This suite of works was conceived as a sound illustration for my book 'The Bible as Visual Culture: When Text Becomes Image' (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013). 'Graven Image II’ is based on the principal clause from the text of the second commandment: 'Though shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth' (Exodus 20.4).
The term ‘graven’ is an approximation of the Hebrew word ‘pesel’, which means ‘to cut or ‘to hew into shape’. The English translation ‘graven’, as it was understood by the Bible translators in 1611, is a fairly anodyne term which means ‘engraved’, and this is the rendering I have followed. The text was mechanically engraved upon a metal matrix by a commercial plaque make. However, it was not the image of the engraved text that I was interested in but, rather, the sound that the machine made as it incised the text. This sound formed the basis of the audio artefact. In contrast to the scripture-based visual artefacts that I have produced, in which the text is converted into a continuous letter strand, 'Graven Image II' articulates not only the text’s letters but also the words, punctuation, and the spaces between them that contribute to the aesthetic character of the artefact: the alternation of noise and relative silence creates a ready-made audible, if somewhat manic and irregular, percussive accompaniment.
The auditory material is split, stereophonically, into two signals which are set out of alignment to create an auditory double image. The doubling of the sound source has both a theological and a visual precedent. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Hanina ben Gamaliel says that the commandments were written five on one tablet and five on the other. In Protestant churches, the Mosaic tablets were represented in the form of a pair of law boards set up in churches in the place of images. Similarly, each board had five commandments, or else one board bore all ten and the other the Lord’s Prayer or the Beatitudes. The engraving sets the main clause of the commandment in five lines, each—with the exception of line 5—consisting of between 33 and 35 characters (the arrangement is determined by the size of the matrix and the font):
1 Though shalt not make unto thee any graven
2 image, or any likeness of anything that is
3 in heaven above, or that is in the earth
4 beneath, or that is in the water under the
The two signals are dislocated progressively, line by line, by period of delay of ±100 milliseconds. The table shows the value for the left signal (+), the right signal (-), and the total temporal dislocation of the source (=):
1 +100 ms & −100 ms = 200 ms
2 +200 ms & −200 ms = 400 ms
3 +300 ms & −300 ms = 600 ms
4 +400 ms & −400 ms = 800 ms
5 +500 ms & −500 ms = 1000 ms
The decision was constrained by the principle of numerical economy: the use of 2 as a value refers to the second commandment, while the use of 10 as a number base (multiplied by itself to form units of 100) alludes to the Decalogue at a whole, which is also connoted by the final time period for the total dislocation of the source at line 5: 10 × 100 milliseconds.
The sound source presents itself as five distinct blocks of noise (which can be seen by clicking on the title for each track) corresponding to the five lines of text as they are arranged on the plate. The periods of relative quiet at the beginning and end of each block represent the equivalent of a typewriter’s carriage return, as the engraving tool—having completed the last letter of one line—moves backwards and downwards to begin the first letter of the next line.
The Aural Bible series represents an explorative engagement with sonic material associated with the Judaeo-Christian and the acoustic culture of Protestant Christianity in particular. This is to the end of developing not only creative outputs but also a practice-based hermeneutic. The latter seeks to offer interpretations and discern significances that are otherwise not immediately evident either at source or using other modes of academic inquiry.
released August 2, 2013
All compositions ℗ and © 2013 John Harvey
Personnel: anonymous engraver and John Harvey
Instrumentation: Gravergraph engravor on polished steelplate, Olympus DS-50 digital recorder, and Adobe Audition CS6 software
Context: sample recorded in Aberystwyth, UK, 13 March 2010
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