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Second Piece: Servant Robe

from R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A [album] by John Harvey



The theme of the second piece was determined by the anagrammatic title: ‘Servant Robe’. It alludes to Roberts’s experience of what he termed the ‘baptism in the spirit’. This he received under the solemn imprecations of the preacher, Seth Joshua (1858–1925), during a meeting held at Roberts’s home church – Blaenannerch Chapel, Cardiganshire – in September 1904. In a moment of intense unction, Roberts cried out: ‘Bend me, O Lord!’ It was then, he believed, that God marked him out as his chosen instrument, and the Welsh revival began. The intelligible text of ‘Second Piece: Servant Robe’ is made up of the phrases ‘Bend me, O Lord!’ and ‘God brought revival’. Neither can be heard on the wax cylinder recording. The phrases are collages derived from individual words and sounds, spoken by Roberts, taken from the cylinder’s content. For example, the word ‘bend’ is made up of a ‘buh’ taken from a word ‘believe’; ‘end’ is a single-syllabic sound that is audible only when the recording is played in reverse. Assembled together, they create the sound ‘buh-end’. Similarly, ‘me’ is the ‘muh’ taken from ‘men’ combined with the ‘ee’ from ‘believe’.

The phrase ‘God brought revival’ was a more straightforward construction. Roberts says the word ‘God’ several times and ‘brought’ once, although never together on the original recording. The word ‘revival’ cannot be heard. However, the partial word ‘vival’ is faintly audible at the beginning of the homily. It is the remnant of the introductory and descriptive announcement, which was either lost along with the missing pieces of the cylinder or had become severely corrupted over time and replaying. However, in the context of the whole phrase ‘God brought revival’ what the listener hears is not ‘vival’ but ‘revival’. This is an auditory illusion called apophenia: a phenomenon whereby the listener anticipates, and therefore hears, patterns or significances where there are none to found. Roberts’s appeals and convictions repeat, gathering to a crescendo, as he (along with the choir) reach his moment of spiritual ‘crisis’ at Blaenannerch Chapel.

The composition opens and closes with a plaintive paean sung by the choir. In the background, a triad of sustained notes grow incrementally. These were made from a tiny fraction of a single note sung by the choir, which had been slowed down one hundred times. The note was, then, copied and its pitch changed digitally in order to create parallel lines of sustained harmony. Otherwise, the samples of the choir’s singing were derived directly from the recording played at normal speed, edited and, in some instances, reversed. In this way, the composition generates new melodic lines – new Welsh hymn tunes.

Choir: … cy, O Lamb that gave us glory, [reverse]
O God the only mercy, [reverse]
O God the only mercy. [2 times]

Glory! [reverse] [2 times]

ER: God …

Choir: Glory! [reverse]

ER: God brought …

Choir: Glory [reverse]

ER: God brought [re]vival. [4 times]
Choir: Glory! [reverse] [2 times]

ER: God brought …

Bend me!

Choir: Glory! [reverse]
… amb who gave us ... [reverse]

ER: Bend me!
Choir: Glory! [reverse]

ER/Choir: O Lord!

Choir: … amb who gave us ... [reverse]
… cy, O Lamb [reverse]

ER: Bend me! [4 times]

ER/Choir: O! [4 times]

Choir: … cy, O Lamb that gave us glory, [reverse]
O God the only mercy, [reverse]
O God the only mercy. [2 times]


from R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A [album], released July 12, 2015


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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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