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Incomparable singing

from Noisome Spirits [album] by John Harvey



Testimonies about invisible angelic choirs have been recorded throughout the modern period, in Wales and elsewhere. For example, during the First Great Awakening in New England, USA, in the 1730s, their singing was heard in the forests surrounding revival encampments. The onset of religious revivals in Wales in that century was sometimes presaged by the sound of aerial choirs moving over the mountain tops in the direction that the enthusiasm would subsequently travel. In the Welsh revival of 1904-5, they were heard in the air above the South Wales valleys and, on one occasion, in the rafters of a chapel following a Sunday-evening service. The character of the angelic singing was frequently described as being more beautiful than anything either conceivable or performable by a human agency. The melodic and harmonic structure, witnesses reported, was unfathomable, unpredictable, and extraordinarily complex. Angelic choirs also attended the deathbeds of the righteous (as in this account), in order to accompany their soul to heaven, and provide solace and reassurance to the grieving in attendance.

The composition does not seek to approximate the sound of an angelic choir. Rather, it aims to summon a sense of the ethereality and otherliness that, one imagines, accompanied the auditory manifestation. The sound enters and departs, slowly and incrementally – as did the song of the angels in the account. In between, the sonic textures ebb and flow in and out of focus. The compositional material is made from collaged samples taken from a reading of the source text that have been slowed down considerably.

Source Text
Now that I am upon this kind of subject, I call to mind a similar case, which I heard several times from the mouths of several religious persons. It concerns Rees David (a man of more than common piety), who lived in this county of Carmarthen (towards the lower end of it, inclining towards Pembrokeshire).

In the time of his death, and a little before his death, several persons who were in the room heard (just as the time of his dissolution approached) the singing of angels drawing nearer and nearer. After his death, they heard the pleasant, incomparable singing gradually depart until it was out of hearing. Here was no deception, for several religious people (men of certain probity and sincerity) heard and attested it. The news of it spread far, and was by no means discredited by those who knew and heard of this holy man. I heard it from some of the ministers of the Gospel who were not, could not be, imposed upon.

Here the sons of infidelity again will be in the questioning, if not in the opposing and cavilling side against this account. How shall we answer them properly? Surely, by saying that if the angels do rejoice at the conversion of sinners (as our saviour who perfectly knows, Heaven faith, they do) and if they do rejoice in the removal of sinners from the state of sin into the state of grace, rejoice also so far as to break out into singing (else they would not rejoice enough), do they not rejoice at their removal from this world, of sin and misery into the state of glory, peace, and felicity, which is a greater cause of joy and singing (Luke 15.10)? Here is an instance of it in this good man’s account, nor was it the only instance of this kind of extraordinary mercy. For we have heard of other instances of this sort, though not of many. Is it not proper that there should be some instances in the world of the angels rejoicing in carrying the saints to the same happiness with themselves? It is surely proper and, therefore, hath come sometimes to pass.

Nor do I think it improper to relate a circumstance, which came to pass in the day of his burial. These I choose to apprehend as a sign of his happiness, and so indeed as understood by those who saw it and by him, (a truly good man and a preacher of the Gospel) who related it to me and (I think) was there present and saw it. It was this: before the body was brought forth, a white dove came and alighted upon the bier in the sight and among all the company who stood about it, causing them to take notice with some wonder. The thing was so much the more remarkable, as doves are not numerous in that country.

Here proud unbelief (for unbelief is proud) will scorn and despise, and say that this is trifling – that i­t was a chance thing – and signified nothing. But soft and gentle … do the ravens and bird of the corps appear and make noise before the death of many? This cannot come to pass without the agency of some spirits, because the birds of themselves know nothing of death and burial. And might not a dove appear in a significant manner, and as a good sign of this man’s happiness (at whose death the angels sung, which was a greater miracle than the appearance of the dove) in a bold friendly man­ner upon the bier which was to carry the good man’s body to the grave (and it was a delightful grateful sight to the company)? Doth not the Lord say: ‘I will make a Covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and the fowls of Heaven’ (Hosea 2.18)? And, is that for noth­ing, or is nothing to appear from this in any instance and at any time? He must be a strong unreasonable un­believer that can think that nothing can.

Source Reference
'The Appearance of Evil', 62–63.


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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