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Always the Same Guitar

from Spirit Communication [album] by John Harvey

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The title of the composition is taken from a lithograph by Honoré Daumier (1808-79) entitled ‘Séances Musicales. Toujours la même guitar!’ [Musical Séances. Always the same guitar], published in 1865. It shows either a concert or a theatre audience exhibiting, variously, consternation, fright, and boredom. Above them float ghostly instruments, including a guitar.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, spiritualist mediums (such as Daniel Dunglas Home) claimed to materialise and levitate musical instruments, while they were being played by invisible spirit hands. Guitars, accordions, violins, trumpets, and various percussive instruments performed solo, automatically, and in concert, under the direction of the medium. This was a demonstration of not only the spirits’ musicality and showmanship (and, by implication, consciousness) but also their ability to act upon the physical world. Allan Kardac’s ‘Le Ceil et L’Enfer, ou la justice divine selon le Spiritisme’ [Heaven and Hell, or divine justice according to Spiritism], published in the same year as Daumier’s print, contains many accounts of the same.

By then, perhaps, this parlour game had become tiresomely repetitive and predictable (a state of affairs to which Daumier may have been referring to, obliquely.) Moreover, many mediums had been exposed for deploying trickery and deception in the execution of the performance.

The composition is a duet between an acoustic guitar and a melodeon (which stands-in for an accordion on the album). I improvised on each in turn, and fed the recording into an EVP algorithm. This split-up the content of an audio recording into sections of a predetermined duration, and rearranged them randomly. Insomuch as the process of reorganisation was out of my control, it substituted for the action of invisible spirit hands on the instruments. The output was then edited in order to impose intentionality and shape.

credits

from Spirit Communication [album], released December 5, 2023

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John Harvey Ceredigion, UK

I’m a practitioner and historian of sound art and visual art, and Emeritus 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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