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Plate 12: Pneuma: A Bible in the powerhouse (1 November 1991)

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



‘There was a Bible in the winding man’s cabin when the colliery closed’, wrote Ceri Thompson, of the Big Pit: National Coalmining Museum, in an email correspondence.

The cabin was situated at the centre of the north-facing wall of Penallta Colliery’s Engine Hall. The hall housed generators, air-compressors, ventilation fans, and two steam-powered engines (and, later, electrically-powered motors) that controlled the cable used to hoist a pair of cages, which carried the miners from the bottom of the pit shafts. Many of the building’s interior features – such as the plasterwork colonnade of arches framing the windows (either side of the cabin), and the enamel- and encaustic-tiled walls and floor – were identical to those found in Nonconformist chapels built in the classical style at the time. Thus, architecture cast upon the engine hall associations with the ‘House of God’, as Nonconformist places of worship were often affectionately called.

The cabin is reminiscent of the stable represented in Piero della Francesca’s (c.1415–1492) 'The Nativity' (1740-45), where Christ – the word of God made flesh – lay (John 1.1-2, 14; Matthew 2.10). The word of God lay in the winding man’s cabin, too, for some period during the hall’s history. The Bible, which was found there after the colliery had closed, was without its front cover, in English, most likely the Authorised (King James) Version of the text, and about 26 x 16 cm in size. It has since disappeared, along with the cabin and almost everything else in the hall.

The Engine Hall was also known as the colliery’s ‘powerhouse’, just as the Gospels were also referred to as the ‘power of God’ (Romans 1.16). Thus, their presence together (the one inside the other) and metaphorical resonance, was entirely apposite. Very likely, one of the winding men who occupied the cabin had been a Christian. That would not have been uncommon in Welsh pits during the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. Many miners attended chapel and, at least nominally, assented to the fundamental doctrines of Scripture. In 1905, when the colliery was sunk, Wales was in the second year of a religious revival lead by a former coalminer, Evan Roberts. Some of those men who’d converted to Christianity in the Ystrad Mynach district would have taken-up positions at the new mine.

The Bible may have served to inform the winder’s prayers for the safety of those who had descended into the depths of earth (which was likened to hell in coalmining and chapel culture). Not all returned to the surface at the end of their shift. Coalmines could be dangerous places. Between 1864 and 1914, at least 23 miners were killed at Penallta Colliery as a result of either accident or negligence. Which, in comparison to the loss of 439 workers on just one day in 1913, as a result of an explosion at the Universal Colliery, Senghenydd, Glamorgan, was mercifully few.

That Bible had been at the heart of the heart of Penallta Colliery. Irresistibly, it has to be so in the context of the CD suite. I wanted to present the entire of the Old and New Testaments, acoustically. This required me to read aloud and record the them, page by page. Alexander Scourby had made the first ever sound recording of the complete Bible in July 1964. On my album entitled 'The Biblical Record' (2019) – which is based upon his achievement – I superimposed each side of the sixty-seven resultant 16-rpm records to form a single aggregated sonic image of about forty-minutes duration. This image undergirded a number of tracks on that album.

For the purpose of a composition based upon my reading, each page of a Bible – of the same size, language, and translation as the one in the winder’s cabin – was recorded, one at a time. On completion, 1,147 files (one for each page) were superimposed to create an analogue for the physical layering of the printed leaves of the book. The Bible comprises over three quarters of a million words. The composition is as long as the most densely worded page took to read. (This principle, together with the process of superimposing the recording of a read text, was first deployed to develop the composition entitled 'The Red Ledger' (2014).)

The aggregate superimposition of the pages is heard, in one form or another (modulated, pitch-shifted, temporally-delayed, and overlaid), throughout the length of the composition. In its native condition, this highly complex and resonant sound is not unlike that produced by some types of colliery machinery. This resemblance was fortuitous and unexpected, but welcome. To this was added the sound of the Bible's pages being turned and rifled through.


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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