Improvising harpist Rhodri Davies recently released his first solo album, Trem
on Confront, the label run by his friend and frequent collaborator, Mark Wastell. The album marks a significant watershed in the career of Rhodri, who is one of the busier improvising musicians on the London scene. Not only does he improvise in several contrasting ensembles - IST, Cranc, Assumed Possibilities, The Sealed Knot, Broken Consort, Chris Burn's Ensemble, to name but a few - he also plays contemporary compositions with Apartment House as well as classical work plus occasion stints as accompanist to teenage soprano Charlotte Church. When I interviewed Rhodri in May, I focussed on his main love, his improvisation work.
All About Jazz: I liked Trem, but on large parts of it you wouldn't know it was harp. It seems like a culmination of a direction you've been going in for quite a long time. Is that right?
Yes. I had been going into different studios and working on my solo material for about five years and I wasn't happy either with the recording studio or my playing or a combination of both. One studio was quite dry acoustically so it was difficult to get any satisfactory sound coming back, which made it difficult to improvise in. That, partly, was the interesting thing about recording Trem
in a church, the incredible acoustic, which was very easy to play with. But the acoustics dictated a certain way of playing in that church. I couldn't go in and play loud and busy because there would be too much coming back. So Trem
is a lot to do with improvising with the space, especially on the last track where I hardly play anything at all but you can hear the radiators shutting off, like little clanking bells in the distance. So it was a culmination of working on my solo material and finding a space I was happy with. I've played so many concerts in that church in the All Angels series I've got to know the room really well. I know its potential and what it can do. [There is a fine double CD of the series, The All Angels Concerts 1999-2001
just released on Emanem, (Emanem 4209), compiled by Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell, and including performances by John Russell, John Butcher & Mark Hutchinson, Steve Beresford & Roger Turner, Eddie Prevost, and Veryan Weston.] It took me ages to get to a stage where I was happy improvising on my own. When I first improvised solo it was pretty dire - I filled all the space out of sheer terror; I couldn't allow a moment of silence because I felt very exposed. Since then I became more comfortable with silence as my playing developed. The initial impetus for improvising was to work with other people and a lot of my sound would feed off them and their ideas. I reached a stage where I wanted to see what my musical output would be on my own, and what would happen when I had complete responsibility for the music.
AAJ: ...and that has taken about five years to produce stuff that you feel is good enough to release. Could you say more about playing solo versus playing with other people? Some people say that is vastly different; with other people it is constant reaction?
RD: What I like to do when working with other musicians is not to play the obvious things. How and when to play with others concerns me as much as what to play. To play against or alongside someone can be more interesting than playing in response to another musician. As I became more comfortable with playing solo, it changed and influenced how I played in a group, in that I was far more aware and conscious of my own voice. The kind of group activity I like is where very clear individual voices fit into the group music. I've always been attracted to improvisers who can do that.
AAJ: For lots of improvisers there is a tension between having an individual voice but it changing in different contexts. Are you aware of that happening for you?
RD: I imagine that I play differently with different musicians. Playing with IST is a good example, because we have a fairly long playing history but rarely play. It is always an event to play in that group and we tend to come up with new ways of playing together when we meet. Recently at the Freedom of the City we were focussing on pitches, prior to that in Berlin we were playing with reduced textures, in New York it was more abstract noise territory, though this is never a conscious group decision. The interesting thing when I play with IST is that I am playing in relation to how we have played in the past. (I can't speak for the others.) When I play with Mark it is even more complex, because I am involved in so many different groups with him, [See London Calling September 2001 for Mark Wastell's comments on Rhodri.] If he is playing cello I will have a different approach to when he is playing amplified textures. It is not necessarily a conscious thing that I work out in advance. It depends on so many variables but the one constant is the trust between us.
AAJ: But when you were saying that you played differently with IST in different places, was that pre-determined? Or is that just how it turned out?
RD: Sometimes how we play depends on the room or the occasion. The excitement of being on the Company Week in New York and of playing with John Zorn the following night gave us this incredible energy. When we played in a beautiful church in Lodi in Italy the room was a phenomenal, octagonal church covered wall-to-wall in gilt paintings. The sound was rebounding off so many walls at a different rate of knots that I didn't know what was coming back at me. The playing was also affected by the audience's reaction; it was a contemporary classical audience, so at first we weren't quite sure what sort of vibe we would get from them, whether or not they would like it. So the main factors are; my relationship with my instrument, audience, room and the history of the group. Sometimes I will consciously limit my playing to certain areas, like at Freedom of the City this year where I took my classical harp. Whenever I feel that I become too dependent on my preparations, I strip things down so I don't find myself relying too heavily on them. It was quite scary, in a way, just to turn up with my main harp no bow and a few preparations that wouldn?t destroy the strings, and to just limit it to that. That gave it a bit of an edge for my own playing and my relationship with my instrument.
AAJ: Your relationship with the instrument must be vastly different in different contexts. You play in a wide variety of contexts. How do you reconcile all of that? Is it all part of the same thing to you? Or do you have to adopt a different mindset?
RD: I'm very clear that there is a split between my classical and my improvising music, in that I do the classical work as a way of earning a living. I do find myself in some absolutely ridiculous musical situations that I hate to be in as a result of my job. The vast majority of harp music I get asked to play is romantic, with glissandi and arpeggios, stuff that I hate. The one advantage is that I just turn up on the day do the one rehearsal and gig and then go. I don't have to sit through loads of bloody awful rehearsals! That is one advantage of being freelance, instead of a full time orchestral player, which I couldn't do. It would drive me mad. Things get a bit more blurred when I play contemporary classical music, though I especially enjoy working with Apartment House. They work with graphic scores and indeterminate pieces. I lump that in with my creative work, even though some of it is composed. And then within improvisation, a lot of the different groups I play with have developed individual characteristics, either owing to the people playing or the instrumentation. I like that variety. Then in the last two or three years, I have been getting into playing with people who play electronics. I've found that sound world really interesting. Prior to that I was more interested in space and silence. So it is constantly changing.
AAJ: That is interesting. Would you see yourself as having come out of that Silence? It strongly characterised you and Mark for a while. Is that how you see it?
RD: Yes, definitely. At first when Mark and I started improvising, people would say we were incredibly quiet. But that was a lot to do with the nature of our instruments; naturally the dynamic range is going to be far quieter. I don't think people were really taking on board the difference between saxophone & drums and harp & cello. I do get annoyed when people say I'm playing ever so quietly and sensitively when I'm not, when I'm actually not only playing loudly on a harp but as loud as any acoustic harp could. Mark and I were playing in lots of groups at the time that had a more chamber approach to instrumentation, working with strings and non-rock or jazz instruments. And even when we started out we were working with quiet textured material in a trio with Nick Smith who played prepared violin. At the time I was listening to Cage and Feldman and Mark introduced me to Lachenmann. This whole new silence stuff started when Ed Baxter from the LMC came up after hearing an IST gig, when we'd only been playing for about a year, and said "What's with all this New Silence?" And quite a few other musicians were having a go at us at the time that we were like men in white lab-coats, looking through microscopes. So we turned it from a negative reaction to a positive thing. Certain people obviously thought we were doing something different and had problems with it. I always began with the premise that categorising music is largely meaningless. When we were running All Angels we had to come up with numerous ways of getting the music noticed at all by the listings. I think we actually only used the phrase "New London Silence" on one flyer and that was as a bit of a piss take. As a result people got really wound up about it. That's the problem with naming something; it is bound to make people feel excluded. Even now people will come up to me and have a go at me because of it. Which is funny because, in my mind, the really interesting things that were happening in reductionism happened about six or seven years ago, and most people have moved on or into different areas now. The thing I liked about it then was that it hadn't been codified or given a name. It was just in the air, really. I first became aware of reductionism through working with Phil Durrant. He had this great dissatisfaction with playing busy improv, and was finding ways to deal with it - mainly through electronics and playing in a trio with Radu Malfatti and Thomas Lehn, their CD Beinhaltung was a landmark recording. As well as my explorations with Mark I was also working in a trio with Robin Hayward and Martin Hackett that was trying to find a way of improvising with silence. Robin performed an incredibly powerful solo in 1997 in the Rose and Crown opposite Hession/Wilikinson/Fell which employed large amounts of silence and quiet sounds, the heckling and fridge noise was louder than the music. I was also interested in John Butcher's work because he was a saxophonist who was working at the dynamics of strings. Especially important were my visits to Berlin since '97 where I met Burkhard Beins in Berlin and his duo with Michael Renkel [Activity Center]. They were actually working with stopwatches. At the time I thought it was heresy to be improvising with stopwatches! But I found their music fascinating. They had worked together for about ten years and wanted to come up with a different way of playing; they didn't want to play the same old shit, really. So meeting them was really important and from that came the Sowari Quartet with Durrant, Beins and Renkel. It was also around that time I first played with Axel Dorner, Annette Krebbs and Andrea Neumann. So, all of this was in the ether, really. It was only later I became aware that Austrian and Japanese musicians had also been playing in this different way. Silence is still a preoccupation of mine, but it's never been about just playing silence for silence's sake or quiet for quiet's sake. It's something I've always been attracted to in improv, that it pushes things to the extreme and questions established forms; I see reductionism as an extension of this.