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Plate 10: Pneuma: Mr Shinwell​’​s reply (14 July 1931)

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



The composition focuses upon the sound of pneumatic coal picks in operation. The source is derived from one of the longest continuous scenes in the newsreel. It follows the Overman’s first descriptive narrative. The composition’s title refers to a parliamentary discussion about pneumatic coal picks and their usage in 1930 (the year in which the newsreel was released), which was minuted in the Hansard Report for July 1931. Mr Tinker:

'asked the Secretary for Mines the number of pneumatic coal picks there are in use in the coal mines of Great Britain; the amount of coal 215 produced by them during 1930; and the county or district that has the greatest number in use?'

Manny Shinwell (1884-1986) replied:

'During 1930, 2,214 pneumatic picks were in use for getting coal at mines in Great Britain; 601,152 tons were got by 371 picks which were used in conjunction with coal-cutting machines and 2,495,084 tons by 1,843 picks used independently. The district using the greatest number of such picks was Durham, namely, 758.'

The new technology was making a significant impact on the extraction of coal in UK, in comparison to the yield produced using manual pick-work alone. Pneumatic machinery was first invented in 1871. Devices such as the pneumatic hammer and pick followed in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. They were driven by compressed air and introduced an entirely new sound into the colliery – one that was loud, fierce, and insistent, particularly in the close confines of a heading (as the newsreel's soundtrack suggests).

‘Plate 10 Pneuma: Mr Shinwell’s reply (14 July 1931)’ consists, for the most part, of the sounds of pneumatic coal picks both in operation and idling. They were extracted from the newsreel’s soundtrack in their entirety. The composition leans towards noises (rather than melodic musicality), and is structured around a percussive spine made by the repetition of a fabricated hammering sound and the stuttering of an air compressor which supplied CO2 to the coal pick. The coal pick in operation is reminiscent of like a Gatling gun firing. Following the opening salvo, one coal pick solos and, afterwards, participates in a duet when a second is introduced. They are differently pitched. Throughout the length of the composition, aspects of the coal pick’s and air compressor’s sonorities are modified in terms of pitch, speed, delay, and harmonic presence.

There are three sections, each with a different rhythmic pattern. The second section incorporates slowed-down versions of the first; and the final one highlights the sound of coal being shovelled into a dram after the coal pick has done its work. The coda is the brief exchange between the Overman and camera crew prior to recording his first narrative.


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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