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Spiritual Airs of a Strange and Fantastic Character I

from Spirit Communication [album] by John Harvey

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This is the first of two book-end compositions. It provides a slow and melancholic reflection on the golden era of spiritualist endeavour. Spiritualism had promised much, but proved to be as phantom as its quest. The movement became mired in accusations of fakery, proven deception, inaccurate accounts, inadequate scientific scrutiny, and the testimony of witnesses who were too eager to believe.

The Scottish psychic Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-86) was arguably the most impressive of all the physical mediums of his day. He was also distinguished as being one of the few practitioners whose abilities were not proven to be evidently fraudulent. (Which is not the same as saying that he was not a magnificent conjuror and illusionist instead.)

Among his repertoire of feats was the phenomenon of the self-playing accordion. Ostensibly, the instrument was acted upon by the invisible hands of disincarnate spirits. They performed, according to some of the attendees at Home’s sittings, a varied musical repertoire including ‘old familiar tunes’ and ‘a well-known sweet and plaintive melody’.

The material for the composition began as an improvisation played on melodeon. The instrument is like an accordion except that, for example, it has only one row of melody buttons and each note sounds two (as opposed to the latter’s five) reeds. I played a sequence of transitions from one chord to another. These were, afterwards, divided up, slowed down digitally, and reassembled to create a single, extended melodic line without repeats.

The music that results is, however, neither familiar nor sweet but, as the title suggests, ‘strange’ and ‘fantastic’ (in the sense of remote from everyday reality). These terms were used to characterise spirit-guided performances on the accordion that sounded -- unlike parlour music -- decidedly otherworldly and less than consoling.

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from Spirit Communication [album], released December 5, 2023

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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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