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London Calling

Rhodri Davies

By Published: October 25, 2003

AAJ: To summarise that then, you are an improviser who plays harp, rather than a harpist who improvises.

Yes, yes, yes. I see myself as an improviser. I have always felt outside the harp world. When growing up and doing my grades, everybody seemed to choose the same pieces, either because of the kudos for being difficult or because they were supposed masterpieces of the harp repertoire. I always stayed well clear of the pieces that everyone was playing as fast and as robotically as they possibly could! Instinctively, I felt outside all of that competitive side. Then I got into listening to contemporary music, which opened up a whole new world. Only a few harpists are actually dealing with the contemporary harp repertoire. They generally stop with Britten's Suite for Harp. It is so frustrating really. I could show you fifty programmes from harp concerts I have been to where they have, more or less, played the same repertoire. Then there is this attitude towards pieces that are supposed to be contemporary masterpieces: "Oh I can play Berio's Sequenza and make mistakes and nobody will know the difference." - not realising the piece has a performance history of - what? - over forty years, and people know exactly how the piece should sound. Harpists tend to be stuck in this very closed-off little world of their own. That of course is generalising but I couldn't wait to break free from it.

AAJ: So when did you personally start improvising?

RD: I used to jam along when I was in school, playing bluesy riffs on the harp, with a friend who was a guitarist. I played drums as well. Then, when I was at university, I would improvise alone in my room - terrible cod cadenzas. Awful. I cringe to think what it sounded like - sort of messing around tonally. While I was doing my MA in Huddersfield in 1994, that was when I started doing group improv, I met two other musicians who were interested in improvising. One was a pianist that was into Keith Jarrett, the other was a trombone player who was influenced by Stockhausen. So two quite contrasting characters, and there I was in the middle somewhere. Then I heard Simon Fell play and asked him if I could play with him one day. Then I moved down to London and met Mark, and things went from there, really. In 1995, IST recorded Anagrams to Avoid and that was the first time that we played together.

AAJ: I remember seeing IST with Derek Bailey at the Vortex, in 1998. Was that your first contact with him?

RD: No. I had phoned him and asked if I could play with him, and had gone round to his house. We played as a duo. Then soon after, he asked IST to join this event called Cavanoconnor at the Vortex - he had stopped doing Company at the time - with Tony Bevan, Chris Burn, Will Gaines and Derek. We all played together at the end for a short while. Then we did the Marseilles gig - Derek, Will and IST - that was billed as Cavanoconnor, but came out as Company in Marseilles. Playing with Derek at his house was one of the most prominent musical experiences I've had. It was so musically demanding. I was exhausted afterwards. There was incredible, phenomenal detail in pitch, texture, rhythm, everything, being thrown at me. I was overjoyed when he asked IST to play at the Vortex. And then we supported him and Zorn at the Barbican. The next thing with him was Company in New York.

AAJ: When did you and Mark start All Angels?

RD: [Rhodri gets out his All Angels archive book which contains the handbills that advertised each All Angels gig. Later ones have contact details of the players.] The first gig we did was in 1999 in the hall next to the church. Then they put in a new floor, which destroyed the acoustics, so we went to the church as a necessity. There was too much reverb for my liking, generally...

AAJ: ...but it did produce some amazing sounds.

RD: It did yes. It was rare because the norm was carpeted rooms and at the time that was an issue for us, to get out of spaces that weren't conducive to playing quiet music. In a carpeted room the sound gets absorbed. In that church you could do the smallest sound and it would fill the space.

AAJ: Presumably, that had a good side and a bad side.

RD: It meant that we couldn't get everyone in to play. There are people we were really keen on playing who just wouldn't have been suitable. Solos worked particularly well in that space. We are still looking for a new place. My next project is in Cardiff. I want to do a couple of one-off gigs in the Chapter Arts Theatre.

AAJ: Any other future plans?

RD: I've just toured with Cranc, with Angharad Davies and Nikos Veliotis, so we'll collate all the recordings from that. It's a good time to put something out, because we have reached a level in our music that is quite distinct from how we started. It will be great to catalogue that. Then Broken Consort are hoping to do a tour with the larger version, six or seven of us working with more reductionist material. I am also doing a tour of Japan with Mark and Matt Davis, as Broken Consort. Mark and I are still looking for a venue to put on gigs. I am also thinking and exploring different aspects for my next solo project.

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