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Plate 1: Nature Builds No Machines (1858)

from Penallta Colliery: Sound pictures [album] by John Harvey

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The title of the composition is derived from a quotation by Karl Marx (1818-83), in his unfinished manuscript 'Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie' [Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy] (1857-8):

'Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature.'

Exponents of so-called eco-Marxism have seized upon this strand in Marx’s work to develop the idea that technology in general, and the social relations of production it engenders, are at the root of environmental degradation.

While this is the opening track on the album, the composition derives its material from the final scene of the newsreel. This shows the coal – having been extracted, screened, cleaned, and sorted in the earlier sections of the movie – in railway wagons, ready to be pulled by steam engine to one of the docks in South Wales. The sounds of steam and shunting provide the rhythmic spine of the piece.

The musical content of the composition is adapted from the British Movietone theme at the start of the newsreel. This has been dissected, reorganised, slowed down, and played against itself backwards, in reverse counterpoint. The samples were, then, re-equalised to place greater emphasis upon the sonorities of the orchestra’s brass section. The brass band was a staple of music culture in the South Wales valleys. One played on the day Penallta Colliery was nationalised in January 1947, and another when it closed in November 1991.

One of the sound sources used in process of composition – that is external the film’s soundtrack – is a shellac recording from 1936 of the overture to Jacques Offenbach’s (1819-1880) 'Orpheus in the Underworld' (1858). This was composed in the same year in which Marx left off writing the text of Grundrisse. On the record, it is played by Yorkshire’s Black Dyke Mills Band. There are three other reasons why I chose this recording. First, according to brass band historian Trevor Herbet, there were no recordings made by Welsh brass bands in the 1930s. Secondly, the theme of the underworld is conspicuously apposite in the context of coalmining. And, finally, the Black Dyke Mills Band was an ensemble that I had heard often in my youth.

In the newsreel, music is played against the intertitles that introduce the movie and its chapters. In other words, it is separate from, and external to, the cinematic account of the colliery in action. My ambition was to bring the music into the colliery – as it had been on those two salient occasions in its history, by a brass band. Furthermore, I wanted to integrate it with the colliery’s own intrinsic sounds of men at work and the machines they operated. In this and the other pieces, where pre-composed material is used, the music content serves variously as a mood setter, an accompaniment, and a structural element.

My adaptation of the source evokes a dark imperative associated with socialist soviet music of the period. It reminded me of the original orchestral score by Edmund Meisel (1894–1930) that accompanied Sergei Eisenstein’s (1898–1948) silent film 'Battleship Potemkin', released in 1925. (Much of the film’s action takes place in the Port of Odessa, Ukraine.) Unlike the newsreel’s musical interludes, the revisions endeavour to address the struggles of, and injustices faced by, the workforce. Which were many.

At the close of the composition, that source is turned into something that sounds like orchestral dance music from the previous decade – which would have formed part of the backdrop to the colliers’ leisure life. Thus, while it’s out of keeping with the theme of the composition, nevertheless (in that respect), the music is not unlike the incongruous sounding interludes that accompany the intertitles.

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from Penallta Colliery: Sound pictures [album], released July 31, 2022

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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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