Rhodri Davies – PedwarNovember 9, 2014
It would probably be easy to oversimplify the harpist Rhodri Davies’ career. Part of the criminally named New London Silence movement around the turn of the millennium, he became a prime mover in the electroacoustic improvised music subgenre that established itself over the following decade, drifting in and out of composed scenarios, and performed in just about every corner of the planet. A move from London to Gateshead in the North East of the UK saw Davies submerged in a new, younger, noisier and grittier music scene that lead to a shift in his sound to the murky electric fuzz of 2012’s Wound Response. So a simple trajectory from quiet to loud via something in between might seem to fit, but having spent the last few weeks reacquainting myself with Rhodri’s first three solo albums, which make up three quarters of this beautiful new vinyl box set, and then coming to terms with the new album that sits alongside them, it really is clear that things aren’t that simple. The noisiest, harshest moments in the set appear on Trem, Davies’ 2002 debut, and some of the most subtle appear on the new release. What has been present all along is a deep understanding and exploration of technique and how it can be put to use in a relentless search for new musical approaches to one of the oldest instruments around.
Pedwar, meaning Four, is a beautiful tribute to the fifteen year career of one of our greatest improvisers. If technique has played an important part, it has merely been a tool with which to carve out an individual and constantly evolving musicality that has reached a stage at which it is incomparable to anyone else. It is surprisingly easy to forget just how good a solo improviser Rhodri Davies always was though. When I think back to the early noughties in London my primary memories of Davies are as Mark Wastell’s partner in crime, the two of them mixing and matching with the seemingly endless stream of visiting musicians to the city around that time. Solo performances certainly happened, and three of them from 2001 make up the content of Trem, but it is only going back to that album, originally released on Wastell’s Confront label and remastered for vinyl here that the direct, intense viscerally of Davies’ harp solos back then come back to mind. The opening cries of Cresis, created by pulling a cloth up and down the strings, the grating, caustic vibrations of Plosif’s loosely strung barrage, the piercing metallic shrieks of Beres, and even the peculiar white noise of the album’s title track all have quite an affronting feel to them. If history has somehow rewritten itself to pin down the Rhodri Davies of 2001 as some kind of near silent reductionist then listening again to this gem of an album in its new context corrects such generalisations. Certainly there are a couple of quiet, spaciously solemn tracks there, but Trem is one of those albums that we think we all know until we actually go back and listen to it. The search for that individual sound, that break from the pleasantly unobtrusive was always there.
2007’s Over Shadows caught Davies midway through a new investigation of the harp, this time using eBows in the search of ways to extend the length of a harp ’s note. He writes in his illuminating liner notes to this new box set that the practical considerations of how he might achieve such sounds came before the resulting sounds and music. Over Shadows contains a single thirty-six minute piece of music recorded three years earlier in 2004 that maintains a constant presence as the tones of vibrating strings come and go, almost flatlining when left, bristling out into intense beating patterns where combined, but also retaining a sense of instability and human contact throughout. What we receive isn’t exactly drone music, in the same way that Davies’ recent collaborations with Eliane Radigue avoid similar simplifications, but the tones have a new electronic feel, a warmth not present on Trem and a firm reflection of the sonic widening and diversification of the improv community Davies was by then a significant part of. Over Shadows is the album that I, and perhaps others put back on the shelf as “Rhodri Davies’ eBow album” but listening again now via a new remaster that somehow manages to build on the original work of Graham Halliwell, Ben Drew and John Wall there is a life to this record that I didn’t remember- a fleshy, human touch that brings the familiar images of Rhodri’s remarkable eBow control to mind, lifting the recording up above the average ranks of improvised drone music. The skill involved in creating the tones on Over Shadows possibly outweighs that of the other three albums here. The fact that we don’t hear the tones waver as hands wobble, or tiny scrapes as strings are touched reveals the dexterity involved to make this record, but the decision making as new notes are introduced and others are dropped, the sense of musical progression to be heard throughout really make this a fine album of improvised music rather than a bunch of intriguing sonic events.
I wrote about 2012’s Wound Response here, and found myself at the time reeling at its impact- the rough electric blizzard and swirling patterns of rapidly picked half-rhythms leaving me missing the delicacy of previous solos at the same time as offering exciting new direction. I focussed on the change of geographical location and how it seemed to impact upon Davies’ sound. Listening again now the stark change in the technique remains clear, but a further change in direction seems apparent- a shift to a more direct, forthright style of playing. There is an urgency to things, and unlike Trem the shapes and forms inside the music don’t sound like the usual improvised music language, moving more towards disjointed loops and decentered rhythms rather than the usual angularity and the familiar quirks of call and response. Perhaps this was a welcome outcome of not being able to improvise as regularly with local collaborators, leading to a more refined and internal musical voice.
The new album here, the delightfully titled An air swept clean of all distance takes things on again. The same small lap harp is employed as Davies used on Wound Response, but this time it is unplugged, and the fuzz and hum is replaced by a sharp clarity whose every flick of a finger nail and growl of a tortured string are revealed up close. This new, almost naked quality to Davies’ new approach opens it all up even further, engaging with us on a really direct manner. The rifling through newly investigated technique remains but there is a hard to describe sense of humanity to the recordings, as if we are pulled close, asked to understand every flick of a finger, every collision of objects with strings. Stylistically the music sits in a similar area to Wound Response, but it seems to have sped up even further, often starting with simple figures and rapidly spiralling out into kaleidoscopic swathes of tumbling notes and chords. I am reminded again of Gaelic folk reels- constantly twisting cycles that give the loose impression of repetition but when listened to closely reveal all kinds of inconsistencies. Heard here acoustically other influences fall into my head as the music spins about the room however. The spirit of Derek Bailey is there maybe, if not stylistically then in the sense of intimate engagement with an audience, and a singular vision that flows forth from this highly original music, a feeling of a musical voice set free from everything around it and forging ahead no matter what anyone else may think. Even the swirling guitars of Diblo Dibala and other soukous musicians come to mind, the use of hypnotic and yet never faultlessly rhythmic patterns summoning up images of all kinds of music apart from those from Davies’ own musical past. The comparisons are many and all equally futile, but its testament to the new life and innovation that Davies has found for his music that such correlations are possible. I wouldn’t have compared Rhodri Davies to a Congolese guitarist back in 2001.
For all of the caustic abrasion to be found on Trem, or the longform investigations of Over Shadows, there is little left of the music of those albums in the later two releases. Obviously the past informs the present, and fifteen years of harp exploration, musical improvisation and experience were required for Rhodri Davies to develop his approach to this stage, but just as his Self-Cancellation project with Gustav Metzger looked towards erasing past creative approaches so Rhodri’s two Newcastle albums seem to have overwritten their predecessors. Great musicians struggle continually with the fight to remain fresh, keep themselves from the pitfalls of stagnation, but few really manage to shift direction and remain as vital, if not more so in the process. As An air swept clean of all distance opens things up to us, drawing us closely into proceedings not only is the change Davies’ music has gone through extremely apparent but also a powerfully engaging challenge to others to follow suit. This is important music from an inspirational musician.
Pedwar is due for release in late November in an addition of only 250 copies. The four discs are wrapped in new silkscreened covers featuring artworks by Jean-Luc Guionnet.