Tuesday 10th January

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Tonight some thoughts on a recording that I first heard part of over the sound system in the Sound323 shop about six years ago, but has only just been released now. The recording is a live set by the duo of Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell named Live in Melbourne.  The Melbourne in question is not the one in Australia, but rather the small market town in Derbyshire where the concert documenter David Reid lives. For a couple of years in succession back in the mid-noughties David somehow managed to persuade the purse holders of the town’s annual arts and crafts festival to provide some money to bring improvisers along to play a few concerts. I didn’t attend in 2005 when this recording was made, but I was there the following year and I will long have memories of being at one point the only person in the audience as a bill including the likes of Keith Rowe, Rhodri Davies and Lee Patterson performed to an otherwise empty room apart from occasional moments when members of the local women’s institute, who were holding a cake stall in the adjoining room came in to see what all the noise was about. The music was great though, and hats off to David for making it happen, with this new album a lasting memory of what was achieved in such an unlikely place.

Davies and Wastell were close musical partners for many years. They probably still would be, but Mark Wastell has of late played less and less as he has spent more and more time on non-musical and familial matters. The pair played together in IST, The Sealed Knot, Broken Consort, Chris Burn’s Ensemble, Assumed Possibilities and a variety of other groups. What makes this particular recording interesting however is that it is surprisingly the only existing album that features the pair as a duo. What adds to the intrigue is the instrumentation involved here. The recording comes from a brief fertile time when Rhodri had placed his harp to one side and was exploring lo-fi electronics while Wastell was still utilising a set up that was roughly descended from his amplified textures apparatus from a few years earlier. Its also not really what you might expect from this pair musically. For a duo that had not that much earlier spearheaded what was known as the New London Silence development in improvised music Live in Melbourne will sound surprisingly noisy to many.

The music is actually really great, capturing the close, finely attuned relationship this pair have, even when using what was somewhat unfamiliar instrumentation. Its not always easy to tell who is making which sound. Wastell’s list of instrumentation on the sleeve notes to this new release on the Russian Mikroton label is long, and perhaps only remembered so accurately because David Reid also filmed the concert. Everything from pre-recorded harmonium to ceramic tiles, charcoal, velvet and a CD player are listed, with Davies settling for “low-fi live electronics” to describe what he used. The music then is a rich, dense sea of burbling electronics, heaving tones, scratchy contact miked scrapes and just about everything else in between. The pair seem to build fragile, teetering constructions from all of this that frequently fall apart, often descending into passages of long tone, be it the harmonium recording from early in the disc or Davies’ glowing feedback from later on, only to be slowly built up again, like spider’s webs woven in a storm. Late in the performance things get really quite raucous, the music taking on a violent edge even, partly as a result of the raw, scratchy sounds involved, an element only amplified by the higher volume in use. If the duo are best known for the delicacy of their acoustic work in groups like The Sealed Knot then this recording shows a very different side to their partnership. The subtlety remains, but the palette is very different.

So Live in Melbourne perhaps is a little more than a historical document. Listening to it myself now, even having heard Rhodri and Mark play together many times down the years I found myself surprised by this recording, and if I was given it blind I am not sure that I would have identified both of the musicians. Musically, it completely stands up today. The impact of the album isn’t that far from what we might expect from the noisier end of the found American improv scene today- raw, gritty and uninhibited yet with a precise attention to detail and a wonderful sense of combined interplay. A very nice piece of music indeed then, very much worthy of its belated release and with the potential to spring a few surprises.

Two things to mention in support of musical activities around these Islands- First of all there are details here of a benefit concert that in fact includes Rhodri Davies on the bill in support of the Morden Tower venue up in Newcastle, that is currently under some threat. I have never been to the venue, but have seen it play host to a number of concerts I would like to have been able to attend. if you are in the north of England and are able to attend, please go along and offer your support.

Also, a series of very nicely filmed and recorded performances from last year’s i and e Festival in Dublin have gone up online here. I attended this festival last year, as I usually do, and was pleased to report the festival to me one of the best yet. I thoroughly recommend much of the music in these films, with the Loris, farmer/Lacey and solo Rowe sets all great to watch, but in particular keep an eye on the Rowe/Vogel performance and I safe you to keep a straight face right the way through Paul Vogel’s quite extraordinary onstage activities….

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