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London Calling

Rhodri Davies

By Published: October 25, 2003

AAJ: Yes, listening to your album [ Trem ] and Mark's album [ Foldings ], back-to-back, his is at the threshold of hearing, very extreme. Yours is positively loud by comparison.

RD: Definitely. Trem encompasses all the aspects of my playing, whereas Mark's CD is quite specifically in one area, which he has been pushing quite considerably. Foldings is like a beautiful field recording - little events happen. I wasn't consciously just going for a reductionist CD or otherwise. It was a document of where I had got to at the time. By the time the CD came out, my solo material had moved on again.

AAJ: Was there the deliberate intention to make it sound as little like a harp as possible?

RD: It has always been my intention to do that. On the second track I play the strings in a conventional way, except that the harp is tuned differently with guitar strings. I can't remember what prompted it but I started the piece in a conventional way with tremolando and bisbigliandos. I don't get the urge to play notes that often and it was so rare that I wanted to document it. Other than that, the rest of the album is more my usual language of finding new sounds on the harp. First of all, I wanted to strip away the intrinsic harp stereotypes; arpeggios, glissandos and harmonics. Then I was influenced by the people I played with - Durrant, Wastell, Bailey, Fell, Butcher and Burn. Then I was interested in getting my instrument to sound like other instruments. That soon became a cliche so I went back to playing harmonically and getting into some of the intrinsic sounds. Now I've reached the stage where I am limiting it to fairly abstract noise. So, I am always working on different areas of making the harp not sound like a harp.

AAJ: So how much do you experiment with those techniques? I remember when I spoke to John Butcher, he said he spent ages and ages working on all of his revolutionary techniques. Is it something that you have put a great deal of time into?

RD: Initially, it would all happen in the playing. I wouldn't know before how exactly it would sound and I got the sound from the energy.

AAJ: But presumably that meant there was unpredictability about it as far as you were concerned? Is that still there, or do you more or less know when you use a certain technique what will come out now?

RD: Sometimes. It was unpredictable to me but generally I was quite predictable in the way I was always playing scritchy-scratchy busy stuff. I do still experiment with different things. I have rediscovered sounds that I threw away early on because they didn't seem appropriate then. I am looking at them in a different light, placing them in a different context. It's not often that I discover new sounds or techniques now, but they come along once in a while. I will sometimes sit at the harp and try different things out. The ebow [a small hand-held electronic resonator used to vibrate the strings] is something that I have been getting into. Even though I have got a vast range of techniques on the prepared harp, I am still finding new stuff, but it isn't as heated and exciting. It is only a very subtle shift, such as moving a finger slightly or putting an object in a different part of the string. It is less obvious, the subtleties of each different technique. These are the things that keep me interested.

AAJ: But in performance, is it still experimental? You could still be discovering things at the time? There is that possibility?

RD: Yes. Definitely. For instance, this harp [a small one that Rhodri travels with and that he mainly uses for improv work] got knocked about in the hold of an aeroplane and one foot came off. So I glued it back. In performance I was trying to find breathy sounds on the instrument. I was bowing the body and despite not wanting to bow the foot, because I'd just glued it, I wondered what it would sound like and found that it gave a much higher and louder pitch.

AAJ: You wrote to The Wire to say that you were not the first improvising harpist [citing Anne Le Baron, Carol Emanuel, Zeena Parkins and Maria Stange as examples of others]. Do you see yourself as being in some tradition of improvised harp or do you think you are breaking with that tradition? Is there a tradition?

RD: No. I was really more interested in English improvisers than harpists. When I started improvising, I had a couple of Zeena Parkins albums but I was not really interested in the electric harp. I knew of Anne Le Baron and heard some of her stuff quite late on actually. I remember thinking, "Oh bloody hell, I should have listened to this a long time ago! I could have saved myself a lot of hassle." [Laughs] But I don't have this anxiety of influence that other instrumentalists have when there's an incredible lineage. I have the opposite of that in fact. Harpists are very keen to talk of a harp tradition. I guess you could look at my conventional harp technique as French, but I don't really see any relation in that to what I do. You could follow my harp teacher Sioned Williams and trace her teachers, Osian Ellis and Renata Scheffel-Stein back to theirs, Gwendolyn Mason and Marcel Tournier etc, but I don't think that way of looking at things is relevant or helpful.



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