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Plate 2: Flora and Fossils (1868)

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



On returning to the subject of coalmining after over two decades, I realised that my approach to Penallta Colliery in particular, and the history of fossil-fuel extraction in general, had to take into account the current context of climate change. Since COP26, especially, the coal industry has become public enemy number one. Therefore, whatever romantic attachment we may still have to Welsh collieries needs to be tempered by the realisation that they have contributed to the environmental crisis. Not that the early industrialists and others were oblivious to the deleterious consequences of carbon emission and coal production.

In 2003, I published an edition, entitled 'The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales', of spirit narratives collected by Edmund Jones (1702–93). He was an eighteenth-century Calvinistic Congregationalist minister, born at Penllwyn in the parish of Aberystruth, Monmouthshire. This was a mountainous and forested landscape, popularly believed to be the abode of dark forces. He wrote two books dedicated to these agencies. The original was published in 1767, and a sequel, entitled A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales, in 1780. They are collections of testimonies describing allegedly genuine encounters with spiritual entities, such as fairies, ghosts, devils, and witches. A number of such accounts also appeared in his 'A Geographical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth', published in 1789.

In the latter book, Jones discussed the notable features of the Ebbw Fach valley. He observed the despoilation of the River Ebbw by coalmining, when it was little more than a cottage industry:

'Higher up, the water is not very clear, being often troubled Pond waters scouring the Coal works; which also is unfriendly to Fishes, and makes them more scarce.'

Recently, I returned to Jones’s books as the source and inspiration for my album entitled Noisome Spirits (2021).

The environmental perspective comes to the surface periodically throughout the suite of compositions that comprise the present sound work. ‘Plate 2 Flora and Fossils (1868)’ is based upon an observation by the mining engineer William Fairley, taken from the prefatory remarks in his Glossary of the Terms Used in the Coal-Mining-Districts, published in 1868. Fairley lamented the unavoidable, swift, and irrevocable loss of the fossil record of local plants, as the landscape was turned inside out during the sinking of pits shafts and excavation of the tunnels:

'To the geologists there are many problems yet to solve before he can have a complete and comprehensive view of the deposits and the dislocations interrupting them; and with regard to the flora of the district, we think it a great pity that illustrative plates of the varied specimens are not now secured before they are buried in the rubbish tips to be lost forever to the scientific world. No one, perhaps, is better able to take notice of such fossil impressions than the colliery viewer, but the pressing duties of his office entirely prevent him from giving that time to the subject which would be necessary for securing a faithful description of it.'

Carbonized fossils are often found embedded in shale: the mud or silt that is found between the seams of coal. Examples of ‘coalification’, as it is sometimes referred to, consist of organic remains that have been converted into a thin skin – literally a film – of carbon, reminiscent of a cyanotype print. In one sense, this type of fossil is a 'photograph' made of coal. Albeit one formed in darkness rather than by the action of light, and after an extremely long exposure time.

Miners would have encountered these vestiges from 359 to 299 million years ago, daily. Coal is carbonized fossil writ large. Thus, their whole working life was spent digging into an unimaginably distant past as unselfconscious archaeologists. ‘Flora and Fossils’ references the quotation by Fairley.
At the beginning of the British Movietone film there is a so-called 'tail' that bears blank frames bearing handwritten inscriptions – made by either the cinematographer, or editor, or film-processor – that identify the reel. The inscription-sequence lasts about two seconds. It is a text-image embedded in the photo-sensitive emulsion of the celluloid – a fossil analogue, if you will.

The sound content at the start of the composition comprises: the first note of the Movietone theme music (which is heard in-full, a few seconds later); a ‘click’ (which may indicate the boundaries of a splice); and low-grade noise produced by the medium and the effects of ageing. This is followed by a drone derived from a blast from the colliery hooter, announcing the end of one shift and the beginning of another. It accompanies, and is co-extensive with, an opening camera pan of the pit surface.

I set about processing this source material, along with the initial sound recorded on the newsreel, to produce sonorities that summoned, metaphorically, the pressure and heat required to process the carbonized fossils over a long period of time. To this end, I placed the material under a tight audio compression and stretched it by a factor of x40, variously emphasising the noise and harmonics of the resultant output. The intertwining melodic lines are two versions of me reading the quote from Fairley’s book, slowed down considerably and at different rates, and arranged in reverse counterpoint. That is to say, with each version being played forward and backward simultaneously.

The composition has a slow progress and a somewhat stop-start character, which reflects the abrupt edits and transitions that are a feature of the newsreel. In relation to Fairley’s account, this aspect of the composition sonifies what he refers to as the ‘dislocations interrupting’ the deposits of coal. Seams were sometimes discontinuous, being ruptured by shale and rock.


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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