The Scripture Cannot be Broken

Another excellent and unique piece of sound art, rich in content and meaning, from John Harvey at the University of Aberystwyth. The Biblical Record (NATIONAL SCREEN AND SOUND ARCHIVE OF WALES GENCD8004) is the third item we’ve heard from him in his ongoing work in “the aural culture of the bible” – previous releases concentrated on a wax cylinder recording of a Welsh preacher, and on numerous found audio objects associated with the liturgy and church-going, such as singing, prayer, preaching. In all cases, he’s interested in reworking and repurposing his materials, often quite extensively, and in imaginative and sympathetic ways. On The Biblical Record, he’s doing it with a set of recordings called The Talking Bible. This was issued in 1964 in America as a five-volume set of long-playing LPs, intended for use by the blind; they even had braille printed on the labels. The entire text of the New Testament, I think, is on these LPs, read by the American voice actor Alexander Scourby; as it happens, he also did the narration for The Coming Of Christ in 1961, for an NBC TV broadcast of this name.

John Harvey acquired a set of these LPs; as a technical side note, they play back at 16RPM, a speed which isn’t even available on modern turntables (although it was included on 1960s Dansettes). In preparing this project, it seems that he digitised the entire contents of the set, and all the material is included (one way or another) in the finished CD. If he speaks true, we’re getting the entire Old and New Testaments read to us, in compressed and edited form, in about one hour. He captured sounds of Scourby’s voice, but also the scratches and pops on these old records. There’s a long list of processing techniques detailed in the booklet, involving a form of DJ turntabling and sampling, along with studio methods such as time-stretching, distortion, amplification; the method that stands out for me is the judicious editing and stacking of the samples. He’s not concerned with simply making strange sounds (although parts of the record are very strange) as he is with bringing out meaning.

He arrived at this juncture by selecting a set of thematic concerns – “strictures imposed on the source”, as he puts it. The three main themes that interested him were (1) blindness, (2) society in the 1960s, when The Talking Bible was released; and (3) the physical records. I note here that he wasn’t explicitly interested in exploring New Testament themes, or aspects of the Christian faith, which would in any case be too much of a challenge to get onto one CD. As to the blindness, this is to respect the original context of the source, which was to minister to the needs of the blind. So for tracks 2-7, we have ingenious constructs where he’s sampled instances of the word “blind” and spliced them together, effectively making a quasi-rap out of Scourby’s words; he also splices together related stories from the four gospels themed on blindness, allowing a form of simultaneous reading that allows the variances within these versions of the same story to surface. Harvey is well aware this practice is similar to a biblical concordance, or more precisely “exegtical cross-referencing”, as he calls it. The societal theme is represented by external, found recordings; it so happens The Talking Bible was recorded in one month in 1964. John Harvey did his research and found out what else was happening in America in that one month. He then assembled recordings of interesting events representing civil rights demos and race riots, nuclear bomb tests, and the launch of a space probe. These recordings are layered in; when they appear, the whole record just takes off, opening out to reveal a view of the world in which the words of the Bible may echo and resonate. In short order it gets eerie, and very powerful.

As to the records-as-records, we have touched on aspects of this, but a couple of other things I wanted to mention; one is the amazing piece ‘God Breathed’, which apparently makes use of a composite track where the entire set of digitised sounds has been superimposed into a bizarre, murmuring drone. Harvey describes it as “a composite overlay of all 67 discs of the Old and New Testaments”, compressed into 3:43 minutes. The sheer effort involved in creating this is impressive, but when you hear it, it’s not laboured or overstated at all. The other aspect I like is simply the rhythm of the whole set, particularly in the early tracks; the scratchiness of the records, and Scourby’s reading voice, both work together in Harvey’s hands to create fascinating internal pulses and beats. The techniques may be familiar to us from hip-hop culture, but there’s a real subtlety in Harvey’s patient, methodical craft.

And the opening moments of the CD …”He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”… ought to bring a tingle of excitement to any listener. It sets the scene perfectly for this entire project, inviting us to join this exciting adventure in sound. Further, it encapsulates the entire theme of the piece, and the method used to make it, in a single snippet of sound art and scripture.

Highest recommendation for this innovative, well-researched and ingeniously crafted work of sound art. From 31st December 2019.

Further reading: The Biblical Record: Converting Scripture into Sound