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Standing by a holy tree

from Noisome Spirits [album] by John Harvey



Who or what was the ‘black man’ seen by the young woman? Rhiw-newynydd was in the parish of Trevethin, Monmouthshire, eleven miles north of Newport, where the River Usk enters the Bristol Channel. Between 1725 and 1740, Bristol was one of the biggest centres of the transatlantic slave trade. It had a large population of enslaved Africans not only awaiting transportation to the American colonies but also working for wealthy households in the city. Conceivably, the man she encountered was an escapee. However, this explanation would explain neither his peculiar shape nor unnaturally heavy tread and loud whistling. Perhaps this is an instance of misidentification, coloured by her unfamiliarity with, or the otherness of, the stranger under the tree. (Few people in rural areas on Wales would have had the opportunity to encounter a person of colour at this time.) Thus, fear and disorientation may have contributed to her exaggerated perception of the visual and auditory aspects of the experience.

While this is a programmatic composition, it does not observe the order of events as they are related in the account. It begins with an irregular heartbeat, onto which a hesitant and wary melodic theme is mapped. The chiming tiny bells that follow signify both the cows (who may have worn such), which she brought from the field on her return to the holy tree, and the ‘black man’. (This anticipates the association forged between their sound and a supernatural presence, in the next track: ‘This Sweet Bell Ringing’.) Then, a dog is heard snarling at the man, followed by the reverberant thud of his tread and echoing whistle. The composition ends in anxiety, with sounds evoking the young woman’s now fast and regular heartbeat and deep breathing.

The heartbeat was my own; the breath was extracted from exhalations following the annunciation of phrases read from the account and slowed down considerably. The dog’s worrying and protestation were sampled from the same reading speeded-up. The man’s thud was the sound of a large tome being forcibly closed, while his whistling was constructed from stretched samples of different tonalities derived from the reading. As was, too, the melodic line. The ringing bells were reiterated micro-samples of my articulation of the extra-textual word ‘bells’.

Source Text
Anne (the daughter of Herbert Jenkins and sister of the late Revd and eminent minister of Christ, Mr Herbert Jenkins of Maidstone in Kent), a lovely young woman, eminently well disposed to what is good, gave me the following relation of an apparition, which she had seen in the daytime.

Going one evening to milk the cows by Rhiw-newynydd, and going through the wood under Rhiw-newynydd to seek them, she saw like a black man standing by a holly-tree. The bitch, which was with her, saw him also and ran towards him to bark at him, upon which he stretch­ed out his black tongue. The bitch was fright­ened, and ran back to the young woman turning about her feet for fear. The young woman herself was much terrified, so that she could not use her tongue. She went on, found the cows, and brought them back to their own field from whence they had strayed.

Passing by the holly-tree, back again, she feared to look upon it lest she should see the same sight again. But, being past it, she saw him again – very big in the middle and narrow at both ends – going before, treading very heavily, so that the ground seemed to tremble under him. He went towards a spring in that field which is under Rhiw-newynydd, called Ffynnon yr Yspryd (Fountain of the Spirit), because of an apparition formerly seen by it. About which, he fetched a turn and went over the stile from that field into the Rhiw-newynydd (the common way so called), and there he whistled so exceeding strong that the cwm (the narrow valley) echoed it back. Then he departed, and she felt herself well. I make no doubt of the truth of this from so virtuous a young woman, who indeed feared God.

Source Reference
'The Appearance of Evil', 114–​15.


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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