August 24, 2015

8.15 am. Today it’s reported that so-called Islamic State militants have blown-up Palmyra’s 2,000 year old temple of Baalshamin. The group has already destroyed several ancient sites in Iraq, some of which were among the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. Such atrocities are motivated by a desire to purge the regions that they’ve captured of the vestiges of idolatrous religion. Christianity, I’m ashamed to say, has dirtied its hands with such practices on numerous occasions throughout its history. For example, in the sixteenth century, Protestant iconoclastic riots broke-out in Britain and those European countries in which the new movement had taken root; individuals attacked, mutilated, overlaid, and destroyed many religious images in Catholic churches, abbeys, and monasteries.

9.00 am. A busy day ahead. Two primary calls: foremostly, a review of MA and PhD written submissions (with Bach’s Art of the Fugue in the background) and a peer review of a journal essay article; secondarily, the adaptation of my 78-rpm gramophone record polishing technique to a conceptual end:


For sometime, I’ve wanted to make small-scale and immediate sound pieces — the equivalent of self-contained drawings. The disc on the studio table is a Zonophone double-sided gramophone record, made in England between 1915 and 1926. The recording is part of Handel’s Messiah (1741), sung, with an instrumental accompaniment, by the bass Foster Richardson:

781950-medium (1)

Records of this period were made of shellac (a natural resin and polymer), and notoriously brittle. However, as I’ve discovered, the surface of the disc is extremely resilient. (Historically, shellac has been used as a hard-wearing wood varnish, among other things.) The conceptual intent of this ‘drawing’ is to erase the Messiah by punishing the disc’s surface with coarse sandpaper. Curiously, after the first abrasion, the record sounded even better than it did prior to the attack. Even after ten successive, and fairly aggressive, rubs, the recording was still very present. (Clearly, this was not going to be as straightforward as erasing a cassette or reel-to reel tape.)  Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure one of Willem de Kooning’s works, Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), doesn’t remove the initial artist’s marks entirely. There is a vestigial presence. The design for de Kooning’s original drawing was known only to the two artists; Handle’s oratorio, in contrast, is widely known. My problem in erasing such a popular ‘image’ this that even the slightest hint of a residue is too much. Just a few audible cues are enough for me to reconstruct the whole tune in my head:


In theory, I needed only to obliterate the intaglio of the surface, and the sound encoded sound would disappear along with it. However, I hadn’t reckoned on either how deep the groove was cut or how far down into the trough the sound vibrations had been inscribed.

1.45 pm. Having completed my objectives for the morning, I pressed on with the peer review. Occasionally, I made forays to the sound studio to continue the process of erasure. After each attempt, the record is ‘proofed’ — by being played. I anticipate that there’ll come a point when the process of erasure will have to cease if the record is to remain playable. (Remove the groove entirely, and the stylus will skid from the outer to the inner circumference unimpeded.) 4.00 pm. After 17-discrete abrasions, pareto optimal was reached. 5.15 pm. The conclusion of the peer review was reached.

6.30 pm. Practise session 1. 7.40 pm. I made the first of a number of recordings of the now severely compromised gramophone record:


The first set of recordings was made at 78 rpm, 45 rpm, and 33 1/3 rpm with the record played forward (as normal). The second set was made at those speeds in reverse. Both sets were then repeated with a slightly enhanced equalisation and with the record deck’s anti-skid mechanism activated. This improved the overall sound quality and tracking significantly. I now have a new sound artefact that’s reminiscent more of bacon frying in hot fat than the Messiah.

From one perspective, the attempted erasure of the Messiah (an icon of Christian music) is an act of iconoclasm not unlike the physical abrasions, defacing, and corruptions exercised by some sixteenth-century Protestant reformers on images of Christ.

9.30 pm. Practise session 2.

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