Month: August 2017

August 30, 2017

8.00 am: Emails and more remote communications were undertaken in advance of a day in the studio. 9.00 am: I extracted from the CDs, which I’d received yesterday, the audio files of the sermons.  These will be processed digitally, and then transferred onto cassettes. While the files were downloading (tortuously slowly), I set up a microphone over one of the turntables in readiness for recording:

The aim is capture the unamplified sound of the stylus as it traces through the grooves. The recording will need to be made in the early hours of the morning, when there’re neither ambient sounds inside the house nor outside the studio and its environs. At the time of writing, I hear:

a wheelie-bin being pushed parallel to the house;
the clank of planks, and the chink of scaffolding being assembled across the road;
the tumble of rubble into a skip nearby;
a jet aeroplane, high above;
a small dog barking next door;
vehicles passing in the middle distance;
the screech of gulls over the rooftops;
the whirr of the CD reader in front of me;
the laptop’s fan;
the click of the keyboard beneath my fingers.

The surface recording will provide the starting point for a composition that responds to the narrative about the blind (and other disabled persons) described in John, Chapter 5:

Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had (John 5.2–4).

I assume that what’s being described here was a local superstition. My mental image of the movement is of a gradually escalating disruption of the water’s surface. This will be the focal point of the sound piece. (Perhaps it should be presented at Bethesda Welsh Independent Chapel, at Llandewi Breffi, Ceredigion, Wales.)

The data transfer from CD to computer was problematic – a conflict of codices, I suspect. My workaround involved uploading the material to iTunes before downloading it from there to the desktop and, finally, into the DAW. Few things in life are straightforward. And other people don’t have it easier either. (That’s a lie we tell ourselves.) By noon, the files were ready for review:

12.15 pm: I needed to hear the first sermon (each is from 50-minutes to over one hour in length) through, in order for me to acclimatise to the dynamics, pace, and musicality of the preacher’s voice.

After lunch, I began the process of transferring the digital source onto cassette. This is an analogue process and, therefore, had to be undertaken in real time. A 50-minute+ source doesn’t fit neatly onto one a side of a 90-minute tape. Ah! The joy of physical mediums:

While this was turning over in the background, I extracted samples of ‘silence’ from the sermons. The concept of ‘silence’ (in the Cageian sense) is always conditional. In this context, it represents the space between words, between speech. In that ‘silence’ can be heard the sound of the chapel interior’s ambient space, the congregation’s movements and coughs; a baby’s cry; the preacher drawing-in breath; and vehicles passing outside the building. The tape remembered everything.

8.00 pm: I continued transferring the sermons to tape while taking a initial and cursory look at a new sampler, The device will provide the means to launch extracts of the ‘silences’ derived from the afternoon’s recordings:

Then, I set up the recording devices to capture the surface noise of the vinyl on the turntable in readiness for a late-night session, after everyone else in the house was asleep and the world outside, quieted.

August 29, 2017

Yesterday, was a partial day; a time for catching up on non-essentials, thinking in second gear (which can sometimes be more productive than thinking in first gear), and doing dutiful and homely things. 8.00 am: To begin, I squashed a minor surge in emails activity, set my day’s diary in order, and readied myself for the peculiar challenges that day would present. Experience prepares us for the unexpected, only in part. Coping with unfamiliar tests requires, in addition, imagination, self-control, caution, and (on occasion) the wisdom of silence. 8.30 am: Off to the School. A deadening and achingly grey tarpaulin stretched across the sky:

The cassette tapes that I ordered, together with the CD recordings of the sermons upon which I. Nothing. Lack. will be based, had arrived. There were only four addresses delivered on the theme of Psalm 23 in August 1979. I’d assumed that there’d be five – one for each weekday. 9.00 am: The Royal Commission ‘Memory’ day event was pushed forward an inch or two. Co-ordination and communication is of the essence. That done, I advanced the preparations for my sound event during the archive week too. There were letters to write and a venue to secure.

11.30 am:

A PhD fine art tutorial with one of my second-supervisees. 12.30 pm: A final MA fine art tutorial with one of our retiring postgraduates. The part-time journey always feels longer than it is. The second exhibition is a corker. In my opinion, and the experience of many students, it’s the most challenging component of the degree scheme – as it should be.

2.15 pm: After lunch, I headed for the Old College for a PhD fine art tutorial, accompanied by tea and kiwi fruit. Teaching can be conducted in a very civilised manner still. 3.30 pm: Another final MA fine art tutorial.

4.30 pm: My second PhD fine art tutorial of the day centred on image to sound conversion techniques, and a general discussion about the distinction between content, intent, and experimental method in research. I had time at the end of the day, in between finalising MA admissions for the new academic year, to take a peak at the new print exhibition at the School’s gallery:

7.30 pm: The final final drafts of one of our completing PhD Fine Art students was in by inbox. Their deadline looms; which means that mine does too. Onwards.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • The journey to a dead end, creatively speaking, may still prove to be both engaging and worth pursuing.
  • Don’t squash an unexpected idea, deviation, or unintentional development. They may prove to be signposts pointing to where you should be really headed.
  • Our work may reveal to us aspects of our personalities and experience that are entirely concealed from others.
  • We can know too much about our work. This is the burden of the PhD Fine Art student.
  • An unconfident and a pessimistic outlook on our work can sweep in upon us as quickly as a sea-mist, and linger for as long. But, in time, it’ll disperse.
  • When your love for making art deserts you, do it dutifully. Never stop. Gradually, the passion will reassert itself.

August 26, 2017

Yesterday. Throughout the day I finalised inputs and auxiliary connections to the mixer. The cassette tape recorders’ outputs are, now, each routed through two contrasting effectors in series prior to entering the mixer. There’s as much flexibility in the system as can be managed in a live performance scenario. And that is the measure of both its sufficiency and efficiency:

These are the elements of the work; the technology, source material, conceptual underpinning, strategy and method, craft and artistry, imagination, context of performance, performer, and audience. They are mutually dependent and reciprocally interactive. Thus, a change in one can affect a change in all. Therefore, no one element is resolved until the others are too.

In the evening, I picked up where I left off reviewing the thesis yesterday. My bedside book for this last week is John Berger’s Understanding a Photograph (2013). This provides a broader framework in which to think about ideas that resonate with the submission’s approach to the topic, and an authorial voice in my head other than that of the examined student and my own.

Today. 8.00 am: A rumination on the day that’s been. 9.00 am: On with my external review before my own students’ final final PhD drafts fall into my inbox once again. By 12.30 pm, I’d hit the Bibliography. Next week, I’ll return to the beginning of the thesis and read it as such.

For various reasons, the thesis has thrown me back on my own writing and practice. Part of me wishes that I’d pursued a singular track through my career. Granted, my interests and themes have been entirely consistent, integrated, and focussed. (I’ve been nothing if not persistent.) However, the modes through which they’ve been explored and made manifest have been diverse: books, chapters, articles, and conference papers; curated, solo, and group exhibitions; painting, drawing, collage, and digital printing; sound and music composition and performance; and CDs and streamable data. I’ve addressed Welsh history, social history, cultural history, and religious history; art, visual culture, and sound culture (and their history and theory); biblical studies and theology; art practice and sound practice through creative work, scholarly study, teaching, and examining. It’s possible to lose sight one of oneself amid all of this.

I cannot commend this approach to cultural participation. But it was born of necessity. When I began my teaching at the School of Art, you had to be ‘all things to all [people]’ There was (and still is) only a small team of staff who taught across the board of both fine art and art history. It was a circus troupe of a department. If the lion tamer was sick, you trained the lions; if the trapeze artist broke an ankle, you swung:

Painting class, Art Department, University College of Wales,
Llanbadarn Road, Aberystwyth (1993)

If I was beginning my career as an academic today, I would concentrate either on art history or fine art, not both. The pressures of research assessment and the teaching load alone would preclude a dual profile.

5.10 pm: Cease! An evening with my family.

August 24, 2017

8.00 am: A communion. 9.00 am: The ‘unread’ emails were ‘read’; the studio beckoned; the ergonomics of the ‘performance’ table had to be addressed. This required a major overhaul of yesterday’s layout in order create more surface for further effectors. Some practitioners can work effectively on top of what looks like a landfill site littered with devices, cables, and wall-warts. I cannot. Even when I intend to act in a disorderly and chaotic manner, creatively speaking, this bad boy demands an orderly stage. To lose control one must first have been in control. Following the example of good chefs, the studio, like a kitchen, ought to be keep tidy even as one cooks, too:

11.00 am: Geek-speak! Having tested the system in general, the AUX send/return, in particular, were rationalised. The AUX outputs aggregate and colour the individual inputs by the action of effectors in their loops. Both AUX 1 and 2 would be pressed into service, initially.  To test their viability, AUX 1 was assigned to the modulation pitch, and delay effectors, while AUX 2, dedicated to the reverb unit alone. In practice, it turned out, the AUX outputs (TRS) mediated a balanced mono signal only. (You never know until you try.) There was a workaround, however. For the plan to be executed, I’d have to dismantle Pedalboard II into its component units:

2.00 pm: I turned to reconsider the technology of recording the mixer’s output. Until now, I was persuaded to capture the aggregated tracks on a Revox A77 Mk IV reel-to-reel tape recorder. I interrogated the assumption: ‘This is the surely the best way!’. Far from it. By mapping the mixer’s channels individually on my Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), I would be able to remix, edit, and compose (post performance) the recorded content, and also separate the ‘dry’ (untreated signal) from the ‘wet’ (treated signal) of the main and AUX outputs during final production. Until all the cassette-tape recorders and their effectors are linked, I wont be able to trial the system fully. But, as of today, I’m confident that all this will work.

7.30 pm: I had an appetite for writing. My John Harvey: Intersections blog site has been neglected since this diary took flight. It’s objective is complementary: to provide the occasion for a fuller and more considered response to art, music, sound, history, life, and death:

I put together an extended reflection upon my earliest infatuation with sound equipment.

August 23, 2017

8.15 am: A communion. 9.00 am: Various administrations prior to a jaunt to the mothership. 9.30 am: A review of emails prior to a morning in the studio, where I looked afresh at the I. Nothing. Lack. sound system. There’s not always a better way. After all, once optimisation has been reached, where else is there to go. But I’d not reached that point yet. A second cassette-tape recorder was introduced to the system. (I heard geese passing overhead.):

The cassette-tape recorder emitted a 50MHz hum when it was inserted into mixer. This implies a grounding mismatch between the two devices. It clears up, for the most part, when routed through the Lehle P-Splitter (which has a ground-lift facility). Having installed batteries in one of the recorders, the noise was mitigated, and without the aid of a ground-lift unit. The problem, therefore, stemmed from its power supply unit (PSU). By inserting the PSU into the rack’s supply chain, (as opposed to the table’s distributer), the hum decreased to a level that was unnoticeable when the cassette tape was playing.

My test recording was of a lecture I gave twenty seven years ago, towards the beginning of my academic career. It was delivered at a summer school that I’d organised for the Open College of the Arts (which has now been absorbed into the University of the Creative Arts). Back then, the Aberystwyth OCA group was the largest and most successful in the UK. I always imagine that my early attempts at lecturing were far worse than they actually sound. Certainly, the lecture was far longer than it actually needed to be. The students had been very patient and resilient:

1.45 pm: After lunch, I set about trialling the Moog effectors, one by one, and comparing different placements for the effects units in the system’s chain, following the plan set out in ‘configuration 2’. The most sensible position was within the AUX send/return loop. A mixer can be just as much an instrument as whatever is passed through it. In the project, I will be ‘playing’ it:

7.30 pm: I returned to reviewing the doctoral art history thesis that I’d received yesterday. On this occasion, I read the text as I would a book. ‘Does it inform, enlighten, engage, and persuade?’, I asked myself:

August 22, 2017

8.45 am: Off to School for my weekly round of postgraduate tutorials. Once my inbox was unwrapped, I settled to address the topic of undergraduate tutorials: their nature, and the respective responsibilities of the participants. This ‘pep-talk’ will be delivered to the second and third year painting students at the beginning of the new academic year. Both learning and teaching need to be rigorous, decisive, and determined.  ‘Begin as you mean to go on’, my Mam would advise. In other words, instil a right attitude early in the course of education, and your burden as a teacher will be the lighter as a consequence.

10.00 am: An extended PhD Fine Art tutorial with one of my completing tutees. His co-supervisor from Earth Sciences was also in attendance. I enjoy our cross-departmental discussions about Sci/Art. Scientists and artists think is such different but complimentary ways. This is one of the privileges of working within a university. The Latinate root of ‘university’ combines the word ‘vertere‘ (to turn) and ‘uni‘ (one). In other words, all things (subjects and disciplines) ‘turned into one’. In this sense, interdisciplinarity has always been a goal at the heart of scholarly endeavour. One place, one mind, one vision.

12.00 pm: A penultimate tutorial with one of my completing MA Fine Art students. I’ve grown to know them over the course of five years. Their absence will be felt. 12.30 pm: A lunchtime consultation with one of our intending MA students. (The wheel of education turns round and round.) 3.00 pm: Off to the Old College for the day’s final two MA tutorials.

A sense of direction, ambition, vision, and certainty does not always arise from within us, suddenly and forcefully. More often, it consolidates imperceptibly in response to, for instance, a casual remark someone made; something we read, saw, or heard; the salutary example of respected teacher or friend; or an unanticipated moment of inexplicable calm that visited us in the mad rush of a day.

5.20 pm: I headed back across town, wearied by the humidity and the crowds of holidaymakers.

7.30 pm: Studiology. 8.30 pm: I settled to read a PhD Art History thesis that had arrived today, in my capacity as External Examiner. To begin, I wanted to view the lay of the land, discern the author’s ‘voice’, note their attention to convention, and judge their command of language.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • An artist must have one deaf ear constantly turned towards the public.
  • Our lack of confidence is most prevalent when we’re considering making, rather than actually making, art.
  • Trust the insight of those who have suffered hard and long, and endured.
  • We don’t because we think we can’t. We think we can’t because we haven’t.
  • Age is an asset.
  • Self-discovery – the objective; self-knowledge – the blessing.
  • Our life’s history is a lodestone for ideas.
  • Creatively, we have to learn to fall off the edge of the table if we are to experience the wonders that lie below it.

August 21, 2017

Saturday. A dust and polish of the studio surfaces helped prepare the space and my mind to begin assembling the initial components for the I. Nothing. Lack. project. Cassette-tape recorder 1 (the first of five) was linked to a Moog effector, and that to the mixer, in order to test the system’s integrity:

I anticipate that configurations 1 and 2 will be combined. In the notional configuration 3, effectors would be placed both before and after (or in the send and receive loop of) the main mixer. I’ll implement this idea on Monday.

Today. 8.30 am: A communion. 9.00 am: I continued reviewing PhD Fine Art submission material. Periodically, I uploaded a photograph to my Instagram account. The images are drawn from a collection that documents my day-to-day experiences. The motive for publication is primarily to objectify them to myself. I’m not a photographer, but I do take photographs, and I’m aware that I do. That’s to say, I cannot but observe other than deliberately, with an aestheticized eye that’s informed by a knowledge of the traditions of painting, photography, and cinema. The photographs represent a variety of attitudes to looking and to things, on my part. I make no claim to coherence or consistency. Which is not to say that there aren’t underlying proclivities and preoccupations:

Photography has been helpful when my practice-based activities have been exclusively sonic or textual. That act of taking a photograph has kept me visual (to adapt one of Clement Greenberg’s phrases). Often, I understand the reason why the photograph needed to be taken only after the shutter has been released. Thus, instinct advises me to take a photograph; intellect interprets the photograph, discerns the implications and informs the instinct; and instinct advises me to take a photograph, and so on. A hermeneutical loop. Everything we do informs everything else we do. This is how we learn.

2.00 pm: The morning’s business pressed past the great divide into the second session. Deadlines loom. The students’ needs take precedence on this occasion. By the close of the afternoon, I’d acquitted myself of my obligations.

7.30 pm: Studiology. I continued where I’d left off on Saturday, exploring the routing possibilities of my Mackie mixer. This device has a bewildering complexity of pathways and options. I persevered. Later, I extracted the Mackie and inserted the Tascam mixer in its place. I was keen to compare the performance of an analogue versus analogue/digital device. I removed and rerouted cables with the dexterity of an open-heart surgeon performing a quadruple bypass procedure:

August 18, 2017

Yesterday. During the morning I continued reviewing PhD Fine Art thesis submissions, in between spurts of activity at my studio desk. There, I endeavoured to establish a conversation between three pieces of sound software related to Royal Commission project: I. Nothing. Lack. [working title]. Sometimes, simple digital connections are more imponderable than complex analogue ones. In the end, I was defeated by an insuperable problem: my laptop couldn’t cope with the drain on its RAM. There was no way around this. The device’s memory capacity had already ‘maxed-out’, as they say.

In the course of the struggle, it struck me that what I ought to be considering is a predominantly analogue approach to the project. The device on which the source sermons would have been recorded in the late 1970s is likely to have been a cassette-tape recorder. Why evade the obvious? The source (which I’ll receive in a digital format) should be converted back into tape. The new recordings could, then, be manipulated on several portable players in a very physical, push-button, manner, integrated on an analogue mixer, processed through effectors designed to adjust EQ values, and the output routed to amplifiers and a reel-to-reel tape recorder:

Today. 8.00 am: a communion:

9.00 am: Adminy things, before a power-walk up Penglais Hill to the surgery for an encounter with a vampiric nurse. 9.40 am: Adminy things (reprise). 10.00 am: There were two items on the morning’s worksheet: first, dragooning students to contribute to the Royal Commission’s memory event day, as well as sourcing materials for my own efforts in this respect, and, secondly, corresponding with potential running partners for the ‘Bible & Sound’ conference project.

My I. Nothing. Lack. project’s venue needed to be arranged. An analogue letter to that effect was dispatched:

12.30 pm: On with the second item. The draft CPF and correspondence were concluded by lunchtime. I was on track.

1.30 pm: Studiology. I started to compose the sound system for I. Nothing. Lack. – a far simpler organisation than that required for the ‘Double Bind’ performance equipment. Where discernible, improvements to the existing components were implemented. Optimisation is a constant. The set-up would not be thoroughly tested until the input source (the technology and the recorded content) was finalised. In its most uncompromising state, this could comprise five separate and identical cassette-tape recorders fed into as many channels on the mixer. Nevertheless, I was able to put the signal to and from the reel-to-reel tape recorder through its paces:

7.30 pm: There are two possible configurations for the system; possibly three, if configuration one and two are combined:

August 16, 2017

8.00 am: A communion:

9.00 am: Studiology. In order to establish the cause of the stereo to monaural conversion malfunction in the sound system, I decoupled its discrete sections to try and localise the problem. What I knew for sure:

  1. There was no evident or obvious source of the problem. In theory, there should be no problem.
  2. Therefore, the problem was ‘invisible’ – a consequence of a failed component, unit, or connection, rather than an error in the system’s design.
  3. Therefore, I should begin by interrogating the parts comprising each section.

10.20 am: Gotcha! The fault lay in the smallest component of the system: a broken 1/4 inch, male-to-male connector. (‘Huh! Men!’). I felt like the woman who lost a coin and having diligently swept her house, found it (Luke 15.8–10):

(Lesson: Big and complex networks hang upon the efficiency of their most inconspicuous parts.)

However … when I reconnected the previously flawed section to the system, the monaural anomaly persisted. (‘Well, dang me!’) So, there were in fact two faults; one hiding behind the other. When a reasoned approach fails, I deploy counter-intuitivism. I swapped a left-right, left-right input configuration into the turntable mixer’s receive sockets for a right-right, left-left one. Success! This was nuts! Electronics can be temperamental, unpredictable sometimes, but never irrational. I needed to knowing why. (Lesson: Solve one problem in the present and you’ll be able to diagnose a great many more in the future.) Back, then, to sweeping the house.

I suspected, at first, that the explanation lay at ‘Spaghetti Junction’ – where the double stereo return path began:

There were no on-line forum that I could consult. This system’s set-up is unique, bespoke, and idiosyncratic. But, for now, the mystery had to remain unresolved. I’d bigger fish to catch. A network map would have to suffice in the meantime:

2.00 am: Following lunch, I confronted a bigger fish. The proposed sound project from the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales‘ ‘Opening the Archive: Memory’ event beckoned. Until I receive the source recording, I can’t begin to plan the composition. But I can consider the technical dimension. My instinct has been to press my Akai Professional APC40 and Ableton Live 9.0 into service:

I hadn’t used this controller and software for some time. A little on-line refresher course by a professional DJ was the call of the moment.

6.30 pm: To the hospital, to visit a church member. 7.30 pm: My younger son had kindly bolted together a pair of metal trestles in the afternoon, no doubt drawing upon skills honed during his Meccano days. We set up the studio main table upon it when I returned. The table it replaced will become part of my ‘performance’ gear, henceforth. Then, I considered the analogue/digital interface needed to convey a quality signal from the laptop to the amplifiers while, at the same time, recording the output to the Digital Audio Workstation. Further on-line tutorials.

August 15, 2017

Ultimately, one wants more of God. Then, all else will prove sufficient and bearable (Personal notes, St Beuno’s, October 18, 2013).

Throughout the night, I wrestled (in my dreams) with my sound system’s anomaly. The nature of the problem eluded me. I awoke abruptly, feeling mildly anxious, on being confronted (in my dreams) by a man who – trying hard to suppress his anger and frustration, following a reasoned dispute that I’d had with him earlier – asked: ‘So what do you think about the world, John?’

8.30 am: Off to School for a day of postgraduate teaching and admin. 9.30 am: A visit by a colleague from Biological Sciences to discuss the possibility of an interdisciplinary Masters by Research degree in Fine Art and Biology. I’m keen to explore ideas at the Art/Sci interface. A medium-sized university like ours makes collaboration so much easier to envisage and negotiate. 10.30 am: Back into PhD Fine Art submission review mode until 12.30 pm, when Dr Forster and I convened a Painting Committee Meeting at the newly refurbished town chambers.

1.50 pm: Back at the mothership, I began an afternoon of MA fine art tutorials. Reclining figure:

Brigitte’s studio:

3.15 pm: Two down; two to go. Off to Primary A and the West Classroom, Old College:

Between the top of the staircase and the latter is a connecting space: neither a corridor nor a room (properly speaking) – an antechamber, without daylight and embellishment and gradually decomposing, like much of the building above the first floor. My instinct is always to move through it as swiftly as possible:

The students vivify my resolve and sense of professional self. I can understand why some academics are reluctant to retire from teaching. With what would you substitute their ardour, seriousness, and good example? 5.15 pm: Homeward bound.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s encounters:

  • Creative rest: being a temporary cessation from art-working, in good conscience, after conscientious effort has been exerted over time and success secured as a consequence.
  • Mature students never assume that their success is the responsibility of the tutor. Immature students attribute their success to their own efforts and their underachievement to others.
  • Good teaching may have a negligible effect if it’s either poorly understood, or forgotten, or neglected.
  • Even bad teaching can feed the student who is truly hungry to learn.
  • Trust play.
  • Don’t be swift to judge your artwork, no matter how accomplished or appalling it may appear when its first completed.
  • We need to come apart from others in order to work. We need the community of other artists in order to give meaning to our work. These two principles are reciprocal.

7.30 pm: I caught up on the afternoon’s emails, mulled over the affairs of the day, and gave my mind a thirty-minute interval in which to contemplate an itch that I’ve been reluctant to scratch. As a rule, I don’t trust strong desire in the absence of an accompanying and articulable rationale. My heart can let me down. It has a wayward streak, and a propensity to idealise and shy away from the consequences of its compulsions.