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Plate 5: Overland: Pitscape (1930)

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



The colliery’s surface could be very noisy at some times in the day and almost silent at others, such that you could hear the wind blowing through the long grass on the surrounding mountainside.

'Plate 5: Overland: Pitscape (1930)’ has several points of origin: first, my acoustic memory of Beynon’s Colliery and others pits in the Blaina and Abertillery district; secondly, the scale-model of a coalmine made William Phelps (a coalminer) and his wife; and, thirdly, the newsreel’s opening pan of the surface workings at Penallta Colliery.

In my preadolescence, I had access to the surface of the pit where my paternal grandfather was Overman. The soundscape of that terrain, as well as the noises associated with heavy machinery and particular buildings – including the Winding House and Washery – made a considerable and an abiding impression on both my imagination and sense of that place.

I encountered Phelps model when conducting research for the 'Miner Artists; The Art of Welsh Coal Workers' exhibition, which I curated in 2000. It was made in 1922, when he was a coalminer at Treherbet in the Rhondda. The model (which is a composit representation of several collieries in that valley) is made from a combination of scrap found on rubbish tips and wooden packing cases. It measures 4 metres long, 2 metres wide, and 2 metres high, and is powered by an electric motor that drives pullies and cams and animates the cage, figures of the miners, and ponies pulling drams. The motor also makes sounds associated with a pit in operation.

Like the cinematic pan in the newsreel, the composition moves directionally and in time, from one sonic event to another. The soundscape represents a colliery landscape, pictured acoustically. Its surface workings are not ‘seen’, as in the 19th century tradition of industrial landscape painting, from a fixed point or prospect. Rather, the listener’s experience is informed by a cubist and cinematic conception. Sounds are experienced from multiple perspectives at once, often overlaid and interpenetrating, They are variously heard: first, at a distance; then, close to the action; and, then, from inside a building. It is the encounter of a roving ear. The composition’s sounds are, for the most part, not those recorded on the newsreel soundtrack. Rather, they have been fabricated from those that were. Thus, the composition is the soundtrack to a film that never was.

The sounds represent: the winder engine and wheels being turned on, gathering momentum, and decelerating; hooters announcing the change of shifts; metal being hammered; iron wheels being tapped; the clank of drams; coal being shunted, doors slamming shut; levers being thrown; and the distant and reverberant holler of miners, as they go about their work.


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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