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John ab John

from Noisome Spirits [album] by John Harvey



The mountain that forms the context of the witness’s encounter stands above the town of what is now Nantyglo, Monmouthshire. It’s gradual incline is as barren and weather-beaten today as it would have been in pre-industrial times. Situated at the head of the valley, where the landscape begins to plateau, the Milfraen (which forms part of the Coity Mountain) looks out towards Brynmawr in the north, the Arial Mountain on the west side, and Blaina in the south. The sounds of bleating sheep, human cries, and transport carry on the wind from one part of the valley to another. There are no roads across the mountains. Travellers follow narrow and well-worn footpaths – cut through gorse, fern, and rocky outcrops – up its gentle slope, across the plateau at the summit, and down towards Blaenavon and Pontypool on the east side.

The composition is programmatic. The scene opens on the wind and rain-scoured mountainside. In the background, the holler of a spirit is heard moving from one location in the landscape to another. Gradually, the chundering of the ‘hellish coach’ as it approaches becomes audible, followed by the voice of the female coach driver. Finally, after as the evil passes, the clatter and shouts are replaced by gentle birdsong, as a reassuring normality is restored. The compositional material is made from collaged samples taken from a reading of the source text, slowed down considerably and overlaid, and the sound of crumpling book paper. The wind-like sounds are manufactured from the slowed down inhalations and exhalations of my breath, as phrases from the text were read. As mentioned in the Introduction, the birdsong is collaged and multiplied from the recording of a single blackbird that sang in my garden during the initial lockdown of 2020.

Source Text
John ab John of Cwm-celyn in the Valley of the Church, many years ago, was going very early in the morning (before day on May the 12th) towards Caerleon fair. In going up hill on Milfraen mountain, John heard (as he thought) a shouting behind – as it were on Brynmawr (which is a part of the Black Mountain in Breconshire). Presently after, he heard the shouting at Bwlch y Llwyn on his left hand, nearer to him, upon which he became oppressed with fear and heavy in walking, and began to suspect it was no human but a diabolical voice designed to frighten him (having wondered before, what people could be shouting on the mountain that time of night). Being come up to the higher part of the mountain, where his way was to go, he could hear the shouting at the Gilfach fields on his right hand before him, which confirmed his fear. But being past the Gilfach fields in the way of the cold springs, he could hear like the noise, as it were of a coach coming after him. His terror increased on hearing the voice of a woman with the coach crying: ‘Wow up!’ Now, as he knew that no coach ever did or could go that way, and hearing the coach-like sound coming nearer and nearer (and that it must be an evil spirit following after him) he was greatly terrified, as any one in his case would have been (though he was a strong man, the strongest in all the parish). Fearing if he kept the path that he should see some devilish, hellish appearance, he turned out of the way and fell on his face in the heath, not daring to look about until the hellish coach went by.

When it was gone out of hearing, his fear went by, and so much the more as the mountain birds began to whisper – singing one here and one there – as the daybreak increased. And seeing some sheep before him, his fear went quite off.

One may observe, here, that the evil spirit terrified and troubled this man – both behind and on every hand of him, but did not (because he durst not) stand before him to obstruct his way. And, truly, a Christian may, some time or other, have evils pursuing after him, and attending him on every hand; but while he goes on in the way of his duty, they will not be suffered to obstruct his way, or but so as he may either pass over them, go through them, or pass by them on the right or left hand – according to the blessed declaration of the Apostle: ‘There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it’ (1 Corinthians 10.13).

Some readers will have a curiosity to know what manner of man this person was, who had this remarkable trail in the course of his life. He never was a profane immoral man, but an honest, peaceable, knowing man, and very comely person. And, in his latter days, after his conversion, he became wholly mortified to this world, very heavenly minded, and died happy. More of him may be seen in my Geographical, Historical Account of the Parish of Aberystruth, published in the year 1779.

Source Reference
'The Appearance of Evil', 80–​81.


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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