rhodri davies interview with ed pinsent

the sound projector 13th issue 2005

EP It might help me to understand what you’re doing with the harp, if I knew more about the instrument. Can you explain it to me? Because it strikes me you’re doing some quite amazing radical things to the sound of the harp.

RD It has similar attributes to the guitar and piano, both those instruments in so much as they’ve all got a resonating chamber and strings. The biggest difference lies in how each instrument facilitates accidentals (the sharps, naturals and flats). I improvise on two types of harp systems, the double action pedal harp, which you find in an orchestra and a small Celtic or lever harp. The pedal harp has a pedal for each of the seven notes in a scale, and each pedal has a flat, natural and sharp setting. The Celtic harp has levers which you change manually, a semitone at a time. With the piano all the notes are in front of you. But to access certain notes on the harp, you have to use your feet. Which makes playing quick chromatic changes – playing be-bop or something – very difficult, because you have to pedal like mad. Playing modally lends itself to the harp, because I set the pedals and – I’m off! It also differs to the piano, because I’m actually in direct contact with the strings. As I’m physically plucking the strings, there is a different quality of attack to the felt hammer of a piano. The strings are also different on the harp; they are made of wire, gut and nylon. And the tension isn’t as great as on the grand piano. So the quality of the sound is different. The only thing I’ve changed from the intrinsic harp, is to experiment with different strings – first with violin and cello strings and now I use thick wire-strung guitar strings. They are more responsive to ebows and have a particular bright sound, which I don’t get from a gut harp string. On top of this I use preparations and extended techniques on the instrument. So I don’t know if that helps!

EP Yes, I’m getting the hang of it now...that recorded piece, ‘Perdereau’ you just played seemed to be very much focused on the sounding-board? It seemed to comprise resonating sounds which normally, I suppose, you wouldn’t be able to hear in a concert situation. At least, not in that level of detail.

RD Yes. The piece is dedicated to Jacques Perdereau who died this year, he was an anarchist broadcaster with the Parisian radio station ‘Radio Libertaire’. I first met him in 1998 when I first played in France and he was a warm and intelligent man. The idea for the piece was to play as many strings as possible at the same time and record the resulting sounds inside the soundboard. The aim was to generate as much 'beating' effect as possible, through tuning the strings microtonally and pedal settings. The chords at the beginning explore length of decay, some of the bass string resonance can last up to 2 minutes, and the ebow section at the end deals with sustain. I’ve had a fascination with the sounds inside the resonating chamber of the harp, ever since I was a child. I used to play notes and listen to what would happen to the sound continuing inside the box, which, if I wasn’t pressing my ear to the sound board, like you heard earlier, you wouldn’t really pick up on! When I play with an orchestra, and we’re tuning up before the performance, I’m usually competing with the tympanies and basses who are trying to tune up at the same time! The only way I can tune is by pressing my ear against the soundboard to hear the notes. So I’ve had this connection with the sound inside the harp for a long time. And also I became aware that when I’m playing quieter material on the harp, maybe I’m in the best seat in the room to hear these sounds. So I’ve got this interest in amplifying the very quiet sounds that somebody at the back of the room can’t hear necessarily. And that’s another thing I’m interested in, is how to get away from a recording as a document, and to improvise with the recording technique itself. To place the mics in different positions inside the harp, instead of the same old way…

EP Yes, making a record as a statement rather than a document...It wasn’t the Incus label itself, but a person associated with it – Martin Davidson – who was quite insistent on recording music as it was played. Not having any kind of interference with it. I’m less of a purist, I suppose...I’m certainly excited by the possibilities of the recording studio and the recording medium. And there are quite a few improvisers who have gone along with this...a recent example is that Derek Bailey CD with Franz Hautzinger. It’s Bailey’s guitar with Franz on the trumpet, and extensive post-production in terms of editing, selecting the best bits...and the same with Michael Renkel of course...and Pure Water Construction [by Martin Archer and Simon Fell], you were part of that one.

RD Oh yes. It was through Simon Fell that that happened, because he had been working with Martin in the past. They invited a handful of musicians to contribute solo recordings, and they would manipulate and add instrumentation to these pieces, from what I remember. Seems a long time ago now. Actually, I was recording for him two weeks ago on another project. Mostly playing notation. Simon was playing also, and I think he used some of Ingar Zachs’ percussion material on it. I’m interested to see how it’ll turn out.

EP So you didn’t have any objections to this kind of post-production treatment?

RD At the time I was just very exited to be on a CD, actually. Because it was one of the first ones I’d done and certainly the first one I’d been invited to contribute to. No, I’ve never had any objections to that. It does depend on who is manipulating my sound and in what context.  Recently, I got very excited working with Jean Pallandre, who has these fantastic microphones and a creative approach to recording. Xavier Charles, Angharad Davies and I were dotted around in some woods in north London....with all these passers-by looking at us strangely! And Jean would walk around with his mics. The quality and detail of his recording was incredible. It was an interesting process to play in that environment I had to play completely differently in relation to the sounds around me.

EP Before Pure Water Construction, there’s this 1997 record of IST, with Simon Fell and Mark Wastell. Anagrams to Avoid...

RD That was the very first thing I’d recorded, and it was the very first meeting with Mark and Simon as a trio. The trio formed in 1995 when I moved down to London. I’d been playing with Simon privately in Huddersfield, and Simon had been playing with Mark, and when I came down to London he thought he’d bring us together. That record was very exciting at the time.

EP There’s another IST record, but I can’t remember what it is...

RD Ghost Notes, on Simon’s Bruce’s Fingers label. And also there’s an early cassette release on Mark’s label, Confront, which was called Consequences of Time and Place. That was a gig in the Priory Arms. There’s a new IST recording coming out soon of a concert we did in a hexagonal church in Italy at the Contemporaneamente 2002 contemporary classical festival. It was just this incredible space. The sound was reverberating around, and bouncing in different directions. Peter Kowald was also playing solo at the festival and it turned out to be one of his last gigs.

EP It’s surprising how well that works in IST, the combination of the different strings. You have the full range of what strings can do in terms of plucking, bowing and resonating...bass notes...

RD Yes, the three instruments share much of the same range. It’s funny, with a lot of that potential, that at first a lot of our material was very high-pitched!

EP IST were going to do a tour of the UK in 1998, playing composed pieces by Earle Brown, Stockhausen...did that happen?

RD Yes. It was an Arts Council of England improvised music scheme tour. By the time we had done five concerts, travelled and crashed in a couple of dodgy bed and breakfasts, we were left with...a little less than we started with! It was the only way we could do a small tour. Jazz Services are doing a similar scheme now and for some reason improvised music comes under the ‘Jazz’ banner.

EP I think Simon Fell’s quite good, isn’t he, about finding out these sources of funding, and making the most of them.

RD Yes, often wading through endless forms is the only way to make things happen. Especially with his larger projects, like Compilation they are impossible to realise without some financial assistance.

EP Did you ever play on any of those?

RD Yes, Compilation III. It included an IST improvisation, some solo harp notation and a quartet with Orphy Robinson, Simon Fell, Mark Sanders and myself.

EP The next thing I want to know about is Chris Burn’s Ensemble. A fantastic improvising group...how long did you work with that combo?

RD I was invited to play in 1997 on the Navigations CD along with Axel Dörner and Mark Wastell. And I was a member until last year.

EP Chris Burn is still going, but is the Ensemble still a concern?

RD The Ensemble has gone though many stages...and at the moment Chris and John Butcher are the core members. I don’t know what the situation is at the moment, but I think there is a project with Viennese musicians next year, which seems a good way forward.

EP Does he compose, or direct in some way, to shape the pieces?

RD Some pieces are orchestrational, they were fairly straightforward structures with specified duration. He would not dictate how or what to improvise, only who should play with who. Richard Barrett wrote a piece for us called Codex for the Bangor New Music Festival, which was very well written. It was great joining Chris Burn’s Ensemble, because I learned a lot about playing in a larger ensemble, and retaining or finding my voice within a larger ensemble. I learned a lot from Chris’s playing directly, because it was really relevant to the harp. John Butcher and Phil Durrant were a big influence as well.

EP Does that approach go against the grain of what a hard-core improvisor would advocate? I mean insisting on ‘pure’ improvisation without any planning?

RD I guess I’ve been aware of the importance of improvisation in composed music. It’s a vital ingredient, and likewise, there are compositional elements that are present within an improvisation at any one time. For example the language I have developed over the years, memory, the history that builds up from playing with other people, of playing similar material but in different spaces, in different contexts, and with different people. These elements are not necessarily conscious and don’t happen in an obvious or pre-determined way.

EP The tape piece you just played back there, to me that was a composition. It’s partly pre-determined by the fact you have four pairs of hands playing the harp, and picking out chords you had written down, and then deliberately treating the recording so that you cut off the attack...and then structuring it so that you could use the e-bows playing it as well. It’s a simple composition, but there’s shape to it.

RD I was trying to keep that process as improvisatory as possible, but also within the framework of it being semi-composed.

EP The players at Off Site in Tokyo, they did a whole double CD set which they called Compositions from Off Site. Which again were just very simple instructional pieces, but resulting in work which to my mind was much more interestingly-shaped, in a very minimal way...even when it’s just five people playing guitar amplifiers!

RD I’ve not heard that CD. Though I’m attracted to musicians on that recording. I loved Taku Sugimoto’s ‘Opposite’ CD and was interested in what he did after that period of his work in his determination to not replicate that music again. I was drawn to how he stripped down and isolated his sounds within silence. We played one of his compositions ‘Dotted Music’ which specified to create between 1 and 4 very short sounds within a specific duration of time. The result was quite gestural in a way, which surprised me. We recorded it in Japan and also performed it in Norwich, as part of Graham Halliwell’s series of concerts.

EP We’ve got this record with John Bisset, the guitarist...Malthouse. Very interesting, it’s like you’re edging towards making this solo record, bit by bit! Moving away from playing in combos. Malthouse was very successful, I think. This was when I first noticed these extraordinary radical things you’re doing to the harp.

RD That recording came about because John had been saying for ages he needed a holiday. I was going back to Aberystwyth so I invited him to join me. We brought our instruments with us and booked the recording studio, which was the beautiful building you see on the cover of the CD. It was pretty ramshackle and there were no toilets. Because we’d got away from London and the improv scene, and we were on holiday, it had a certain sort of playfulness to it, which was slightly different from the more austere improv that was around at the time. While we were recording the guy who owned the recording studio, ran in at one point and wiped out half of our material! I think he did it on purpose! I don’t know why, he was a strange guy. So we only had 50 minutes to choose from in the end. The technician who was recording us was great however. Malthouse kick-started John’s ‘Home’ Series, where he goes to people’s home towns to record. He’s been to Burkhard Beins’s and Alex Ward’s home and recently went to his own hometown of Stockport to record Smithy, which is very beautiful and very John! He also keeps to the layout of the Malthouse CD, with an old photo of the place where they recorded...

EP It’s an old photo of the Malthouse, isn’t it? But it’s still the same place...

RD Exactly the same, and it looks the same as it did 100 years ago. The photo was taken by John Challinor and I found it at the National Library of Wales. I think it was taken in the19th century. Originally it was a Malthouse but by the time the photo was taken it was being used as the Aberystwyth Social Service centre.

EP Were you using crocodile clips and stuff, on the strings, by this point?

RD Yes. There was a point in the recording where John started throwing his preparations at my harp! And I got really worried, because the soundboard is very delicate, so I ended up standing in front of the harp, fielding these things, trying to stop him throwing them at my harp! That made it onto the CD.

EP Was this the first time you’d prepared the harp?

RD No, I’d prepared it on Anagrams To Avoid, and I guess I was drawn to using preparations after hearing Simon Fell play for the first time. And of course Chris Burn and John Cage’s prepared piano was a big influence.

EP Do you intend to set the harp free from preconceptions, which the listener might have about the instrument? The associations I have...sometimes one thinks of the harp as a kind of ‘stuffy’ instrument, in 19th century parlours. And, dare I say it, something associated with ‘Welsh heritage’. Is it in your mind to do something about this, to reclaim the harp?

RD Definitely. When I started, I was very conscious of breaking down these stereotypes of romantic pieces and Welsh folk tunes. I’d always had an inkling that it had more potential for exploration. I see Trem as a response to all that. It was a response to the harp world: the stifling competitive arena that I was in, and to all those values that were inflicted on me from a very young age. In retrospect Trem is a modernist record, in the way that it is very much a reaction against certain traditions and fuelled by a desire to create something new. It was good to get that out of my system. After that, I became more interested in reacting against improvisation itself. And asking myself, where do I go next?

EP So, this is because you’ve been playing the harp since childhood?

RD I’ve been playing the harp for 25 years now, since I was seven. As a freelance musician, I am still called on to play a lot of classical and romantic music. So it’s still difficult to escape. Sometimes, however, interesting pieces do appear. At the moment I’m practicing Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, which is a great piece! I’m playing it at Aldeburgh Music Festival next week. And there are a handful of pieces I like playing, Mahler 10 for instance is good to perform, there’s a good harp part which is lush...I don’t mind so much playing the odd composition like that. And the contemporary music repertoire that I play with Apartment House of course is very good.

EP Does the harp always tend to be used in the same ‘lush’ way in orchestras? Or are there composers who have tried to do something different with it?

RD I was playing in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra recently. This piece includes a percussive technique where you attack the strings with two metal or wooden rods. Then there are the Italian 20th century composers, Berio, Petrassi and Donatoni who were writing differently for the harp. In the 1960s Bussotti composed Fragmentations  which employed graphic scores, and instructed the performer to play two harps. One was tuned in microtones. This piece was very influential when I started improvising... Fragmentations was written the year before Sequenza 2, and I find Fragmentations a far more radical work than Berio’s Sequenza, although Sequenza has got the kudos. It is a far more challenging and interesting piece, but it is rarely performed. I’ve recently been commissioning new harp works by English Experimental composers such as Michael Parsons and John White. Also pieces by younger composers who have drawn inspiration from them such as Laurence Crane, John Lely and James Saunders.

EP Maybe we should get to Mark Wastell. He has a very high regard for you. When I spoke to him a couple of years ago, he does seem to see himself as something of a pioneer in the UK of what has been labelled ‘quiet improvisation’. He thinks he got there before the Japanese, which is interesting. But he does count you as his closest musical partner.

RD Absolutely. We are very close. He is the musician I have the longest relationship and we have mirrored each other’s developments in many respects. Next year will be our tenth year of playing together. We have many projects planned, to release a recording of our duo version of Broken Consort and tour England with Burkhard Beins in The Sealed Knot.

Regarding reductionism I’m not really interested in who came first. For sure, Phil Durrant was an influence on both of us. He was the first musician I was playing with who was dissatisfied with a ‘busy’ approach to improvising, and also Robin Hayward. This was partly due to their work with Radu Malfatti. Phil Durrant was also very much into Morton Feldman at the time, and that was a definite influence on his violin playing and on us. The CD Beinhaltung on Fringes with Thomas Lehn, Radu Malfatti and Phil Durrant was a recoding that captured what I was interested in at that time and was very influential. Beinhaltung was far more interesting to us at the time than the Dach CD that followed it. By the time Dach came we felt the music had lost it’s edge. And going to Berlin and playing with Burkhard Beins, Annette Krebbs, Andrea Neuman, Axel Dorner and Michael Renkel, and their approach to improvising was great. So there was a loosely connected group of us that were trying to look into these different areas.

EP And Mark Wastell was also interested in minimal electronica side of things, such as Marc Behrens. Are you keen on that area as well?

RD Very much so. I listen to Behrens, Chartier and López, and other areas as well like Chris Watson, Toshiya Tsunoda and Eliane Radigue. There’s an interesting sound artist in Manchester called Lee Patterson. He has a beautiful CD called Heatworks where he puts contact mics on sparklers and creates a great sound. We’re planning on working together next year.

EP I think Mark’s Confront label also adds a kind of interesting aesthetic to the whole thing, including the packaging. I assume this is something you’re happy to align yourself with...?

RD Yes, Mark’s always had a very clear aesthetic regarding his Confront label, even when he was making cassettes. There were five cassette releases before the CDs. Then we released Assumed Possibilities as a CD-R. I guess the first ‘proper’ CDs we made were Trem and Foldings. And then it went legit, as it were. At the time, making tapes and CD-Rs were the only viable options for us. But yes, it still had a very distinct sort of image and aesthetic, which has carried on through to its present form. Damien Beaton is Confront’s designer, and he puts a lot of thought into the feel of the card and the minutiae of the design.

EP And the Still Point record, that was quite an achievement. Was that a studio record?

RD That was at Gateway Studios, and had a couple of semi-composed pieces on it. My composition was ‘Still Point’ and Mark’s was for toy piano and string trio. I guess both Mark and I had been interested in experimenting with compositional elements. We’d started writing little semi-composed pieces, with structures, or graphic scores, for our ensembles. The group Assumed Possibilities came about when Mark and I wanted to form an acoustic quartet. We chose one member each, and invited Chris Burn and Phil Durrant to join.

EP What comes over on the record is the intensity of it, more than anything...in spite of the silence, there seems to be a power of some sort, emanating from what you’re playing...what kind of a state do you have to bring yourselves to, to play that?

RD I think it’s just that we were very focused. Playing in a more reduced context demanded a lot of attention. I couldn’t hide behind anything and I was very exposed. If I played something that was inappropriate, it was very obvious. So it kept me on my toes. It demanded a different way of playing, instead of relying on energy and propulsion. I really enjoyed that period.

EP When playing live this way, are you able to command the audience’s interest and respect?

RD That does tend to split audiences, really. You either get the response – wow, it’s incredible, you really drew us in, we were straining to hear things; or you get – what a complete waste of time! Couldn’t hear a thing! It depends how open or interested certain people are in actually hearing it. There are occasions when I’m playing in a large hall, where I’d rather have a microphone that boosts the sound a little bit. So the level is still quite low, but you can hear the detail. I was never interested in just playing as quietly as possible, so that people couldn’t distinguish what I’m playing. I just think that was a fairly perverse aspect of it. This is not to say that a lot of perverse things cannot be enjoyable! But I was more interested in the silence framing the sound, and when to play, and when not to play, and what not to play.

EP Does it affect the performance, if the audience are just [not paying attention]?

RD It can be very distracting, yeah. It does help if I feel that the audience are there with me. If it’s not working, and I think the audience doesn’t like it, then it’s really painful! Maybe when I’m playing louder music, it is easier to ignore the audience, because I’m caught up in the sound. I do see a slight sea change in the audiences at the moment. There tends to be a lot of interest in new music and the audiences seem to be younger and less drawn from one area of music. I was in Berlin recently at a club called Ausland - Andrea Neumann and Andrea Ermke were playing, and it was packed! The audience was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the music. I suppose improvised music has a history of over 60 years by now...it seems to be slightly different from when I started, when there would be one person in the audience! When I came down to London, it seemed to me a lot of the energy was negative, and tired and worn-out among the musicians...and the audiences were depleted. That was the general feeling I had, and not just in England, in Germany as well. I think electronic music is largely what’s responsible for this renewed interest, and that’s taking improv into different spheres. It’s not just stuck in a free improvisation ghetto.

EP What about Company Week? Did you ever play there?

RD Derek Bailey largely stopped organising Companies for a time and then it resurfaced. I was invited to play at an event organised by Derek called Cavanoconnor at The Vortex, London which was a sort of Company event. Then I played at a Company in Marseilles, and Company in New York. I guess New York was one of the most energised. It was with IST, Will Gaines and some downtown musicians. We got a very enthusiastic response...whooping and cheering, which was very bizarre for us coming from London!

EP Would you say that you have an interior landscape, that you’re trying to explore through music?

RD Erm...no! I’ve never seen myself on an inner journey, or trying to find out more about myself. Sometimes, I think I’m doing certain things, and then in retrospect I realise I was doing something completely different. Certain elements of who I am come through regardless, so that there might appear to be some continual thread, which I can’t escape. Much of the time I’m dealing with sound in a space. How the sound begins, its duration, decay, volume and its quality. I’m interested in finding ways of playing that are not governed by obvious interaction, gesture or energy. I’m also exploring how a sound relates to a space, fellow musician or the audience.

EP One other thing – Welshness. It crops up now and again, when you translate titles into the Welsh language...was there any kind of agenda that you may have?

RD When I grew up I was singing and playing the drums in Welsh language bands. For me singing in Welsh was a political statement. I grew up in a bilingual environment, but where Welsh was not recognised in the public domain on an equal footing. It’s a hangover from that, I suppose. Presenting the two languages side by side on a record is a natural thing for me as that was the reality for me growing up.

EP The Cranc CD of course, has a trilingual package...

RD Yes, meeting up with Nikos Veliotis was great. His solo release Radial on Confront is very beautiful. Cranc has changed a lot from our first CD and I guess we’re more in a droney area at the moment. We’ve been trying to record Cranc for ages, but for logistical and technical reasons...it was pretty difficult to get together. We hope to release a CD next year. Cranc is a group that I’m really fond of.

EP What are your upcoming releases?

RD My piece ‘Perdereau’ will appear on the ‘London Strings’ project on Absinth. Then there’s the IST release, which was supposed to come out on Rossbin but will come out on another label now. There is a Sealed Knot release on Confront called Unwanted Object. Mark and I will bring out a duo recording to mark our ten-year association next year. And I’m about to start hosting house concerts. Finding venues in London is very expensive. The cheapest places we can find are churches and I would like to get away from those associations. I was playing in Berlin recently and Annette Krebs invited me to play a solo in her house. And it just worked really well. The performer is very close to the audience. It’s very relaxed and gets away from concert formalities. And with it being my own home, I don’t have to travel anywhere! Sean Meehan will be playing the first one, then Taku Unami and Burkhard Beins and I hope to invite Annette Krebbs and Andrea Neumann when they are in town.


EP Are you quite sanguine about the future of improvised music?


RD Well, I’ve just come through a phase of being completely bored. Bored with my own music, and what I was playing. I found it too predictable. Now, however, I’m in a more positive mood. I’ve started amplifying the quiet sounds inside the body of the instrument, which has opened up a whole new world. It seems that a lot of musicians have moved on from reductionism and are exploring different areas. But of course things will change, they always do.