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Plate 9: Underworld: Them that go down into the pit (1930)

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



The subtitle to the second ‘Underworld’ composition is taken from Psalm 88, verse 4: ‘Them that do down into the pit’. In the psalms, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, the ‘pit’ (which often referred to a deep hole dug in order to trap animals) is likened variously to the ‘grave’, the deepest darkness, and Sheol (that is to say, the nether world and the abode of the dead.) The colliery pit was also a place of darkness, where a miner’s life could be snuffed out at any moment by either an explosion, or a roof-fall, or malfunctioning equipment, among other calamities.

Like ‘Plate 7: Underworld: Journey to the Tippler House’, the composition is about existence beneath the surface: in the coal catacombs, where life and death are held in the balance and the present and the past confront one another. In contrast to the concept of ‘death’ in the psalms, the colliery pit was not silent and inert. Rather, the underworld was a domain of implacable noise, heat, and physical exertion.

Similarly, 'Plate 10: Underworld: Them that go down to the pit' is an essay on brutal and dehumanising labour: miners are driven by deadlines and the demands of productivity at any cost, like enslaved Hebrews in Egypt. In the composition, the colliers’ voices seem to cry-out one moment, only to be trodden down the next. Again, there are contrasting passages of pensive reflection: a lament for the labourers’ predicament.

At the close of the piece, there is a trumpet-like sound (made from final notes on the newsreel) – the last trump of the resurrection, perhaps – which moves into a silence, as the clamour of coal production fades. Finally, an ensemble of trumpets plays a dissonant and dispiriting melody with a foreboding undertone: the anticipation of judgement to come, perhaps.


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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