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Io: Hymn of Recognition

from Nomine Numine [album] by John Harvey



The composition was conceived as the second response to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales’ event, entitled ‘Explore your Archive: Memory Archive’, which as held on November 22, 2017. In contrast to the initial response, ‘I. Nothing. Lack.’ (2018), ‘Nomine Numine’ is not an attempt to sonify the effects of dementia. Instead, it deploys one of the salient characteristics associated with the illness – a slowing of speech – to the end of reflecting upon and celebrating the themes of friendship and providence. The source material is derived from my own sound archive, called The Aural Diary.

‘Nomine Numine’ is a quartet of hymns for four voices. The title conjoins two Latin words: ‘Nomine’ (name) and ‘Numine’ (variously used within the context of the Christian Church to denote providence, the divine will, and the power of God). The full significance of these terms is deliberately hidden. They embody two realisations that struck me as being of considerable bearing on a particular course of events that took place in my life during 2017. ‘Name’ refers to the forenames of the two vocalists on the album. Their designations are the feminine and masculine equivalent of each other. In effect, they share the same name. ‘Numine’ evokes a sense of the foreordination, timeliness, and spiritual care that characterised the manner in which those vocalists had found one another.

The source materials, out of which the composition grew, are four monophonic recordings made by the vocalists, each speaking on two occasions. They are taken from a small set of oral correspondence that had passed between them. The female voice is heard reading the text of two short stories; the male voice is narrating his experiences of a journey, as they took place, and a personal confession. The content of what was spoken is private, and of relevance only to the correspondents. Of signal importance, however, is that we hear both talking together – an opportunity that was denied them in real life.

The composition is divided into four parts: 'Jayess: Hymn of Encounter'; 'Io: Hymn of Recognition'; 'Aitchay: Hymn of Commitment'; and 'Enn: Hymn of Renunciation'. Collectively, they are an encrypted reference to the speakers’ identities and the principal stages of their friendship. The mood of the composition is one of yearning, heartbreak, and the sublimely mysterious. While the content of their speech is rendered indecipherable (having been slowed down twenty times), the distinction between the female and male voices, as well as certain sonorities characteristic of their speech when heard at normal speed, are retained.

Reducing the speed of speech to this degree liberates and accentuates the voices’ innate musicality. Towards the conclusion of 'Enn: Hymn of Renunciation', one female voice 'sings' three ascending notes. The phrase has an epiphanic quality – as though the she had found, briefly, release, resolution, and abiding fulfilment. The sound is like a momentary shaft of intense light shining upon an otherwise dark and unreassuring landscape.

The slowed-down recordings are arranged in parallel and played simultaneously. The stretched version of the combined recordings was subdivided into four consecutive parts. Thus, the ending of one hymn takes place almost immediately before the beginning of the subsequent one. The combined length of the quartet of compositions was determined by the shortest recording, so that all four voices would be heard in unison throughout. Apart from adjustments made to the placement of the voices within the stereo field, the sonic character of the compositions is entirely the outcome of the process of temporal expansion.

Chance, or aleatoric, music throws up possibilities that the composer may not, necessarily, have conceived themselves. I had no idea what the four speech recordings would sound like when slowed down and played together. The quartet felt as though it had been composed by a creative intelligence that lay outside of me. At the same time, it was clearly my work: the hymns had many hallmarks that were evident in some of my other, more deliberate compositions. The quartet encapsulates an amalgam of intensity, happiness, consolation, desolation, and strangeness wherein providence and paths of two people intertwined in a remarkable way.


from Nomine Numine [album], released June 25, 2018


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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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