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Such a noise as if all about was going to pieces

from Noisome Spirits [album] by John Harvey



The composition is based upon a witness’s encounter with a noise so cataclysmically loud that he thought the very fabric of reality was disintegrating. The context of the audition was an incident that began and ended in the parish of Ystradgynlais, Breconshire. It concerned the son of an innkeeper. One night, in a lane, he saw the spirit of a well-dressed woman. She was large, pale, and severe, and spoke with a ‘hollow’ voice that was discernibly different to a human one.

The spirit commanded him to go with her to Philadelphia, and take a box containing two hundred pounds from a house there. A week later she transported him supernaturally to Philadelphia and the house, from where he retrieved the money. Afterwards, the woman told him that he must walk three miles to a place she called the ‘Black Sea’ – which, he recalled, was ‘a lake of clear water’ – and cast-in the box. On doing so, the young man testified: ‘there was such a noise as if all about was going to pieces’.

A woman in the neighbourhood of Ystradgynlais thought that the spirit may have been that of one Elizabeth Gething, who had emigrated to Pennsylvania some eighty years previously. In 1682, Baptists from Mid and West Wales had journeyed to Philadelphia and settled on the banks of the Delaware River. A period map shows that had the young man walked from the boundaries of the city along the river in a south-westerly direction (and only in that direction) for three miles (as instructed by the spirit), he would have alighted upon what might have appeared to him to be a lake, but was in fact a creek.

My electro-acoustic response to the account begins with a sound that would have been indigenous to the original event: the splash (which is not mentioned in the text) made by a box full of money entering the lake. The incident was either accompanied or proceeded by (the text is not clear) ‘such a noise as if all about was going to pieces.’ I recreated the splash, as would a Foley artist by dropping a heavy object into a bath full of water.

The derived source sound, and only this, provides the raw material for the composition. Eight separate recordings of the splash were superimposed. The combined sample was, then, reduced in pitch by three octaves and slowed down moderately, in order to extend to three-seconds in length. By these means, the resultant splash sounds larger, fuller, and more reverberant than in the original recordings. The three-second sample was further stretched to three minutes. This version of the source provides the rather doleful spine to the composition, along which other elements are arranged. (The measure ‘3’ refers to the number of miles that the witness walked before casting the box into the lake.) These other elements include various disarticulations of the three-second splash. They evoke the sense of the witness’s world going to pieces.

One technique involved subjecting the source to the process of bitcrushing, which distorts by reducing its sample rate and resolution. Another ‘manually’ dismembered the 3-second sound recording of the splash into twelve parts (corresponding to the number of houses represented in Jones’s astrological chart). Each part was further divided into twelve. The resultant one hundred and forty-four elements were then reassembled arbitrarily, and variously overlaid and played at different speeds.

Source Text
In the parish of Ystradgynlais came to pass the following remarkable occurrence, which I had from under the hand of the Revd Mr T. L., who then lived in that neighbourhood.

A young man (son to an innkeeper) was often troubled by supernatural odd sights sometimes of light, sometimes of darkness, and of dark misshapen things in the night – for some years. At last, a spirit appeared to him in the shape of a well-dressed woman (whose clothes he described), who stood before him in a narrow lane. He strove to pass by her, and did in much fear, as doubting what she might be. Sometime after, having occasion to pass that way at night, he saw her in the same shape and in the same dress, and he failed to pass by her. He, then, strove to take heart, and asked her what she wanted with him. As he was not without fear (and fearfully looked upon her). She bid him not fear: she would do him no hurt, for she had looked often in his face in the space of eight years time. The woman told him he must go to Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, and take a box from a house there (which she described) in which was 200 pounds in half-crowns, and charged him to meet her again next Friday night.

He having declared this to some neighbours, the news went to the ears of the curate of the parish (who is a good man). He sent for this young man to come to his house. There they appointed a prayer-meeting to be that Friday evening in some house in the neighbourhood, to which they desired the young man to come. The meeting con­tinued till midnight, in which he was observed to be very uneasy to go out. When the meeting ended, he went out with the parson’s servants to the horses. Coming back from the stable door, he was taken from among them and they lost him, and knew not how (at which they were greatly amazed, not knowing what to think of it). The apparition carried him away to a river hard by, threw him into it, and wetted him. She did chide him for telling the people of the appointed meeting, and not coming to meet her according to promise. Yet, she bid him not fear – that she would not hurt him.

‘And now’, said she, ‘we begin the journey’. And he was lifted up and carried away (he knew not how) without seeing sun and moon in all the journey. When he came to the place, he saw light, and was carried into a house (he knew not how) and into a fine room, but saw no man. When he was come into that room, the spirit bid him lift up a board – which he did. He saw the box, and took it. Then the spirit said, he must go three miles and cast it into the black sea. They went (as he thought) to some lake of clear water, where he was commanded to throw the box into it. When he did, there was such a noise as if all about was going to pieces. From thence, he was taken up and brought to the place where he was taken up. He then asked her whether he was free now. She said he was, and told him some secret thing, and strictly charged him to tell no person. He was three days and three nights in this mysterious journey (from Friday night to Monday night), which they only in the other world fully understand. When he came home he could hardly speak, and his skin was somewhat like leather. He can hardly look in another man’s face and looks rather sickly (for he is still alive, or lately was so). As to her person: she was largely made, looked pale, her looks severe, and her voice hollow (different from a human voice). He was not in great dread while she spoke, but in great dread before she spoke and when she parted from him. A woman in the neighbourhood remembered, lately, that (about eighty years ago) one Elizabeth Gething went from this neighbourhood into Pennsylvania; most likely, it was her spirit (which, perhaps, she told the young man).

Some will object (or at least will wonder), how a spirit should be able to carry a man in the air over land and sea about 4,000 miles, forward and backward. But, let it be remembered, that an evil spirit carried the body of our saviour in the day that he was suffered to tempt him through the air to Jerusalem and the pinnacle of the temple (Matthew 4.5). This was up hill indeed, and more difficult than to carry him either downward or onward (unless spirits are not subject to the pressure of the atmosphere as bodies are and, therefore, inconceivably stronger to carry burdens than if they were subject to the pressure of the air). Besides, disembodied spirits are vastly stronger out of the body than they can possibly be in it, because it is a load about the spirit, which greatly hinders its operation. This takes off the difficulty to believe that the spirit of this woman was able (who also might be helped by another spirit) to carry this young man to and from Philadelphia over the vast Atlantic sea and much land.

The difficulty is: What end could be answered by the destruction of so much money as was done here, and in diverse other places in the same manner, and even in this parish, as shall presently be relate? My answer is: that we know little of the manner of the world of spirits, and there are many instances in the apparitions of spirits of eternity that they were very short in giving account of the other world. Good spirits will not, and evil spirits durst not, give a large or larger account. And why? But because the strong human corruption, which corrupts everything, would be sure to make some ill use of a larger and more particular knowledge of the things of the other world, as it doth of this.

Thus, I have (as well as I could) given account of this wonderful apparition and transaction, according as I have received it. There seems, indeed, some defective circumstances in the relation, which make it liable to objections, which the relater (a man of undoubted verity) either forgot or did not particularly enquire into. But the substance of it may be depended upon.
Only one gentleman in the parish objected against it and (as was said) threatened to punish the harmless undesigning young man for telling lies. But the gentleman had not then, and may be not afterward condescended to examine the young man about it. But why is it that so many of the gentry affect to deny these important matters of fact? Is it not because they are farther alienated from God and spiritual things than others in common. They were poor that received the Gospel in the days of Jesus Christ, not the Sadducees – who denied the being of spirits ‘For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit’ (Acts 23.8). Here, they deny the very being of God and eternity, etc. And the self-righteous Pharisees did not receive the Gospel. A minute after death will convince them of their obstinate, unreasonable infidelity. And hell must do it for many, and it will be a home conviction.

​Source Reference
'The Appearance of Evil', 46–47.


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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