Diary (July 16, 2014–September 4, 2018)

August 25, 2018

Bank Holiday

12.30 am:

8.00 am: A late wake after working into the early morning. (My Bank Holidays are very notional.) On, then, from where I’d left off earlier this morning (Purcell’s The Fairy Queen jaunting along brassily and majestically in the background), filling in databases and websites with updates of research output. (I hate this! Always a low point in the year. But it’s good to take stock in respect to this, as to every department of life, now and again.) I maintained my morale by drinking serial cuppas. (How many units of tea can one safely down in a week?) And so it went on. One day I’ll redeem all my misspent Bank Holidays, and take a whole year off.

12.30 pm: The lion’s share of the challenge was behind me. I don’t want this to bleed into Monday. That’s dedicated to the conference paper alone.

After lunch, I had an hour in which to update my website in line with my CV, as well as all other databases promoting my research. Once the website’s content is complete, and when this present Diary is ended (Estimated Time of Cessation: September 4), I’ll review and reformat the whole site, now that it has been transferred to the new template. During mid-September, when I’ll be living solo while the family are away, my social hours will be dedicated to that project. I watched (out of the corner of my eye) a new video on the work of the abstract turntableist, Maria Chavez. Admirable! (Has she built two cartridges into the tone arm?)

2.30 pm: An afternoon’s respite at an organ recital held in Llanbadarn Church. (This is my stopping-off point on Sunday runs.) The organ isn’t as good as the one at Holy Trinity Church, but it interacts with the interior architecture far better. Where does a church organ end? Is the church a part of the organ, as much as the organ is a part of the church?”

3.20 pm: As the sunlight entered the building, and against the backdrop of the music, I received a sensation of contained excitement fused with a joy that was deep and firm, rather than exuberant. I’d had this feeling before, but couldn’t locate it in my past. The impression was that of an extraordinary fulfilment that had been long-time coming. It was momentary, but no less consoling for that.

5.20 pm: Down tools!

August 24, 2018

Remember me. Remember me (Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas (c.1688)).

1.00 am: Having ‘pulled a late one’, sleep came more readily. 8.00 am: A communion. 8.30 am: A telephone call; a hospital appointment confirmed. The operation will take place as this Diary ends. That’s a neat and tidy resolution to both projects. 9.00 am: Back to the conference paper and on with reading. Fascinating!:

Today, parents and others fear that pocket calculators provide an external resource for what ought to be the internal resource of memorized multiplication tables. Calculators weaken the mind, relieve it of the work that keeps it strong (Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (1982), 84).

Goodness knows what Ong would have made of smartphones and tablets. But he has a point. Today, too, the mind (or more specifically its ability to concentrate) is weakened by the multiplicity of other, tangential, activities that accompany almost every other activity we engage. Presently, I’m reading and making notes while listening to Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (1692), monitoring incoming emails, listening out for the doorbell, making tea, thinking about tomorrow’s work, calculating the impact of losing the use of an arm for two weeks will have on my work during the first half of September, uploading CDs to iTunes, and writing and photographing this Diary. My attention is dispersed, or promiscuous. One can’t be focussed and distracted simultaneously.

On occasion, however, the focal and the peripheral elide:

Even in a personal diary addressed to myself I must fictionalize the addressee. Indeed, the diary demands, in a way, the maximum fictionalizing of the utterer and the addressee. Writing is always a kind of imitation talking, and in a diary I therefore am pretending that I am talking to myself. But I never really talk this way to myself. Nor could I without writing or indeed without print. The personal diary is a very late literary form, in effect unknown until the seventeenth century (Boerner 1969). The kind of verbalized solipsistic reveries it implies are a product of consciousness as shaped by print culture. And for which self am I writing? Myself today? As I think I will be ten years from now? As I hope I will be? For myself as I imagine myself or hope others may imagine me? Questions such as this can and do fill diary writers with anxieties and often enough lead to discontinuation of diaries. The diarist can no longer live with his or her fiction (Ong, 100).

To whom am I talking in this Diary? To myself, both now and in the future (‘Did you learn your lesson back then, John!’); my children (in a future that doesn’t include me); friends and acquaintances (who’ve remained loyal supporters of these posts over the years), and (the vast majority) anonymous readers from all over the globe. Ong’s observations are also relevant to the contemporary culture of the ‘selfie’ and the constructed persona. I don’t accept the dogma that all auto-representations are facets of our true selves, any more than I believe that fictions are versions of fact. We generate these alt-images, I suspect, because we’ve not come to terms with who we are. And who we are is often more interesting and nuanced than the scrubbed-up versions of ourselves that we project to ourselves and others. Moreover, the camera does lie, because it’s manipulated by those who’ve the capacity to deceive. ‘Not looking our best, today, John! Too many late and sleepless nights, have taken their toll, boyo!’:

After lunch: The rain:

A change of environment and engagement. I returned to the studio to review and advance several of the sound compositions in progress. The practice and its textual articulation must grow together. To write about the work is to comprehend it from the perspective of an insider-spectator. ‘The Lesser Light’ needed a rethink. What’s done is good … but insufficiently ambitious. I reintroduced samples that I’d originally excised – processed version of the source file – to hear whether some, or parts of a few, would sit. My experience working on ‘Write the Vision …’ had tutored my revision of the composition:

7.30 pm: In through another ‘portal’ into the realms of research output assessment. (Sigh!) This would be the remainder of my evening. I battled, first, with the medium and, secondly, with the content. Another buggy site.

August 23, 2018

Before I could see the light, I had to acknowledge the darkness.

I got out of bed at 1.30 am and 3.30 am. I’m not sure whether I slept before these times. Having worked for an hour, I returned to bed at 4.30 am, and slept until 7.00 am. I’d not had tea after 1.30 pm or eaten anything after 6.00 pm on the preceding day. So, what was the matter with me? My computer has no problems going to sleep. I wish someone could find and push my button too. 8.00 am: A dozy communion.

8.30 am: Mentally fog-bound, I set about undertaking a self-assessment and preparing for the day ahead. As I entered the self-assessment ‘portal’ (Grief! How we use words these days.), I sensed strongly that I was coming to the end of a cycle in my professional life. What this implies, only time will tell. However, I’m not content to wait for change; sometimes you have to force its hand. I need to assess the likelihood of the possibilities, opportunities, and challenges to come, and my ability to respond to them. (These dimensions aren’t addressed by the assessment form. But they’re far more important considerations than any of the things that are.) We are each bound by our time and energy. Presently, for me, these are diminishing resources. Like many employees in Higher Education, I’m on the cusp of a dilemma: when a difficult job tips towards becoming an impossible job. (In the background, I attended to medical ‘objectives’.) 10.30 pm: Off to School:

I met with a history graduate from South Wales who wanted to talk about ideas emerging from my first book: The Art of Piety: The Visual Culture of Welsh Nonconformity (1995). I’ve not read it since I wrote it. The visitor had the advantage in that respect. ‘Did I say that?’, was my response, on too many occasions. It’s heartening to know that the publication still has some relevance, and that there’s a new generation of scholars emerging who’ll take some of the ideas further. I’ve come along way, and broadened my interests considerably, during the last twenty three years. Nevertheless, what I do presently is still rooted in a preoccupation with how what is invisible is made manifest, in words, texts, and sounds. 12.00 pm: I had a no-show for my next appointment. 12.30 pm: Domestic duties in town, lunch, and a spot of watering hole admin, were engaged earlier than planned, therefore:

I pressed on with resourcing sound equipment, monitoring incoming emails (as though they were nuclear missiles), and reflecting further upon my self assessment:

What do I find most satisfying and dissatisfying about my job?, the questionnaire asked. Well, filling-in self-assessment forms through a portal would be high on my list for the latter. My no-show appointee found me at the watering hole; so we were able to talk through the noontime business after all. 3.15 pm: I walked around the corner to the Old College, just as it started to rain, to hold tutorials with my three finalising MA Fine Art students. The vexed question of titles was a common theme. Each student is moving to the finishing line with conviction, confidence, and clarity of objective. Then …

5.10 pm: Homeward.

7.30 pm: For the remainder of the day and into the early hours of the morning, I worked away at my self-assessment document. My sense, at the end, is that I’m setting myself up to fail. I’ve reconciled myself to this. A sense of failure is likely to be the dominant impression I’ll take way with me on retirement. No one can do this job satisfactorily any longer.

August 21, 2018

This life. Today. These moments.




August 20, 2018

Thy precious time misspent, redeem,
Each present day thy last esteem,
Improve thy talent with due care;
For the great day thyself prepare.
(Thomas Ken, ‘Awake My Soul’ (1674))

Sunday. Too much cheese too late in the evening, perhaps. I woke around 2.45 am. (This is getting to be a habit.) Mercifully, I fell back into sleep shortly afterwards. An answer to a question I’d been asking came to me, out-of-the-blue, upon waking in the early morning. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember it afterwards. It had something to do with an elegant separation of two things.


Monday: I dreamt of someone whom I once worked with. In the dream, they’d suffered a severe stroke and couldn’t remember who I was. (‘Ageing anxiety, John!’) 7.00 am: I woke my younger son. He was going to catch a train and visit his girlfriend. I used to perform the role of his human alarm clock when he was in school. Now, he’s about to embark upon his first job. 8.00 am: A communion.

8.30 am: Administrations to prepare my timetable for the week ahead. The art of compacting and compressing comes to the fore. ‘Redeem the time’. Make the day count. On with uploading CDs to iTunes on the periphery. I came across a CD given to me by the pianist Margaret Leng Tan (my cousin-in-law). She’d been John Cage’s muse during the latter part of his career. The personal inscription on the insert read: ‘Serenity, Beauty, Ecstasy, Angst’. That’s a heady combination of mutually antagonistic experiences. Perhaps she was implying that you couldn’t have one without the others: Light and darkness was present at the primordial Creation. They’ve been present at every subsequent act of creation. Like love and unlove (which is not the same as hate), togetherness and departure, the moment and the memory, and access and denial, both must be experienced before a resolution can occur:

John Cage and Margaret Lang Tan, Daughters of the Lonesome Isle (1994)

Margaret had also given me one of a series of miniature grand pianos which she’d made out of individual New York City Metro tickets:

I wanted to begin writing the paper, starting with a topic that I felt confident had sufficient shape and substance to be fleshed out. Where this section will lie in the overall structure of the paper can be decided later. Rarely do I begin at the beginning. If writing is deferred for too long, the research becomes an end in itself and one’s confidence in the being able to make something of it, ebbs. Having written around this topic before, I’ve also had to reacquaint myself with the ground that had been already covered. Otherwise, I was liable to either reinvent my own wheel or, at worst, unconsciously self-plagiarise. For example, I’d initiated a discussion about silence in visual artworks in my The Bible as Visual Culture: When Image Becomes Text (2015). The paper would, in part, provide an amplification of this theme. (A louder silence!, as it were.):

Ideas emerge like a murmuring of starlings: following one another, assuming varieties of form but, presently, having no fixed structure. Writing tests whether the writer has fully understood the content of their research, developed sufficiently cogent ideas, and enough evidence in support of them. Often, I find that I’ve undertaken too much research in one area and not enough in another. Writing exposes this imbalance.

1.40 pm: After lunch, I pushed on with the graft of constructing sentences and joining them to form paragraphs. It can be a painfully slow business. I wasn’t writing up findings; rather, I was finding out things through the process of writing. Writing = thinking. It’s about finding your way in the dark, while searching for the light switch. (And we could all do with a bit of illumination, now and again.) 3.00 pm: A moment of tea-fuelled respite and reflection:

6.45 pm: Off to my other life: the Holy Trinity Church committee at the Vicarage.

‘The silence to come’

August 18, 2018

I saw, through a curtain of loosely-woven black netting, a room filled with an intense and expanding light (Aberystwuth, 2.40 am).

I woke every few hours from what seemed like a continuous dream about desolate rooms. On putting down my feet on the bedroom carpet, I recalled the photographs that I’d taken in 1987 of my primary school in Abertillery, prior to its demolition. The resemblance was remarkable:

Photographs of places that, and of people who, are no longer either extant or accessible have a power and melancholy independent of the image’s quality. Indeed, an artless or poorly executed photograph is sometimes all the more potent for that. It’s a residue or remnant of what has been removed: precious and irreplaceable. Often, the photograph is also the visual embodiment of memories, not only of the moment when it was taken, but also of the many associations one has with the represented place or person before and after that event. To view the photograph is to, variously, return to or reconnect with the subject.

I mistakenly applied shaving gel to my hair this morning. But it worked. Cereal and two slices of toast for breakfast. (‘John, you are becoming positively reckless!’) 8.45 am: A communion. 9.15 am: On with the paper, and a discussion about Samuel and Eli (1 Sam. 3). I continued uploading CDs to my decimated iTunes library in the background. In so doing, I reconnected with the end-credits theme from David Lynch’s wonderful, if flawed, sci-fi film Dune (1984). (Music is like photography in this respect; it can both encapsulate and trigger powerful memories.) ‘Take My Hand’ embodies the best in 80s pop music. I’ve never been sure what emotion it articulates for me. Perhaps it’s a longing; or a sadness that catches you up only later on in life; or a regret about something that either was not or could not; or a secure and gentle affection in season. On with studies: visions and auditions:

After lunch, I speed-walked into town to stretch my muscles (with particular emphasis on the Achilles’ tendon), deposit money, and find solitary respite at my local watering hole. The establishment often plays 1940s and 50s Bebop. I sat down with Miles Davis, black coffee (decaf), and granola cake. Now, this was cool sophistication. It’d started to rain when I entered. Others followed seeking shelter. My customary perch was occupied … again. (‘Take it like a man, John!’):

2.30 pm: Back at my desk, I took up the cause of the morning’s inquiry for a further hour. I’d not yet got to the core reasons why the research needs to be undertaken and how the findings may be applied. Presently, my endeavour is driven by a curiosity to know for knowledge’s sake. From the outset, I’ve realised that this study will throw up more questions and possibilities than can be addressed in the paper. I’m opening a field, while at the same time trying to gather relevant academic studies within its boundary. One must attend to the bigger picture even as the smaller part is placed under the magnifying glass. 4.30 pm: I returned to the conference overview. Whatever other targets I’m aiming at, this one needs to be hit firmly at the bullseye.

5.20 pm: I wound down to Petula Clark’s I Know a Place (1964). So many memories are contained within that song. I wish I knew such a place.

August 17, 2018

I am putting myself to the fullest possible use which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do (HAL, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)).

2001: A Space Odyssey
(courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

Fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick released his magisterial 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was nine years old, and remember the poster distinctly. At the time, the film was slammed by the critics for being, to their mind, boring, confusing, and pretentious. (It’s now widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of twentieth-century cinema.) Unable to persuade anyone to take me to a screening, I had to wait until the late 1970s, when the film appeared on TV. So began my love affair with the work. If, with a gun to my head, I was asked to name my all-time favourite film, then, this would be it. (There are works by David Lynch that come within a hair’s breath.) When I first saw 2001, I experienced something akin to David Bowman’s encounter with the monolith, as he travelled through the Star Gate towards the end of the film: utter bewilderment mixed with sublime astonishment.

The film taught me about metaphor; intellectual, visual, and musical abstractions; and the essential visuality of cinema. (Its first and last 20 minutes has no dialogue.) Subliminally, I learned that great art (and this film truly is) neither compromises form, craft, content, vision, seriousness, and aesthetics, nor panders to the limits of an audience or critics. (When has an artist owed anything to either?) Kubrick pushed the boundaries of the medium, the genre, and, as significantly, how the sound design could profoundly transform one’s apprehension of the moving images, and vice versa. The compositions of the avant-garde Hungarian composer György Ligeti, which the director drew upon extensively, not only opened my mind to new musical forms but also influenced the way in which I conceive of sound composition. People who are passionate about the film have something in common: they prefer questions to answers, mysteries to explanations, and have a deep-seated conviction or hope that humankind and the universe are overseen by someone of incomparable beneficence and transcendence. (Small wonder, then, that the Roman Catholic Church gave the film an award in 1969.)

I set apart the morning to complete my sound-word studies of the scriptures, with Ligeti’s Requiem (1965) in the background:

Ligeti is a master of silence (musical space). He distributes notes sparingly and sparsely, like small graphic marks on an extensive sheet of pristine white paper. But he can also organise dense clusters of sounds, like galaxies surrounded by thick dark empty space. The works are often a tension between complexity and simplicity, much and little, and something and nothing. (I hope, one day, to be as brave.) 12.15 pm: An early lunch (a reduced English Breakfast) before my elder son took his train back to London, a new career, and another phase in his life:

1.45 pm: An Instagram update, followed by studiology. (I should write an extended blog about my uses of, and attitudes towards, Instagram.) Back to ‘Write the Vision …’. I wanted to explore how far apart I could push the tonal spectrum. I aimed to range from 24-semitones below to 24-semitones above the native pitch. At this point in the compositional process, each constituent component has to make a case for its continued inclusion. I was also asking searching questions: ‘What am I avoiding?’; What’s missing?’; and What’s insufficiently challenging? Even if the audience (assuming there’s one) hates the work, I’d like to leave them with the impression that it wasn’t easy to achieve:

There’s a ferocity in the piece that I wasn’t anticipating. It sounds, in part, like a mortally wounded wild beast taking its last stand against the assailant. This isn’t an expression of my feelings. Rather, it’s a result of the process and, appropriately, a reflection of the venom in the source text. On with the cans for the first of several stereo-field mixes. All the time, I’m trying also to breathe space into the piece, and tease apart tones. In tandem, I mulled over the outcome of my turntable free-fall a few days ago, when I manipulated the recording of Scourby reading from Habakkuk and the acoustic writing of the same, together. Before, closing down my machines, I challenged myself to start and finish a composition in only 10 minutes, using this material. This exercise is a helpful counterpoise and antidote to endeavours that seem to take an age. ‘Incognito (for Jane and Sean)’:

7.30 pm: Responsibility for this Sunday morning’s Holy Communion intercessions had fallen to me. A preparation.

August 16, 2018

When sleep her balm denies, My silent spirit sighs ([Anon.], ‘When Morning Gilds the Skies’ (1828)).

5.30 am: Did I sleep at all? Or, did I dream this restlessness? My mind, it seemed, had been neither in nor out of consciousness. I sat in the study, hoping to drift into the ‘land of sleep’, as the Theosophists would say:

8.00 am: A communion. I struggled and failed to keep awake. 9.00 am: ‘Where am I?’ It felt oddly late in the day. Back, with haste, to the paper, and a review of yesterday evening’s efforts on the composition. I began a first draft of what’ll become a taxonomy of sound in the Bible:

11.40 am: Off to School to conduct a Skype tutorial with one of our PhD Fine Art student:

1.00 pm: After which, I had lunch with another.

One of the many privileges of teaching at this level are the encounters I’ve experienced with the mature and able people who’re behind the students. (The ‘student’ is merely one manifestation of, or role derived from, of a more complex and interesting totality.) Some of them have had to battle with insuperable challenges in their lives on occasions, while maintaining a footing in their studies. Their endeavours are admirable. Back at home, I continued my exploration of sound-related words in the Old and New Testaments. In the background: The Who’s I’m Free (1969) and Andy Williams’s Can’t Get Used to Losing You (1963). As a pre-teen, these were two songs that would stop me in my tracks, whatever I was doing, when broadcast on the radio. I loved their syncopations, and often wondered whether the latter had been an influence on Pete Townsend’s own song. 4.00 pm: Refreshments:

7.45 pm: In the evening, I stayed in word-search mode. Patterns and proclivities were emerging. I was intrigued. There are, too, expressions of sonic reality that I’ve either never read before or else overlooked. Reading the Bible for sound has given me a fresh insight into how the narrative representation functions, as well as ideas for compositions in the future.

August 15, 2018

The skies sent out a sound (Ps. 77.17).

8.00 am: A communion. 8.30 am: Postgraduate admin and a rationalisation of my teaching timetable, to ensure that I’ve uninterrupted blocks of time for research during the next few weeks. 9.00 am: I reviewed yesterday’s work on the PowerPoint design, and further considered the nature of the ‘new’ Diary that will supersede this one, in its present from. I’ve not fully persuaded myself of the need for a continuing public account. Perhaps, I should return to an entirely private rumination. 9.45 am: Off to the School for an appointment review meeting. The building was resplendently empty:

A good meeting; all were in agreement. In the course of the discussion, we reflected upon a cluster of questions that’re becoming increasingly fashionable to ask at job interviews: ‘What decision have you made in the past that you now regret?’; ‘What one thing would you now do differently?’; and ‘What are your weaknesses?’ Boy! An honest response would require a considerable degree of self-cognisance and humility on the part of the candidate. To each one of them, I’d reply: ‘How long have you got?’

11.30 am: Back at homebase, I considered my priorities for the hours until lunchtime and for the remainder of the day. Every part of each day must count. To begin, I created a sample slide of one of the paper’s illustrations. This will need to be tested at the School’s lecture theatre and seminar rooms. I need to know what this’ll look like in a variety of viewing conditions and on a range of equipment. It’s the same policy as I adopt for listening to audio mixes. And there’ll be sound samples imbedded in the PowerPoint to audition too. For my performance piece at the conference, I’ll take my own amplifiers and speakers. I wont risk my efforts being heard on inadequate technology; it’ll undermine the integrity of the piece. One must take control of that over that which one has control:

After lunch, I returned to the studio for the afternoon to review two compositions, whose ambitions have not yet been fully realised, and to reduce my performance rig as far as possible … for portability. This is an important consideration. The first sound performance I gave was at the close of a paper on my visual art entitled ‘An Anti-Icon: A Protestant Art Now’. It was delivered at the Department of Fine Art, University of Calgary, Canada, on September 23, 2009. I played ‘The Second Commandment‘. This was the first version of the composition:

The piece’s second outing, also recorded live, in a somewhat different arrangement, was at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, USA on April 15, 2011. (The track opens the second CD on The Bible in Translation album (2016).) On both occasions, I’d schlepped a headless guitar, pedals, a pedalboard controller, power supplies, and cables in a heavy suitcase across two continents. (You can imagine what airport security made of all those little boxes of electronics.) The point is that you don’t want to carry more gear than necessary over great distances and on public transport.

The reduced version of the rig is centred on the MacBook, which supplies power to both the VirtualDJ controller and the sampler pad. The laptop will also record their inputs. The iPad will provide me with a map of the composition, which I’ll follow like a music score. The output from the computer will be sent via a Bluetooth connection to a pair of Bose Revolve+ active speakers in stereo formation. These have enough volume and sub-woofer ‘uumph!’ to unseat the conference delegates. (I’m out to shock!) All the electronic units can be operated on their internal batteries. This minimises cabling and is, therefore, an ideal arrangement for a short performance within a small space:

A little putting away of gear followed. A tidy studio is an efficient one.

7.30 pm: I examined ‘Write the Vision …’ with a view, now, to dividing up the components and inserting them into the sampler, in order to reproduce the composition live.