case) that the work must be subjected to a disciplined and rational evaluation in the process of its construction and upon completion. I need, in other words, to understand what I’m doing … what I’ve done … and the relationship of both to who I am.

For me, there’s nothing arid or constricting about this approach to making things. On the contrary, my commitment to principle, awareness, and focus has been entirely necessary, enabling, and, indeed, exalting. I’m of the same mind as the composer Igor Stravinsky in this respect: ‘The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self’. Elsewhere he elaborated upon this conviction:

Art … demands of the artist before all else full consciousness. His primary concern, Stravinsky insisted, was to establish order and discipline on the purely sonorous level to which I have always given preference over emotional elements … All order demands restraint, but it would be wrong to regard that as an impediment to liberty. On the contrary the ‘style’ and restraint actually contribute to its development, and only prevent liberty from degenerating into licence … An artist’s individuality stands out more clearly and in greater relief when he has to create within definite limits of a convention. 

I’ve taught too many students who’ve wanted to ‘express themselves and develop their own style’ without any understanding of what those ambitions will require of them. All creative people need a measure of native talent, instinct, and intuition, but none of these attributes will get you very far for very long if you don’t subject them to training, crafting, extending, deepening, and directing. Untrammelled expression (if there’s such a thing) and a distinctive and repeated way of doing things (which is the essence of style) will take a great deal of time, effort, and self sacrifice to realise.

Discipline, order, and awareness. If these principles are appropriate for the production of art, then they should undergird the way that I live my life too.

10.30 am: Further sustenance:


11.30 am: A short trip into town to do those things one does in the lead up to Christmas.

1.20 pm: More, further sustenance, to brace myself for a radical relocation of the studio’s main sound rack. (This is the equivalent of the Tardis’s console.):


Knee time, as I crouch under table tops pulling cables from one end of the room to the other with the deftness and determination of a ship’s rigger. (‘This move better not be a mistake’, I hear myself saying … inwardly.)


3.15 pm: Done! An auxiliary power board was then set up on the right hand side of the table, to deal with analogue equipment. 5.15 pm: After a little tweaking of my developing conspectus, I enjoyed the simple pleasure of plugging a guitar directly into a tube amp and playing introspectively. 5.15 pm: Power down! 6.30 pm: Practise session 1. 7.30 pm: An evening with my wife.

December 2, 2016

8.00 am: I press on. My website was still running a little behind my activities. The lapse was remedied by adding the latest open-studio sound event to the ‘Sound’ page on this site. The process took far longer than it would appear. But needs must:


10.00 am: My pluggy and cabley purchases have arrived in the post. All quite dull, but necessary (like so much of life). 10.20 am: On with my preparations for SteelWork. The next step required a conspectus to be written. The document will force me to be very clear about what I think I’m going to do, and articulate that vision in simple and comprehensible terms for my collaborators, sponsors, and industrial partners. The trouble is … my sonic projects have a way of sounding utterly bonkers on paper. By noon, I was in my stride. In the background, John Tavener’s Fall and Resurrection (2000) played. The bell-peel at the close of the final section never fails to stop me doing whatever I’m engaged with. Casual audition feels almost irreverent.

Over lunch I reviewed several independent, experimental music/sound labels. The internet has enabled otherwise obscure, difficult, and recondite music and sound works to, at the very least, be available to interested and committed listeners. I need to get myself about in this arena. Solo releases (like one-person shows) aren’t sufficient. Representation on compilations (like in group shows), where the work can be heard/seen alongside that of one’s peers, is essential too:


3.30 pm: I took time out, mid afternoon, to look into the technique of no-input mixing. I’ve not investigated this before. And, its of limited interest to me. In essence, it involves feeding the output of a mixer into its own input and, thereby, turning the device into a rudimentary synthesizer. 3.45 pm: ‘Back to it, John! Prevarication is just another mode of slacking’. 5.15 pm: Enough of one thing for one day.

After dinner (and in lieu of practise session 1) I watched half of David Grohl’s ‘rockumentary’ Sound City (2013). It charts the rise and decline of a shabby but respected and much-loved sound recording studio in Los Angeles. Digital killed the studio sound (to parody the dreadful Buggles’ song) is his thesis. Grohl makes a clear and persuasive argument for the abiding virtue of analogue recording … in some contexts. Digital technology is in its element when recording digital sound — like electronica (IMO). In this set up, there’ s a seamlessness (and crystalline continuity) between the means of sound production and the means of sound recording.

Back in my sound studio (which is equipped for both analogue and digital recording), I tried to make sense of where my digital guitar amp should be placed within the room. In the end it all comes down to the lengths of copper insulated cables. Gloriously analogue and physical:


After this, I tried, for the first time, to plug the guitar (via a drive pedal) directly into the ‘return’ socket of the amp’s loop system. (I’d seen a diagram for this set up in one of my guitar ‘journals’ recently.) It worked … but in mono only. Nevertheless, this was an interesting excursion.

December 1, 2016

8.30 am: Off to School, where Dr Paul Newland (TVFS) presented the day’s Art/Sound lecture on the topic of sound and cinema. 9.10 am: I received a visit from one of our former MA Fine Art students, who’s receiving more job offers than she can cope with (than I can cope with … what with all the references that I’ve had to write for them during this past fortnight.) We produce very capable MA students; they not only have dexterity of practice but also well-honed communication skills, an experience of HE teaching (as both receiver and supervised deliverer), and a knowledge of the theory and history of their discipline. (This set of competences is very rare in today’s art schools.) So, their success comes as no surprise.

10.00 am: A period of undergraduate admin while planning the remainder of the term. 11.10 am: Then, back onto the studio floor for a day of undergraduate painting tutorials. Lauren’s Veil of Veronica (of sorts); eventually, she’ll paint this:


We experimented with the above photograph, shrinking its size in order to observe how the brightest tones were more easily differentiated the smaller the image became. Fascinating!

2.00 am: The new plague has taken out several students today. What a term this has been in that respect. And at this point in the term, I’m running on empty. There’ve been some encouraging developments, especially among the second year students. Their attainment bodes well for their third year of studies.


Towards the close of the afternoon, Frida and I photographed one of her flower studies in colour and black and white. This was in order to both better gauge the tonal content of the painting’s colours, and to determine the feasibility of a monochrome floral painting:


5.15 pm: Close of teaching. Eventide, and home:


6.15 pm: Practise session 1. 7.15 pm: On with more research monitoring naval gazing and rationalisation. The appetite of bureaucracy is never sated. ‘Look forward to the ‘morrow, John!’ A little Elaine Radique to ease my passage until then.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • Technique should not be your foremost concern. Ask yourself: ‘What do I want to do?’ Then determine how you’re going to do it. At that point, only, should you consider technique.
  • The student’s level of conversation during a tutorial is a reasonable indicator of their commitment to, and grasp of, the subject.
  • Sometimes the demands of the subject are so lofty that it has to drag us up to it’s height, screaming.
  • Whatever made you think art was easy?
  • If a topic goes over your head, stand on tiptoe or, better, get yourself a ladder.
  • As a teacher, one is destined to fail some of the students some of the time.
  • When you work harder, your work gets better. It’s no more complicated than that.
  • Criticism can be either appropriate and salutary or misguided and discouraging — either salt or vinegar.
  • Therefore, judge whether the critic is competent to criticise. And ask: What does their criticism tell me about them?
  • Beware of self justification when making an initial response to criticism. It’s merely a knee-jerk reaction before a more measured, considered, and humble reflection evolves.
  • ‘Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you!’ (Lk. 6.26).

November 30, 2016

8.30 am: Having deposited a parcel at Spar, I headed for Old College following my, now, well-trod path down Terrace Road and onto the seafront. It must have been -5°c this morning. The sea was demurely spectacular; beauty in restraint:


I’d a pack (or whatever is the collective noun for MA fine art students) of painters to unsettle and disrupt:


11.00 am: I pelted back to the mothership to conduct second year fine art tutorials. Dr Forster was holding forth at the weekly painting workshop. Today, Mr Garrett introduced the second year students to the craft of canvas stretching.

After lunch, I caught up with my incoming emails. My room was so hot that I needed to open the window wide to regulate the temperature. Madness! The radiator has been painted over so many times that it’s no longer possible to turn the regulator valve. Bonkers!

3.00 am: While waiting for a Skype call that never came, I caught up with postgraduate admin. ‘Catching-up’ is one of the dominant motifs of my life, presently. I feel as though I’m constantly racing to get on a train that’s already leaving the platform:


4.00 pm: My last appointment for the day was a PhD Fine Art tutorial. In the studio across from the Samuel Graham Laboratory (one of our postgraduate wings), a fiery pillar — recalling that which led the Israelites through the wilderness — presenced itself:


6.30 pm: Practise session 1. 7.30 pm: The routine round of updating websites, a parcelling of effects devices for repair, and a finalisation and dispatch of the British Landscape track. My neo-cold lingers; the sinusitis has reasserted itself; and my limbs ache.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • The essence of teaching is that of setting traps for students to fall into. It’s how they extricate themselves, by themselves, from the hole, that’s the making of them.
  • Discipline your emotion as you would a wild horse, but without breaking it.
  • Art is a waking dream over which we can have complete control.
  • Student: ‘Futility is so tiring’. Indeed.
  • Avoid over-rehearsing an artwork (through an abundance of preparatory studies, etc.). Hold back some of your energy and problem solving for the performance itself.