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Sound expressive of something

from Noisome Spirits [album] by John Harvey



‘Sound expressive of something’ focuses on the musical character of the ‘Tune of the Fairies’, so called. The composition was circulating in Monmouthshire in Jones’s day. Whatever its origin, it possessed peculiar and distinctive features. Whether Jones had heard it for himself, or merely heard tell of it, he recalled that its tune was difficult to learn, ‘well-composed’, ‘made of curious parts: the bass and tenor well-answering to one another, and somewhat brisk and long’. He was surprised that the young girl – who had on so many occasions danced with the fairies to their music – had not remembered any of the tunes that they played. Perhaps, the complexity of the melodic lines – which, it was said, made ‘Tune of the Fairies’ difficult to learn – was a feature of all their music and, therefore, proved a challenge to recall.

My composition comprises two melodic lines running in parallel and ‘answering to one another’. The form of each is, relatively speaking, long and complex. They proceed as a series of synchronic loops, the iterations of which are sufficiently prolonged as to conceal, to a large extent, the audient’s awareness of the process of repetition. The composition fades at the close, suggesting that the tune could go on and on. The melodic lines derive from two micro-samples taken from a hyper-stretched recording of Jones’s discussion about the ‘Tune of the Fairies’ being read. The samples are processed differently with respect to re-equalisation, harmonic extraction, and general colouration, such that they sound at one and the same time related but distinct.

Source Text
P. W. lived at the Ship in Pontypool, and was born, also, in Trevethin parish. She was an honest, virtuous woman who, when a young and going to school, at one time saw the fairies dancing in a pleasant dry place under a crab-tree. She saw them like children, much of her own size. Hearing pleasant music among them, she went to them, and was induced to dance with them. She brought them unto an empty barn to dance. This she did at times, both going and coming from school, for three or four years. Though she danced so often with them, yet she could not hear the sound of their feet; (they were spirits, and had no feet to sound with). Therefore, she took off her shoes that the might not make a sound with her feet (which she imagined was displeasing unto them). Some in the house, observing her stockings, said: ‘This girl walks in her stockings to school’. But she did not tell them of her adventure with the fairies. They had all blue and green aprons, all of a small stature, and looked oldish.

They might well look oldish, as having their existence long before (none on earth knows how long). Neither doth the appearance of youth and beauty become the children of darkness. To appear young and glorious is the property of the angels of Heaven, and not of the spirits of hell who live in sin and misery – even of those who are least in the hellish state, and but just in it on the other side of the unpassable gulf between Heaven and hell, mentioned by our saviour (who perfectly knows Heaven and hell, and all the devils in hell). For there are many sorts of them – some worse than others – as our saviour declares: ‘This kind can come forth by nothing but prayer and fasting’ (Luke 16.26, Mark 9.29).

All the spirits of hell cannot make as good appearance and divert themselves in the hellish state, as the fairies do (who are nothing else, after all the talking about them, but the disembodied spirits of men who lived and died without the enjoyment of the means of grace and salvation). When she gave over going to them to dance, they showed their displeasure. And because they could not prevail, they did hurt her by dislocating one of her walking members (which was afterward put in place). Here is one instance of their malignity, and shows to whom they belong.

But, it seems, this girl – who was so long with them, and heard the music so often – learned none of their tunes. Yet, there is in the county a tune called the ‘Tune of the Fairies’. Perhaps it is a tune learned from them (which they say was very difficult to do), or a name devised and given to the tune from mere fancy. The tune which goes by this name is (in my apprehension) a well-composed tune of curious parts: the bass and tenor well-answering to one another, and somewhat brisk and long. If it was learned from the fairies, it may justly be apprehended to have something very curious in the composition, and the sound expressive of something – if not in their condition, yet of something in their disposition – which a curious mind would have some delight to know. But, at present, it is one of the innumerable things of eternity not to be known in the course of time.

Source Reference
'The Appearance of Evil', 116–​17.


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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