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

August 3, 2018


8.00 am: A late wake. 9.00 am: A communion. 9.30 am: Studiology:

Back to the thunder samples. Weather conditions are sometimes regarded as external correlatives for God’s presence and judgment in the Bible. Thunder and lightening were conspicuous among the natural phenomenon that attended Moses’ encounter with him on Mount Sinai (Exodus, Chapter 19). (I dealt with this feature in ‘Image and Inscription’.) Judgements are one of the central themes of the source text for ‘Write the Vision … ‘. Will this section be at either the beginning or the end of the composition? I suspect the latter; these are the sounds of a storm passing away. Thunder marks and measures the lateral distance of the sky, like no other natural phenomenon. You hear its breadth. Like the nuclear explosion that opens ‘Wisdom is Better than Weapons of War’, the sounds are mimetic. However, while I wish to evoke characteristic sonorities of thunder, I don’t want to mask the reality of the sound’s manufacture – on a pair of turntables. The section will last just over one minute. It’s conception and construction took over 420 minutes:

Following lunch and a jaunt to the School – in the punishing humidity – to retrieve parcels, I reviewed those sections of the composition that’d been already drafted. ‘Do they belong together?’ Very likely. ‘In what way?’, is a much larger question. My approach is to always keep moving the furniture around the room until the bits fit. In the background, the mass-band of the tree surgeons and lawnmower division had struck up in the neighbourhood. If the studio window was closed, I’d have sweated n’ baked. (‘Ho hum!’, he mused, adding further noise.):

On my journey home, yesterday, I played Scott Walker’s and Sunn O (an experimental Metal band)’s Soused (2014). Walker was, in the 1960s, a hansom pop crooner who, in later life, reinvented himself as an avant-garde singer/songwriter. His most recent work is difficult, demanding, uncompromising, and sometimes downright frightening. Whenever I need to be challenged to rid myself of the safe, obvious, polite, and seductive solution, it’s to his work that I turn.

By the middle of the afternoon, the samples had each found a place within the developing composition. I had a beginning and an end to the work (possibly). It remained for me to generate additional samples using the VirtualDJ rig. The other burning question was this: Should Scourby’s reading of the title’s verse be included? Or, should the composition restrict it’s means to the sound of the writing only? The decision hinged on how conditional I’d allow the text to be in terms of the scope of compositional possibilities available. ‘Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables’ (Hab. 2.2) could have the rigour and determinacy of conceptualist statements by artists like Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner. For example, the latter’s SOME LIMESTONE SOME SANDSTONE ENCLOSED FOR SOME REASON (1993). A case of only, and nothing more.

7.30 pm: Onto the virtual rig:

I puzzled over the failure of the MacBook Pro to recognise the A/D interface. When in doubt (or at the end of one’s tether) reinstall the software. ‘YES!!” Then … how do I get the MacBook to record the output of the VirtualDJ rather than the A/D interface? ‘AHH!!’ Then ‘Ah! Dual ‘booth’ mode. Of course’. Digital routing is not for the fainthearted. Gain and balance adjusted, fingers oiled and flexed, I was ready to rock.

August 2, 2018

There’re occasions when one awakens to the realisation that some of life’s longstanding and unresolved problems cannot (and, perhaps, shouldn’t) be tolerated any longer. They’ve become too intractable, painful, and injurious. One must call time, once and for all. To do so requires a heroic and dispassionate act of decisiveness, and a plan of action that can’t be rescinded (London, 3.20 am).

7.00 am: I awoke, but remained still for some time. Following breakfast, and having packed my rucksack, I headed towards Brixton tube station for the last time:

From there I travelled to Covent Garden, collected my thoughts at a café, and located several shops that I’d need to visit following my haircut appointment on Bedford Street. I rarely have my greying crown put to right outside Aberystwyth. This was a treat.

The temperature was set to rise to 30ºc. This risked jeopardising my dippy hypothalamus. So, I left the sweltering city and the welter of international tourist parties earlier than planned:

My early-morning resolution will have implications across the board of my responsibilities, activities, and proclivities. The awareness didn’t come as a bolt out of the blue but, rather, gently, like the sun emerging from behind a bright cloud. To begin a plan of action is one thing; to maintain it, quite another. The endeavour will require a combination of subjugation, resignation, and acceptance, alongside a further disciplining of thought, emotion, will, and body. Some things will need to be done while other things, undone. A ruthless assertion of what is right over what is desirable, and of duty over need, are required. I’ll be declaring war on myself. But the onslaught must be motivated by self-love and the betterment of others. Self-loathing simply wont do.

As the train moved further away from the city, the temperatures moderated:

At this season, all carriages of the Aberystwyth train proceed to the final destination. There’s no mind-bending rationalisation of which two will split-off at Machynlleth. Are they the last pair as the train stands on the platform at Birmingham International, or the last at Shrewsbury? The train enters the station in the opposite direction to which it leaves. Regulars know this by instinct. Newbies are utterly perplexed.

2.15 pm: I attended to emails and began setting out my teaching and admin diary for the week ahead. I read through my private and occasional dairy. There’re problems discussed that are no closer to resolution today than they were three months ago. 5.20 pm: Arrived.

7.40 pm: After dinner, an unpacking.

August 1, 2018

6.30 am: I was woken by the noise of the rubbish lorry chundering down the road while bundling wheelie-bins into its rear-end, the vehicles’ compressors hissing like a cat in a tight situation. At least one of the flight paths to Heathrow Airport passes over the house, and there’s a railway track for goods and passenger trains at the rear. (‘Hey-ho! This is the metropolis, John’.):

9.15 am: The ‘bad lads’ moved out and towards Tate Britain, Pimlico, to see the All Too Human and Aftermath exhibitions:

The former’s thesis regarding a stylistic continuity, chain of influence, and tradition of realism extending from Soutine and Sickert through Bomberg, to Auerbach, Freud, Bacon, and beyond was familiar to me. Nevertheless, it was instructive to see it played out on the walls. If you’re a figurative painter, this exhibition is a ‘must see’. There was a series of studies by Henry Tonks, in the latter, that illustrated the appalling injuries suffered by soldiers on the front line during the the First World War. Tonks was trained as a surgeon before becoming an artist. His studies made a, no doubt unintended, connection with the ravaged and deformed faces in many of Bacon’s portraits, on show in the other exhibition.

11.15 pm: On, then, to Oxford Circus for a spot of manly shopping and lunch, before moving on to Tate Britain, where we took sustenance (yet again) in the ‘Members Room’. It has an admirable view over the Thames:

The Shape of Light exhibition addressed the question of whether photography can be abstract (like painting and sculpture). In so doing, it helpfully problematised the definition and limits of abstraction in relation to all visual modes. Provisionally, my view is this: Photography abstracts most successfully when it isolates particular phenomena from the welter of incidents that comprise perceived reality. Abstraction as extraction, in other words. (‘I wish you could’ve seen this one, Buddy!’)

4.15 pm: We needed a change of our pace and orientation. The river called to us. It was too nice a day not to swan its length from St Katherine’s pier to Westminster Pier on a cruise:

From Westminster we walked towards Wardour Street, passed the now shrouded Big Ben, Downing Street, and Leicester Square. In an otherwise undistinguished Chinese restaurant we shared a meal, the quality of which raised our eyebrows. This establishment will be added to our list of eateries to revisit.

Onwards, afterwards, to Waterloo, where we walked along the South Bank and I exercised a rare act of spontaneity: I bought an ice cream. (Never let it be said that the Harvey Boys don’t know how to let their hair down. Ideally, I’d have preferred a ‘99’. (Mr Whippy … that sort of thing.) But the queue at the ice cream van was too long. I was forced up-market:

7.15 pm: Son and father went their separate ways for the next few hours. I caught up on my life at a watering hole in Waterloo Station. This had been a rich day in so many ways. Gratitude!

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: