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Penallta Colliery: Sound Pictures [album]

by John Harvey

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about

Coalmining in Wales has been represented in engravings, drawings, and paintings ever since it emerged as a cottage industry in the early 13th century. From the second half of the 19th century until its demise in the 1980s, what grew into a large and complex means of production became a significant genre in Welsh landscape art. However, little attention has been paid to the equally impressive and distinctive acoustic character of the industry. Until the development in the mid-1920s of electrical audio equipment able to record a reasonably broad range of frequencies in the sound spectrum, it was impossible to capture the collieries’ sonorities.

The innovation enabled the British Movietone newsreel company to make South Wales Colliers Go Down the Mine, which was released in 1930. Its subject is Penallta Colliery, which was situated near Hengoed in the Rhymney Valley. The movie represented the ‘first sound pictures of a British coalmine’. (‘Sound pictures’ referred to a cine film with sound effects and dialogue recorded on it.)

Unlike Pathé News (which began making documentaries and newsreels in 1910), British Movietone’s releases didn’t feature a disembodied and pervasive voice-over describing events on screen. Instead, the Penallta Colliery movie incorporates a series of explanations about how coal is extracted and processed, narrated by the pit’s Overman. In other words, someone who was in the scene and in-the-know. Apart from his interventions, the story is ‘spoken’ by the moving pictures alone.

The movie also includes a variety of sounds associated with the working environment, including the noises of screen meshes, hydraulics, pneumatics, pit-wheels, drams, and cages in operation; the voices of colliers; as well as musical interludes that partition the movie’s chapters. These provided the raw materials for my suite of compositions. Several additional sources contributed to the works. For example, one track includes the aggregate superimposition of the sound of pages from the King James Version of the Bible being read, while some others incorporate small samples of sound content taken from a 78-rpm recording made by the Black Dyke Mills Band of Jacques Offenback’s Orpheus in the Underworld: Overture (1858), released in 1936.

The compositions’ themes neither follow the narrative development nor are restricted to the subject matter of the movie. The source had to be overcome for it to become something else. Rather, my aim was to create pictures evoked by sound and pictures made of sound. The tracks are based upon the movie’s soundtrack, principally. The album doesn’t engage with the cinematic dimension of the movie. However, its imagery strongly informed my approach to the interpretation and transformation of the sounds.

The movie’s sound quality also needed to be overcome. Movietone’s optical-sound film track had a sound frequency range of 8,500Hz. The high-definition digitized version of the original – which I worked with on this album -- has a somewhat broader range from 800Hz to 10kHz, occupying the high-mid to high frequency range. Sounds within the 31-700Hz range, which represents low-mid to low frequency range, are entirely absent. Many of the noises produced by colliery machinery occupy this part of the audio spectrum. Therefore, the film’s soundtrack could not do justice to the sonic reality of its subject. The soundtrack also has little dynamic range overall. Consequently, loud and complex sounds are rendered indistinctly. Often, it’s difficult to discern what is taking place in a scene without reference to the pictures.

Thus, even before working with the soundtrack, a restorative and interpretive approach to the sound -- tutored by the image -- was required. In order to extend the audio spectrum, I fabricated ‘false’ lower frequencies by dropping the original sound profile by up to two octaves, and re-recording samples acoustically through monitor speakers and a subwoofer. The enhanced sound profile was, afterwards, integrated with the original source.

The sounds were modified and rearranged by applying various digital methods and techniques, such as collaging, superimposition, inversion, stretching, and synthesis. Composition took place on computer software aided by equipment used by DJs. In these ways, the hardware of historical coalmining and contemporary music making coalesced.

The movie’s sounds were manipulated and arranged in such a way as to evoke imagery, structures, ideas, moods, contexts, and backgrounds suggested by the movie’s content. For example: the activities, people, processes, mechanisms, and places portrayed; the histories of the Penallta Colliery and South Wales coalfield; and aspects of the biblical and religious cultures that were inextricably bound up with colliery work and life during the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Having returned to research on coalmining after over two decades absence, I realized that my approach to this CD project, and the history of fossil-fuel extraction in general, had to acknowledge the current context of climate change. Since COP26, especially, the coal industry has become public enemy number one. Therefore, whatever romantic attachment we may still have to Welsh collieries, needs to be tempered by the realization that they contributed to the current environmental crisis. In this sense, 'Penallta Colliery: Sound Pictures' is as much about our present and future as it is about the pit’s past.

'Penallta Colliery: Sound Pictures' is the sixth release in The Aural Bible series. The series deals with the Judaeo-Christian scriptures as the written, spoken, and heard word. It explores the cultural articulations and adaptations of the Bible within the Protestant tradition. The works on the album embark upon a critical, responsive, and interpretive intervention with aspects of its sound culture.

The websites that accompany the series’ CD albums are dynamic. Material will be added, and sub-sections fleshed-out, as opportunities for the work to be presented, discussed, reviewed, and broadcast, present themselves.

Further information about this album’s concepts and compositions is available at the following: penalltacollierysound.weebly.com

credits

released July 31, 2022

Personnel: John Harvey

Instrumentation and Production: Adobe Audition CC, Allen & Heath Xone:96 mixer, Apple MacBookPro, custom personal computer and Windows 10, Eventide ModFactor, PitchFactor, TimeFactor, and Space pedals, Fireface UCX audio interface, Korg Kaos Pad Effects Processor Quad and Kaos Pad Dynamic Effects Sampler, Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol X1 Mk2 and Scratch 6 Digital-Vinyl-System, Moog MF-105 Midi Murf and MF-108M Cluster Flux, OTO Biscuit 8-bit effects and analogue filter, RME Babyface Proaudio interface, Sherman Filterbank 2 filter unit, Sherman/Rodec Restyler filter unit, and Stanton S-150 turntable.

Sources: Black Dyke Mills Band, 'Orpheus in the Underworld -- Overture Part 1 and Part 2' (Jacques Offenbach; arr. by A. O. Pearce) His Master's Voice, BD 676 (1936); British Movietone News, 'South Wales Colliers Go Down the Mine', Vol. 1, No. 39 (1930) (Licence and permissions courtesy of Associated Press); 'Holy Bible', King James (Authorised) Version (1611), Trinitarian Bible Society [n. d.].

I would like to thank the staff at the National Library of Wales and Screen and Sound Archive for their encouragement and continued support of The Aural Bible series.

All compositions by: John Harvey
Engineered and produced by: John Harvey
Conceived and mastered at: School of Art, Aberystwyth University, 2022
Released by: Screen & Sound Archive, 2022 (GENCD007)
All compositions ℗ & © 2022 John Harvey

The project and recording are a collaboration between the Screen & Sound Archive, The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth and the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.

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John Harvey Ceredigion, UK

I’m a practitioner and historian of sound art and visual art, and former Professor of Art at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, UK. My research field is the sonic and visual culture of religion. I explore the sonic articulations of the Christian religion by engaging visual, textual, and audible sources, theological and cultural ideas, and systemic and audiovisualogical processes. ... more

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