Pyrotechnical river rythm soul caligraphy. Amber blood on strings. Command of the now with a perpetual dance of pebbles losing their way down the steep incline into my morning dream.
Rhodri Davies is not a unique artist and musician, but he's pretty close. Just like Okkyung Lee with the cello and John Butcher on the saxophone, Welsh harpist Davies totally deconstructs, reimagines and explores his instrument, at times to the point of making it utterly unrecognisable. At times on 2012's Wound Response, the results were astounding, the harp practically transformed into a vicious noise generator, which Davies then manipulated in ferocious ways, creating one of the most explosively beautiful albums of that year.
Wound Response features in this new box set on alt.vinyl, along with two other previous works as well as his latest, An Air Swept Clean Of All Distance. While there are some similarities between these albums (with the exception of the one-track drone masterpiece 'Over Shadows', and even that bears the same formal curiosity and rigour that has long characterised Davies' work), each one stands as a unique work of art in its own right, with rich details and colourations. The tools are often the same, mind you: harps of varying sizes are manipulated using fans, EBows and other implements, either extending or reducing notes into blocks of sound and texture that appear to rip the instrument's rulebook up altogether. After all, the harp is perhaps more linked to past musics than any other instrument bar the harpsichord, so to hear it so transformed is both a thrill and a challenge. The term often used for Rhodri Davies' music is "reductionism", but the term seems unfitting when the results are so captivating.
Wound Response is, as I've written, pretty brutal, a series of crunching robust vignettes that are almost punk-like in their muscularity. Davies' small harp sounds almost like a guitar, and it's little surprise that he previously played with Derek Bailey. This is not mere noise, however, and the Welshman is a virtuoso musician, with each track following a dynamic path, as Davies plucks away furiously at the strings, tumbling from one motif to another with balletic dexterity. In doing so, he actually goes against the conventions of what harpists are taught, going so far as to attack the strings with a plectrum. I can see where the term reductionism came from given the probable repercussions of this method (harp's aren't exactly robust), but again, it doesn't sit well given the heights Davies reaches. Trem (from 2001) follows a similar pattern, although it's shorter and denser, with Davies using free jazz and free improv techniques (crocodile clips on the strings, holding a tamborim against a string whilst bowing close to the soundboard, depressing all seven pedals at once) in front of an audience who must have been as bewildered as they were thrilled. Once again, the harp's sound is completely transformed, oscillating between clusters of feedback and parping notes that sound like a cross between a trumpet and a piano. Although in a way more minimalist and eclectic than Wound Response, Trem is equally potent and abrasive and a good insight into what a Rhodri Davies concert could perhaps be like.
From The Wire:
“Davies settles obsessively on tumbling phrases, arpeggios and articulate rhythms, turning them over and over, letting them develop only within strict limits, as though this fine, prolific and adventurous musician is freshly discovering a harp that has been there all along.”
What first attracted you to contemporary and improvised music?
Rhodri Davies: In the early Nineties I was looking for something that was missing from a lot of music I’d experienced before that. And I found a visceral, exciting quality to free improvisation and free jazz when I first heard it. There was a directness and an immediacy to the music that I liked as well as a social awareness and critique of how certain kinds of music were being made and consumed. In the late Nineties some of the improvising groups I played with used semi-structured pieces or scores that incorporated improvisation. So I was looking at the problem from two angles, really, as an improviser working with scores, and interpreting scores that were composed in more open-ended ways.
Did exploring this kind of music require you to ‘unlearn’ any of your classical training?
No, I just found improvisation the most attractive way of making music, really. I suppose it was akin to how I made art when I was younger in the way I could lose myself in drawing or painting and that I had a tactile immediacy to what I was doing. I used to like working with acrylic because it is fast-drying and the results are instant. I viewed working with sound in a similar way.
I was frustrated by the conservative aspects of programming for a harp concert. Even though there were a few interesting composers writing for the harp like Takemitsu, Bussotti, Ton Tan Tiet and Bancquart, it seemed that very few harpists would play these pieces. And still today, the majority of harp recitals will only include one contemporary music piece – and by ‘contemporary’, they usually mean from the last century. To find an alternative to this staid conservatism I started looking elsewhere. I asked improvisers, visual artists, sound poets and people who would not generally be thought of as composers to write pieces for the harp. I also asked composers that had a more open approach to composition, that didn’t reinforce the hierarchy of composer-performer.