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Geographical: the swallows' tale

from Noisome Spirits [album] by John Harvey



This is the third of four relations taken from Jones’s A Geographical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth. It is an example of an ‘Extraordinary thing which came to pass in Aberystruth Parish’. The other things included a stone pillar with the inexplicable (and, surely, supernaturally produced) impression of a lamb’s foot at its base, and a woman who gave birth to a child through her navel. The fate of the subterranean swallows (described below) was, Jones contended, evidence of the remarkable power of God to make creatures that can hibernate for six months without need of food or breath. Their eventual awakening from this sleep or ‘death-like state’ (or not, in this instance) was an example from nature conducive to believing in the doctrine of the resurrection.

The composition’s narrative begins with noises associated with an active coalmine: the hiss of steam under pressure, shovelling, hammering, and mechanical grinding and churning. The latter prefigures the soundscape of large-scale, deep-pit coalmining a century later. At the time of this account, the extraction of coal in Wales was from shallow pits and little more than a cottage industry. Then, there is heard a brief interlude of silence, signifying the period when the pit was no longer being worked. This is followed by the frenzied flapping of wings, as the birds entered the pit and impaled themselves into the clay ceiling. Afterwards there is a short period of quietening (as they began their hibernation), before the collapse of the ceiling (which buried and killed them) is heard. At the end, an extended note gradually ascends – as though rising from the dead swallows.

The compositional material is made from collaged samples taken from a reading of the source text and the sound of crumpling book paper, which have been slowed down considerably.

Source Text
A man of this Parish who worked at the Coal Mine in Rhase yr Glo, going into one of the Pits which had not been worked some past time, found there a number of Swallows seemingly dead, hanging by their Bills which they had thrust into the Clay roof of the Pit. Being therefore breathless in their sleeping state. But part of the roof where they had lodged themselves was fallen down, and they were buried, and their Blood was upon the Stones. An Instance that these Birds do not all go out of the Country in Winter, as people long imagined they did, but that they enter into holes of the Earth and remain there until the Spring comes.

Source Reference
​'A Geographical, Historical, and Religious Account', 63.


from Noisome Spirits [album], released July 15, 2021


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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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