Month: July 2018

July 31, 2018

8.30 am: We caught the train to London. This would be one of those father-son excursions during which we’d indulge our passions for jazz and art. The journey gave me time to respond to emails, write references, and take stock of my work (and life). I tried hard not to succumb to the refreshments trolley’s temptation of over-priced PG Tips. My resolve buckled less than an hour later. (‘John! You’re pathetic’.)

These days, I tend not to plan not far ahead. 2020 will mark the end of a seven year cycle of research projects and personal determinations. By then, what I’d hoped to have achieved will, in all likelihood, have come to pass. Presently, I’ve no particular interest in (or ideas about) what comes after that. Life can turn on a sixpence (as they used to say); the unexpected can intervene. Tragedy and loss may come out of the blue, just as surely as health, happiness, and contentment, dissolve in an instant. Alternatively, the best in life can fall like dew from heaven without warrant, warning, or asking, and just as suddenly. (The unhoped-for blessing.) Thus, all my resolutions are made in the light of these realisations: ‘Only if’, as it were.

Within the compass of my worldview, I believe in the possibility of change, restoration, betterment, hope in the absence of reason (humanly speaking), and (on occasion) an extraordinary turnabout in events. Likewise, I’m convinced that persistence, waiting, striving, and seeking do pay off, more often than not. Patience is rewarded.

Moreover, ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’, Alexander Pope wrote in his ‘Essay on Man’. In other words, there’re desires, visions, and determinations that persist, even in the most discouraging of circumstances and in spite of our faintheartedness. They appear to be, for all intents and purposes, indestructible, as though buoyed-up by an external power. One ought to pay attention to such. (A woman carrying a large, framed print of Frances Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion passed down the aisle.)

1.15 pm: The train arrived at Euston. From there we took the tube to Brixton. Thereafter, we made our way, via a laundrette-cum-tailor’s shop, to Soho and a series of independent record shops, to handle the vinyls. There was an original copy of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King on sale for £1,400. I could be sitting on a small fortune with the contents of my collection of original records. I’ll make an inventory on my return.

There was a peculiar nostalgia about rifling through the stock, extracting something of interest with one hand, while holding open its space in the rack with the other. No mean feat.

5.00 pm: We headed for the Dog & Duck on Frith Street for a pre-concert drink, before standing in the queue waiting for the doors of Ronnie Scott’s jazz club to open:

We were there (again) to hear the Chick Corea Trio on this occasion, and enjoy dinner together. What an extraordinary display of watertight musicianship. These were three guys of conspicuous ability (a gross understatement), who’d been playing together for decades, and had developed an almost telepathic connection between their creative minds. We had a gas; and I had a superb Ronnie’s Burger. 9.15 pm: My son and I made our way back onto the streets of London and homeward, feeling cool (in the 60s sense of that word) and enthusing as only jazzers do as we travelled:

July 30, 2018

Like Moses’s bush,
A fire that burns
Consuming not.

Self-sustaining energy
Inextinguishable flame.*

Sunday. During an interval between the welcome rainfalls, I ran to Llanbadarn Church. There, the plant life framing the gravestones breathed once again; it’s green-hued saturations had broken through the tinder grass, parched like dried tobacco:

There, I gave thanks for prayers returned. There, old questions were posed once again, in whispered words. Answers, realisations, and convictions come far more slowly than they ever did, these days. They’re given, if at all, only when I’ve been readied to receive. The timing is all, sometimes.

Monday. I returned to the opening section of the new composition, armed with the samples that had been generated on Saturday. I’ve still no sense of either how these parts will relate or, therefore, of the whole. This is often the state of affairs at the outset of a piece. I insert and remove, reinsert and remove, insert and move, and move and remove, until a vague sense of something begins to develop. What’s certain is that a resolution will emerge, so long as I keep working at it. Art, in this sense, can be more hopeful than life. We may find ourselves in circumstances wherein there’s little room for manoeuvre. Our options may be either to remove ourselves from the situation or adapt to it.

In the evening, I drew together the items that I’d need for my three-day ‘adventure’ with my elder son.

*For Amy Seed

July 28, 2018

Rarely can a person rescue themselves from themselves by themselves. 

8.30 am: A good night’s sleep. I woke only once. There was much to do today. I’ve been, in between tasks, rebuilding my iTunes library after the iMac’s collapse a month ago. In the background, I played Nomine Numine. I’m still learning from this suite about both sound and life. There was a painting to be re-installed in the studio (the initial securing device had developed a fault), and domestics to be undertaken. And all this in between the meat of the day’s studio work. 9.15 am: I reviewed yesterday’s efforts. My first response on returning to a composition in progress is: ‘What can be removed?’ Economy and efficiency. Simplicity and brevity. In contrast to Nomine Numine, ‘Write the Vision …’ proceeds deliberately, second-by-second. While happy accidents do occur, chance isn’t a determinant. (Which isn’t to say that my ‘muse’ is absent.)

In the studio, I introduced the MoogFooger MidiMurf and ClusterFlux (best said slowly, to avoid embarrassment) filters into the turntable’s effects loop:

The initial recordings were made, without modulation, on both turntables with the mixer’s low-pass filter in operation. The output was scratchy and insect-like. I recalled the opening scene of Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017): ‘Listen to the sounds’.

1.30 pm: Off to town, with a view to buying an old illustrated Bible:

My usual supplier didn’t have any edition with the illustration that I was seeking: an engraving depicting Samuel’s recount to Eli of his experience of having heard God’s voice (1 Sam. 3.). The image, which was a staple of pulpit and family Bibles in the nineteenth century, is about telling sound. Before returning home, I took sustenance at my usual watering hole. ‘Someone has taken my chair!’, I protested, inwardly. (I can be very proprietorial, and far too habitual for my own good.) The chair and its table are situated at the sweet-spot of the WIFI signal’s strength. Hence … .

The café was unusually busy and full. The return of the rain, wind, and turbulent skies had driven folk indoors:

2.45 pm: Back to homebase and the studio, where I carried on the morning’s work. At the other end of the tonal spectrum, I made manual (motor ‘off’) gyrations on both turntables simultaneously, with the high-pass filters in operation. Distant thunder, woeful forebodings, bleak prospects, and dark judgements were evoked. I was in ‘Image and Inscription’ territory, once again. 5.00 pm: ‘Press Esc!’

8.00 pm: An evening at the Aberystwyth Music Fest’s Gala Opening, held at the Arts Centre’s Great Hall. Even if a composition doesn’t touch my soul (and Haydn never does), its performance may nevertheless. (Music = composition + performance + committed listening.) And it’s always instructive to see how professional musicians conduct themselves in public:

July 27, 2018

6.00 am: I could wrestle no more by tossing and turning. Up! Up! 7.15 am: Breakfast alone. I tend to live out-of-sync with my family on weekdays. 8.00 am: A communion. 8.30 am: Having established the technological framework for action, I set about investigating, in a systematic way, its potential to articulate the acoustic writing. In parallel, the source text was once again addressed in order to discern the dominant tone of the narrative. This will inform the mood of the composition:

This composition, like the others, will be an interpretation of the biblical text. Whether it’ll be a particularly illuminating or intelligible one is for others to judge. At bedrock, the Scripture suggests ideas, procedures, colourations, and structures that can be used to inform the composition and vanquish arbitrariness:

I reigned in the modulators and restricted their contribution to a short delay; this opened up the stereo field more widely. My attention honed in on the rather gritty interludes that lay between the end of one acoustic letter and the beginning of the other. I extracted and hand manipulated the samples in such as away as to create a manual and irregular repetition. These, in turn, were rendered as digital loops. (Looping the loop, as it were.):

Once the derived samples lengths were adjusted – so that all of them were 4-seconds duration – and spruced up, I entered them into the Digital Audio Workstation’s (DAW) session. I didn’t know either if, or how, or where they’d contribute to the final composition. However, I was confident that they’d passed the quality control threshold. Get the parts right, and the whole might just follow suit. There’re no guarantees. But always, there’re the self-imposed pressures to push the material, technology, and the compositional structure beyond the boundaries of what I’ve undertaken thus far in this domain of my practice.

3.20 pm: The rain came. A blessing:

By the close of the afternoon session, I’d established an opening for the piece and the beginnings of the compositional logic.

7.30 pm: It’s only when I suspect that I’m on a right path that risks and courage are taken and my sense of the what’s important, clarified. What was precious becomes disposable. That which appeared (sounded) too large and unwieldy is bacon sliced into manageable, mobile, and useable units. And those samples that were, earlier, deemed unassuming and destined for deletion find a place of prominence within the developing scheme of things. (‘The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner’ (Ps. 118.22).) The creative process turns our assumptions on their head. Like love (sometimes), its course isn’t always straightforward: composition proceeds by fits and starts, through twists and turns and reversals of fortune, towards dead-ends, into the fog, and out towards the sunshine.

By the close of the evening, the opening two minutes had been sketched out and provisionally filled. If I’d spent any longer on it, the section would have closed in on itself, making it impossible to introduce new or alternative elements. At this stage, resolution needs to a potential rather than a realisation.

July 26, 2018

7.45 am: A late rise. (Sleep catch-up.) 8.30 am: Off to the Old College:

My regular route, via the Promenade, was cordoned off by the police, following the hotel fire yesterday. From 9 am to 11 am, I conducted MA tutorials with those painters who’ll be exhibiting in September. They’re shaping-up. As a tutor, it’s so rewarding to engage with such committed, sensible, and self-aware students. These days, I find myself talking with them as artists rather more than as tutees. Whatever will be their next step in life, I’m confident that they’ll succeed in it.

11.15 am: I’d time to catch up on emails and admin at the watering hole before moving on to the mothership for an MA consultation on sound installation. The problem was intriguing. The student wished to separate out a number of sonic elements comprising an installation. Each needed to be distinct even as they interacted, unmuddied by the resonances of the room, and appropriate for the audience’s position therein.

Afterwards, I advised another MA student of an entirely different approach to sound dispersion. I’m intrigued at the prospect of their endeavour:

After lunch, I returned to homebase and the studio for the remainder of the day. To begin, I reviewed yesterday’s achievements and the modulation equipment attached to the DJ rig. It was replaced, wholesale, by the Eventide units, augmented by several Moog filters. Together they provide a formidable breadth of possibilities and subtly. The intent is to tease and gently massage the sound into shape, rather than give it a full-on physio. It takes an inordinate time, shuffling the deck like a diligent croupier, to eke out something that’s- intriguing, elegant, and useable. After a while, what can only be described as a body-rhythm develops. Potters acknowledge the same experience. The distinction between the rotating clay and their fingers and hands gradually disappears; they dance together as one:

Late afternoon, I explored further combinations of the various stretched samples of acoustic writing.

7.30 pm: On, then, to play with the turntables through the Eventide modulators. At this juncture, I allowed the equipment to determine its own outcomes and, in so doing, to objectify what I was not after:

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • A painting consists of both what it represents and how it represents. The former is a matter of indifference. (A painting can be about anything. Although, as Rothko remarked, it cannot be about nothing.) The latter is of supreme importance. The quality of a work inhabits the integrity, innovativeness, imagination, and technical craft by which it’s made.
  • Creative practice is a discussion between the artist and the artwork. Only together and in negotiation can they arrive at an agreement.
  • What you hear is not only the sound coming out of the speakers but also the speakers’ position in the room, the transmission of the sound through whatever they’re placed upon into the floor, the resonance and reflections of the room, your position within it, the proximity of the speakers to you, and the character of your acoustic acuity (the quality of your listening, biologically and intellectually).
  • A monochrome painting can, at worst, feel like a sandwich without a filling.
  • The fallow times are the best of times. It’s during the apparently fruitless periods that the greatest maturation takes place. Trust the process: the harvest will come in due season.
  • Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, so also time-out from your work will enhance both your passion and commitment on return.

July 25, 2018

5.15 am: Sleep betrayed me last night. I’m losing the knack. There were momentary dreams, though: fragments – monochrome and dark, hard and corrugated surfaces, broken shafts, chaos, movement, disruption, many voices, incomprehensible speech. I tossed from my back to a foetal position, from left to right; arm across the brow, keeping out the morning light; breathing softly … deliberately; and mentally scanning my body from toe to tip. 7.00 am: There was brown water in the washbasin, caused (as an automated message from Dwr Cymru would later explain) by firemen using hydrants in the course of fighting a local hotel fire on the Promenade. (I pondered my dream again.)):

8.45 am: Having dosed-off in my study’s rocking chair during ‘a communion’, I eased myself into the morning with a review of incoming mail. I’ve a very clear agenda for the work that’ll be undertaken in the studio today. The schedule for the next few months has to be tight. As such, each day must count. The itinerary includes trips away, as well as productive and rejuvenating distractions – which can provide the necessary fillip to intelligent productivity. The first order of the morning was to complete the stretch transformations of the acoustic writing samples. Thereafter, I’d interrogate their interrelations. Then, I’d complete the VirtualDJ array, in order to make initial recordings of improvisations based on the same material. The vinyl pressings of the sound had arrived at the School; so, I would also be able to make a number of trails using this medium and turntable technology. Everything would then be in place. A schematic of the conference performance rig needed to be drawn up too:

10.00 am: I walked to the School to pick up my records. Along one side of Llanbadarn Road and into the distance, towards the Promenade, a deflated fire hose skirted the curb like a large yellow tapeworm. A line ‘drawn’ through the town. Under any other circumstances, the gesture would’ve been beautiful and magnificent:

While waiting for processes to grind-down, I set up equipment and inspected my new records:

After lunch, I continued along the parallel lines of activity that I’d established during the morning. I bounced from one of three tables to another, while processing files, building and testing rigs, and wondering why I was feeling so upbeat (almost euphoric) on so little sleep. The work excited me. I was hearing new things … thinking new thoughts:

4.30 pm: Now, I felt tired. The crash. (A fifteen-minute dose did the trick.):

My elder son came home in the late afternoon. After dinner, we sat down at watched this year’s Prom performance of Holst’s The Planets (a piece with which I’d been briefly preoccupied of late, while composing When the Morning Stars Sang Together). I’d not before realised how often he’d deployed repetitive motifs, in the manner of loops, throughout the suite. Was he inspired by the principle of planetary orbits, I wondered?

7.30 pm: I took the vinyls out for a spin (quite literally) in order to make trial of the modulation array. The present set-up may not be the most appropriate. But there’s only one way to find out. Always … Always, my first efforts sound weak, obvious, and arbitrary. What am I aiming to articulate? What rationale must govern the sculpting of the sound? Ultimately, I’m searching for ideas and evocations of which the sounds are a manifestation. I reminded myself to retain the sonorities and characteristics of the source, as far as possible. The objective is to improve rather than change them.

July 24, 2018

6.45 am: I gave my younger son a morning call to ready him for his camping trip to Europe. I’ve not woken him like that since he was a schoolboy. Happy memories. 8.10 am: Off to the station, to see him on his way:

8.45 am: A mug of PG Tips in hand, I settled to a little admin (academic and personal) before resuming work on the latest composition and my interface tutorials. Occasionally, I receive applications for the MA Fine Art degree from graduates of other disciplines. I wouldn’t advise anyone to embark upon the MA without an undergraduate degree in that field. The MA is, by nature, designed to inculcate mastery in a range of skills that’ve been already matured over three years. (The BA can be regarded as an apprenticeship in this respect.) The postgraduate degree is very demanding, even for those who have succeeded admirably in completing the initial qualification.

11.00 am: Studiology. I began by slowing down the acoustic writing tracks ten times. This not only elongates the movement and sound of the pencil on the paper but also the spaces (the silences) between the letter formations. The resultant sonorities recalled the beginnings of the tracks composed for the R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A album. On this occasion, the sound was that of a drawing that traced the shape of each of the eleven fragments that made up the broken wax cylinder:

The process of temporal conversion was slow:

I explored the relative merits of iPad’s and the Akai Professional MPX16’s sample launches. Analogue pads ‘feel’ more immediate and responsive. The physicality of equipment has always been crucial to my practice. Ideally, it should serve as an extension to my body. The stretched samples sound like snarling and yawning dinosaurs. I made a variety of stretches: ×10, ×5, ×2.5, and ×1.25. These will give me sufficient material and combinations for this particular technological reworking of the source material. The manipulation of the same on the vinyl discs and VirtualDJ software will present other and very different possibilities.

7.30 pm: The forthcoming conference paper needed to be pushed out of space dock. In the background: Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s track ‘Brain Salad Surgery’, which was released as a floppy 45-rpm freebie with the New Musical Express in 1973. (I was a Melody Maker man, on every other occasion.) I must have played that record to oblivion. It’s a sexy/raunchy kinda song with an impertinent Moog sound. Love it! I usually begin a paper with the PowerPoint design. This is the first thing the audience will experience: their first impression. The visual character of the slides needs also to capture something of the tone of the text. An evening light:

July 23, 2018

On Friday, my younger son graduated from Manchester University with a BSc (Hons.). Now both children are on the royal road to their careers. I’m very proud of them. They’ve worked hard and deserved their success, and more. Saturday was a set aside for housework: the studio and study needed a dust and polish in readiness for my return to work on Monday. The preparations of the context of action is, itself, a preparation for action within that context. My mind has already engaged prospective new projects, including drawings derived from the ‘blind’ texts upon which the sound compositions have been based, and the construction of a portable DJ/sound rig for the October conference. I’m itching to get started. Following the morning service and lunch on Sunday, I resumed my running routine (which had been put on hold due to a an Achilles tendon strain). Llanbadarn Church (situated at the half-way point on my route) provided a welcome shelter from the heat and a place in which to remember those who’ve been removed from my life. There, too, I offered importunate prayers for ‘matters outstanding’ – the longstanding, unresolved, and unreconciled ‘issues of life’:

Today. 8.00 am: A communion. 8.40 am: Off to School for a morning of postgraduate interviews and consultations. A desultory day: overcast, close, and apathetic. On the threshold:

8.50 am: I booted up my office computer and prepared to wade into the inbox of accumulated unanswered emails. There were tutorials to arrange for later in the week, and some delicate letters to compose. The first day back is to be feared. I’ve got into the bad habit of monitoring my incoming mail on vacation; I like to know what I’ll have to face on my return. But this means that there’s no longer an absolute separation between work and rest. Not good!

10.00 am: The first of two appointments, accompanied by Mr Croft, with folk interested in the applying for the PhD Fine Art degree. The initial discussion is always wide-ranging and informal. The objective is to for the staff and the applicant to understand the latter’s vision, motivations, and expectations. Embarking upon such a program will cost them a great deal, both professionally and personally. Like marriage, PhD study should not be ‘undertaken unadvisedly’. If I can dissuade them from this course of action, then I’ll count that a success. Only the wilful, obstinate, obsessed, focussed, and committed will pass through this filter.

1.45 pm: I caught up on a little admin before proceeding, tentatively, to assemble my performative rig in preparation for the October conference. The plan is to develop a tree structure of branches (tables) balanced either side of a trunk (a microphone stand):

The afternoon was spent learning what needed to be known about the DJ interface. It has limited functionality (relative to the full spectrum of possibilities that my larger and more complex array is capable of), but adequate for the task at hand. And, the interface provides a helpful introduction to the potential of virtual DJing:

Shortly, the vinyl transfers of the writing sounds will arrive. These will permit a far more rigorous and extensive manipulation of the source.

7.30 pm: Tomorrow, I’d begin the process of text extraction for ‘Write the Vision …’. I’m considering using an iPad as a sampler launch pad. For pre-prepared samples (where the modulation has already been applied to the source), the touch-screen interface may provide more launchers than my press-pad devices. The arc of learning is ever before me. An evening light:

July 18, 2018

July 6–15: Lokastígur, Reykjavík, Iceland:

Had Iceland been sunny and warm, rather than experiencing the worst summer in a hundred years, I might have felt short-changed. The overcast sky, wind-chill, and rain accorded with my expectations. And these conditions were a welcome contrast to the UK’s current heatwave. (Give me the cooler climes of the north any day.) I never got used to the smell of week-old egg mayo (hydrogen sulphide) every time I showered, however; Icelanders derive their hot water from geothermal springs:

The landscape was unprecedented in my experience. It was being formed and dissolved before my eyes. I felt as though I was walking upon either the primordial Earth or an altogether other planet, like Mars or Venus. The beauty was as much in the particular phenomena as the general features of the environment:

Sudden and astonishing contrasts of scene, substance, and colour were a constant. A desert, like the plains of Nevada, on the right butted an iceberg lagoon immediately to its left:

However, one of the most striking aspects of the landscape summoned the industrial scene of my childhood in South Wales. Instead of coal dust, slag, and tips, there were fields and mountains of black volcanic ash. Moss and Lichen grew where the terrain was stable. I never thought to see again these colours, surfaces, and formations:

And then there was the street food shop that sold only lamb and seafood soups, the chip shop, that sold only chips, and the Icelandic-British fish and chips stall that vended a wonderful and welcome combo on a cold and wet evening, following a long journey to and from the south-east of the island:

Over the weeks to come, these impressions will deepen and those smaller and unspectacular but equally meaningful moments will present themselves.

July 5, 2018

8.00 am: A late start. The postgraduate marks were released. This’ll be a day for happy and, hopefully, fruitful conversations – the ideal way both to end the academic year prior to a vacation, and to anticipate the fun things to come when I return to work. 8.30 pm: Off to the School to prepare the paper-based feedback for Vocational Practice. After a brief stop-off back at homebase, I headed into town. I’d time to reflect at my watering hole before the day’s first meeting.

I’ve had a challenging academic year. Which isn’t to concede that it’s been an uphill slog only. The difficulties have inspired more imaginative solutions, greater determination, and a humbler estimation of my capacities. All good! Much has been achieved across the board of my activities. I couldn’t have wished for more. And I’ve regretted nothing, other than those circumstances that have lain outside of my power and purview to change. Nevertheless, there’ve been too many irretrievable losses, desperately hard decisions, and messy outcomes. There’re wounds that require healing still, as well as obstinate infirmities. They’ll roll over into the next academic term. Life isn’t either neat or containable. But I’ll go on to live my life the better for all that.

10.45 am: My next appointment was delayed by 15 minutes, which gave me time to wander along the Promenade:

I’m in second gear, presently. Tomorrow, I’ll be in third. By Saturday, I’ll be idling. It’s dangerous and far too stressful to come to a dead stop immediately before a vacation. 11.15 am: Dr Roberts and I had a supportive and enthusiastic discussion about our respective visions for the future of sound work, and the possible lines of intersection. He and I operate in very different ways. In part, that’s due to our contrasting temperaments. I’m a planner; I need to know the next step long before I take it, why I’m taking it, and where it might lead to. He goes with the flow. In part, it’s this difference that makes the friendship work. I wouldn’t like to work with someone like me. Fists would fly. The period from now until October will be crucial. There’re projects that need to be brought to a conclusion, and others to be furthered in the light of those conclusions. My overarching ambition is to develop the Bible and sound as a new field of study associated with Aberystwyth University and the School of Art. The forthcoming ‘Visual Theology I‘ conference will be launch pad for that endeavour:

1.00 pm: I took lunch with one of our former MA Fine Art students, who was visiting town on business. It was lovely to see her again, and to catch up on family and work. People’s lives play out so differently one from another.  And, I suspect, they often evolve in ways that we’d never have anticipated, personally. Contentment and fulfilment lie in recognising the fitness of our circumstances to who we are, as well as the opportunities that we have to help others realise the same.

2.30 pm: An MA Fine Art tutorial at the Old College:

3.00 pm: To close the afternoon. Pete Monaghan and I put the world to rights, first at his studio and then at the local watering hole. If we could have our time again, What would be done differently? And, what would be undone? For someone who plans on an hour-by-hour basis I, perhaps surprisingly, have never had a grand plan for my life – either in the professional or the personal realms. While I’ve made opportunities for myself, the best chances (like the best friendships) have come out of the blue. I’ve not sought them:

I returned home with a sense of unease that wasn’t the result of any of today’s engagements. The feeling was hard to interrogate. Among its dimensions were disappointment, a longing for change, a sense of isolation, and resignation. But it had no specific subject or objective. How strange! One prospect that I’ll not permit myself to countenance is that the present is necessarily a prefiguration of the future. I believe in the possibility of change and the unexpected.

7.30 pm: There were a few admin tasks beckoning before close of business. More 80s pop music, please! A diary sabbatical ensued.