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

August 14, 2018

I slept poorly (again). Sleep eluded me for the first hour or so of the night. Following the pattern of the last few weeks, I woke around 3.00 am, as though something was beckoning me to attend to a matter.

8.30 am: Off to the Old College for a pair of finalising MA Fine Art tutorials. Both students were on track and on time. The deadline looms, and they must maintain nerves of steel. Like their predecessors, they want to give only of the very best, and to acquit themselves as consummate professionals. The closer the students get to the deadline, the greater the pressure, anticipation, and expectation. Which is why it’s important that they trust in their tutor’s confidence. We none of us get through this life unaided.

10.30 am: Back at homebase, PG Tips to hand, and (as a result of my teaching) fired to continue with my own work. I took up the reigns of the PowerPoint design. I’ll not be completely at ease until this is settled. (This is my Linus blanket.) In tandem, I returned a letter of correspondence to the conference convenor. Moses’s burning bush is fast becoming a theme of the paper (Exod. 3.1–17). There’s a small bush, the size of the bramble referred to in the biblical text, close to the rear of the School. I’d photographed it several times for my Instagram account. This would serve as the starting point for front-page’s design:

After lunch, and having now broken into the task, I stayed with it. The architecture and significance of the overall design and elements began to fall in place. Of course, one’s efforts can be scuppered by a poor projector or an inadequately darkened room at the venue. All subtly will be lost. But, on this occasion, I anticipate that professional conditions will prevail. The front page of the PowerPoint ought to encapsulate both the content of the paper and the attitude in which the topic will be explored. It’s the audience’s first impression. 4.00 pm: Draft 1:

On, then, with the image slide design.

A message from a man from the Isle of Man, to say that he’s ‘prohibited’ from reading the Intersections blog. Teething problems, alas. (If anyone is in the same boat, please send me your public IP address, and I’ll let you in manually. It’s only by notifying me that I’ll know you’re having difficulties. You can discover your IP address easily using the IP-location site.)

7.30 pm: Back to the job applications. I’ll be meeting with the Head of School and Manager of the Institute to draw up a shortlist. For which I need to marshal my notes and pecking order. A chore for the remainder of the evening:

August 13, 2018

Extrication sometimes requires a severance of the many connections associated with a root problem. Like a malignant tumour, it has to be removed fully, and with surgical precision, from the organs surrounding it. This may involve cutting away perfectly healthy tissue too, in order to ensure that all traces of the disease are excised. 

Sunday. 12.10 pm: Fracture, Llanbadarn Road. (The metaphors proliferate.):

2.30 pm: A ‘rubbish’ run to Llanbadarn Church and back. I’d missed lunch, and so was insufficiently fortified. Between my ears, I listened to Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box (1980) album on the outward journey, and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) on my return:

Monday. 8.00 am: A communion. 8.30 am: I dealt with the weekend’s email. (In the background: Burt Bacharach’s love songs.) 9.30 am: Studiology (briefly). I reviewed last week’s conclusion to ‘Write the vision …’, and listened again to ‘Lesser Light’. Had I put my brush down on the latter too soon? My perception of the earlier album tracks is changing in the light of the subsequent ones. Therefore, I’m committed to remaining open and responsive until after the final composition is complete. Only then will the whole set be nailed down.

10.00 am: I’d set aside the week to work on the conference paper. The programme is now published. It provided a steer to my own contribution. I now know what I needn’t do, because others are doing it, and what I must do in order to either fill any conspicuous gaps in the contributions, or venture beyond the boundaries of expectation. By the end of the process of writing, I want to know something about my topic that I don’t already know. I must first learn before I can teach others:

Composing a conference paper is no different than, say, writing an essay, except that it’s written to be spoken and accompanied by a para-discourse (the PowerPoint presentation). This includes (in my way of doing things) images, animations, text amplifications, and sound samples. Ideally, text, image, and sound ought to grow together as the argument is prosecuted.

After lunch …

On with biblical studies: the Vulgate, Hebrew, and English texts, and associated commentaries. I’m loath to say any more, lest I give the game away. I saw patterns and connections both within the topic at hand and to my preoccupations more widely. That was not only uplifting but also reassuring. I was on the right track.

My children have been mining their cupboards with a view to turning out the contents. They’ve both reached that time in life when they must ‘put away childish things’. (Or, at least give them away to charity shops.) Naturally, it’s a slow process. Exclamations such as ‘Oh! Look … Wow!’ ‘We kept all these!’, ‘I remember this!’, and ‘Does it still work, do you think?’ drifted up the stairwell to my study. So many memories are embodied in, and triggered by, the our childhood toys and games. And it’s hard to let go of them. ‘Save some for your own children’, I implored. My elder son passed on to me his failed attempt to construct a guitar fuzz box. I believe this was one of his end of year school projects. Following in his old man’s footsteps:

Over dinner,  I regaled my boys with stories of how, as a prepubescent, I mutilated my toys in Dad’s shed at the bottom of the garden. Matchbox cars were slowly crushed in his metalwork vice; Corgi cars (along with ants’ nests) were filled with methylated spirit and set on fire; and small plastic soldiers, slowly erased against the orbital sander. I was a dreadful child. Small wonder that my parents didn’t allow me to keep small furry animals. Mercifully, none of these, admittedly highly-satisfying, mutilations ever found their way into either my adult life or real-world behaviour. (Honest!):

7.30 pm: I’d not advanced as far as I’d hoped during the afternoon, and so pressed on with the ideation of the first part of the conference paper. I made notes related to the broadest context of the topic. I find it helpful to move from the micro to the macro and back again throughout the course of composition. It’s important to keep the whole and the part in relation and due proportion. I played Keith Jarrett’s Hymns/Spheres (1976) in the background. I suspect it was the sonorities of the church organ together with the melancholy of the declining light that cast my mind back to the year in which the album was released. I remembered the walk that I’d take, then, from my home to Blaenau Gwent Baptist Church, Abertillery, on overcast autumnal evenings. And I recalled, too, those friends of my own age whom I’d meet there, who’re no longer in this world: Katherine, Lyndon, Lisa, and Linda. How strange it is to be here still, when they are not:

August 11, 2018

He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass (Ps. 72.6).

Saturday. A lazy start to the morning. I indulged a little sleep catch-up to offset my nights of stolen slumber, this last week. I’d been asked to look over a set of job applications. The post has been made vacant by the retirement of a staff member. In the context of Higher Education austerity cuts, the opportunity to make an appointment is becoming increasingly rare. (I never had the occasion to appoint a new staff member when I was Head of School. But those were different times, with other challenges.) Too often the responsibilities of the ‘departed’ staff member are absorbed by those who remain. The School of Art, which invariably punches above its weight, continues to be in a healthy position with regard to undergraduate and postgraduate recruitment. ‘More tea, please!’:

‘Specialised but not fossilised’, was one comment that I made. When I applied for full-time academic posts, having completed my PhD Art History in 1990, openings were few and far between. This was the beginning of an upheaval in Higher Education that I’ve lived through throughout my career. It was the end of the ‘golden age’, I was told. More changes have taken place since then, than in the previous century of university culture. The demands made on academics, today, are colossal. We work far, far harder than our predecessors. In an earlier generation, a professor may’ve waited until their retirement to publish their magnum opus . Today, they’re expected to have completed four major works every six or more years, and also to be an exceptional teacher and administrator. Small wonder they, along with other academics, suffer mental health problems, broken marriages, estrangement from their families, early burn out, and suicidal tendencies. Until relatively recently, academic contracts stated that employees had ‘no hours of work’. Of course, that meant that the diligent among them laboured every hour that God gave. Today, academics are contracted for 37 hours per week. Many work twice that long, of necessity.

After lunch, I pressed on:

In the background, Krysztof Penderecki’s Paradise Lost (1978). Its heartening to have so many very worthy applications to look over. I’m rather glad that I’m not on the selection panel. While I was grimly slogging away in the study, my children were gleefully constructing a version of me in the lounge:

Those beard and glasses have had pulled me out of the queue for security checks at airports, ‘randomly’, more times than I care to remember. I look dodgy; that’s the only conclusion I can draw.

5.20 pm: ‘Cease from strife’!

August 10, 2018

Things don’t make sense. You have to make sense of them.

7.45 am: A communion. 8.15 am: Postgraduate admin, before moving out to the School for a MA Art History dissertation tutorial with with one of Professor Cruise’s charge. (May he enjoy a long, happy, and fruitful retirement.):

9.45 am: I had an impromptu discussion with an intending BA Fine Art applicant. It takes more guts and gall to contemplate becoming a student when you’re in your middle years and beyond, than when you were eighteen years of age. Younger people come into education searching for a career; older students come, searching for themselves. Generally speaking, mature students have less confidence than their post-school counterparts at the outset, but a welter of experience, wisdom, determination, commitment, and energy. They know what they want, and are painfully conscious that this might be the last opportunity they’ll have to grasp it.

10.15 am: Studiology. I replaced the bacon-sliced introduction of Scourby reading the first part of the Habakkuk text with the original integrated version, and also a modified version of the scratch loop. So much better. (‘What were you thinking, John?’) From this point onwards, the layers of the composition would need to be stacked and reconciled on a moment-by-moment basis. In essence, the problem was that straightforward to resolve. But I still needed a climax prior to the thunderously mellow ‘afterglow’:

Punch in; punch out; punch in. Move (fractionally). Adjust volume. Listen. Listen. Stack. There’ s always a reason why a something works, finally. You need to study and learn from the solution, discern the underlying principle, and apply it, subsequently, in other the contexts of the work. At every point I asked myself: ‘What can I take away?’ What is the simplest expression of the proposition?’ The composition should only as long as is required to realise its possibilities. And, therefore, as short as possible.

After lunch, I continued to edit and compress, while paying particular attention to the moments of silence in the piece. Silence can be quite terrifying when placed immediately after a loud or volatile passage. It may signify either rest and cessation, or the calm before an even greater storm. Silence may be ambiguous. And therein, in part, lies its power. Today, the longed-for climax was the silence. By mid afternoon, having attached the second part of Scourby’s reading to the end of the thunder section, the composition was more or less in the bag. I needed, now, time away from the piece before finalising the mix.

I returned to the turntables:

The improvisation on August 8 had suggested a further set of possibilities. I wanted to manipulate, together, the recordings of the acoustic writing and Scourby reading, using the same modulation filters as I’d deployed on the previous occasion.

7.30 pm: Onto the decks for open-ended exploration of an idea:

My aim was to freewheel, while keeping one step ahead in my mind regarding the strategies and technological methods of manipulation. I reckoned that for every twenty minutes of playing I’d generate thirty seconds of listenable (as distinct from useable) material. This is what the work required of me. Who was I to demur?

August 9, 2018

There are events in my life that I don’t understand. But I’ve learned to accept them for what they are, and to be grateful for the joys and consolations that they brought with them.

8.00 am: A communion. 8.45 am: Off to School to begin a day of teaching and consultations. 9.15 am: I dealt with the physical post, email, and admin. Always tackle the most unsavoury messages first. Things can only get better after that:

9.40 am: Off to the Old College for a PhD Fine Art tutorial, and a lovely cup of tea and some fruit from a student who always exhibits exemplary hospitality. (A Lidl’s kiwi on this occasion. Quality stuff.)

The council workers were out in force, repainting the road markings on Terrace Road. I adore the sumptuousness of the thick and densely coloured paint, poured on hot and steaming, and cooling and drying in minutes. Painting as process:

The tidiness and orderliness of the artist’s studio reflects the values and preoccupations of the work produced therein:

Some of the MA students are still on vacation. So I made the most of their absence, and secreted myself away in order to deal with further incoming mail. 12.00 am: Back to the School to attend to admin, before a lunchtime meeting with the School’s subject representative from the university library. We righted the educational world.

2.00 pm: Further catch-up, followed by an MA inquirer’s consultation at my local watering hole:

4.00 pm: Two further MA tutorials at the Old College:

7.30 pm: After a day discussing the work of others, I was desperate to get back to my own. I reviewed yesterday’s insertions. I’m unsure about the beginning – not the components but, rather, their organisation. Too self conscious and deliberate, perhaps. (One for the ‘morrow.) Several of the turntable samples were dropped into the mix, just to see how they’d either stand out or integrate:

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • A failure of confidence can beset an artist at any point in their career. No amount of prior success, experience, facility, and encouragement from others can offset it. This sense of unworthiness will pass eventually, just as surely as it will return again one day.
  • The best students that I’ve ever taught, like the best professional artists, have the most mature critical capacity. They’re able to discern the problems and the principles underlying their work, devise imaginative solutions, and work long and intelligently to apply them. The work that they exhibit is never slick and quick, easy, or vapid.
  • Working hard and working well aren’t synonymous. You can work hard – put in many hours and slog by the sweat of your brow – without achieving anything of worth. This may be because it’s undertaken uncritically, unadvisedly, and without either sufficient preparation or adequate competence. Working well implies a strategic, intelligent, and cognitive approach to conception and production. Allied to a capacity for hard work, a student possessed with these aptitudes can move mountains.
  • It’s not the praise you receive that matters most but, rather, the one who is giving it. The integrity and usefulness of professional acclamation rests upon the wisdom, experience, status, and honesty of the critic. FaceBook ‘likes’ and Instagram ‘love hearts’ will tend to flatter rather than illuminate you.
  • What’s needed is a philosophy of university education. Students should be encouraged to see the interconnectedness of disciplines and subjects. A library is the hub of a university in this respect. Through its books, journals, and online provision, you can experience the whole of academia.
  • Expect university to be, on the one hand, hard, harsh, demanding, frustrating, bewildering, and wearying, and, on the other hand, rewarding, challenging, fulfilling, enabling, fascinating, and elevating. Those hands must be clasped together.

An evening passed to the west:

August 8, 2018

Tears sealed in a clear glass jar and cast into the sea: transparent fluids of different densities, one within the other.

Last night, as I fell towards sleep, Kate Bush’s The Man With the Child in His Eyes haunted my internal sound world. Does the memory throw-up such things arbitrarily? Or is the mind talking to consciousness – endeavouring to either understand or express a felt response to matters of the heart and soul that cannot otherwise be processed or articulated internally?

5.30 am:

When, during the early hours of the morning, sleep eludes me, I either lie on the study floor or sit in my rocking chair, in the hope that a different environment may send me back into Morpheus’ arms:

8.00 am: A communion. 8.45 am: Admin. 9.45 am: Studiology and a review of yesterday’s work. Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around (2002) (which I referred in yesterday’s entry) is bookended by readings from ‘The Revelation of St John the Divine’. In this way, Cash divides the source text from the imaginative and expository application of such (the song), in between. I wondered whether this might be a solution to one of my compositional dilemmas. I’ve wanted to include the biblical verse on which ‘Write the Vision … ‘ is based while, at the same time, containing it. In this way, the conceptual integrity of the piece (an articulation of the source text using only the sound of writing) would be maintained, and also explained. Cash’s reading from the Bible is curious. It sounds as though he’d captured his voice using a lo-fi medium, like a mono-cassette recorder, in a non-studio setting. Moreover, there’s a distinct scratching sound in the background (perhaps caused by some mechanical binding within the recording machine), not unlike that made by my pencil on the paper support as I wrote.

I digitised the Habakkuk verse, re-equalised the capture so as to reflect some of the same sonorities as Cash’s recording, and divided it into two parts:

Once inserted into the DAW’s session, I underwrote the sample with a repeating scratch, derived from the acoustic writing recording, following the example of the Cash extract. The idea worked well. How strange that this solution should’ve arisen from a casual act of listening to music during a car ride home. (It’s in the wider sphere of life that answers to the questions of art are frequently found. The reverse is also true.)

After lunch, I began dividing up the first part of the Habakkuk recording in order to better accommodate the speech to the beat of the scratch sample. 3.30 pm: Then, I returned to the turntables to generate a final layer of samples using one deck only. This operation required precise control. But, first, I limbered up with an improvisation that, unexpectedly, suggested yet unconsidered possibilities. (Sometimes, you just need to lose control in order to find a way.):

7.30 pm: I sifted through the files I’d made, and extracted useable samples for the next layer of composition. My concern, presently, is that the composition is too flat, dynamically. It needs to climax … but not at the end of the piece (which is represented by the thunderous section). A sound composition of this type finds it’s shape in the process of being put together – just as does an abstract painting, where there’s no pre-ordained system or structure; just as our life does, if it’s lived with an open hand.

An evening passed to the west:

August 7, 2018

Hope not for what cannot.

9.00 am: A brief survey of my personal website following its rebuild on the foundations of a new and more sophisticated template. When the final twenty-six posts of this blog have been published on the present site (sometime in early September), the Diary will/may re-emerge, at some juncture, within a new subdomain. This’ll be at the following address: http://intersections.johnharvey.org.uk/diary/, within the framework of the recently commuted John Harvey: Intersections of Sound, Image, Word, and Life blog. There’re still access ‘issues’ to resolve. (If you can’t yet see these pages, contact me following the advice given on the information page that you’ll receive.) 9.30 am: Email catch-up. On our way home in the car yesterday, we listened to my elder son’s music playlist: an eclectic mix of Abba, Johnny Cash (‘The Man Comes Around’)), Neil Diamond, David Bowie, Gerry Rafferty (Stuck in the Middle with You and Right Down the Line (I can no longer listen to the former without also visualising the torture scene from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.)), and Nick Cave (Into My Arms). As I broke-up the dry and compacted soil of admin, I replayed some of them.

10.30 am: Studiology. I reviewed the work undertaken last week for the ‘Write the Vision … ‘ composition, before returning to the VirtualDJ rig to finalise extracting sound samples by this means:

For an hour, I puzzled over why my Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) wasn’t receiving a recordable signal. It was only at the point of preparing for an alternative, and entirely unsatisfactory, approach to encoding the source that I realised the sub-mixer hadn’t been turned on. Sometimes you have to reach the end of the road before you rediscover your sense of direction. Onwards …

After lunch, I continued manipulating material for a further ten minutes. And, sometimes too, it’s only when you think that you’ve exhausted all the possibilities that something unexpected occurs. I continued, therefore, for a while longer. The files were then sifted on the DAW. There were nuggets amid the coal dust:

A jet aircraft passed over head, its engines, in conjunction with the Doppler effect, followed the same arc of tonalities as the sample that I’d just extracted. Wonderful! By mid afternoon, I’d found sufficient material to be going on with. Over 90% of the samples end up on the cutting-room floor. One must sow much to reap little in this work.

It’s less a lack of resources and technical facility than of imagination that keeps us from realising something worthwhile. With sufficient imagination and staying power, almost anything is possible. Towards the end of the afternoon session, I prepared the batch of samples for stretching. I wasn’t not assuming an outcome, but my imagination suggested that there may be fruit ripe to pick from this tree.

I was tagged by a Facebook friend to a YouTube upload of sound effects from the Original Star Trek series. I’ve loved and admired these noises since I was very young. No doubt they fed my developing sensibility for soundscapes and electrical blip and bleeps. Some things don’t change; they just get clearer.  The effects sounded plausible, intriguing in and of themselves, and, in design, like the precise sonic analogue of the switches and flashing lights on the Enterprise’s control panels.

Star Trek
(courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

7.30 pm: Back to the stretching exercises, as it were. A good harvest. It remained to hear whether these new sounds would both mesh with, and sufficiently contrast, with those that already comprised the composition. Attentive and critical listening was required:

An evening passed to the west:

August 6, 2018

You may have to choose between two types of sorrow. 
If you can’t be happy, be busy.

9.30 am: An away day. We took our visitor to the National Botanical Gardens at Carmarthen. This was a first visit for all the others in the group too. It’s not the Eden Project, Cornwall. Nevertheless, the Great Glasshouse, by Norman Forster and Partners (the highlight of the trip) is an elegant realisation of a simple building structure turned architecture. It sits upon the landscape like a downed flying saucer. My mind also returned to the hill in the Teletubbies series:

Touch is another way of seeing. Physical contact is a mode of metaphysical communion. This is as true in our relationship to inanimate things as it is between family, friends, and lovers. The boundary between object and observer, one and another, is breached:

Greenhouses can be places of contemplation. There were moments of reverie this morning, as I contemplated the virtues and deficits of taking one of two contrary courses of action in a month or so:

We saw captive owls in action, explored within the walled garden, distinguished rhubarb from chard, and picnicked under the shade:

Cabbage-white butterflies have been in abundance this summer.

On our return home, we stopped off at Aberaeron, to walk the harbour wall:

August 5, 2018

Sunday. Morning Prayer:

I was responsible for the readings (Eph. 4.1-16):

After the service, we had a birthday celebration for our congregation’s two latest nonagenarians. Trinity folk can last a very long time. They make middle-aged members, like me, feel positively youthful.

After lunch, we took our visitor to Nant yr Arian to see the Red Kites being fed. There was a wake of several hundred slowly soaring over the lake. I’m not a bird watcher, but this was a sight of quiet grandeur that couldn’t fail to impress.

From there, via Borth, we made for Ynylas Beach. ‘Mr Whippy!’ (My enthusiasms are sometimes uncontainable.) I fulfilled my ambition (which had been frustrated in London, last week) at the end of our stay:

This is one of the loveliest beaches that I’ve ever walked upon. It looks out towards the Irish Sea and Aberdovey, over the estuary. The tide was retreating when we arrived. It has a gentle ebb and flow. Beguiling. Feminine. My younger son asked me to join in a game of Frisbee. ‘I can’t see the point of receiving something only to immediately throw it away!’ ‘Not everything in life needs to be a philosophical issue, Dad!’ He was right. But so was I:

August 4, 2018

An end to ends.
I pray prayers that I never thought I would.
And with a constancy and intensity that unnerves me.
They’re against all reason, hope, and expectation,
for things that are irretrievably and long-time past, sometimes.
By whom are these petitions inspired and upheld?
And to what end?

A framed photograph fell from the wall of the dining-room and shattered. It happened sometime between yesterday and this morning. But no one in the house heard the crash. A quiet end, without witnesses. Always on these occasions, a significance seems to lurk in the wings: a lesson, a forewarning, a metaphor:

7.15 am: Breakfast:

A morning of tutorial arrangements, church matters, and house readying in preparations for a visitor. The air today was fresher; gone were the glowering clouds that seemed to seal in the humidity like a lid on a simmering saucepan.

Optimism and a sense of well-being can rise like a cooling breeze out of nowhere during the hottest part of the day. It may ride upon either a gesture of true friendship, or an encouraging word spoken in season, or the sympathy of a kindred heart.

If only the detritus of one’s life could be disposed with the same nonchalance and finality as empty boxes and bits of broken and disused household items. In this context, I find casting-off therapeutic. We accrue far too much of too little importance, materially. Rigorous editing is required every so often.

4.15 pm: Done!