In July 1964, the USA, Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom (under the auspices of the USA) conducted five nuclear tests. Each was given either a name or number that, at one and the same time, obscured, alleviated the awfulness of, and distinguished, the events:
Whetstone (Bye) (Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, July 16);
Whetstone/Cormorant (Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, July 17);
225 (Degelen, Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, Soviet Socialist Republic, July 19);
Whetstone (Link) (Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, July 23);
Whetstone (Trogon) (Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, July 24).
The composition is a response to a nuclear detonation. The aim was not to replicate the effect but, rather, to render its characteristic components and timing. There are a number of field recordings of explosions available online. They were captured on magnetic tape, and at some distance from the site of detonation. As such, the recordings could not render the full spectrum of sonorities produced by the ‘bang’. For the purposes of my envisioning, a fuller frequency range had to be fabricated.
The moment of combustion can be heard as a ‘crack’ (like a rifle shot) following the initial flash. Because sound waves travel through the air far more slowly than do light waves (761.2 mph, in comparison to 186,000 mps), the visual and sonic phenomena associated with the blast are always desynchronous. My ‘crack’ was supplied by the sound of a turntable’s tone-arm being dropped onto the surface of the record from a height of 2 cm. The drop of the needle is like the drop of a bomb: the analogy is as straightforward as that.
The recording of the drop was slowed-down a factor of 287.7x. The decay of the stretched version – the thunderous sound that follow – from impact to silence, lasts around 3 minutes. Copies of the same were reduced in pitch by two and four octaves and superimposed over the original. Thereafter, the combined track was raised in volume by 20 dB to produce a fiercely overdriven sound. Another copy of the track was re-equalised to remove frequencies below the 3.2 kHz threshold. The consequent version exhibits pronounced gritty ‘clicks’ – like the patter of raindrops on stretched plastic. Sonically, it evokes the electro-magnetic discharge of the explosion, which is audible on tape recordings of the Nevada Desert blasts in the 1950s.
The vocal element of the composition – heard throughout – comprises phrases taken from biblical verses describing God’s intervention in the affairs of war and militarism, to the end of vanquishing conflict. Scourby’s voice was modulated to sound like the warning and countdown announcements spoken through a Tannoy prior to the detonation.
'How the mighty have fallen,
And the weapons of war perished!'
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariot in the fire.
There He broke the arrows of the bow,
The shield and sword of battle. Selah.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds.
2 Samuel 1.27; Psalm 46.9, 76.3; Ecclesiastes 9.18; 2 Corinthians 10.4.
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