Thriving on your Mistakes


The harpist Rhodri Davies interviewed by Gorwel Owen

Planet: The Welsh Internationalist

Issue 188, April/May 2008

Gorwel Owen is involved in many music/sound-related activities, teaches Humanities and Music with the Open University, and is currently studying for a PhD in Music at Bangor University.

In his introduction to Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory, David Toop claims that:

The most vital contemporary music searches for ways to articulate new responses to the dramas of social change, technological shifts and upheavals in how to make, how to show, how to hear with clarity, how to remember, how to move around, how to maintain poise in a world gone crazy with commercial and informational delirium.

Many of these “new responses” are evident within free improvisation: rather than being a genre as such, this is a global network of musicians informed by a diverse range of influences and aesthetics. Several Welsh performers are active within this field, as documented on Fourier Transform’s box-set of CDs Pedair Awr yng Nghymru Fydd/Brave New Wales (2008), including harpist Rhodri Davies, his sister, violinist Angharad Davies, and the group Traw.

Insights into the practices of many free improvisers are compiled in Marley and Wastell’s book Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum. One of the most interesting sections is a collection of responses to a seemingly simple question posed by Rhodri Davies, inviting artists to take a close look at their creative processes. The one drawback, however, is that Davies, as questioner, doesn’t get the opportunity to respond himself. That seemed the obvious starting point, then, for the present interview.

Rhodri, “what are you doing with your music?”

Ha! Very good. I was wondering when someone would turn that question back at me. I had purposely asked a simple and yet obtuse question to elicit as broad a range of answers as possible. I was very happy with the results and enjoyed reading them.

As for my response: well, this year I’m lucky enough to be working with the artist Gustav Metzger on a series of concerts inspired by his Auto-Destructive art of the 1960s. I was recently watching a documentary on his life and work (Pioneers in Art and Science: Metzger) and in it he talks about how he sees art as a healing force in society — that art has the power to change the world. No doubt his views have been formed by his experience as a survivor of the Holocaust.

While Metzger sees art as healing society, Toop sees it more as a response to the dramas of social change. As for me, I don’t imagine that my art can change society. If it does, then it’s on a minute scale. And if it is responding to social change, then I’m not sure if that is a conscious act on my part.

So often music is used as a vehicle for entertainment, hierarchies, self-promotion, competition, making money and so on, and is often fixed in a conservative value system. That has little to do with my understanding of music or sound. I’m interested in exploring and offering alternatives to these dominant modes of music-making. Improvisation is one of those rare forms of music or art that is intensely collaborative. Almost all of my projects are with others. This helps avoid the cult of the great individual artist or “genius”, which I don’t believe in. I’m interested in social interaction and working with concepts of uncertainty, fragility and contradiction. I also want to challenge definitions of, and assumptions about, music; and challenge the established roles of the performer, composer and audience. I try to question the established notions of what music or sound should be and not fix ideas, but keep them open to interpretation.

Your music certainly challenges these assumptions, and your comment about “social interaction” resonates strongly with my own experience of improvising. Perhaps you could say something about how your music, and your performance practice, differs from what readers might normally associate with the word “improvisation”, as used in the context of jazz, for example.

This is difficult to unpack as there is a degree of improvisation present in all live music, and furthermore, jazz is a very broad church that incorporates a multitude of approaches. The problem for me is when music becomes codified and is nothing more than replication. For example, when jazz is taught in music colleges, it is presented with a clear set of rules governing rhythm, melody, timbre and harmony. This codification presupposes that there is a right and wrong, or a good and bad way of playing jazz. When the rules are fixed, the traditional hierarchies are also reinforced. Of course, it is not possible to replicate a music exactly. But I don’t understand the desire to emulate something that has been done very well already.

The basic idea of free improvisation is that it doesn’t punish mistakes, but rather thrives on them. Of course, there are many troubling questions of hierarchy lurking in free improvisation as well. But the challenge is to be aware of them and to act accordingly. The most I can say is that free improvisation as a method imposes the least rules and hierarchies. I’m composing my own sound in real time, and I’m only constrained by my imagination and my instrument.

You refer to basic elements of “rhythm, melody, timbre and harmony” above. Would it be correct to say that the type of music that you play rebalances these to an extent? Boulez refers to timbre as “secondary”; in your music this element, as well as texture, seems at least as important as pitch.

The focus is constantly changing. When I started improvising I was coursing after an anti-aesthetic, and what Derek Bailey called non-idiomatic music — getting rid of strong signifiers of music such as rhythm, melody and harmony. I soon realised that this “non-idiomatic” music had slowly solidified into a recognisable style or idiom. My attention shifted to timbre, as it seemed a neglected element in improvisation at the time. I also had a fascination with exploring silence and an electronic sound world with my acoustic instrument.


In the group The Sealed Knot we work with a mobile and reductionist notion of pulse, where the rhythm shifts imperceptibly between three seemingly-independent voices. We also challenge the notion that difficult and challenging music should sound difficult. You could look at it as redressing the balance by focusing on individual elements and approaching each element with the potential for equal importance.

The first time I heard you perform was at Bangor New Music Festival in 2001. I was struck by the incredible range of sound colours that you drew from the harp, many produced through the use of extended techniques that you had developed over a number of years. Exploration is an important part of “composing [...] sound in real time”, of course, but when did this exploration begin in a general sense? Was it something you were encouraged to do at college?

I blame my Dad, as he was always encouraging me to do something different on the harp. Of course, the music I am making now is not quite what he had in mind! Growing up, I was very dissatisfied with the standard harp repertoire, and I was looking for harp music that was relevant to a young person listening to John Coltrane, Ice-Cube, Albert Ayler, Anhrefn and Y Cyrff, rather than a music that was stuck in the nineteenth century. Improvisation was not encouraged at college; it was something I had to seek out independently. When I was invited to record the Navigation CD with Chris Burn’s Ensemble, I remember thinking that I had learnt more in five days of rehearsal and recording with Ensemble, than I had in my entire music education.

To return to your point above about challenging definitions and assumptions. Your installations Arddangosfa o Wrthrychau Sain/Exhibition of Sound Objects at Bangor last year culminated in a harp (an iconic Welsh instrument, of course) being set alight. What kind of reactions did this piece engender?

The concept of the event was to expose the harps to natural forces, allowing them to be “played” by the elements of wind, water and fire. On the whole the response was surprisingly positive: we attracted a sizeable audience on the pier for the “Telyn Ddwr” event, which snowballed through the day, ending with the “Telyn Dân” in the evening. Much of the audience comprised a passing public that showed an interest in the work, as well as the usual New Music Festival audience. There was only one moment of protest when a notable Welsh composer urinated on our recording equipment! I still think that it would have been a much stronger artistic statement of objection if he had pissed on the actual artwork. I’m happy to say the event also inspired others to create and organise events in the region. The artist Gwion Llwyd teamed up with dancers and musicians to establish Cymdeithas y Rhyfeddod in Caernarfon, which is in the process of organising its third event.

Fourier Transform’s compilation documents what they describe as “contemporary Welsh experimental music”. How, if at all, either consciously or unconsciously, do you think that your free improvisation relates to your cultural background?

I have always related strongly to Cage’s dictum, “Let sounds be themselves” in my music, yet at the same time I’m aware of the cultural and political significations attached to sound. As Eddie Prévost puts it: “No Sound Is Innocent”.

Cage has some interesting things to say about recording a piece which is “indeterminate with respect to its performance”, claiming that such a recording “has no more value than a postcard”. You’ve contributed to several CDs as part of various ensembles, and have produced two solo CDs: Trem (2001) and over shadows (2007). I’m interested in how you view the relationship between the fixed form of a recording and the essentially transient nature of music.

Recording improvisation is a contradiction, of course. But then again, this opposition that you draw between the fixed and the transient is not so clear-cut. We might say that a recording, for example, will be played in different spaces and on different machines at different volume levels. A recording is not fixed; it will differ according to these variables. The CD is also a transitory object.

Apart from the title track, which consists of tape and percussion, Trem is a collection of solo harp performances, though it’s almost become a cliché to say that the instrument is not recognisable for most of the time. As your first solo CD, was it a kind of document of everything that you had been experimenting with up until that time? I’m fascinated by the resonances created between the gestures, and by the way that the space is so alive. There’s something about the movement of the sounds, too, that reminds me of certain electronic music.

Trem was the culmination of my research into prepared harp, and a statement of my dissatisfaction with the history and repertoire of harp music within Western classical music. It was also a snapshot of my interests at the time: white noise, electronic sounds played on acoustic instruments, the harp as a percussion instrument, timbre, micro tuning, silence, and experimenting with making as loud a sound as possible with an acoustic instrument. I also knew the space very well from putting on a series of concerts called “All Angels” with Mark Wastell. The last track, “Atam”, is a duet with the radiators cooling.

Your second CD, over shadows, is very different to Trem in the way that you work with a restricted range of materials: quite pure tones presumably created by playing the harp with an EBow (an electronic bow). The actual acoustic space doesn’t seem to be prominent here as it is in Trem, though there’s a lot of fascination for me in the “spaces” between the tones. How did you approach the making of this CD? Is it more of a composed piece? Perhaps you don’t worry about these distinctions? I’m intrigued by the liner notes which suggest that the piece was recorded in 2004, but composed, at a later date, in 2006.

It’s interesting that you pick up on the composition date. The only other person to notice this has been a composer. Composers are used to working in a certain order: compose the work, find people to perform, and then record. When I improvise I compose in real time. So usually, if the performance is recorded then the date of the performance is the same as the recording date. I had the idea for over shadows around 2002. I recorded separate EBow harp improvisations in 2004 and compiled or composed them into a long work in 2006. The piece is concerned with space, but not only the space of the room. I’m exploring the space inside the harp, which is a resonant chamber, the space between the EBow and the string, between the harp and my ear and, of course, between the sound and the microphone. I’m also working with the space between tones. I’m often playing, with EBows, two notes that have been tuned close to each other, and am finding difference-tones and beats. The listener can subtly change how the piece sounds by moving their head, similar to how one listens to a solo of sine waves by Sachiko M. The title comes from a Dell Olsen poem and relates to diffraction — the spreading out of wavefronts into areas behind and around physical barriers. Sound waves tend to “fill in” the areas behind pillars and walls. If one goes round the corner of a building, “sound shadows” occur.

Thanks, Rhodri, for these insights into your work. What are you working on following the Metzger project?

The usual live gigs, including a duo with Lucio Capece in Berlin; working with Otomo Yoshihide’s group in Music Action, Nancy; a residency in Brussels with Cranc; and a duo in Budapest with Zsolt Sores. I’m also playing in the World Harp Congress in Amsterdam! Oh, and I hope to release my duo with Louisa Martin on LP.

Discography: Solo: Trem (Confront 2001); Perdereau, London Strings (Absinth Records 2004); over shadows (Confront 2007); Camber (Track on Leonardo Music Journal CD 2008); Ensemble (abridged): Navigations, Chris Burn’s Ensemble (Acta 1997); Company in Marseille, Company (Incus 1999); Vortices and Angels, Duo with John Butcher (Emanem 2000); Ieirll, Duo with Ingar Zach (Qbico 2002); Unwanted Object, The Sealed Knot (Confront Collectors Series 2004); Cwymp y Dwr ar Ganol Dydd, Traw and Rhodri Davies (Confront Collectors Series 2006); Compositions for Harp and Sho, Duo with Ko Ishikawa (Hibari 2006); Pedair Awr Yng Nghymru Fydd / Brave New Wales, Duo with Angharad Davies (Fourier Transform 2008).

Most of the above recordings are available from Sound 323

References: Boulez on Music Today, P. Boulez, translated by S. Bradshaw and R. Bennett (Faber and Faber Ltd., 1971); Silence: Writings and Lectures by John Cage, J. Cage (Wesleyan University Press, 1973); No Sound Is Innocent, E. Prévost (Copula, 1995); Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum, B. Marley and M.Wastell (Sound 323, 2005); Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory, D. Toop (Serpent’s Tail, 2004).