We last heard from Professor John Harvey at the University of Aberystwyth in 2015, with his excellent work RRBVEETNSOA, an electro-acoustic composition that made use of an old wax cylinder recording of a revivalist preacher. His work involved reprocessing that recording in radical ways, utterly transforming the source, yet still finding his way back to the meanings and messages encoded within the original sermon. It ended up making a multi-faceted statement about history, nationalism, and religion. We can see similar themes in his new work which arrived here 9th March 2017. The Bible In Translation (GENCD8003) is an ambitious two-disc work, with two related suites of music and ideas. This time the sources are more varied, and the transformative methods go even deeper. RRBVEETNSOA, we now learn, was part one in a series he has designated The Aural Bible; part two is The Bible In Translation.
Harvey’s intention is to deal with the “sound culture”, as he calls it, of religion. We have “material and textual manifestations”, which have survived, and continue to thrive in the culture; I suppose by this he means the fabric of churches, cathedrals, votive objects, paintings, statues, monuments; and of course the printed text of the Bible. But he’s interested in the “audible responses of individuals and communities in action”, what he calls a “lived religion” – the sounds people make at prayer, at worship, reading the bible, sermons. All these things are at risk of vanishing, unless recorded as sound in some way. It’s not his project to reverse this trend per se, by undertaking a comprehensive programme of documentary recording, rather to use this observation as the starting point for his explorations. Accordingly, his source materials include recordings of preaching, singing, prayer, and readings from the bible. He’s taken them from wherever he can find them – radio broadcasts, field recordings, material found on the internet, and gramophone recordings. All of these are raw material for his transformative actions.
On disc one, subtitled “Image And Inscription”, the materials have been organised around an Old Testament story, that is chapters in Exodus telling the story of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, containing elements you’ll already be quite familiar with even if you never read the bible – Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Ark of the Covenant, the golden calf, and so on. On one level, Harvey is creating an “epic” sound-story from his highly abstracted sounds – one full of Old Testament drama, thunder and lighting, the voice of a jealous and patriarchal God. Clouds, mountainsides, howling winds, and stretches of the wilderness are amply evoked by these strange digital drones. Human speech is buried in the suite too, completely distorted and threatening utterances emerging as something alien and near-terrifying. The sound even makes a form of simple music, as of massed trumpets blowing in a supremely dispirited fashion. It’s a powerful and hard-hitting take on a Bible story, bringing its themes to life in a very contemporary fashion.
On a second level, Harvey is also intrigued by the Commandment about the making of graven images – and homes in on this, almost as an ironic counterpoint to what he’s trying to do with the work. He’s acutely aware that he’s making graven images of his own, but doing so without recourse to visual imagery – doing it by sound alone. This refers to a specific part of his process, where printed texts and images of printed texts have been recast into digital form, and remapped into an electro-acoustic composition. But it’s not a transformation just for the sake of process; he’s applying the transformation directly back into an interpretation of the source itself. To put it more simply, a scanned text from the Bible or a sound recording from a sermon is being taken apart, changed, and replayed to respond to the source it’s been taken from.
These themes continue on CD two, but the 13 tracks here are a more diverse collection of recordings made over a five year period, and sourced from a wider range of original elements – recordings of preaching, worship, singing, interviews, and other found recordings. More than one seems to come from recordings of revivalist prayer meetings and worship in the Southern states of America, always a popular source for samples. Indeed at least two pieces here, such as ‘Preach to the Beat’ and ‘The Second Commandment’, are very close in spirit and execution to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, verging on sample-based pop music. Others, making use of loops and focusing on the most emotionally-charged moment of a devotee talking in tongues or at some other peak of religious ecstasy, are not unlike the experiments conducted by Steve Reich in the 1960s, such as Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain. However, for the most part CD2 exhibits a lot of original ideas and interpretations of biblical and religious themes, two personal favourites being a one-minute discourse about demons causing malfunctions in electrical equipment (and how prayer can stop it happening), and the lengthy ‘Erased Messiah Recording’, eight minutes of glorious swishing sounds about which I would love to know more. It’s as though all traces of religious devotion had been annihilated, wiped from the earth, yet still something palpable survives and attempts to shine through on this grey segment of nothingness.
All of this is ambitious enough, but Harvey’s project is continuing to grow even beyond the limits of this double album. The booklet tells you about further sound suites, websites, and exhibitions that further spread The Bible in Translation, which I shall leave you to discover.