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.