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Seen in the air

from Noisome Spirits [album] by John Harvey



To the titlepage of 'A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales' is appended, as part of the extended description of contents: ‘To Which is Added the Remarkable Account of the Apparition in Sunderland’. My suite of compositions honours Jones’s discursion into English spirit history by including an account that did not take place in Wales. ‘Seen in the air’ responds to a testimony about a strange phenomenon that took place in the sky above Penterwin, Shropshire, close to the Welsh border, in 1853.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, these objective apparitions – which appeared over Britain and Europe – were witnessed by many people simultaneously. At the time, the anomalies were interpreted as a heavenly vision of unknown purpose, but undoubtedly a portent of some ensuing disaster. Prodigies occurred particularly around times of national anxiety, such as before and after the Civil War, the Black Death, and the Great Fire of London. The accounts share certain iconographical features, chief among which was the motif of an aerial battle. Henry Lewes related the account of another apparition, which appeared over Carmarthen in January 1681, in which two armies and two fleets of ships were visible. On this occasion, there were accompanying sounds: groanings, appeals, and cries.

‘Seen in the air’ conflates the Penterwin and Carmarthen accounts. The compositional material was made from collaged samples edited from a reading of the source text, which had been slowed down, re-equalised, adjusted harmonically, and desynchronously overlaid. The soundscape evokes the auditory noises mentioned by Lewes, as well as those associated with the battles referred to in accounts of other similar apparitional conflicts in the clouds.

Source Text
About six months before the outbreak of the Crimean War, in 1853, John Meyler, Cilciffeth, saw a strange mirage in the sky. He was returning home late from Morville, and when nearing Penterwin he saw the image of strange armies in the skies. There were several battalions at first, and they increased in number till they spanned the heavens. There were two opposing forces and he could distinctly see the image of men falling and horses galloping across the firmament, and the clashes of great masses of men. He was so terrified that he called at Penbank and called the attention of Mr James Morris, who lived at that place at that time, and saw the same thing. The strange phenomenon appeared for about two hours.

Source Reference
'An Account of Terrible Apparitions', 6–7; 'The True and Wonderful Relation', [iii].


from Noisome Spirits [album], released July 15, 2021


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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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