We’ve updated our Terms of Use to reflect our new entity name and address. You can review the changes here.
We’ve updated our Terms of Use. You can review the changes here.

Erased 'Messiah' Recording

from The Bible in Translation (disc 2) [album] by John Harvey



In August 2015, the so-called Islamic State militants blew up Palmyra's 2,000-year old temple of Baalshamin. The group had already destroyed several ancient sites in Iraq, some of which were among the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. Such atrocities were motivated by IS’s desire to purge the regions that they had captured of the vestiges of idolatrous religion.

Christianity has dirtied its hands with such practices on numerous occasions throughout its history. For example, in the sixteenth century, Protestant iconoclastic riots broke out in Britain and those European countries in which the new movement had taken root. Individuals attacked, mutilated, overlaid, and destroyed many religious images (including those of God, Christ, Mary, prophets, and martyrs) in catholic churches, abbeys, and monasteries. From one perspective, Erased Messiah Recording is another and contemporary example of Protestant despoilation. I have attempted to erase the Messiah in an act of iconoclasm not unlike the physical abrasions, defacing, and corruptions exercised by some reformers on images of Christ.

The source artefact is a Zonophone double-sided gramophone record, made in England between 1915 and 1926. The recording is part of George Frederic Handel’s (1685–1759) Messiah (1741) – an icon of Christian music – sung, with an instrumental accompaniment, by the bass Foster Richardson. Records of this period were made of shellac (a natural resin and polymer), and notoriously brittle. However, the surface of the disc is extremely resilient. The conceptual intent of the sound work was to erase the Messiah by punishing the disc's surface with coarse sandpaper. Curiously, after the first abrasion, the record sounded even better than it had prior to the attack. Even after 10 successive and fairly aggressive rubs, the original recording was still very present.

Robert Rauschenberg's (1925–2008) erasure one of Willem de Kooning’s (1904–97) works, Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), did not remove the artist's initial marks entirely. There is a vestigial presence visible. The design for de Kooning's original drawing was known only to the two artists; Handle's oratorio, in contrast, is known widely. My problem in erasing such a popular ‘image’ was that even the slightest hint of a residue is too much. Just a few audible cues are enough for someone in the know to reconstruct the whole tune in their head.

In theory, I needed only to obliterate the intaglio of the surface, and the encoded sound would disappear along with it. However, I had not reckoned upon either how deep the groove was cut, or how far down into the trough or valley of the groove the sound vibrations had been inscribed. If the groove was removed entirely, the stylus would skid from the outer to the inner circumference unimpeded. After seventeen discrete abrasions, pareto optimal was reached: the ghosts of the recording were now only faintly audible – ebbing and flowing like the tide against the spit and shale-like sound of myriad surface corruptions – while the disc remained playable.

At the close of the recording, just before the stylus was about to glide towards the centre of the disc, it got stuck in a groove. The second part of sound work is made up of separate recordings of the disc’s mechanical looping – processed through high-, mid-, and low-pass filters – played in synchronisation.

Biblical Text
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

Bible Source
Isaiah 9.2

Personnel: Foster Richardson, orchestra, and John Harvey.

Instrumentation: Adobe Audition CS6, Apple MacBook Pro OS X 10.8, Allen & Heath Xone:23C mixer, glass-paper, MacBook Pro OS X 10.8, Stanton S-150 record turntable.

Source: George Frederic Handel, ‘The People That Walked in Darkness’, from Messiah, Serial A185, Zonophone Records, Z­-042093, c.1915–26.


from The Bible in Translation (disc 2) [album], released September 1, 2016


all rights reserved



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

contact / help

Contact John Harvey

Streaming and
Download help

Report this track or account