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

September 17, 2014

8.45 am. A former PhD Art History student messaged me to ask whether spiritualist art could be regarded as religious art (a question that I’ve addressed in the past). Some, but not all, modes of religious art are considered sacred:

‘Sacred’, in the Judaeo-Christian context, means set apart for a religious purpose. ‘Holy’ has some of the same connotations. So the word has more to do with function and purpose than with content or any inherent ‘spiritual’ nature that is claimed for an object. I regard spiritualist objects as religious (and as ‘art’, in the case of the supernatural paintings and drawings) insomuch as they are putative manifestations of the invisible, spiritual world, and require faith on the part of the percipient in order to be apprehended as such (Facebook message, 17 09 2014).

Matt. 20.20 is begun and the current and penultimate Art/Sound lecture, recommenced. I sense that there’s the need for a smaller, supplementary module that would explore more deeply and widely the last twenty years in the history of sound art, as well as the emergent discipline of art history and sound of which the current module is an expression. In the latter part of the morning, seeking to rest my tired eyes, I took to the studio with the aim of recording something — anything — that would take as long to make as it did to hear (12.22_17 09 14). Far too dance-orientated for my purposes. The improvisation was captured acoustically:


I walked to the campus to attend an E-learning, learning workshop only to discover that I’d been sent to the wrong event. Back, then, to the lecture and sound file processing for the remainder of the afternoon.

6.15 pm. Practise session 1. Before I returned to writing, I watched John Peel’s fascinating documentary profile on Captain Beefheart (musician, composer, and painter). CB was one of most innovative contributors to 1970s and 80s rock. But he had only a relatively small following, and made little if any money from his music. Again, there is sometimes a yawning chasm between significance and success.

9.40 pm. Practise session 2.

September 16, 2014

9.00 am. Emails drip into my inbox with greater frequency, like a leaking tap the washer of which is deteriorating by the day. I’m deleting non-essential communications such as spam, advertisements for dull seminars on HE government initiatives (that only someone with more time than sense would attend), and Amazonian enticements based upon my last purchase (the midges of incoming mail), as soon they land. Squish! Squish!

Having made plans for a trip away related to teaching responsibilities, I soldiered on with the current Art/Sound lecture (which may, now, not be the last on the curriculum schedule), and continued to process files for Matt. 20.19. (I’ll not miss this task when the project is complete.):


I’m covering for two other members of staff who are away on university business this week. The incipient signs of multiple personality disorder are beginning to emerge; the administrative staff are calling me by  their names.

I stood in for our representative at an administrative meeting on campus after lunch. No one else was in the meeting room (which has ‘Executive Boardroom’ pretensions) when I arrived. This has been my consistent experience with regard to the venue. I enjoy it in its state of vacuity:


The meeting was conducted bilingually. A somewhat surreal experience for the uninitiated. It’s like watching a foreign film while hearing simultaneous voice over, rather than reading subtitles, in another language. The translator, who performs his service very professionally, sat at my left, whispering English into a microphone while the monoglots listened intently through swish, but desperately uncomfortable, earphones. (I was distracted by thoughts of a strange type of ventriloquism):


The many and unfathomable acronyms resisted conversion into Welsh. It’s hard to watch earnest, intelligent people confront fatuous mandates and policies that are either foisted upon the HE sector by the government or, worse, arise from within. Common sense and sound judgement prevailed this afternoon.

Back at the School (and to reality), I served as a sounding board for several of the completing MA students who are hanging their final exhibition in the galleries. By this point in the process, for reasons that are entirely understandable, are so exhausted and close to the work that they can’t any longer discern its merit. At which point, an external, a dispassionate, and a sympathetic eye is indispensable.

In the evening session I exorcised my frustrations — in as polite and restrained a manner as I could muster  — through a volley of emails designed to correct a misunderstanding and that’s emerging somewhere between two levels and two models of management at the university. After responding to several postgraduate chapter submissions, Matt. 20.19 was mixed down and launched:


September 15, 2014

9.00 am. The final week of the Summer ‘vacation’. Contrary to mythology, academics spend the vast majority of the period between the beginning of June and the end of September working with at same intensity as they do during term time. The only difference being that the focus of their activities is research, rather than the delivery of modules. That said, the postgraduate contingent (MA, MPhil, and PhD students who study for a full twelve-month period) are taught throughout the Summer. And then there’s the relentless round of administrative tasks pertaining to exam boards, student references, feedback processing (which sounds like an experiment in electronic sound, but isn’t), module preparation, departmental promotion, and grant, book, and conference proposals.


I revisited the curriculum for the Art/Sound module and reconfigured the last few lectures to accommodate the contribution of guest lecturers and to provide more space to examine contemporary sound art. It still feels as though I’m pouring a quart into a pint pot. But this is inevitable when a module has to both set and explore it’s own context.


A exchange with a fellow sound art enthusiast at the university:

With regard to buying sound equipment, I think one has to make a choice somewhere down the line about the type of sound artist you want to be. The guitarist Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson) once remarked sagely that you can’t have every piece of equipment on the market: there’s too much out there, you can’t afford it all, and you don’t need it all. And, in addition, one doesn’t have the time to learn it all. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not a synthesiser player in the full-orbed sensed of that term. Rather, I use only the filters and modulators of synthesis to process either found sounds or an electric guitar input. (The guitar substitutes for a VCO in this respect.) I admire those who can get their heads around the theory and subtleties of analogue and digital sound production. But I don’t yearn to learn. I’m more drawn to those artists who can create sonic miracles by, for example, feeding the noise of an air conditioner though a bit-crusher. That said, I do need to better understand the principles of voltage control in order to eek out the greater potential latent in my Moog effectors (email, 15 09 2014).


‘To type or not to type?’ The ambient issues surrounding the desirability of type-written feedback forms continues among my colleagues. Today, the potential health risks to staff are debated. My penny’s worth:

We are apt to follow the assumption that what can be done should or must be done for the recipient, without a more rounded appreciation of the consequences for the deliverer. My near-distance vision is deteriorating noticeably, largely due, so my optician tells me, to extended periods of viewing computer monitors. If one’s practice is writing, then some of us are spending the best part of a working day having our retina’s fried by not only the magnetic radiation from the screen but also the RF radiation from the WIFI signals coming through the computer. Both are an acknowledged health hazard  (email, 15 09 2014).

Throughout the morning and afternoon, I processed sound files for Matt. 20.19. ‘The end is nigh!’ There are two further lectures to complete for the Art/Sound module. These should be in the bag by the end of the week. I’m dealing with last one, on ‘Art History & Sound’, first, beginning with a discussion about mountaineering:


6.20 pm. Practise session 1. The evening went full-ahead with the new lecture, which is shaping up faster than any other previously.

September 13, 2014

There are two road plaques directly opposite one another at the entrance to St David’s Road, Aberystwyth. The text on the older plaque has a possessive apostrophe, the newer one doesn’t (or, perhaps, that should be ‘doesnt’). Wales has only one patron saint. So, only the former inscription makes ecclesiastical and historical sense. The Welsh name for the road is ‘Ffordd Ddewi’ on both. Curiously, neither translates the word ‘saint’ (Welsh: sant) (which, on the older plaque, has an unnecessary full stop after it’s contracted form). Therefore, the English rendering, properly speaking (writing), is either ‘David’s Road’ or ‘The Road of David’. The Google Translate service renders ‘Ffordd Ddewi’ in English as ‘Martins’. Signs of the times, old:


Signs of the times, new:


I was at the School of Art, Open day Help Desk for 9.30 am, awaiting the teaming hoards to descend:


There was a good turn out in the morning, with thoughtful questions from, and honest discussions with, a number of inquirers. Some A-level students find it very difficult to commit themselves to a single discipline after years of studying every subject under the sun. For others, what subject they choose is a matter of indifference; any one, at which they’re reasonably competent, could provide a basis for an education at degree level. Yet others don’t choose to study art; art choses them. (Such was my experience, too.):


After lunch, I wrote the conclusion of the ‘Rock Art’ lecture to music by Pink Floyd, who I wish I could appreciate more than I do. It’s matter of taste rather than of quality. I like them best when they were least melodic.

Suggestions for furthering an improvement in student feedback shuttled back and forth academic staff inboxes for the first part of the afternoon. Should we, now, move towards typewritten response forms as our contribution to offering a better deal to students who are now paying through the nose for their education? My penny’s worth:

If you look at a recent monthly salary receipt, you’ll see that your annual wage is calculated both as a gross and as an hourly rate (even though we don’t have contracted hours of work). If I divide the one by the other, it suggests that I’m paid for a 36-hour working week. But my real-time hours per-week would average out at an hourly rate commensurate with that of a pay-tiller at Morrisons supermarket. Students do deserve the best for what they pay (even though the £9,000 a year doesn’t represent ‘new’ money in the system, merely a replacement for the same amount that the government has withdrawn from the HE budget). But staff, too, deserve the best for the charitable work that they have invest in the system just to keep it operational. 

Ironically, and this must be the case in many professions where typing rather than handwriting is required, few if any of the academic staff can touch-type. I can’t. Perhaps Human Resources should compel us to attend skill-enhancement courses to this end.

Part of the ‘problem’ of feedback, particularly in the context of art-practice assessments, is the students’ failure to listen and absorb what is being said at the time. (This is a generalisation of course.) The situation is analogous to a visit to the GP where you are given important (and sometimes distressing) news regarding the outcome of a clinical test. The GP doesn’t usually follow up the appointment with a letter outlining the points that were made. Perhaps they should. My point is, that in our far more important discussions about life, health, and death, there is the expectation that we should be attentive and retentive audients. No one absolves us of that responsibility.

Having completed the conclusion to the Art/Sound lecture and polished the accompanying PowerPoint presentation, I made for the studio to further explore the potential Handboard 3, now equipped with a three-channel active mixer prior to the reverberation effector. (The last unit in the chain.):


An evening on my own. The family have dispersed.

September 12, 2014

9.05 am. A phone call to a BT operative somewhere in India about the appallingly low broadband speed somewhere between the BT server and our router. The operatives are always very practical and reassuring, and you don’t have to undignify them by either rating their degree of helpfulness or filling out an on-line feedback form. Perhaps BT trust their staff to do a good job. How old fashioned:


Having said farewell to my elder son, who was returning to university, I returned to the Art/Sound lecture. Then it was head down for the remainder of the day — stopping only for a sandwich at lunch and the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous’ emails — with a determination to bring the composition to ground by bedtime — . (Intensity! intensity! Hold fast to the intensity.):


After lunch, I’d reached the period in British music represented by The Who, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, and Brian Eno. This was a golden age, the like of which we have not see again … yet. By the close of the evening session, I was 300 words short of the finishing line. Again, my principle is not to conclude or sum up until either a day has past or the dust has settled.

September 11, 2014

September 11, 2001: My younger son riding in Thunderbird 2 at Euston Station, London, at precisely the same time as American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, New York:


During the first part of the morning session, I mixed down and launched Matt. 20.18 . It has a formidable sonority, in keeping with the content of the verse. The current Art/Sound lecture is developing apace. I’m playing tracks related to the musicians and album-cover art that I’m addressing in the text. In makes sense to keep the visual and sonic dimensions together in my head throughout the process of writing. I find it astonishing that Pop Art on both sides of the Atlantic made so few references to the popular music of the 1950s and 60s in its iconography.

Over the lunch hour, I did manly stuff: drilling holes, mounting and strapping plugboards, and generally making ready what will become Handboard 3:


An afternoon of background music by
Captain Beefheart (aka Don van Vliet). Vliet was one of the most innovative songwriters of the twentieth century, and a second generation abstract expressionist who claimed to be able to trace his ancestry to Rembrandt. By the close of the afternoon session, I’d completed over half the lecture. Without interruptions tomorrow, I should be able to close the book on it.

6.15 pm. Practise session 1. In the evening, having dealt with urgent incoming emails, I completed the set up of Handboard 3, attaching an AC/DC power block and checking that the AC plugboards were operational. I want to explore simple relationships between two or more effectors, and ensure that I’m fully aware of their respective virtues and tweekability. The set-up this evening was a serial path, as follows:

effector 1 > effector 2 > EQ > reverb > mixer > amp


September 10, 2014

8.30 am. My appointments diary needed attention. As the days proceed towards the beginning of the new term, administrative meetings (institutional and departmental) proliferate. I began writing on the topic of British art students who developed careers as musicians. It’s a lecture that I’ve wanted to develop for many years. I sense that the research will be, in part, a revelation to myself about myself.

Mid morning, I held two postgraduate tutorials with students who were finalising their MPhil dissertation and MA fine art exhibition respectively. In the wake of ends are new beginnings. Before I returned home, I took a last look at Reuben Knutson’s PhD exhibition: Utopian images of the past, present and future in a 1970s Welsh landscape:


He has accommodated the work to the gallery space in an exemplary fashion. The presentation is also an engaging synthesis of kinetic image and sound. And because the doctoral degree was taken under the banner of another department, I don’t have to belittle his effort by marking it.

After lunch, against a background of music by The Velvet Underground, I began to assemble parts of the new lecture. Bliss! I anticipate that this lecture could be self indulgent unless checked. Therefore, I proceed with caution and awareness. The Black Angel’s Death Song is remarkable. At their best, Lou Reed’s lyrics are poetry, as visceral and gutsy as anything conceived by Ginsberg, Kerouac, or Cassady. And then there’s what sounds like an air-compressor on the track. Extraordinary, unnerving, and inexplicable!

Practise session 1:


In the evening, into the studio, and onto the bench to IEC-ify several plugboards. IEC plugs are so darned hard to wire: too many free-floating parts when disassembled. Tonight, I cracked it. The solution lay in the nature of the problem. This is a truism of life. Even so, it took an inordinate length of time to complete. IEC types are far safer in practice than the British, 13-ampere, 250-volt “impact resistant”, industrial grade, 3-pin, angled plugs: the naked-metal prongs of the latter are recessed, and so cannot be touched inadvertently:


Afterwards, I sourced illustrations of British Pop Art and explored the UK pop charts for 1967.

9.40 pm. Practise session 2:


10.40 pm. During ‘the night watch’, I processed sound files in readiness for the mixdown and launch of Matt. 20.18 first thing tomorrow morning.


September 9, 2014

8.30 am. I mixed down the files for Matt. 20.17 and published the track. A number of the tracks have a distinctive sonic character, and this is one of them. The outcome of a particular composition cannot be orchestrated; it is determined by the verse (in particular, the number and the syllabic structure of the words, and the dynamics of the speech) in conjunction with the systemic process of transposition:


There are days when the disclination to re-engage a schedule of work is very strong. In part, the reluctance results from a recognition that what was a viable habit has degenerated into a numbing routine. At which point work becomes a chore. And no matter how much intellect is expended upon the work, the fact remains that the endeavour is being undertaken unintelligently. The remedy requires the worker to consider the process, rather than the content, of their activities. And so I have another task.

Until a resolution is found, I proceed by suggesting strategies to disturb myself. (Tutors need tutors too, even if it’s only themselves.):

  • Work in a different room
  • Work on laptop rather than a desktop computer
  • Listen to music that you’ve never heard before
  • Construct a lecture based entirely on images and sounds (No text allowed)
  • Stop doing one thing for a day
  • Read a chapter of a book that is unrelated to the topic about which you’re writing
  • Look intently at the landscape from the studio window for 5 minutes every hour
  • Waste an hour

I completed the current Art/Sound lecture by 5.00 pm. After practise session 1, I began sourcing images and videos for the next lecture. 9.40 pm. Practise session 2:


September 8, 2014

8.30 am. I suspect that more emails drip into my inbox when I’m away from either the university or my desk than would otherwise arrive if I were present. Perhaps the phenomenon can be explained by combining, what in science are referred to as, the experimenter effect with Wheeler’s delayed-choice experiment.  In my model, incoming emails are cognizant of the expectant, observant experimenter’s presence at the apparatus (the computer) and moderate their flow accordingly. Thus emails are, by nature, fundamentally humane when they know that they’re being watched; the messages appreciate that the poor experimenter cannot cope with too many of them at once. (You can appreciate why I failed dismally at science in school.)

By 10.20 am, I’d dispatched replies to emails, responded to samples of postgraduate coursework, and read with some ire and frustration managerial correspondence about National Student Satisfaction ratings and, also, the latest iteration of a new, robotically imposed central timetable. Interestingly, the two initiatives conflict haplessly. I would be a most dissatisfied student if I had to abide by the present timetable. Then  … back to the latest Art/Sound lecture, with every intent of completing most it by the end of the day. I also began processing sound files for Matt. 20.17, in the background:


After lunch, I  maintained my trajectory with the lecture and processing while beating-off distractions in the shape of further email transactions connected with this morning’s managerial miasma. Typically:


It’s not the number of hours one works but, rather, the intensity with which one works that’s the foundation of achievement. We’re daily confronted with tasks — commissioned by others — that are either unnecessary, futile, tedious, irksome, poorly-framed, or inappropriate. They dilute the intensity. But we discharge them, if not dutifully then, because we’re paid to do so.

The evening and ‘the night watch’ sessions were devoted to the lecture and file processing in an endeavour to reach the goal that I set myself this morning.

September 6, 2014


Sheffield University’s Open Day. The outdoors ‘Ambassadors’ smiled in their translucent white rain capes, embarrassed that the heavens too had chose to open on this of all days. But one should never judge a university by its weather. We were toured in leaky buses from one accommodation complex to another, and introduced to scrubbed up kitchens and rooms by enthusiastic second year representative who could probably hack it as successful estate agents in their post-education afterlife. This was the ‘Universityland, Sheffield Experience’, and the current students were clearly thrilled by the ride. The academics, for their part, promoted degree schemes and options, research and teaching ratings, and student satisfaction and employment statistics with an evangelical zeal that bordered on desperation. (We are, now, all salespersons.) Nevertheless, the university appears to deliver on its promises:


There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about open-plan libraries with coffee shops on every level, glitzy Guild buildings with subterranean supermarkets, WIFI-saturated campuses, and whatever other accessories that are heaped upon students these days to help them feel ‘satisfied’. I, for one, was never a satisfied student. How could I have been? Education was a humbling encounter with the limitations of my prowess and the breadth and depth of a discipline that my intellect could accommodate in only the smallest part. Oh, the buildings, the teaching, and the curriculum (or what little there was) were more than adequate for the task, even if I wasn’t. But they were merely the shell. The pearl, about which I heard no mention today, was intangible, internal, immaterial, and enduring. In part, it was an appreciation of: the value of education as such; the transformative power of understanding; the necessity of rigour and integrity; and of the responsibility that I’d been given for the future custodianship of the knowledge handed down to me by my betters and elders. That same voracious dissatisfaction brought me to where I am today. In this respect, I hope the School of Art’s students will always be unsatisfied, educationally. I could wish them no better.


After the sales pitch, we visited the university’s Alfred Denny Museum – an ‘old world’ collection housed in a single room with large oak display cases full of articulated skeletons and forlorn pickled specimens identified by hand-written captions. Not a push-button display in sight. It was refreshingly out-of-keeping with the adjacent high-tech, polished chrome, white-tiled labs in which the boundaries of the discipline are challenged today.

We left the still drizzling Sheffield in the late afternoon, and enjoyed a trouble-free journey home.

On approaching Newtown railway station:  the memory of an Edward Hopper: