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.
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.
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.
AAJ: Will that take another five years?
RD: I have got a fairly good idea of what areas I want to work in. So hopefully not, but then again they could change.
I then had the pleasure of a short demonstration of the techniques that Rhodri is developing. This included listening to the inside of his classical concert harp while he played it, an amazing aural experience, as well as Rhodri demonstrating his use of the e-bow. His next solo album should be very different to Trem , but just as innovative. Can't wait!
Curated by Lee Perry, the Meltdown season managed to live up to its title this year, achieving the kind of cross fertilisation and boundary breaking that it was originally intended to feature. The high point was the appearance of DJ Spooky alongside the Sun Ra Arkestra and Spearhead, an evening that highlighted the similarities between the late great Sun Ra and Perry himself, not least their somewhat idiosyncratic take on reality! The Arkestra evoked the spirit of their fallen leader wonderfully, taking me back to the heady days of 1990 when they toured the UK, culminating in a fantastically memorable gig at the Hackney Empire. Pure joy.
DJ Spooky again and Christian Marclay. Two very different DJs!
DJ Spooky popped up again at Spitz, as part of the City of London festival. This was a far better venue for him. In contrast to the rather daunting surroundings of the South Bank (where Spooky appeared at the London Jazz Festival and Meltdown), Spitz allowed an intimate atmosphere where people could dance - which we duly did. After an experimental set, complete with trademark Spooky visuals, he did a party set that had the joint jumping, demonstrating that his roots are firmly in the dance tradition.
By coincidence (I think), two days later Spitz played host to Christian Marclay, a turntablist of a very different stripe. Playing his first London gig for twelve years, Marclay was joined by Steve Beresford on assorted electronics and gadgetry. (I realise that Beresford has featured in six of the best gigs I have seen in London this year. Maybe it is time for London Calling to interview him?) Like many modern day improvisers, Marclay has developed innovative and novel uses of his instrument, up to and including de(con)struction of it. For lovers of vinyl, it is almost physically shocking to watch Marclay in action. (I imagine that guitar lovers had a similar reaction to Guitar Drag the Marclay film that ran at the Sonic Boom exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 2000. In it, an electric guitar, fully amplified, is dragged along behind a truck until it finally disintegrates.) Such is the violent abuse to which he subjects his records and his decks that I was frequently wincing. Nonetheless, he is a riveting performer who held the audience spellbound.
DJ Spooky's Dubtometry , the dub version of Optometry with Mad Professor and Lee Perry is available of Thirsty Ear.
Christian Marclay's Video Quartet runs at White Cube, 48 Hoxton Square, London N1 6PB [Tel +44 (0)20 7930 5373] from July 11th until August 30th. www.whitecube.com